Like many Killeenites, Bill Mulkins does not know which district he lives in.
As a leader of his neighborhood watch group, Mulkins has taken an active role in developing a culture of ownership and community in his neighborhood.
But as far as district identity is concerned, “It is not as much as I would hope,” he said.
The Killeen City Council has embarked on a review of the city charter with plans to prepare changes to the document — considered the city’s constitution — for an election in May.
As for new configurations of the city’s government system, Mayor Dan Corbin has suggested putting all of the options on the ballot and letting voters decide.
“It is the people’s document, and so the people should decide what it says,” Corbin said. “If we don’t put it on the ballot we are making the decision for them.”
One proposal is to return to a system where candidates for a district seat must live in that district — formerly called a ward — but all Killeen residents could vote for them.
This would be a change to the current system, where voters can only vote for a district council member if they live in that district.
The theory of single-member districts is that district council members are more attuned to the issues of their geographic area of the city.
One problem is that in a city of Killeen’s size, district seats are particularly susceptible to voter apathy.
In May, when District 1 and District 2 seats were up for election, the winning candidates, Wayne Gilmore and Jose Segarra, each received just 401 and 531 votes respectively.
But allowing everyone to vote for all district council members proposes another problem — the elections may disenfranchise minority groups in the city.
White voters, who make up the majority in Killeen, could theoretically vote for only white candidates — even those running for districts across the city.
As a result, minorities by nature would not have their ethnic or cultural values represented on the council.
This scenario is unlikely to happen because any proposed change to city government has to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice 90 days before the election is held.
The challenge in Killeen is that the minority population is not divided into discrete geographical areas. Minority households are dispersed throughout the city.
Austin, which also has a widely dispersed Hispanic and African-American populations, is the largest city in Texas not to have single-district member council.
“Austin is the holdout in having at-large,” Bennett Sandlan, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said.
This November, Austin voters will decide between two proposals to move to 10 single-member districts and an at-large elected mayor, or a hybrid — similar to Killeen’s — of eight single-district council members, two at-large council members and an at-large elected mayor.
“One reason is simply to have people that are more attuned to the needs important to that district,” Sandlan said.
Without single-districts, Austin, which has a population of about 820,000, has maintained its minority representation on the council through what Sandlan calls a “gentleman’s agreement.”
The unspoken agreement, which has existed for years, reserves two of the 10 council seats for minorities, one for a Hispanic council member and the other for an African-American.
Support for system
Raul Villaronga, president of the local League of United Latin American Citizens or LULAC chapter 4535, opposes a change to the current government system in Killeen and disapproves of the unofficial arrangement in Austin. “That is not a good policy and that does not exist in Killeen,” Villaronga said.
The Hispanic former mayor of Killeen said he and LULAC 4535 worked for 12 years to lobby the city to adopt a single-member district system.
Villaronga said by studying the voter logs of past elections, it was clear that voters from outside districts had elected district representatives.
“The bulk of the votes were coming from voters outside of the district,” Villaronga said. “I think it is appropriate that the candidate come from the district and have to be elected by voters in the district.”
A mixed group, which included the current mayor, LULAC and the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, helped promote the move to single-member districts seven years ago.
“If the whole entire community can vote for that candidate, what is the point of having single-member districts in the first place?” TaNeika Driver, president of the local NAACP chapter, said. “If it is not broken, don’t fix it.”
Contact Brandon Janes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7552