Geographic Representation: Look at the Plans

On Tuesday August, 7, 2012, we witnessed one of the reasons why it is imperative that 10-1 defeats 8-2-1 this year. John Lawler wrote some great questions to ponder.

Geographic representation is necessary in order to break up the interests that dominate the Council.The Council today is composed of 7 at-large seats. Using an all-at-large system for 40 years, we have had 40% of our Council elected from small neighborhoods in central Austin home to 10% of our citizens. We would have no minority council members if not for a “gentlemen’s agreement,” conspiring so that no insiders run against the Council’s chosen black candidate and hispanic candidate. The Mayor lives off Balcones just south of 2222 and Mopac, and he lives farther north and west than any other council members. In short, our present system of at-large members has allowed our city to be dominated by rich, white citizens of a small number of central Austin neighborhoods. Every at-large seat on the Council in the future is effectively a gift to those same interests that dominate the Council today, when instead that seat could have been used to create an east Austin Council district.

Now, let’s talk about motions to suspend the rules. Let’s invent an outlandish hypothetical to illustrate what a “motion to suspend the rules” is and why it is useful. Pretend there is a really unpopular bill being considered by the Council. Pretend it is so unpopular that the Mayor has decided to hear the bill in a Work Session meeting on short notice, so that citizens are not able to speak at the session and have little time to organize a protest. The Mayor, as the chair, has the power to set the agenda in this manner and dictate what bills are heard when if at all.

The check on the Mayor’s power is a motion to suspend the rules. A motion to suspend the rules is the procedure used by parliamentary bodies to deviate from the agenda set by the chair of the body. Generally, it needs a 2/3 vote to carry. In Austin, the Mayor chairs the City Council meetings and sets the agenda. Let’s see how a motion to suspend the rules to counter the actions of the chair would look like under various representation plans.

Let’s start with the 6-2-1 (6 single-member districts, 2 at-large seats, and 1 at-large mayor) and 8-4-1 plans the Mayor endorsed last year. Under a 6-2-1 plan, the at-large members, the Mayor, and the SMD for central Austin together would comprise four out of nine members. With nine members, a motion to suspend would need six votes to pass. Under 8-4-1, that same cabal would comprise six out of thirteen members. With thirteen members, a motion to suspend would need nine votes to pass. This means that the rich, white central Austin cabal could never be outnumbered by 2/3 of the council and would only ever be one vote away from commanding a majority. Under both plans, the Mayor’s nefarious hypothetical Work Session plan could never be thwarted.

Let’s look at 8-2-1. This is a little better. The at-large members, the mayor, and the central Austin SMDs would make up probably four or five of the eleven seats. With eleven members, a motion to suspend needs eight votes to pass. Here again, we find the Mayor’s dastardly (and 100% hypothetical) plan to take up grossly unjust bills in an expedited Work Session would go unchecked.

Let’s look at 10-1. The Mayor and central Austin combined would be, most likely, three votes out of eleven. Remember with eleven members, you need eight votes to pass a motion to suspend. Wait a second. In this plan, eight of the eleven members are NOT necessarily from the old guard. Here, we finally have a representation system where a motion to contravene the agenda of the chair could potentially pass. The Mayor might not be allowed to force whatever bill he likes using whatever procedure is most convenient.

Well folks, we have a decision to make. Do we want a Council composed of the kind of the diversity of membership that could prevent this 100% hypothetical, not-based-on-real-life-August-7th-actions plot? Or do we want 8-2-1, more of the same kind of politics we’ve been living with for decades?

Please make your vote count this November.

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