City of Houston Office of the City Controller

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EXPANDING CITY COUNCIL IS RIGHT STEP FOR HOUSTON
Adding two seats would mean better representation


March 9, 2011 -- The official U.S. census of 2010 shows Houston with a population of 2,099,451 — a figure lower than the city has been using publicly for several years.

That official figure is probably an undercount. There is evidence that there were errors in determining the city's boundaries, misallocating some residents into the county. In truth, Houston's population is almost certainly more than 2.1 million people, and the city of Houston will no doubt request the Census Bureau to retabulate the count.

The importance of the increased population is that it would demand a redistricting of the City Council's nine district seats by adding two new seats. (In addition to the nine district council members, there are five at-large council members, making a total of 14 members — and with the mayor, 15 seats on City Council.) A 1979 city ordinance reaffirmed the 1965 Voting Rights Act and allowed a dramatic altering of the makeup of City Council — and dictated that once the city reached a population of 2.1 million, it would be legally bound to redraw the district seats, adding two district seats (what would be Districts J and K). Further, the 1979 ordinance does not limit the city to using census data to determine its population for purposes of redistricting.

In addition to the city's overall increase in population, growth patterns have created a great disparity in City Council districts' individual populations — by as much as 100,000 residents in different districts.

So, that's where we are today.

The City Council members have a lot on their plates these days. That they have now inherited the redistricting issue and the process is yet one more challenge, but I know they are intent only on what is best for their city.

The other big concern about adding two City Council seats is the cost. Council members are supported by staff, and the addition of two Council seats would equate to approximately $800,000 in additional funding needed for Council — a difficult expense as Mayor Annise Parker and City Council face the city's current budget shortfall.

Houston is certainly not the southern biracial city it was through the 1950s. Indeed, Houston is probably one of the most diverse cities on the planet — especially if you use "diverse" to mean a racial and cultural menagerie versus large neighborhoods or pockets of singular ethnic groups.

A critical outcome of accurate census data is the awarding of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant money — grants awarded not because of a total number of people in a city, but to specific groups and issues identified in the census count: the elderly, the uninsured, school-age children, ethnic groups, neighborhoods in need of revitalization, transportation needs and many other categories. These are annual federal funds (in total for 2011, more than $400 billion) already set aside, and not pursuing them because we lack up-to-date demographic information (or being unable to qualify because of inaccurate information) would be a real disservice to the citizens of Houston.

Houston's population has long been undercounted in the census, and in the interest of receiving our fair share of federal dollars, Houstonians should want the most accurate count possible. That re-examination will likely put the city officially over the 2.1 million population threshold, in which case the city will be required to add the two new Council districts. If the original census count is indeed correct, and the city's population has fallen short of 2.1 million, it would still be prudent to redistrict.

From the Civil War until 1971, the Houston City Council was all male and all white. The 1979 ordinance called for a change of City Council from eight at-large members elected citywide to the current make up of nine district and five at-large members. This change resulted in a City Council that far better reflected Houston's population, which was what the 1965 Voting Rights Act intended. In short order, Judson Robinson, City Council's first elected minority, was re-elected, as were African-Americans Ernest McGowen and Anthony Hall; and Houstonians elected the first women Council members, Eleanor Tinsley and Christin Hartung, and the first Hispanic, Ben Reyes.

While concerns about the costs of adding two new City Council districts are legitimate, $800,000 is a very small part of a $4 billion annual city budget. Additionally, not adding the new districts will almost certainly result in costly litigation for the city.

Finally, and most importantly, adding two new Council seats fulfills the purpose of the 1979 ordinance — to make city government more representative of a growing and increasingly diverse Houston. It is the right thing to do.

Green was elected city controller in December 2009 after serving three terms as an at-large member of City Council.