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Dueling Single-Member Districts: Coming Soon to a Ballot Near You?

Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

The presidential election is just one thing on the ballot this November. Closer to home, voters will decide an election with broad implications for Austin’s future.

The Austin City Council began heavy lifting on these issues in a work session Tuesday. Although Austin voters face a multifaceted ballot, the initiatives can be broadly broken up into two categories: potential changes to the city charter – including a new, geographic-based form of council representation – and a bond election.

At its work session Tuesday morning, the council received a tentative timeline for setting the ballot:

  • At a June 26 work session, council is scheduled to hammer out a bond package recommendation.
  • At its regularly scheduled June 28 meeting, the council will discuss the drafting of election items, and give final direction to staff.
  • On August 2, council is scheduled to set the election’s ballot order.
  • August 7 sees a final work session on the bond package.
  • August 16 is scheduled for final approval of the bond election ballot items.
  • The legal deadline to call this November’s election in August 20.

Much of the work session centered on the charter election – and the question of whether the council will put its own geographic representation scenario on the ballot.
KUT News has reported on the citizen petition drive to put a “10-1” geographic representation scenario on the ballot, with council members serving in 10 individual geographic districts, and only the mayor running citywide. However, council member Mike Martinez announced yesterday that he planned to offer his own 10-1 scenario on June 28.

Martinez has publicly called for single-member districts, but he took issue with other aspects of the 10-1 plan from Austinites for Geographic Representation. One example he cited was the group’s requirement city elections continue to be held in May; council has already decided that the question of moving city elections from May to November will appear separately on this November’s ballot. He also singled out provisions relating to the independent districting commission Austinites for Geographic Representation’spetition calls for.

“When I read all four pages of this petition, it is troubling to me, many of the provisions that are in here,” Martinez said.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell also said he would be offering a separate scenario, “an item that proposes a hybrid system with four-year term lengths, staggered terms, and elections occurring in November of even years.”

“If I can get some language to that effect,” Leffingwell told staff, “I’ll see if I can get a co-sponsor.”

Leffingwell was non-committal on the number of single-member districts his plan would contain, but said he plans on starting the discussion with six districts, with two additional council members and the mayor running at-large – a proposal similar to the plan floated by"hybrid" district advocates Austin Community for Change.

The council didn’t spend time on the bond election – but that’s certainly a considerably less controversial subject, since Leffingwell threw cold water on the idea of an urban rail vote this year, and has called for a $400 million limit on bond spending – the most the city can absorb without raising property taxes.

But with so many electoral questions, maybe that’s better for now.  

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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