New census figures show San Antonio’s City Council District 8 has the largest population of all 10 council districts, with 169,364 people residing in the Northside area. That’s more than a third larger than District 5.
Growing and shifting population means all 10 council districts will need to be redrawn so that no more than a 10% deviation exists between the smallest and largest districts, Assistant City Attorney Iliana Castillo Daily told council members at a Wednesday meeting.
San Antonio’s population grew by more than 100,000 people since the last census in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. The city’s 1.43 million residents are now dispersed unevenly across the council districts, with most of the growth occurring in the north. Based on the new census data, city staff found that six districts were smaller than ideal and four were too large.
But even though some of the districts’ populations are fairly close to what they should be, every district will be affected by the redistricting process.
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“We will have to redraw all the districts because even though we have the greatest disparity between District 8 and District 5, as you try to grow some of those central and southern districts, you will have to take some from the northern,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said. “But it’ll impact all the districts.”
City Council aims to approve redrawn district lines by the summer of 2022, and the 2023 municipal elections will be based on these new boundaries. While the 2020 census figures also inform redistricting of the state’s Congressional and statehouse district boundaries, the wrangling between Republicans and Democrats occurring in Austin now won’t filter down to the local level, because City Council is nonpartisan and citizens will have input.
Though the “ideal” size of each district would be to take the total population of San Antonio and divide that evenly among the 10 council districts, the city wants to be mindful of keeping neighborhoods and natural boundaries intact, Segovia said. That’s where the rule that the populations of the largest district and smallest district cannot have a greater difference than 10% comes in.
“That’s why we do have some flexibility,” Segovia said. “It doesn’t have to be exact.”
Following the most recent redistricting process in 2011, a citizen advisory committee will be created to help guide the redistricting process.
“We took a look at what other cities are doing,” Segovia said. “Other cities have used or are using these advisory committees so that it could lead to more transparency, more community engagement, and you have people actually presenting to council a recommended plan developed by a committee that’s not running for reelection.”
As proposed on Wednesday to council members, the citizen advisory committee would consist of 13 people — one appointed by each council member and three by the mayor. That committee would do the bulk of the redistricting work, including public outreach and coming up with proposed boundaries that would then be presented to council.
Even with that committee process, Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) expressed concern that council members could still have input on district lines that would directly affect them.
“I honestly don’t believe that elected officials should be involved in drawing our own districts,” he said. “And I’ll give you another example. I live on the edge of my district … if there’s a possibility that I would be redistricted out of my own district, I don’t think I should be weighed in on that decision.”
The city charter requires council members to be part of the redistricting process, Segovia explained. But that citizen advisory committee is intended to help prevent any potential conflict of interest from arising.
Multiple council members also supported the idea of increasing the size of the citizens advisory committee.
“We’ve been asked to give the city the names of 15 people from our council districts that work on bonds,” Councilman John Courage (D9) said. “… That’s an important decision we’re making, but certainly setting up new boundaries for all of our council districts is equally important.”
It’s difficult to predict how district lines will change, said Syd Falk, a partner at the Austin-based law firm Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta. And though the process is complex, there are two guiding principles.
“The truth is, this is complicated enough that until a committee starts to draw, they’re not going to know where they’re going to be able to balance factors like neighborhoods and other community interests against the need to balance the population,” he said. “That’s the driving piece. The second piece is: Don’t violate the law.”
Falk’s law firm and San Antonio-based firm Walsh Gallegos Treviño Russo & Kyle are helping the city with its redistricting process.
Redistricting must comply with the Voting Rights Act, and entities cannot redraw boundaries that would discriminate on the basis of race or minority group. Voting precincts must also be kept whole, Falk said. Keeping neighborhoods intact is not legally required, but will be kept top of mind during the process.
Though the city’s population growth could eventually lead to more city council districts, that won’t happen anytime soon; the earliest voters could consider a charter amendment to increase the number of city council districts is 2023, Daily said. Therefore, additional council districts couldn’t come into play until 2025 at the earliest.