Roger Baker : Which Side Are You On, Austin?

Most Austin City Council members are elected from four affluent zip codes, in red above.

Which side are you on?
The people’s plan versus the politicians’ plan

The struggle for populist control of the City of Austin government by means of 10 independent district elections can be seen as the 1960s struggle for civil rights brought up to date.

By Roger Baker | The Rag Blog | October 18, 2012

[I make no claim to be unbiased. I fully support and have worked for Proposition 3, which I believe to be the best option to bring more democratic government to Austin. (I also recommend The Austin Bulldog — Austin’s current gold standard for local political reporting — as the best source to learn more about this issue.) Those who want to participate in what can be a historic victory should contact the 10-1 office — to make sure that the advantage of people power gets translated into distributed door hangers and yard signs. — R.B.]

AUSTIN — Which side are you on? A historic grassroots fight for district representation in Austin, supported by an amazingly broad coalition of citizen groups, has emerged.

It’s about money power versus people power. If Proposition 3 is approved by the voters in November, it will be arguably the most meaningful and important Austin populist political victory in decades: a no-holds-barred fight for democratic control of Austin government.

Currently, Austin government is in the hands of six council members plus a mayor, all elected citywide by all Austin voters. As such, Austin is now the biggest city in the United States without districts to bring representative government down to the local level. With Austin’s current at-large system, big money tends to dominate Austin City Council elections. This is because non-wealthy candidates who might locally be very popular can’t afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars of media buys needed to run big citywide media campaigns.

One result of this is that almost all of the Austin City Council since the 1970s has been elected by a small affluent part of Austin centered in four zip codes — 78701, 78703, 78731, and 78759 — which together comprise only 10% of Austin’s population. Fifteen out of 17 Austin mayors in the last 40 years have come from this area, as have 50% of the City Council members. Meanwhile, the large numbers of voters in the lower income areas of South and East Austin have elected few Council members.

The struggle for populist control of the City of Austin government by means of 10 independent district elections can be seen as the 1960s struggle for civil rights brought up to date. With 10 districts, there would likely be at least two Hispanic seats on the Austin City Council, plus the high probability of an African-American seat.

It all boils down to a populist battle for control of Austin city government that directly challenges Austin’s entrenched political and consultant establishment, largely comprised of Democrats, who have an interest in maintaining control of those who profit from weak development restrictions and growth subsidies. The prevailing interests in Austin government have long favored a banker/developer/land speculator group who profit from suburban sprawl development.

Austin’s “growth at any cost” promoters have been in a political alliance with the Texas Department of Transportation  (TxDOT) and the Texas road lobby, building roads with public money to subsidize private growth, often in satellite cities like Round Rock within easy commuting distance.

There is no economy of scale with growth for a sprawling city the size of Austin. Rapid growth of low density sprawl outside the city limits tends to benefit land developers at the expense of existing city taxpayers. There is a lot of money to be made by perpetuating current pro-developer growth policies, both inside and outside Austin city limits. If snubbed by city growth regulations, developers can sometimes get Austin development restrictions weakened or overturned by the threat of going to the Republican-controlled Texas legislature.

Why now?

The people’s plan, Proposition 3 on the November ballot, got its start as a result of the fact that the Austin City Council set up a new citizen Charter Review Commission. This group can meet as often as every two years to suggest possible changes to Austin’s city charter form of government, subject to subsequent voter approval. When city politicians want to change some basic governance policy, they appoint such a Commission. However there is no guarantee that it will do what they want, or tell them what they want to hear.

Supporters of the 10-1 City Council plan at meeting of Austin’s 2012 Charter Revision Committee, Feb. 2, 2012. Image from Trust Austin.

A core group of mostly liberals and political reformers saw this as an opportunity for reform, including veteran political strategist Peck Young and veteran organizer Linda Curtis, and many others (including the author). This citizen group was later known as Austinites for Geographical Representation (AGR), recently renamed “Trust Austin.”

AGR started meeting about a year ago in response to this citizen input opportunity. Eventually the group agreed to support a 10-district plan, and urged its members to lobby before the Charter Review Commission. The Charter Review Commission itself, including its chair, former Texas Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, finally, approved the 10-1 citizen plan by a narrow vote They then sent their 10-1 majority recommendation to the City Council.

