Guest post from 2013-14 ENGAGE Breakfast Series guest blogger Alicia Dietrich. Alicia is a public affairs representative at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. See the end of this post for the podcast from the breakfast.
As Austin prepares for a new era of single-member city council districts, Leadership Austin hosted the February 5 ENGAGE breakfast panel to explore “Countdown to 10-1: The Changing Face of Austin City Governance.”
Austin voters approved a plan in 2010 to restructure the city council from eight at-large positions to 10 single-district members and a mayor elected at-large. The new structure takes effect this fall.
Panelists included former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco; Dr. Regina Lawrence, director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at The University of Texas at Austin; and Bill Spelman, current Austin City Council member and a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. The discussion was moderated by KXAN News Anchor Robert Hadlock.
Here are eight takeaways from the discussion:
1. New city council members are going to have a learning curve their first year as they learn how difficult it is to balance campaign promises made to their district constituents with city governance.
“When you run for public office, you make outrageous promises,” said Delco. “You tell people, ‘If you make sure that I’m elected to that council, your street will be paved, your lights will be on, when you call, I’ll come within 15 minutes.’ So, when you go on to a council representing a specific district, then you feel compelled to look at that district rather than the big picture.”
Spelman agreed: “The first time somebody runs for office, if they’re a newbie and they haven’t had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the building on a board or a commission or a task force, they don’t know very much about city government. They think their job is to make promises, and they don’t understand that you can’t always keep those things.”
2. Council members must learn to work together and cooperate.
Spelman grew up in Los Angeles and talked about his experience working with city council there in the 1970s. “The city council actually represented their districts, but most of them recognized that they had an obligation to the entire city, in part because some of the money that they needed in order to run for their rather large districts had to come from downtown and Westside. So they had to represent other parts of town or at least be aware of the problems in other parts of town.”
Delco also talked about her experience working in the Legislature, and how she convinced conservative lawmakers to vote for early childhood education in exchange for her vote to allocate funds to help eradicate a cattle disease. “You get those tradeoffs where your issues aren’t important enough for me to oppose, and then I’ll trade that for something that’s very important to me. I think that’s a good thing. It gives you a bigger picture of an issue that’s not important to you, but is important to someone else.”
3. The new 10-1 structure is an opportunity to engage new voters who have felt left out of the process.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to get people talking about what does city government do, and why does it matter?” said Lawrence. “Now candidates have something to talk about that they didn’t necessarily before. You have an opportunity now to talk about neighborhood and community and very specific concerns for specific areas of the city.”
4. The new 10-1 structure isn’t perfect, and some groups will still be under-represented on the council.
“Unless you have 25 districts, you’re not going to represent the diversity of the population,” said Delco. She also pointed out that many minorities are not concentrated in any single district, and that the new structure doesn’t guarantee representation for those groups.
5. This is an opportunity to increase voter turnout.
“Levels of voter turnout have plummeted in Austin and in Travis County over the last several decades,” said Lawrence. “This may not be an ideal opportunity, but it is an opportunity to try to begin to reverse that trend.” Panelists also pointed out that moving the election date to November will very likely have a positive effect on turnout.
6. The new mayor will have to work to unite council members on citywide issues.
“I wouldn’t want to be mayor if they paid me in gold coins tomorrow, because that’s the person who’s got to juggle all those commitments that people have made in order to get [elected],” said Delco.
7. Sign up to serve on a city board or commission.
“You guys—who need to be on boards and commissions—have not been telling us you want to be,” said Spelman. “If you want to be on a board or commission, we can probably arrange that. But not enough people are interested, and as a result, we’re going to have an increase in the number of people we have to appoint, and without increasing the number of people who are interested, we’re going to have some trouble.”
Said Delco, “One of the things I think the council has to do is—right off the bat—start educating these new council members who, again remember, ran for and were elected on their issues and not the issues of the city at large. One of your first jobs is going to be to explain to [your constituents] what all these boards and commissions do and how important it is for them to have representation on them.”
8. Keep educating yourself about these issues.
Lawrence encouraged voters to attend the “Why bother? Austin City Government 101” informational session hosted by the Strauss Institute, KUT, and the League of Women Voters to answer questions and teach voters how to make their voice heard at City Hall. You can also continue the conversation and build skills for community collaboration at Leadership Austin’s Skills Booster Shot on February 28.
Full Audio from the Event