Residents would have unified voice in group
In preparation of Austin City Council’s redistricting, North Austin neighborhoods are discussing an alliance that could serve as a central voice for addressing issues such as crime and traffic in the area.
Many neighborhood associations, including the North Austin Coalition of Neighborhoods, are concerned that because North Austin has not been represented on council, there is a disconnect between the area and downtown, especially considering that 78753 and 78758 are the second and fourth most-populated Austin ZIP codes, respectively, NACN President Mary Rudig said.
“It seems constantly whenever we go [to City Council] and ask for stuff, [they say], ‘Oh, well, that wasn’t put in the budget,” said Rudig, whose association represents neighborhoods in the 78753 and 78758 ZIP codes.
On Nov. 6, voters approved creating 10 single-member districts for City Council elections and representation. Under the 10-1 plan, the mayor is still elected at-large. The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission that is drawing the map will need to have it ready before the next election in November 2014.
Rudig said that based on recent census data, roughly 220,000 people live north of RM 2222, and the area might be split into three council districts.
“If it’s done right, we’ll be able to give North Austinites a voice,” she said. “How cool would it be if your City Council person actually came to neighborhood meetings, if your neighborhood association had an open dialogue all the time with your City Council member? But that’s something that won’t happen unless people get involved.”
North Austin alliance
NACN hosted a Jan. 21 town hall meeting that residents from 15 neighborhoods in North and Northwest Austin attended to discuss the makeup of a proposed alliance. About 65 residents who attended that meeting filled out a survey with questions asking how involved the alliance should be with politics and what sort of governing body or board would exist.
The town hall meeting was the first step toward creating an alliance. Rudig said in March, she will email that same survey to residents on the NACN email list, and the association will convene in April to discuss the results. She said what neighborhoods would be included in the alliance will not be determined until the 10 districts are created.
“We’re trying to lay the groundwork so that once the maps are drawn, then we can turn around and say, ‘OK, all you neighborhoods talked about this. Do you want to do this, and how do you want to make it work?’” she said.
Milwood resident Ed English, who also serves as the North Austin representative for grass-roots organization Austinites for Geographic Representation, said it seems that because the vast majority of current and previous council members and mayors have come from a fairly affluent part of town, the council has lost touch with what it is like to live in a more average neighborhood. AGR was responsible for obtaining enough signatures to put single-member districts on the Nov. 6 ballot and also backed the 10-1 plan.
“For the more specific issues, a lot of North Austinites do not feel that sufficient attention has been paid here as far as spending projects, improvements,” he said. “We just seem like we’re always, in essence, we get the leftovers.”
Neighborhoods joining forces to address issues has worked in the past, Rudig said, citing an example of the property where the new North Austin YMCA sits on Rundberg Lane near North Lamar Boulevard. She said that within six years, neighborhoods helped clean up the property, which previously served as a dumping ground.
“That’s the kind of thing really that one or two neighborhoods can’t do [alone]. It takes a collective voice,” Rudig said.
Phil Denney, Anderson Mill Neighborhood Association president, said having an alliance among neighborhoods is a great idea, but he would rather see NACN expand its boundaries to include more areas of North Austin. He communicates frequently with NACN as well as other neighborhood groups in Northwest Austin.
“That’s the best thing—to have communication between neighborhoods and get updates from each other,” he said.
The ICRC that is currently being formed will be responsible for drawing the district boundaries. English said that because all meetings and the entire process will be open to the public, it is important for citizens to follow the progress.
“After the redistricting committee is alive, up and running, we need to ensure that the public hearings are well-attended by people from every part of town, including North Austin, so that their concerns on where these lines are drawn are heard,” he said.
Representatives from AGR plan to attend every meeting to ensure the ICRC is implementing each step properly, English said.
One of the restrictions to apply for the ICRC is that an applicant must have lived within the city limits for at least five years. That means residents in Anderson Mill, which was annexed in December 2008, were not eligible to apply. However, Denney said he does not foresee this as an issue.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem because once they start having meetings, we can still go to those meetings and present our concerns at that time,” he said. “I think that will work out fine.”
A need for representation
Since becoming part of Austin, Denney said Anderson Mill residents have not had issues working with city staff or council members to solve problems. When bike lanes were added to Lake Creek Parkway last summer, he said staff worked with residents to alleviate any concerns.
“It isn’t that they’re not willing to talk and hear the issues that we have,” he said. “We’ve had things in the past where we just communicate with them, and they’re responsive and responding to our questions. ... I just think maybe people will feel they have more representation by having their own district council member.”
Rudig said neighborhoods banding together worked when the bond advisory committee was considering projects for the Nov. 6 bond election. She said after showing the committee why improving North Lamar Boulevard and Burnet Road in North Austin was necessary for public safety, the committee put $15 million in the package that was ultimately approved by voters. The bond money is intended to improve the roads, sidewalks, curbs and crosswalks.
She said the bond committee admited that Council did not make the project a priority.
“That’s the kind of stuff that shows why we need a coalition,” she said.
Councilman Bill Spelman said he does not think there is any more of a disconnect in North Austin compared with any other part of the city and that 10-1 will ensure every part of town is represented on City Council.
“None of us know the whole city, and in any given regional issue, there are two or three of us that know that part of town real well, and the rest of us are learning,” Spelman said.