Herman: Drawing districts, drawing heat

The effort to divide Austin into 10 city council districts couldn’t be running more smoothly. As usual with city politics, peace and harmony are prevailing.

Yes, it’s time for my drug test.

So far, and we’re not all that far, there’s been friction on several fronts. The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission’s fifth public forum was held last Wednesday (Rosh Hashanah) in Northwest Austin, home to many local Jews who were otherwise busy with the holy day. Nice planning there.

The panel’s hiring of David Richards as its legal counsel also sparked a bit of friction. Local lawyer Steve Bickerstaff complained in a letter to the commission that Richards, though “one of the 10 best redistricting lawyers in Texas,” is “notorious for being very political (and) effective and committed in his promotion of his own personal political ideology.”

And at last Saturday’s public forum in Northeast Austin, I sensed some friction among panel members. Optimist that I am, I’m going to call it creative tension as the members try to create the impossible — a map that satisfies all.

The Saturday session offered a telling snapshot of the state of our city as it undergoes metamorphosis not welcomed by all.

Joan Bartz, the University Hills Neighborhood Association’s vice president and a 45-year resident of that area, doesn’t want to be represented on the city council by “some newbie” from the relatively new Mueller neighborhood to the south.

“Regrettably, Mueller, with its emphasis on new urbanism, density and other covert gentrification tools, is an anomaly with no connection or relevance to the longstanding and established communities identified as Northeast Austin,” Bartz told the commission.

Mueller residents, she said, “cannot possibly represent the concerns and the interests of the Northeast Austin area. They know nothing. They don’t even want to know anything.”

Next up was local NAACP President Nelson Linder, who criticized Mueller as “an artificially created neighborhood” from which “black folks were pushed out.”

Two speakers later, Kathy Sokolic, chair of the Mueller Neighborhood Association, scrapped her prepared remarks in favor of defending her neighborhood.

“We reach out. We do a lot of volunteer work. We may be newbies in the neighborhood, that does not mean we are newbies to Austin or to issues that happen with discrimination or anything like that,” she said.

Sokolic continued: “I feel like I’ve been called a racist today. I’ve been called discriminatory because of my ZIP code. I really don’t understand that.”

Saturday’s public testimony ended with Ursula Brown, who grew up near East 12th and Chicon streets and has lived in Springdale Hills in East Austin since 1966. Brown’s seen lots of change in her town, she said, “most of which I’m probably not happy with.”

“The tail is wagging the dog because you get people that come here … because they like the atmosphere and the environment and everything (and) then proceed to try to change it into where they came from,” she said, echoing a notion that’s wafted through the mind of more than one longtime Austinite.

“I don’t want to beat up on Mueller anymore. But if we want to look at the differences in attitudes, look at pronunciation,” she said, correctly noting it’s supposed to be pronounced miller but now, from the mouths of some newer Austinites, comes out as “mule-er or muller or whatever.” I don’t hear the correct version much anymore.

More than one witness nodded to the challenge the commission faces.

“You have Solomon’s job,” Vera Givens told the commission.

Right on sentiment, wrong on the facts. Solomon only had to divide something into two parts.

The next public forums are at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Concordia University Texas, 11400 Concordia University Drive in Northwest Austin. That meeting is in Building C, Room C238. The next forum is at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 18 at the Montopolis Recreation Center, 1200 Montopolis Drive in Southeast Austin.

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