A recent report studying public views about the Austin City Council’s move to geographic representation shows that most Austinites are optimistic about a more representative and more inclusive city council.
That’s great news, but delivering on that optimism requires collective actions from leaders and residents to seize this moment of opportunity and translate it to a lasting benefit for our city.
And, frankly, for any change to be meaningful, the people in our community must do their part to engage, which means showing up at the polls to vote — something that is not happening.
November of last year was a historic election for Austin. The City Council, then composed of six at-large council seats and one at-large mayor, was replaced by a new system of 10 single-member City Council seats and one at-large mayor.
After the first election under the new “10-1” system, we teamed up with Leadership Austin to study public sentiment regarding the historic transition.
We found three trends: Austinites had “cautious optimism” that the promise of a 10-1 system would improve representativeness and responsiveness of city government; that the new structure would help close socioeconomic, racial and political divides; and that there is a need for urgent action by city leaders to be sure this moment does not pass us by.
The good news is that Austin city leaders appear to appreciate the importance of civic engagement. District town hall meetings across the city are occurring; a committee structure was implemented to increase community engagement before a decision is in front of the council; and a Task Force on Civic Engagement is in place, with recommendations due to the council next spring.
These are signs this moment of civic opportunity has been a priority for Mayor Steve Adler and the Austin City Council.
But optimism about 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.
So what do we do?
We need to create lasting improvement in civic engagement by creating frequent and meaningful contact with constituents. We might need to re-examine how we hold elections. And we must recognize that the responsibility for engagement rests with the voters.
With council districts now containing a tenth the number of city residents of the previous system, voters expect to have more interaction with their district council members. Therefore, it will be important for the new council members to prioritize time spent in their districts, constituent outreach, and responsiveness and accessibility to the residents.
This is not them stepping away from thinking about what is best for Greater Austin; it is about having a clear understanding of their district needs and how that voice is represented in the solutions for our community. After all, the goal of 10-1 was to have more voices at the table.
Although these recent changes to our system clearly have value, they are only part of the action that is needed. The first step was changing the way the electorate places representatives in office. The second step is the commitment of those elected officials to seek community input. Now it is time for individuals — not institutions — to assess their involvement in civic affairs and take responsibility for their part.
Real lasting change coming from the 10-1 system will come only if Austinites acknowledge their personal responsibility. That includes getting more information about issues, expressing views about those issues of public interest, working to understand the reasoning behind a final decision even if it disagrees with their wishes and ultimately, actually going out to vote.
Until voters in Austin own up to that obligation, the new system should not to be judged too harshly.
Nothing will change if we do not acknowledge and act on our responsibility to participate.
If our city’s most recent elections are any indication, with a total of only about 11 percent of registered voters in Travis County showing up, there is much work to do. And now it’s up to the residents of Austin to do it. The betterment of our city depends on it.
Susan Nold is the director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. Christopher Kennedy is Chief Executive Officer of Leadership Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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