The City Council, however, saw the 10-1 citizen plan more as a threat than an opportunity for reform. What amounts to an Austin shadow government fought back. Support from the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) soon led to the submission of a competing 8-2-1 charter proposal by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who told the Charter Review Commission that this had to be accepted as a compromise. The battle lines were thus drawn.

The same 8-2-1 plan was decisively rejected by the voters 10 years ago, as had been a number of other attempts to get district representation passed over the last several decades. This spurred the effort to gather at least the 20,000 citizen initiative signatures needed to force the Austin City Council to place the 10-1 plan on the ballot. AGR worked from January and way into the summer this year getting the signatures, ending up with over 33,000 signatures, comfortably more than were required.

The citizen plan, Proposition 3, calls for 10 districts plus the mayor. It is being supported by an amazingly wide-ranging coalition of 29 organizations, including the NAACP and LULAC, the League of Women Voters, the Austin Firefighters and Police Associations, and the Austin Neighborhoods Council. Political support ranges from the Travis County Greens, to Democratic Hispanic groups, to the Travis Republicans and the Austin Homebuilders Association. At least two ex-mayors, Frank Cooksey and Bruce Todd, support it.

Political spending on elections is now largely conducted by political action committees or PACs. It costs a lot to get the word out — more than $100,000 to do it right. The Populist 10-1 plan has its “Trust Austin” PAC. The politician’s plan, 8-2-1, is being promoted by the “Austin Community for Change” PAC .

Why doesn’t Austin already have districts?

Austin’s current system of at-large elections originated during the era when Austin was much smaller, and has its roots in a racist past. The near win of a city council seat by popular community leader Arthur B. DeWitty in 1951 caused the city to adopt an at-large system. This was then seen as the best way to keep an African-American from winning a seat on the then effectively segregated Austin City Council. This link tells the story.

During the 1970’s the on-going conflict between the land development interests nnd the environmental community heated up. Groups such as AARO, the Austin Area Research Organization, were organized to promote business and real estate interests that felt threatened by populist politics. Beginning in 1977, and as part of their program, the business interests that benefited from rapid growth provided enough money to make sure that both an African-American and a Hispanic were always elected to the City Council.

This was the basis of the “gentlemen’s agreement,” still in effect. Failing to elect at least one African-American and one Hispanic would trigger federal intervention under the 1965 Voting Rights acts. Since Austin was and still rather narrowly is a white majority city, it took a well-funded effort to always elect two minorities to the City Council in order to legally protect the at-large voting system. Retaining business community control of Austin government required the politically active business interests to always promote the two minority campaigns sufficiently to make sure one of each minority would remain in office.

According to KUT, Austin’s public radio station,

Ed Wendler and Bill Youngblood were two big players in Austin politics in the ’70s. Peck Young says Youngblood was afraid if there wasn’t Hispanic or African-American presence on the council, the city would be open to a federal lawsuit that might force single-member districts. So they came up with an unspoken rule that the Place 5 council was the “Hispanic seat” and Place 6 was the “African-American seat.” But the agreement wasn’t aimed at encouraging council diversity — it was aimed at controlling that diversity. “You have minorities, but you don’t have minorities elected by minority voters,” Young said.

In a number of ways, the current fight recalls the earlier epic “Battle for Barton Springs” in 1991. This earlier citizen-led environmental rebellion also led to a grassroots petition effort that succeeded in forcing the issue of environmental reform onto the ballot. Then, as now, an innocent-sounding proposal was placed on the ballot as competition to try to kill the citizens’ initiative. Despite the business community’s opposition, the 1992 citizens’ initiative won big, with the help of united environmentalist support. This led to a successful ordinance to protect the Edwards Aquifer, Austin’s fragile recreational and groundwater supply aquifer.

San Antonio already has its own 10-1 system of city government in place, and it works to promote popular leaders of modest means. Having districts doesn’t necessarily guarantee good government but it helps. San Antonio’s Democratic Mayor Julian Castro was the keynote speaker at the recent Democratic Party convention in Charlotte NC.

