AUSTIN, Texas — Austinites are “cautiously optimistic” about the future of the 10-1 system of geographic representation adopted by the City of Austin in 2014 to elect City Council members, according to a report conducted by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at The University of Texas at Austin and Leadership Austin.
The report, “Civic Engagement in Austin: Views on 10-1 Geographic Representation,” is based on interviews conducted with 172 residents of the 10 newly formed City Council districts, community leaders, former candidates and current council members.
The interviews explored the interaction of Austinites with their communities, their thoughts about levels of engagement with city government and their hopes and concerns for the city’s new system of geographic representation. The interviews showed three strong themes associated with the new system:
- Cautious optimism about the promise of Austin’s new 10-1 system to improve representativeness and responsiveness of city government.
- Concern about socioeconomic, racial and political divides across and within districts as well as the hope that geographic representation can help close those divides — the city might be far from being “one Austin.”
- Belief that time will be needed to assess and perfect the 10-1 system and that additional changes should be put in place immediately to realize the system’s promise of creating a new relationship between the public and city government.
“Optimism for the 10-1 system is tempered by the reality of low and uneven levels of voter turnout across the city, particularly in runoff elections, and a belief that more time is needed to judge the ultimate impact of the governance change,” said Susan Nold, director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life. “In order to realize the promise of 10-1, we must recognize that the responsibility for engagement rests with the voters.”
The decision to move to 10-1 representation came before the November 2014 election in Austin, when 10 City Council members were elected, each representing a newly drawn geographic district, along with a new mayor.
Many community leaders and groups supported the 10-1 decision in hopes that it would open opportunities for a more diverse slate of council candidates, improve voter turnout and increase the connection between council members and their constituents.
Interviews were conducted from January to April 2015 in person by the 60 members of the Leadership Austin 2015 Essential class. The major criterion for each interviewee was that the individual has a strong personal or professional interest in the well-being and community engagement of that district.
Once the interviews were completed, transcripts and notes were analyzed by a staff member of the Annette Strauss Institute. Staffers analyzed the material to find patterns of responses and ideas, along with areas in which there was disagreement across interviews.
“The long-term effects of 10-1 increasing representation and impacting policy direction remains to be seen,” said Christopher Kennedy, chief executive officer of Leadership Austin. “What is clear is that geographic representation presents new opportunities and challenges that we need to seize with patience and engagement as we grow into our new governance structure.”