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In Charter Revision Talks, City Council Ponders How to Put Themselves Out of Office

Council members Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison are wrangling with how best to institute proposed reforms.
Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News
Council members Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison are wrangling with how best to institute proposed reforms.

The Austin City Council held an initial discussion on sweeping reforms to local government this morning reforms that may result in booting them all from City Hall.

The council discussed several recommendations from the 2012 Charter Revision Group. Many measures, largely campaign finance reforms, could be made simply by council action. Council member Laura Morrison suggested they start that work immediately, and put unresolved issues before the voters. “I would like to move forward as quickly as possible,” she said, “and see what results from there, and we still have the option to consider putting it on the ballot.

One reason council members may make the changes themselves – instead of putting them before voters – is to streamline a cluttered ballot this November. They don’t want to distract voters from the biggest local change: a switch from Austin’s current form of elections, where all council members run citywide, to a form of geographic representation, where council members would run in and represent individual districts.

The council pored over the legal issues involved in drawing the districts, which would likely be done by an independent commission. Council member Bill Spelman predicted it could be accomplished, but worried whether there was enough time to produce tangible districts before the vote.

“There would be very little time before November to advertise, ‘here’s what the districts look like,’ and more important, there would be relatively very little time for the public to weigh in on what those districts ought to look like with the commission,” Spelman said.  Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole concurred, saying “I think it’s important we have some maps or ideas before we send it to the voters.”

Should voters approve geographic representation, there’s also the question of what happens to the current council members. The council was briefed on three options: a “restart,” where all existing council terms would be up; a temporarily enlarged council with both current and new members under the district system; and a phase in, seating new council members in the members’ seats as they expire. 

The council expressed most interest in the first option. “I really think a reset option is the cleanest and clearest way, as opposed to phasing this in,” said council member Mike Martinez.

With the clock ticking, city staff is currently drafting several recommendations for action. You can also read the report from the Charter Revision Commission council consulted.

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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