The politicians’ plan, Proposition 4, has a few problems

The 8-2-1 plan, Proposition 4 on the November ballot, is conspicuously less democratic than 10-1. It was put on the ballot with no signatures, and without much popular support. The photo of a racially diverse group of “supporters” featured on their website is a stock photo they bought.

The politicians’ 8-2-1 plan has support from RECA, professional consultants, and political power brokers; it amounts to a full employment act for a handful of campaign consultants. One reason that the current City Council voted to put the politicians’ plan on the ballot is the pressure brought about by political strategist David Butts, a top strategist in the 8-2-1 campaign, who makes his living largely from City Council and other local political races. The way Prop. 4 is written it would allow the council to draw and gerrymander the 8-2-1 districts in such a way as to keep their seats. The current City Council members live relatively close together, and without some creative design of the new districts, many would likely end up within the same districts.

The main Austin media have not been neutral. In July, the Austin Chronicle featured a story by news editor Michael King titled “Point Austin: The Usual Suspects; The argument over council districting takes a nasty turn.” King’s biased political coverage in this case elicited a strong rebuke from UT law professor and national expert on election law, Steve Bickerstaff. He had been a pro-bono adviser for 10-1 on its legality, but had remained otherwise neutral, declining to advocate for either ballot Proposition. Prof. Bickerstaff does believe in fair reporting, however, and the Chronicle spin was too much.

…the Chronicle story was catty, cynical, biased, and poorly reasoned — unlike most articles written by Michael King. AGR has secured more than 33,000 voter signatures on its petition, the support of many different community organizations, and the recommendation of the Charter Revision Committee. Whether or not Mr. King or the Chronicle supports the group’s 10-1 proposal, they should respect this outstanding achievement and laud the vision and hard work evidenced in this exercise of democratic rights.

Council Member Mike Martinez explained his vote in favor of putting this proposal (unchanged) on the ballot as a means of recognizing this group’s achievement. Supporters of an 8-2-1 election system could have used a petition drive to show the degree of public support for their plan; they did not.

Also, I was surprised that the Chronicle, which has been so critical of the gerrymandering and self-interest shown in redistricting by the Texas Legislature, could be dismissive of an independent redistricting commission at the city level. Independent commissions have operated successfully in California at the state level and in a number of cities, such as San Diego and Minneapolis. They can take much of the self-interest and politics out of redistricting.

The Chronicle should be supporting the need for an independent commission in Austin as an essential part of any charter amendment changing from our at-large system. The Charter Revision Committee (13-2) politically endorsed creation of an independent commission. Many of the members of the City Council that the Chronicle identifies as preferring an 8-2-1 plan have voiced support of such a commission. Election district lines should not be drawn by the same politicians who seek election in those districts, or by committees appointed by such politicians.

It might be argued that as a halfway step in the direction of democratic district government, 8-2-1 is better than what we have now. However, its real impact, and the reason for the City Council putting it on the ballot very late in the game, is to act as a sort of a poison pill proposal. It was placed on the ballot in response to wide support for 10-1, with the hope of attracting enough votes away from the 10-1 plan to kill the latter.

The politician’s plan, the 8-2-1 plan, would appear to have one important flaw. It invites a legal challenge since it seems to be incompatible with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Proposition 4 would be subject to legal challenge because Austin’s African-American population — which is about 7 percent of the city’s total population — has largely been forced out of its historic areas of concentration in East Austin over recent decades by a combination of gentrification and high property taxes.

This means that it will take a lot of districts of equal size, at least 10, to be able to draw one with sufficient African-American concentration to make it reasonably easy to win an election without outside support, particularly from the business community. With any fewer than 10 districts, according to recent census data, no contiguous district can be drawn that would give Austin’s remaining African-American population a legally defensible ability to elect their own representatives.

