No matter where you are in the country, the League of Women Voters brand is one that is synonymous with transparency, neutrality, and, of course, education through its wildly recognized Voter Guides. While non-partisan, chapters can and have taken a side on issues, advocating for the causes of equality, justice, and voter access, as they have many times throughout the past century. For the League of Women Voters of the Austin Area, a nearly 40-year old position of supporting a change to a hybrid method of representation in municipal elections was recently changed in a move that is not without local controversy.
This Thursday, the Austin City Council will vote to place changes to its city governance process on the November general election ballot. The League of Women Voters of the Austin Area has for over 40 years supported a change from Austin's all at-large city council election system, a statement reflected in their most recent year's publication of policy positions.
III. City Government
Form of government. Council-manager form of government based on City Charter; combination of at-large and pure district methods of electing City Council; direct election of the mayor; campaign spending and financial disclosure ordinance mandated by City Charter; impartial board of ethics with independent staff.
Last month, after a series of recommendations from internal committees, the Austin League voted to include support for both single-member district only plans as well as those including 'super-districts' on top of their existing support for hybrid forms of city government. This was announced at a press conference on May 24th alongside representatives of the Travis County Republican Party and NAACP. The amendment was offered, and approved, as follows at the Austin League's annual meeting the week prior on May 16th (see page 8, PDF.)
City Government: Council and Elections
• Support for direct election of the mayor;
• For council member elections, support for these structures, provided that under any of these structures, there are enough equal-sized geographic districts drawn to support minority opportunity districts:
a. geographic-district representatives plus at-large representatives, or b. geographic-district representatives plus super geographic-district representatives, or c. geographic-district representatives only; • Support of a campaign spending ordinance to be mandated in the City Charter.
In the arguments in favor of this change, the official proposal notes the following immediately preceding the proposed amendment to include support for all three forms of government.
The LWVAA SMD committee is comfortable that Austinites, the mayor, and the city manager will not neglect the city as a whole if we adopt a pure-district method of election. This is not to state the committee prefers such an election method, only that we have deemed it equally worth our support, when comparing it to the hybrid method we've supported for four decades.
In a presentation during Citizens Communication to City Council, Councilman Bill Spelman asked for clarification of this very point from League of Women Voters Austin Area President Stewart Snider. Watch here or below.
In this June 7th exchange, Snider states that in order to support one plan over another would be "a board decision" and that they had not held such a vote at the time of the question. There have been no scheduled meetings of the board since that statement according to the Austin League's public calendar.
Given this preface, one has to ask how the Austin League moved as quickly as it did to expand the number and types of election systems it supports and then prioritize one of the three over the other two. It's particularly reasonable to ask in light of an email sent by the Austin League in recent days, signed by Snider, that not only explicitly supports the 10-1 single-member district only plan, but also asks for volunteers to support the 10-1 petition effort.
Asked for a response to this stance and promotion of one of the endorsed plans over the other, Snider replied with the following. Continue reading this story here.
For the League to advocate for a specific bill or measure, we must have a membership-approved position to support it. LWVAA has held a position of support for hybrid since the early 70's.
After hearing the Mayor talk about a new representation plan early last year, the membership voted, at our 2011 Annual Meeting, to re-examine this issue. A committee was formed and we looked for anything the Austin League had said about SMD over the past decades. We looked for and couldn't find any interim studies where this issue had been revisited since 1972.
Anyway, beginning in June 2011, the new SMD Committee proceeded to meet with numerous people with relevant experience. We studied a publication assembled by Barbara Jordan and Terrell Blodgett when they taught at the LBJ School in the 1980's. It looked at various cities that changed to SMD from at-large. We reviewed a book on how things went in Dallas when they switched from at-large to hybrid, then from hybrid to district-only. We found quite a few surprises, but nowhere did we see any empirical data that suggested one plan is better than another. I published our findings in a blog post on our website and referred to it a number of times in emails to members.
At this year's Annual Meeting, members voted about 10-1 in favor of adding support for district-only plans and super-district plans to our existing support for hybrid. Our new position stipulates that we only support plans that require enough districts to ensure fair minority representation. Right now, we think that number is 10, but that number is not in our position so we are not bound to it.
After this vote, the LWV Austin board was free to advocate for more than just hybrid. Given the broad participation in AGR by so many different organizations, the board voted to advocate for and endorse the 10-1 plan because we like the fact that AGR arrived at this plan via consensus of a variety of organizations and people. We're impressed by the plan's momentum and we think it may end up on the ballot simply by the number of petition signers they have. Finally, we like the accompanying citizen's redistricting commission.
The argument is being made here that the May 16th vote provided the necessary authorization, in short, this particular statement.
After this vote, the LWV Austin board was free to advocate for more than just hybrid. Given the broad participation in AGR by so many different organizations, the board voted to advocate for and endorse the 10-1 plan because we like the fact that AGR arrived at this plan via consensus of a variety of organizations and people.
If that's the case, then why did Snider respond to Councilman Spelman on June 7th, three weeks after the annual meeting vote, that the board had not made such a decision to advocate one plan over another? Given the express advocacy for 10-1 that would put the date of board approval somewhere between June 7th and June 22nd when the email was sent-- if one is to believe his reply to Spelman that it "would be a board decision" and that as of the time of his question that "no, we have not" actually taken a vote on that subject.
It takes years to create the brand and reputation that the League of Women Voters enjoys and its why voters place the trust they do in the organization. Does this sort of activity raise questions about whether the League will be able to credibly maintain its neutrality in this November's Voter Guide if proposals other than 10-1 are on the ballot?