An Austin commission voted unanimously Saturday to OK a preliminary map of 10 City Council districts after significantly revising a draft that several groups had panned.
The commission will hold four public hearings next month to gather feedback about the new map before revising it again. It hopes to finish a final map in December.
“Everything worked well today,” Commissioner Ryan Rafols said as Saturday’s seven-hour-long mapping session wrapped up. “I’m happy and proud of what we’ve done.”
The 14-member commission is carrying out a plan that Austin voters approved last fall to change the City Council from seven members who each represent the whole city to 10 district representatives and a citywide mayor.
Future City Council candidates will have to live in and campaign in the districts that the commission draws.
The districts must be roughly equal in population — about 80,000 people each. The commission also must comply with the Voting Rights Act by drawing a few districts that have large numbers of black and Hispanic residents, to give those minorities a fair shot at electing candidates they prefer.
The commission members — regular citizens who have no paid ties to city politics — have been meeting since June and drew a rough draft of nine districts at a rapid pace on Sept. 21.
Residents criticized that draft, saying the districts as drawn would not protect the voting rights of minorities and that areas such as Southwest Austin had been unfairly split up.
Led by Vice Chairman TJ Costello, the commission on Saturday methodically revised the map, working from Austin’s edges inward. The 11 members present then voted to approve it.
The commission put all of Southwest Austin in one district and drew four districts with large numbers of black and Hispanic residents.
It also drew a Central Austin district that it had not attempted in the initial draft. That district includes areas south of the Colorado River, neighborhoods near the University of Texas and a small slice west of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1). That district also includes the Mueller neighborhood, a rapidly developing area of homes and businesses at Austin’s former airport.
Mueller has mostly white residents who have asked to be put in the same district as the mostly black and Hispanic neighborhoods east of them. Those minority communities, however, have said they don’t share common interests with Mueller and don’t want to be grouped with it.
District 7 has the most unusual shape, running diagonally from North Austin past neighborhoods along Shoal Creek and down to West Austin. It cuts around Northwest Austin neighborhoods that have asked to be kept together and Hispanic neighborhoods to the east that form one of the so-called minority districts.
The commission talked about “breaking the barrier” of Interstate 35 and seemed to focus more on grouping together areas with similar interests and less on obvious geographic boundaries. For example, five districts contain part of South Austin, because the commission thought far South Austin neighborhoods have needs that are distinct from areas closer to downtown.
Attendees at Saturday’s meeting told the commission they were wowed by the group’s productive day.
“You’ve done an incredible job keeping students and university community members together,” said Erik Anciaux, a UT graduate student who has been urging the commission to form a district that will give college students a bigger say in city politics.
Peck Young of Austinites for Geographic Representation, the group that campaigned to get district representation on the City Council, was one of the harshest critics of the commission’s first-draft map, saying it would hurt minorities.
But Young was all smiles at the end of Saturday’s meeting.
“I am very impressed by your hard work today and with the product you produced,” he said. “Most of what you have done accomplishes the objectives we had” for the minority districts, he said.
To learn more about the Austin commission that is in charge of drawing 10 City Council districts and to sign up for email updates from the group, visit its website: www.austinredistricting.org.