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Diversity Lacking Among Austin's District Commission Applicants

Filipa Rodrigues

Austin’s city auditor is practically begging more people to apply to be on the board that will draw the first geographic districts for the City Council. So far, fewer than 100 have applied, and they are overwhelmingly white and male.

It’s not the kind of wide participation proponents of the charter amendment that created district representation had in mind. But it’s similar to what happened in San Diego, a city that was just redistricted in 2011.

That was the second time San Diego drew its district maps. The process takes place every 10 years. Liz Maland, San Diego’s city clerk, has been a part of it both times.

“We received 52 applications in the pool for the appointing authority to consider,” Maland said.

They ended up with a seven-member commission. Austin’s commission will have twice that many.

One goal both cities share is to have commissions that are diverse in sex, income and ethnicity. That’s been the most challenging part for Austin City Auditor Kenneth Mory, even with a $70,000 advertising campaign that’s included outreach on KUT’s airwaves.

“At this point, I do have enough, according to the charter amendment, to actually do what I need to do,” Mory said. “But we are looking for more robust, more diversified. Because if they are not in the pools, they probably won’t be in the panel or the commission itself.”

Originally, Mory said, the redistricting commission was envisioned to resemble the city’s diversity. “And that’s why we are doing this, again, more intensive outreach by trying to get the community leaders to be more involved in getting people to sign up,” he said. “But it’s really up to the citizens, the leaders and the soon-to-be leaders, to step up and help make that happen.”

San Diego also struggled to reach the diversity goal at first. Maland realized that there were areas in the community that were interested in participating in the process, but only after they had a deeper understanding of what the commission was expected to do. And that took time.

Her problem was that a rule in the San Diego charter only allowed her to run advertising during the 30-day application period. Austin has the same rule.

The second time around, for the 2011 redistricting, Maland says she carefully planned a strategy that would get the word out without “advertising” per se.

“I started actually, in May of 2010, at my budget presentation to City Council” she said. “It is a televised council meeting, and so I made sure at that point to say to everybody, ‘Hey, this is coming up. I developed a brochure, which was a new thing this year, and we made it available at council meetings, so people could start thinking in terms of redistricting.”

Steven Aleman says the 30-day window is a setback the writers of the Austin charter didn’t see coming. Aleman helped draft the original language of the Austin charter.

“As it is now, it’s a very small window that came really right after the major holidays and the New Year,” Aleman said. Perhaps in the future we can think about the timing of when it’s best to do outreach and how long the application period should be open.”

Tweaks and outright drastic changes can be made for the redistricting process 10 years from now, through a charter amendment. For now, the last day to apply to the Austin redistricting commission is February 22nd. A full-fledged commission is supposed to be in place by May.

A number of organizations are sponsoring information sessions. The first one is tonight at 6 at City Hall, followed by another one Saturday morning at the Mexican-American Cultural Center.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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