Houston redistricting battle could jeopardize November election

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by Gabe Gutierrez / 11 News

khou.com

Posted on March 8, 2011 at 7:54 PM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 9 at 11:13 AM

HOUSTON – The decision of whether to expand the Houston City Council by two seats – and the legal battle that will likely follow – could delay the November election, the city attorney said Tuesday.

Advocates of expanding the council from 14 to 16 seats argue that the new positions are necessary to adequately represent the city’s growing minority populations.

Opponents say that increasing the size of city government would not only cost more money, but would dilute the votes of the current council members – especially in a city with a strong-mayor form of government.

The decision is complicated by the U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released numbers that put Houston’s population at 2.099 million people. That’s just below the magic number of 2.1 million, which would trigger the two new council seats.

At least – that’s what the city pledged to the U.S. Department of Justice back in 1979.

The city attorney expects lawsuits to be filed, no matter what council members decide, but he warned the legal battle could drag on for months – especially if city leaders chose not to add the two seats.

"The litigation could place our November election in jeopardy," David Feldman told council members during Tuesday’s special meeting.

Council members are scheduled to vote on whether to add the seats on Wednesday. As of Tuesday, roughly half of the 14 council members had suggested they might vote against it.

Council Members Mike Sullivan, Brenda Stardig, C.O Bradford and Jolanda Jones had signaled the strongest opposition. Jarvis Johnson, Oliver Pennington and Anne Clutterbuck also voiced concerns.

"When we're laying folks off, it's hard for me to justify saying, 'Look we're going to lay you off, but we're going to hire more people so that we can support two new council members," Stardig said.

But other city leaders, including Mayor Annise Parker, have said the census count is basically a technicality that will be adjusted once the city appeals come June 1.

Parker has said the Census Bureau miscounted several neighborhoods on the fringes of the city and there was no way Houston was below 2.1 million people.

"Like it or not, it's in the charter,” Council Member Sue Lovell said. “It says when we reach 2.1 (million people), we will expand to more seats for the citizens to have more representation."

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