The city of Austin could follow in the footsteps of other major Texas cities if it changed its form of government to single-member districts in time for the next general election, former big-city mayors said Monday night.
The KLRU roundtable — which included former mayors Henry Cisneros of San Antonio, Bill White of Houston, Laura Miller of Dallas and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin — said single-member districts, which the U.S. Department of Justice mandated in some cities throughout the 1970s to increase diversity and representation, have been beneficial to their respective cities and could be for Austin.
"If you did the districts right, it would be better for planning because you would have people that could be elected from neighborhood areas," said Watson, a former Austin mayor. "They would know what their neighborhoods would like to see in terms of long-term planning, and it could stay that way over time, whereas now, we tend to have people elected pretty much from the same area."
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell has proposed changing the city charter to alter the council's government structure in time for the November 2012 elections. According to the recently released 2010 census, Austin's population grew by 20 percent over the last decade, to nearly 800,000 people. The growth and diversity makes Austin a more vibrant and enriched city, said moderator Jim Walker, director of sustainability at the University of Texas' Campus Planning and Facilities Management division.
"Increasing the diversity increases the complexity of representing all corners and concerns of an evolving city, and puts us at risk of becoming a more divided city," Walker said.
The former mayors offered advice for Austin — on education, infrastructure and transportation.
Watson said everything a mayor does is affected by the public education system. "If you want to ensure equity in your community, the public education system ought to be the great equalizer, if done right," he said.
Both Miller and White agreed growing into a major city requires infrastructure and transportation — funded with government dollars and private philanthropy. Miller said it is absolutely necessary to plan what new methods of transportation will look like, and to ensure the connection of the city's business, residential and cultural centers.
"Face up to the reality," Cisneros said. "This place is going to grow, and failure to act degrades the quality of the city over the long run."