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Why 10-1 Isn't Austin's First Go-Around with Geographic Representation

Let's go back in time. It's 1839. Austin’s a brand new baby, the capitol is a one-story building at the corner of 8th Street and Colorado, the Austin City Gazette costs $5 for a yearly subscription, and Lamar is the President of the Republic of Texas, not an overly-congested thoroughfare.

While all that may sound antiquated, there was something else in Austin that only recently has been considered a fresh, previously unheard of idea: geographic representation.

While 10-1 media coverage and campaign rhetoric may tell you differently, Austinites voted for their aldermen from their neighborhood from 1840 until 1909.

Back then, the young city didn't have much, says Mike Miller of the Austin History Center.

“There was the temporary capitol, the president's house – which fell down like two years later. They had to build a land office to hold the land records because, basically the core of the state government had to do with land records, because the country at the time,” Miller says. “It was a country at the time – had no money but it had land. That was the only wealth that Texas had.”

With little wealth and lots of land, some big decisions awaited a young Austin. One of them was what type of government the city of Austin would have. The decision was to break the city up into districts – they called them wards back then, and there were eight of them

But, eight wards shortly turned into 10 because Austin was growing rapidly. Does that sound familiar?

Each of the 10 wards elected an alderman and the mayor was elected citywide. As a young city, Austin experimented and struggled to find its best form of government – its identity, sort of speak.

“In 1884, with the same 10 wards, they elected 2 alderman from each ward. So, we had 20 alderman and a mayor,” Miller says.

And that was when Austin’s population was less than 20,000.

Urban Management Emeritus Professor from UT Austin Terrell Blodgett says, no matter how much representation a part of town had, outside of city offices people were unhappy.

“Because, it lead to people there maybe feeling that they'd been left out in the governmental process, left out of improvement projects,” Blodgett says.

If you dig into some documents at the Austin History Center, you'll see how some wards were disproportionally favored, say, with a fire station and other services, while other wards were disproportionally neglected.

Credit Mengwen Cao/KUT News
Mike Miller of the Austin HIstory Center

By 1909, a more seasoned Austin opted for an all at-large system. It made more sense to have every alderman and the mayor focused on the entire city.

But, that didn’t get rid of that feeling of some parts of town being neglected.

"And so, a lot of the concerns that lead to 10-1, they weren't new,” Miller says. “These are things that Austinites were talking about 100 years ago.”

December 27th is Austin's birthday. This year it’ll be 175.

Soon after the birthday celebrations, there will be a brand new city council – one elected by districts just like it was at the beginning. You might say everything that’s old is new again.