Would at-large council seats improve things?
It’s been two years since the 2010 Census and cities in Texas are either finished with or are finishing their realignment of council districts. Houston and Dallas are done, Fort Worth and El Paso are in the final stages, and Austin and San Antonio are in the middle of their processes. San Antonio’s redistricting will most likely just involve a shifting of boundaries, primarily to accommodate the increased population growth to the north, specifically the northwest side. The same is true for most of the other districts in Texas, except for Austin. Austin is going through a much larger discussion about moving from 7 at-large districts to a different make-up, primarily focused on geographic districts but with some hybrid options offered as well. So in this discussion, you have to ask what really is the best type of city council make-up.
San Antonio’s district design is commonly called a 10-1 model, with council members representing ten geographic districts and a mayor elected by the city at large. The model was put in place in 1977 in a move to challenge the politically strong Good Government League, by moving from eight at-large districts to ten geographic districts, a model we’ve stuck with ever since. While the change opened up 2 more seats on council, its more impactive change was in busting up the GGL and giving voting strength to the minority populations. Prior to the change to geographic districts, the make-up of council was mostly Anglo.
However, one of the challenges of having a council of all geographic districts is that issues can take on a territorial flavor, with more a focus on district-related projects and very little focus on citywide initiatives. This is something Mayor Castro took note of upon taking office and has been a primary challenge for him as he has worked to implement the visions of SA 2020. Castro has worked hard to keep citywide focus on some of the initiatives but some issues like development of downtown are running into challenges from council members from the Northside.
Looking at the major cities of Texas, Houston seems to be the only one with something of a hybrid model, operating with eleven geographic districts, five at-large districts, and a mayor. Dallas has 14 geographic districts and a mayor, Fort Worth and El Paso have eight geographic districts and a mayor. Austin is the last city in Texas to operate solely with a completely at-large model. As you can imagine, every other city in Texas will have completed their redistricting long before Austin can even think about finishing. The debate, as it stands today, is what type of council model should the city operate under.
Interestingly, there are several models being “shopped around” in Austin. There’s the 10-1 plan promoted by Citizens Districting 10-1 for Austin (well, the name says it all). Then there’s an alternative hybrid plan promoted by Austin Community for Change. Why are there two plans? Well, apparently when the Austin City Council decided to move forward on this the committee it established recommended at 10-1 geographic district plan but now some on the Austin City Council, including Mayor Lee Leffingwell, seem to favor a hybrid plan, which has given some wind to citizens supporting such a plan.
Both groups seem to point primarily to better representation on Austin’s City Council, especially with regards to racial representation. What I found interesting was that the hybrid group directly pointed to San Antonio’s current district plan as a reason for supporting a hybrid model. “It is hard to predict the design of districts in the future and virtually impossible to anticipate all of the unintended consequences of specific geographic district boundaries,” according to the study paper published by the group.
However, what the group failed to note is that even with geographic districts, San Antonio’s council make-up is pretty representative of the city, with 6 of the 10 representatives being Hispanic, matching San Antonio’s 63% demographic for Hispanics. Three of the members are female and all three females are minorities, including an Asian-American. Youth is well represented on the council with three of the members 35 year or younger. While I wouldn’t consider Councilman Reed Williams old, at 64 years old he provides senior representation on the council. In other words, even with geographic representation any issues of diversity are hardly present. Interestingly, the 10-1 group even points to D9 as a reason for protection of minorities.
But what could be considered missing is the citywide view of issues on council. That’s where at-large representatives come into play. As I stated before, Mayor Castro has helped promote a citywide view on issues but keeping that view continues to be a challenge, especially as he looks to increase development of downtown. In an overview of the various districting models, the National League of Cities cites that at-large districts “can be more impartial, rise above the limited perspective of a single district and concern themselves with the problems of the whole community.” The site notes that almost 2/3rds or 64% of municipalities have some sort of at-large model in place.
San Antonio probably won’t increase the number of geographic districts in this round of redistricting. The appetite for it just isn’t present in council. If new districts were introduced they would probably be created north of downtown and possibly north of Loop 410. That would give the perceived conservative block more votes, something the districts to the south want to avoid. However, one consideration might be to start looking at the creation of a couple of at-large districts. It would help provide more citywide focus on issues, could bring in more talented individuals to serve on council by pulling from a larger pool of candidates, and could change the dynamics of San Antonio’s municipal decisions.
In the case of Austin, the issue will most likely go before the voters, either in the November election or some time after. The battle lines are being drawn with the focus on race, which is an unfortunate focus. Anytime you make race the primary issue you start polarizing the community. But if that’s the only way these groups can make their case, you can’t expect any other rational discussions. Austin is moving from a total at-large council so any hint of at-large seems to be a negative.
Personally, I think a hybrid model serves major cities the best.