Single Member Districts for Austin

You may have read about Mayor Leffingwell’s plan to propose single member districts on the front page of yesterday’s Austin American Statesman.  I have always believed that single member districts would increase the city government’s accountability to Austinites  and I praise Mayor Leffingwell for his efforts.

In 2000, I had the privilege of serving on the City of Austin Charter Revision Committee with the likes of Austin stalwarts Barbara Hankins, Charles Miles, Raymond Chan, Robert Chapa, Jim Harrington, Fred Lewis, Mark McCray and Diane Spencer.  The committee recommended that the city council consist of a mayor elected at large and ten members from single member districts.  However, we could not recommend district boundaries at the time because census data was still unavailable.  Two years later in 2002, single member districts were put before the voters but failed to pass.  There was speculation that voters rejected the idea simply because the charter amendment proposed to increase the City Council from 7 to 11 members.

Now, in 2011, nine years later and with new census data, I believe it is time to put single member districts before the voters once again.

As a State Representative, I support single member districts because it provides more direct representation than the current Council structure.  Under the current structure, council members have carved niches and communities that they specialize in.  Unfortunately, there is no way to ensure that every community gets fully represented in a structure in which all members are elected on a city-wide ballot.  Many times, constituents know which council member to approach because they are the most familiar with a certain issue, but in some cases, constituents don’t know where to begin at the city level.  Single member districts would solve this problem by electing representatives from each community, giving constituents a clear contact for city issues. I believe that single member districts would naturally produce better constituent services at the city level.

As a candidate, I support single member districts because they place more emphasis on discovering and representing the particular needs of a district.  In the Texas House, the state is broken into 150 districts, which allows my colleagues and I to meet engage with our constituents and defend their values at the Capitol.  Similarly, single member districts at the city level would shift the focus of campaigns from TV and mail advertisements to old fashioned door knocking, phone calls and other direct voter contact.  Not to mention it would make a candidate’s ability to fundraise less of a factor and give hard-working, underfunded candidates a fair chance.

As a voter, I support single member districts because I think they provide much needed equity in an inequitable system.  Every voter deserves someone from their part of town who represents their values and needs, and single member districts are the way to ensure that.

I commend Mayor Leffingwell and the Austin City Council for considering a referendum on single member districts.  Whether or not voters choose single member districts, I strongly support giving them another opportunity to decide.