Bottom Line: Reasons to support Proposition 3 in the November 2012 Austin election, 10-1, the People’s plan:

  1. Citizen Districts: The 10-1 plan would establish a Citizen Redistricting Commission which would exclude city politicians, lobbyists, and consultants. The record shows that political insiders tend to draw gerrymandered district maps that favor their own interests.
  2. The 10-1 plan makes all neighborhoods equal, and ends the current concentration of power in a small part of Austin.
  3. Every vote becomes more important. The more districts, the more the candidate’s merit and local appeal become important.
  4. It is supported by 29 major organizations and 33,000 petition signatures gathered following a year-and-a-half-long transparent process (fully reported in The Austin Bulldog).
  5. At least 10 districts are required for a geographic representation system to be legally defensible for Austin under the Voting Rights Act.
  6. The 10-1 plan ends Austin’s racist “gentleman’s agreement” because minorities can best choose their own representatives.

Reasons to oppose Proposition 4, the 8-2-1 Politician’s plan

  1. Lacking the safeguards in the 10-1 plan, the 8-2-1 plan allows Austin districts to be gerrymandered by politicians, lobbyists, and consultants.
  2. The two at-large districts retain the unequal legacy of the four privileged ZIP codes.
  3. Having only eight districts denies African-Americans an opportunity district, meaning it will very likely be challenged in court.
  4. The mayor and the two at-large council seats will tend to remain controlled by the special interests.
  5. It perpetuates the “gentleman’s agreement” by which African-American and Hispanic seats can be chosen by power brokers.
  6. As a ploy to defeat the people’s plan, the 8-2-1 plan was put on the ballot by politicians with very little grassroots citizen input, even though the same plan failed by a wide margin 10 years ago.

For those who wish to follow the populist fight for Austin district representation in depth, to understand how we got to this point of decision over the past year and a half, the outstanding source is veteran investigative reporter Ken Martin’s pro-bono, online Austin political journal, The Austin Bulldog. There are several dozen Bulldog stories on the citizen meetings that led to the People’s 10-1 district representation plan, dating back to March 2011, linked here.

By contrast, Austin’s daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman and Austin’s sporadically liberal alternative weekly, The Austin Chronicle, have offered sparse and politically slanted coverage of the Austin district issue.

[Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of and an advisor to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is active in the Green Party and the ACLU, and is a director of the Save Our Springs Association and the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.]

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4 Responses to Roger Baker : Which Side Are You On, Austin?

  1. Tom Davis says:

    Several years ago, the ballot had a citizens’ initiative for district election of Council, and the “powers that be” fought it then by putting a “Politicians’ Plan” directly against it – you had to choose one or the other.

    This time, you can choose one, the other, both, or neither. The previous time, the people’s plan had a 50% chance of passing; this time, it has a 25% chance. If 10-1 passes, and the Politicians’ Plan does too, then the politicians get to decide. The only way to get adequate representation for all of Austin is to vote for 10-1 ONLY.

    I’m the Chair of the Human Rights Commission (until Monday, anyway), and this year that commission overwhelmingly passed a resolution in favor of the 10-1 plan, because it’s the only plan that’ll restore the basic human right of choosing our leaders to the majority of the people of Austin.

    Roger’s right: Vote FOR Proposition 3, the 10-1 Plan, and AGAINST Proposition 4, the Politicians’ Plan.

  2. Ken Martin says:

    Re: Tom Davis,

    Your wrote “If 10-1 passes, and the Politicians’ Plan does too, then the politicians get to decide.”

    That’s not quite accurate: If both Props 3 and 4 pass, the one that gets the most raw votes wins. The city’s legal staff said this at a council meeting and it was repeated publicly yesterday by Council Member Bill Spelman at a RECA luncheon.

  3. Alyssa says:

    I’ve already been rudely warned that I cannot weigh in on this issue because I no longer live in Austin. Well, I’m weighing in on it now. Austin voters, please, please get with the twentieth (note I didn’t say “twenty-first”) –give all areas of Austin representation, and completely end this outmoded concept of voting at-large. Where do you think the big money comes from to support an at-large run? It’s not from the constituency…

  4. Jay D. Jurie says:

    Roger, please be sure to keep us posted as to how this election turns out. As a couple of the other comments have noted, it is increasingly the strategy of right-wing operatives to fog the issues by throwing “rival” measures on the ballot.

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