Tag Archives: single-member districts

AISD makes potentially huge move

Well, ruffle my hair and call me Frankie!

I spoke rather skeptically in an earlier blog post about whether Amarillo’s public school board would take this step, but — as is often the case — they proved me wrong.

The Amarillo Independent School District Board of Trustees voted 7-0 Monday to begin researching ways to dramatically change its voting plan. It wants to look at how it can move from an at-large plan to one that elects trustees from single-member districts.

It’s a realization of the changing demographics within the district and whether the school board reflects the needs and wishes of all 33,000 students and their parents.

This decision doesn’t guarantee a change in the voting plan. It does move the district a big step forward toward that end.

Trustees, acting on a recommendation from the lone African-American on the board, James Allen, have directed the AISD legal team to begin researching ways to achieve the transition.

AISD comprises many disparate neighborhoods comprising residents of equally disparate socio-economic backgrounds. There are plenty of high-end neighborhoods, along with neighborhoods at the other end of the scale.

And, yes, we also have this issue of racial and ethnic diversity. Amarillo’s student body census is comprising an increasing number of Latin-American, African and Asian backgrounds. Their needs are quite different from their Anglo classmates.

AISD doesn’t elect trustees from a purely at-large system. It instituted a cumulative voting plan some years ago to settle a lawsuit brought by Latin-American residents.

AISD’s legal counsel has many issues to consider. I’m glad the board has given the OK to begin that journey.

So, let the studies commence. May they bear fruit.

How about some more ‘change’ at Amarillo City Hall?


Let’s talk among ourselves about the upcoming municipal election.

Amarillo went through a “change election” in 2015 when voters unseated two incumbents and installed a majority of new guys on the five-member City Council; the third new guy won a seat vacated by an incumbent who was just keeping the seat warm until the election.

In May 2017, voters will fill the five seats on the council.

I’m wondering if someone will run solely on the platform of serious change in the city’s voting plan. I’m wondering also about discussing publicly a reform that would involve electing four council members from single-member districts, two of them at-large along with the mayor, who of course also would run citywide.

I wrote in 2013 that I was rethinking my earlier opposition to changing the city’s current five-member at-large council voting plan.

Re-thinking single-member districts

So I’ll ask the question here. Are we ready to have a serious, adult conversation about changing the City Council’s voting plan?

I’m no longer confident that the at-large system is serving an increasingly diverse city of 200,000 residents, with burgeoning ethnic and racial minorities. The city is growing and it’s becoming a different community than it was a decade ago; it’s a much different place than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Would such a plan be approved if it were put to a vote? We’ll never know if we don’t try. The city charter would need a serious rewriting. Changing it requires a municipal election.

First, though, we need to have a discussion among those willing to serve on the City Council, to set governing policy.

The so-called “agents of change” who were elected in May 2015 ought to demonstrate a serious commitment to significant change in the city’s governing policy.

That change ought to include a reform of the City Council composition. A hybrid council — partly single-member, partly at-large — such as what I’ve suggested hardly is unique. Indeed, it preserves an at-large option for two council seats that is similar to what’s been enacted in cities of comparable size all across Texas.

The debate until now has been whether to create single-member wards, while keeping the mayor’s seat as the only at-large seat on the council. I think a hybrid solution is more feasible.

At the very least, it’s worth a serious community discussion.

First, though, candidates ought to step up and initiate it.

Will there be a big change in city voting plan?


For most of my time as an Amarillo resident — it now totals more than 21 years — I’ve been a fairly staunch advocate of the city’s at-large municipal voting plan.

All five members of the City Council represent the entire city. They all answer to the same constituent base. All four council members have as much political stroke as the mayor.

Then my attitude began to change. I posted a blog in 2013 declaring my change of heart and my belief that the time may have arrived to enact a hybrid single-member-district voting plan for the city.

Re-thinking single-member districts

The city’s population is about to exceed 200,000 residents and perhaps it will be time to consider a serious change.

Then again, the city is embarking on a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization project that city leaders hope will bring some infrastructure equality to a few of the city’s more depressed neighborhoods.

I understand that the North Heights neighborhood is going to get the first infusion of interest, and perhaps some much-needed money, to help improve its appearance.

This is part of a sweeping set of goals the city has set for itself.

The Barrio is likely to be next. Then the city will turn its sights on the San Jacinto neighborhood. Perhaps after that it could be The Boulevard.

Will the city stop seeking to improve its southwest quadrant? No. That work will continue.

The upshot of this might be to stem any possible momentum that could build in the short-term future to change the manner in which voters elect their City Council.

The three new fellows who got elected in 2015 all vowed to be agents of change at City Hall. I’ve commented before about the pros and cons of some of the change they brought.

Will there be a profound change proposed by one of the new guys that deals with the city’s voting plan? Or will the city’s neighborhood improvement plans be enough to forestall a new voting plan?

Time will tell if leaders deliver on their pledge to pay careful attention — and deliver much-needed resources — to all corners of the city.


Here's how views can evolve

A Facebook friend dug up this column I wrote back in 1998.


I offer it here to illustrate the distance my views have traveled on the issue of single-member districts. It speaks to the election in the late 1980s of two African-Americans to countywide offices in Potter County. It also tells how a Latino was elected to a state district judgeship, also in Potter County.


