Fort Worth Hispanics call for big changes before 2017 election

Fort Worth City Hall. Council considering City Charter changes.
Fort Worth City Hall. Council considering City Charter changes. Star-Telegram archives

Local Hispanic leaders have made a final push in their efforts to gain what they contend will be more and fair representation on the Fort Worth City Council.

Key among about a dozen propositions being considered by the City Council is whether to increase its size from eight districts plus a mayor elected at-large, to 10 districts with the mayor elected at-large.

Last year, when the council asked a citizens task force to vet their suggestion, they indicated the seats would not be added until after the 2020 census, likely in time for the 2023 election. That’s when the most up-to-date data will be available. Redistricting can be costly, not to mention divisive, so why go through the process twice, some said.

But that’s eight years away and too long of a wait for Hispanics who for decades have said the council does not adequately reflect the city’s Hispanic population, currently at 34 percent. Sal Espino is currently the only Hispanic council member, representing the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods on the near north side.

Voters approved going to eight, single-member districts nearly 40 years ago. Since then, the city’s population has more than doubled and today stands at about 812,250. A large number of Hispanics live on the near south side as well.

Hispanics last pushed to increase the size of the council following the 2010 census, but were turned down. Again, they’re asking, why wait.

“There’s enough data, they can do it now,” said Fernando Florez, with Fort Worth’s United Hispanic Council. “The City Council needs to reflect the population better than it does. It’s important that we be accepted as equals.”

Norma Garcia-Lopez, a Fort Worth resident and on the board of the North Texas Young Latino Leaders, agreed, saying waiting will only continue to “diminish voices.”

“Why do we want to wait for numbers on paper when you clearly can see the need day in and day out,” Garcia-Lopez said.

The citywide coalition Fort Worth League of Neighborhood Associations also backs redistricting before 2023.

Time vs. cost

The council is scheduled to vote Tuesday whether to call an election to make changes to the 1924 City Charter. If held, the charter election would be May 7.

In making their final recommendations to the council in December, the task force agreed it’s time to add two members, but they fell short of supporting the council’s recommendation that it be done down the road. They’re leaving that up to the council to decide.

“A great number of your constituents want it done overnight,” Dionne Bagsby, a former Tarrant County commissioner who chaired the task force, told the council. “With the voluminous amount of information we had, we certainly understand that it can’t be done overnight. What can be done, it can go before the voters and there be a commitment to get it done.”

Estimates are it will cost about $1.7 million to conduct a redistricting in time for the 2017 election and to repeat the process after the 2020 census. If the council decides to wait until after the 2020 census, a redistricting and election would cost about $1.1 million, a savings of about $600,000.

Moreover, estimates are it will cost about $400,000 to reconfigure space at city hall to accommodate two new members and staff.

And that doesn’t include pay raises the council is seeking or the added salaries of new positions. Voters last bumped council and mayor pay in 2006 from $75 per meeting to $25,000 for council members and $29,000 for the mayor. Proposed is raising council annual pay to $45,000 and the mayor’s pay to $60,000. The increases would take effect Oct. 1, the start of the city’s fiscal year.

The proposed pay raise has gained wide-spread support.

No federal review

Should the council decide to move forward with redistricting now, the new map will not require Justice Department pre-clearance before it can be implemented, once required under the 1965 Voter Rights Act. The Justice Department did not block the current district map drawn in 2012.

Texas was among several states singled out for map reviews because of its history of discrimination. That was lifted in 2013, when the Supreme Court said the coverage formula used in the Voting Rights Act last modified in 1975 was out-of-date. Discrimination can still be raised, but it’s after the fact and intent must be proved.

“We are looking at this without the protection of Section 5,” Espino said.

Max Krochmal, an assistant professor of history at Texas Christian University who leads an annual Civil Rights Bus Tour, said the 2010 census data showed Fort Worth needed to expand its council to better represent Latinos. It’s more than likely the 2020 census will reinforce that, he said.

“Fort Worth is not unusual,” Krochmal said. “Many cities are grappling with this issue. This City Council is not representative of the population. That’s where that long push is coming from.”

Emily Farris, a TCU political science professor and Fort Worth resident, agreed that Latino representation on the council has been limited.

“Fort Worth is this growing dynamic city,” Farris said. “And we have the same number of council members as we did in the ’70s. You have to ask, what level of representation is that.”

Other changes

Other propositions being considered include increasing mayor and council terms from two to three years and staggering terms.

The ballot could also address time limits for filling vacancies on the City Council if they occur, changing when council members are sworn into office, restating the residence requirement for persons seeking election to the council to 180 days from six months, the appointment and removal of municipal judges, adoption of the city’s budget in accordance with state law and seeking alternative means to publication requirements.

Another proposition cleans up language regarding dual propositions. In the event rival propositions are on the ballot, and they both pass, the proposition that garners the larger number of votes prevails.

Prior to the charter election in 2006, voters made changes to the document in 1989. Some changes were made administratively in 1991 and 1993.