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Notebook Archives



Constable's Notebook - October 2006

For the first half of the 1900s, the Austin City Council was comprised of five council positions that were all elected at large by a plurality of votes. The councilmembers, not the voters elected the mayor. In 1948 Emma Long, a self-proclaimed liberal, was the first woman elected to the City Council. The city’s establishment community was not so much bothered by Ms. Long’s election as they were concerned that voters might possibly elect four more like her. So they changed the method of electing council members from the at-large system of five separate races to one where the top five vote getters in a single election were elected. In 1967 the City Council was expanded to seven members and reverted back to at-large elections. Berl Handcox and John Trevino were the first minorities elected to the City Council (1971 and 1975) in more than 100 years. This was achieved by an acknowledged “gentlemen’s agreement” of the white power brokers who agreed to reserve one seat for an African American and one for a Hispanic. In 1977 Carole McClellan was the first woman elected mayor, so many believed that the Austin City Council finally represented the diverse populations who live in our city.

But that belief was not universally shared. While the power brokers agreed to the minority seats on the City Council, most often they also chose the candidates who would run for and fill those seats. The establishment of the “gentleman’s agreement” and the growth of neighborhood associations helped create an environment where many came to believe that their interests would be best represented by candidates elected from single member districts who best knew their community. During much of the 70s and 80s the City Council was dominated by conservative members who resisted any changes that would threaten their majority, while most (but by no means all) liberals and minorities supported a change to single member districts. Since the 1970s, Austin voters have rejected single member districts or a mixed system of single member districts and at-large positions five times. Interestingly, Austin is the only major city in Texas and one of the few in the nation that has not adopted a single member or mixed system of electing its council members.

Last July, Council Member Mike Martinez indicated that he plans to ask the City Council to appoint a task force to consider “some form of hybrid system that encompasses geographic and at-large districts”. Some members of the Blackland Neighborhoods Association, representatives of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and others have also decided to take a fresh look at restructuring the way we elect our council members. One could wonder why anyone would again want to go through the effort for an issue that has been shot down five times. Perhaps the more interesting question is what is it about the current at-large system of electing council members that still concerns many people and what changes could be implemented to resolve those concerns – that could receive a majority vote? The November edition of the Constable’s Notebook will continue to examine the pros and cons of the current system of electing our City Council as well as various proposals that are intended to improve it.



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