There has been some talk here in Austin recently about the possibility of the city switching from an at large system of election for city council members to a system based on single member districts where council members would represent specific areas of the city. This is nothing new. Debate over this issue has been going on since at least the 1970s and the idea has never come close to implementation. Today Austin remains the largest city in the nation where all of its city council members are elected at large.
There’s a reason why single member districts get talked about a lot here in Austin and seem to never become a reality. The current system always wins out because it protects the power of a small group of white, wealthy elitists who live in a few key Austin neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Tarrytown and come out to vote in large numbers and control every election and every seat on the city council. Since they are also the ones who would have to approve putting single member districts on the ballot they have no motivation to do so and risk losing the power which they have.
Instead they make hypocritical concessions to inclusiveness under a so-called “gentleman’s agreement” by allowing the occasional hand-picked Hispanic or black who shares their leftist ideology onto the council. Then they can say to groups who object to being disenfranchised that they have a “historically Hispanic” seat or a “historically black” seat reserved for them, but it’s never given to someone elected by that community. The seat instead goes to someone picked by the leftist elite whose loyalties are to their ideology, not to the minority community. It’s classic Uncle Tomism as only the political left can practice it.
This problem has become more serious in recent years as the controlling elite in the city has gained more and more access to wealth through their alliance with real estate developers who are profiting from the efforts to move population downtown and build the city up instead of building out. This “smart growth” agenda promoted by the city council has given them powerful allies in the business community and made many of them wealthy and advanced their political careers to higher levels. It’s a corrupting influence which provides another incentive against establishing a more equitable political system in the city.
The latest mutterings about single member districts come in the wake of the recent LULAC convention here in Austin. LULAC has repeatedly made a point of their concern about the lack of adequate Hispanic representation on the city council and they have a very valid point. Similar complaints have been raised repeatedly over the years by the NAACP, the East Side Coalition and other African-American leaders and groups.
If single member districts were established they would likely result in a minimum of one reliable black seat on the council and two Hispanic seats. The problem for the city council is that fair districts would likely also result in at least one seat going to another disenfranchised minority, west Austin Republicans and conservatives. Most scary of all, non-ethnic leftists would probably become a minority on the council, and who knows what kind of dreadful policies like fiscal responsibility and actually holding city employees responsible for their actions might result from that.
Yes, some city council members are talking about putting single member districts on the ballot. But I don’t have any faith at all that it will happen. There is every reasonable argument in favor of it, but when weighed on the scales of those in power I do not believe that giving equal representation to all of the citizens of the city outweighs their desire to hold onto political power and keep the city dominated by a cabal of like-minded individuals who wield power primarily to benefit themselves and their cronies. They’ve got a sweet deal going and short of intervention by the federal government I doubt they’re likely to give it up.
(A somewhat different version of this article appeared previously at blogcritics.org)