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District Divide: New Group Pushes Hybrid Proposal Over Single-Member Districts

While a citizens group continues to gather signatures to put single-member districts before Austin voters this fall, it’s not the only group looking to have a say.

The newly formed Austin Community for Change is offering its own proposal for changing Austin’s form of elections.

Currently, the mayor and all City Council members serve citywide. Opponents of this form of government argue the cost of running city-wide in a place the size of Austin makes candidacies prohibitively expensive, and deprives residents of underserved parts of town a council member who’s on their side.

Six times the city has attempted to change its form of representation – a move that requires voter approval. And six times it’s been defeated. That may change this year, as the citizens group Austinites for Geographic Representation is currently gathering signatures to put its preferred districts scenario on the ballot this November: the “10-1” plan, 10 individual districts, with only the mayor running at-large.

But while Austinites for Geographic Representation is likely to get its initiative on the ballot, it may have company. The city council also has the authority to put its own changes to the city charter on the ballot this fall. Some have speculated that putting dueling proposals up for a vote would doom both proposals; council member Bill Spelman told KUT News he would oppose council offering a separate item up for the election should AGR collect enough signatures for their own initiative.

Austin Community for Change is arguing that a “hybrid” form of government should be offered as an option: an “8-2-1” plan, with eight single member districts, plus two council seats representing the entire city along with the mayor.

Veteran political consultant David Butts – who’s played a role in the campaigns of all seven current council members – is the principal behind the group. He recently served on the city’s Charter Revision Committee, which considered single-member districts along with several other potential charter changes. The committee ultimately recommended the 10-1 scenario, but as Butts notes, it was a nearly even split – eight to seven.

“If we have only single member districts on the ballot – and that’s the only offer put to the voters – I think it will lose,” Butts tells KUT News. “And I run into a wide array of people who do not support SMDs as the only option because they only get to vote for two members of an 11 member council. Austinites have grown pretty accustomed – at least those who vote, which is of course a minority in city elections – to getting able to vote on all the council members. And so I think there is a weakness right there.”

Austin Community for Change doesn’t plan on collecting signatures to place a hybrid proposal on the ballot, but instead appears focused on encouraging council to offer an alternative to 10-1.

“Our goal is to basically see that the voters have an option that is a balanced approach,” Butts says. “We have two extremes, and one is to keep all at-large. And the other extreme is to have all single member districts, only with the mayor at large. We offer a middle path. I am inclined to believe one should always wade out into the water first rather than dive in head-first to see what’s out there."

The group hasn’t exactly received a warm welcome. In a widely circulated email, fellow political vet Peck Young, director of Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy & Political Studies, took umbrage with a white paper posted on the Austin Community for Change website, arguing many of its findings weren’t applicable to Austin.

“Apparently this group is now talking about eight districts and two city-wide districts, which was on the ballot in 2002 and lost by 14 points,” Young tells KUT News. “This has been dramatically rejected by the voters of Austin recently … 10-1 is supported by 25 organizations and close to 50 individuals.”

Austinites for Geographic Representation is hoping to have 30,000 signatures collected for its ballot initiative by this month – well in advance of the deadline the council has to decide whether to offer its own proposal.  

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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