Whenever the Lubbock City Council convenes these days, it owes a debt of gratitude to seven people who gathered together almost 25 years ago to oversee the city’s affairs under a new set of guidelines.
“I would say the transition from the at-large system that we had for many, many years to the single-member district system was one of the most challenging events during my tenure as mayor,” said Alan Henry.
“The new single-member district council was really starting from scratch as far as procedures and the way the council operated. There really wasn’t a manual for how to do that.”
A system adopted in 1917 established that Lubbock would elect its council members on an at-large basis. No regard was given to geography, and four council representatives and a mayor were elected on a citywide basis. The system was not unique to Lubbock, but as the city grew in population and diversity, the at-large method came under scrutiny.
The rumblings of change began in 1976, when A. Gene Gaines filed a lawsuit to have the at-large system declared unconstitutional because it “denies certain classes of people due process,” according to an A-J article. That seven-paragraph story chronicled the first step in a long and winding process aimed at changing the city’s basic governance system.
“It was needed,” said T.J. Patterson, who was elected to that groundbreaking 1984 council. “The single-member districts are now an integral part of the city, something that should have been done years prior to when it happened, but the time wasn’t right. At that time, the word inclusiveness had not become a total reality in Lubbock.”
Gaines’ suit was filed in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Halbert O. Woodward. The case appeared to conclude in 1979 with the at-large system intact, but the ruling was appealed, and the federal appeals court in New Orleans sent it back to Woodward.
Finally, in March 1983, the veteran jurist ruled the at-large system was unconstitutional, and he carved the city into six single-member districts that would elect representatives beginning with the April 1984 election. The mayor would continue to be elected on a citywide basis.
“It was a really exciting time,” said Maggie Trejo, another member of the ’84 council. “We were going to have representation from our district. People were excited about it. They were positive about it. I remember I was running ragged trying to do so much.”
Indeed, everyone had a lot to do, but Henry recalled the spirit of cooperation among those council members whose jobs had suddenly doubled in difficulty. They not only had to represent the constituents of their own districts, but they also had to guard the interests of the entire city.
“That remains a challenge today and always will be a challenge,” Henry said. “But I was so proud of the job that first council did because we heard so many stories of how much friction there was in other cities and how difficult it was for people to get along.
“But with that first council, I was privileged to serve as mayor and work with them, and without question it was one of the smoothest transitions from at-large to single-member districts anywhere.”
Henry also praised the city staff at that time for helping ensure a smooth transition. In addition to Patterson and Trejo, Henry said other members of that historic ’84 council were Jack Brown, Joan Baker, George Carpenter and Bob Nash.
“We had to define that system, not only on paper, but to make sure everyone understood those persons on the council had a posture where they were concerned about the total city and yet at the same time paying close attention to those citizens who elected them,” said Patterson, the first black elected to the council, “because, unless you are inclusive, you are not doing your job.”
Trejo, the first Hispanic elected to the council, understands how important it was for Lubbock to move from at-large to single-district representation.
“I really believe the first people elected from the single-member districts were there because they had a desire to serve their community,” she said. “We were not there for ourselves; we were there to serve.”
In the end, Henry said, city government requires teamwork, dedication and commitment.
“One of the issues we had to deal with is the members were elected from geographic districts and had to represent those districts,” he said. “But our challenge of that first council was to set a standard for future councils that would recognize the diversity of the members and their districts while still working as a team for Lubbock as a whole.”
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