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Will Austin Move to Single Member Districts?

Changes may be coming to City Hall, should voters approve a revision to the City Charter altering Austin's form of elections.
Photo by Liang Shi for KUT News
Changes may be coming to City Hall, should voters approve a revision to the City Charter altering Austin's form of elections.

The Austin City Council meets tomorrow, but the real action may not be in council chambers.

The 2012 Charter Revision Committee is meeting tomorrow at City Hall. It’s being billed as the group's final meeting, and the committee’s expected to issue a recommendation on the most controversial topic it's discussed: changes to Austin’s form of elections.

The committee was created by the City Council to recommend changes to the City Charter, the city’s governing document. Its recommendations, if approved by the council, will then be put before voters this November in an election to change the charter.

As we’ve previously discussed, Austin council elections are currently at-large, meaning council members run in and represent the entire city. Critics charge this makes council candidacies prohibitively expensive, and doesn’t create equitable representation for all parts of Austin.

Discussion has centered on two competing plans: one format comprised of 10 individual, single-member districts for council members, with only the mayor running at-large; and a different, “hybrid” format containing single member districts and two “super-districts” halving the city that would have their own representatives. Backers of the hybrid format say the format will engender cooperation and coalition-building between districts; proponents of a solely at-large system say their format will do the most to take money out of local elections. The first proposal of "10-1" has a received the most public support, with its backers promising to gather signatures to put it on the ballot should council not send the initiative to voters.

As the charter can only be amended once every two years, the committee has recommended several additional changes:

1.     Move the date of Austin’s municipal elections from May to November. 2.     Prohibit City Council Members from switching Council places to avoid term limits. 3.     Make the number of required signatures the same for charter, initiative and referendum petitions. The current requirement of 5 percent of the municipality’s qualified voters to initiate a ballot measure now only applies to charter amendments.  The committee recommendation extends that minimum requirement to initiative and referendum petitions. 4.     The City Attorney will report directly to the City Council and appoint Deputy City Attorneys. 5.     City Council will appoint the Council staff. 6.     The City Clerk will appoint Deputy City Clerks. 7.     The City Auditor will appoint Deputy City Auditors. 8.     A new 30-day fundraising period following elections, including additional restrictions on officeholder accounts. 9.     An increase in officeholder account amounts (funds used for expenses related to holding an office) with the additional restriction stating that these funds cannot be used for campaign purposes. 10.   Give the City Ethics Review Commission jurisdiction and enforcement powers in any case of alleged violation of City campaign finance law. 11.   Report within one business day all campaign contributions and expenditures exceeding $2,500 made within nine days of an election. 12.   More financial disclosure by reporting and disclaiming independent expenditures, including “express” advocacy and electioneering. 13.   Electronic filing of all campaign finance, lobbying reports and expenditures in a publicly searchable and downloadable database. 14.   City elections will be required for major new revenue bonds greater than $50 million, with a cost of living adjustment. 15.   Ex officio members of the Planning Commission (members who are on the commission because it is part of their duties in holding another office) are non-voting members whose attendance does not count for quorum. 16.   Limit the amount of funds a registered City lobbyist can bundle in a contribution to a City Council candidate.  The limit is a maximum of $1,750 per Council candidate per election cycle with a maximum of five contributors.  The maximum amount registered firms can bundle is $3,500 per City Council candidate per election cycle with a maximum of 10 firms.

The meeting is scheduled for tomorrow, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m., in the Boards and Commissions meeting room at City Hall. 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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