The county’s voting plan was — and is — strictly at-large.

I wrote in favor of that plan.

Perhaps history can repeat itself in a couple of years at the next Amarillo municipal election, or perhaps next year when Potter and Randall counties go to the polls. The city is about to welcome its first African-American city councilman, Elisha Demerson, who was elected Saturday.

If voters are truly ready to judge candidates solely on their ideas, then my political evolution could take another turn.


Does election diminish need to rethink voting plan?

Elisha Demerson’s election to the Amarillo City Council made history.

It also might have taken a bit of the bite out of those who think the city should revamp its voting plan to create a single-member district for its council members.

I am continuing to consider that a change in the city’s voting plan is in order.

My long-standing support of the city’s at-large system continues to waver, even though Demerson’s election as an African-American candidate in the current system might augur against such a change.


I’m not keen on creating four single-member districts, while electing the mayor at-large. If I were King of the World, I’d consider expanding the council by two places, giving it six council member and electing two of the six at-large while dividing the city into four wards.

Other cities have done something like with varying degrees of success.

Indeed, Demerson’s victory is a ringing triumph for those in Amarillo who’ve declared that it’s virtually impossible for a minority candidate to win an at-large contest. The city’s black population comprises less than 10 percent of the total.

But think also about this: While Demerson was defeating incumbent Ellen Green in Place 1, Lilia Escajeda — the council’s sole Hispanic member — lost her seat to challenger Randy Burkett.

Does her loss lessen the joy that minorities are feeling today over Demerson’s victory?

Hey, I’m just askin’.


Demerson scores historic win

Say whatever you want about the tone, tenor and tenacity of the campaign between City Councilman-elect Elisha Demerson and the incumbent he defeated today, Ellen Robertson Green.

Demerson’s victory is historic in that an African-American has been elected to a citywide public office.

The city’s at-large voting plan has been a point of contention among civil rights groups, minority-oriented political action organizations and citizens interested in changing the plan to a single-member district voting plan.

They’ve contended the at-large plan puts minority candidates at a disadvantage. Amarillo’s black population is less than 10 percent, so it stands to reason — those activists contend — that black candidates fare poorly when they put their names up before a voting public that doesn’t “identify” with them.

The League of United Latin American Citizens sued the Amarillo school district in 1998 to create a single-member voting plan for the school system. LULAC and the school district then agreed on a cumulative voting compromise plan that later was adopted by Amarillo College’s Board of Regents.

Well, perhaps we can put that “minorities can’t win in Amarillo” rationale to bed.

Demerson scored a solid victory. The voting turnout still was pitiful. None of the City Council winners can claim an absolute majority supports their election. What they all got was a majority of a slim minority of voters’ support.

It’s true as well that Demerson had been elected already to a countywide office when he became Potter County judge in 1987. So, he’s no stranger to bucking stiff electoral odds.

He’s just blazed a new trail along Amarillo’s political path.


Amarillo's mayor does what, exactly?

A friend and former Amarillo city commissioner posed a simple question at lunch the other day: “How do you think Paul Harpole is doing as mayor?”

Hmmm, I thought about it for just a second.

Then I wondered aloud, what precisely does the mayor do? Not just this mayor, but anyone who occupies that office.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since — and about whether our municipal voting plan produces the kind of government that entices large numbers of qualified individuals to run for municipal office every other year.

The answer to my friend’s question went something like this: The mayor’s office is basically a symbolic one. The mayor has no real power. He represents the same constituency as the other four City Council members; they’re all co-equal. The council relies on a well-compensated and competent staff, led by the city manager, to do all the heavy lifting; they prepare the budgets and make administrative decisions all across the board. The council sets policy with its votes and then instructs the staff to carry them out.

That was a long-winded way of telling my friend that the mayor — who I happen to like and respect very much, by the way — hasn’t done enough for me or anyone else to really make a solid assessment of the job he’s doing.

We pay these individuals $10 per meeting. That’s it, plus some reimbursement for expenses they might incur while representing the city, say, by attending some seminar or business-recruitment outing.

I am circling back to another idea I posited on this blog some months ago about some rethinking I had been doing about the city’s at-large voting plan. We elect all five governing council members from the same citywide voting pool. Why not expand the council’s numbers by two, elect one or two council members at-large and divide the city into three or four voting precincts from which we could elect the rest of the City Council?

At this point, I’m no longer totally opposed to the notion of creating an all single-member district council, with just the mayor being elected citywide.

The city’s population is on the brink of hitting the 200,000 mark. It’s becoming increasingly diverse ethnically and racially. It has become something of a haven for immigrants who leave their homeland and find their way to Texas.

The time might be at hand to consider a serious reshaping of our municipal government structure. We could create one that allows for some diversity on a governing body that represents the population it represents. We could give the mayor some actual clout by allowing him or her to represent the largest pool of residents. Perhaps we could actually pay these individuals more than coffee money for the service they perform on our behalf. We also might consider giving them some oversight over departments within the city and enable them to have some actual influence to ensure the policies are being carried out in accordance with City Council members’ wishes.

Maybe one day when someone asks me how the mayor’s doing, I can respond with a meaningful answer.

What are your thoughts? I’m all ears.