Tension builds at city council over redistricting

January 12, 2011 4:48:41 PM PST
There is a big task ahead for Houston City Council as a growing population means two more council districts will be added. And we're seeing issues over which local schools will help with the redistricting work. Redistricting carries with it a lot of mine fields -- just ask Tom DeLay. Now Houston has to deal with its own version of carving up council districts to make way for more, a process that's been compared to making sausage.

You can blame it on the census and Houston's enormous growth over the past decade. That means Houston City Council will grow as well -- by two more districts. Nearly 70,000 voters may be taken from the nine current districts to create the two new ones.

"When you think about 70,000 people, see I didn't think about that until I heard that, so how are they going to shuffle that?" asked Stephanie Dory, a Third Ward resident.

She and her mom, Ruth, can calmly discuss the subject over lunch at a cafe. But at City Hall, the stakes are higher for incumbents.

"I've already seen people who have created their own fantasy districts and you could save yourself and all of us a lot of headaches in the future if the message goes out that it's about a plan that redistricts the entire city," said Houston Mayor Annise Parker.

That means some incumbents may be living in another district by the time all is said and done. That creates tension and today it showed with selections of universities in the redistricting work. Council Member Mike Sullivan emailed the mayor about that, suggesting that Rice University and the University of Houston were best equipped for the job. The emails were released through Texas Watchdog.

"To read on the email today that Texas Southern University should be given something else to do because they cannot compete with Rice or University of Houston, I really thought that was sad to me," said Council Member Wanda Adams, a TSU alum.

Sullivan's email read in part: "There are no other institutions that can compete with UH/Rice. If we're trying to include other institutions, let's carve out some work they can do independent of UH/Rice. I do not want to do anything that would lessen the importance of their work."

Sullivan says no offense intended.

"It just shows that everyone is very sensitive about redistricting, and I think that level of anxiety will increase weekly," Sullivan said.

The city aims to have the new map complete in May.

TSU and U of H will be working on research that will lead to the map creation. The new districts are expected to be used in the November election, which is just 10 months away.