I was ambivalent about single-member districts for a long time. The current system of city-wide elections has obvious problems. The most glaring is that elections tend to be dominated by a handful of central neighborhoods. These are the neighborhoods that, more often than not, turn out to fight urbanization, dense infill and everything else that is good and just. Not surprisingly, our Council is sometimes hostile to infill development in the central city, despite its alleged commitment to the environment. (Expect "sometimes" to become "often" in the Morrison/Tovo era.) Single-member districts would ensure that suburban and east Austin voters have a larger voice in city government.
But single-member districts worry me, too. What worries me most is the practice of "ward courtesy" in (some? all?) single-member district cities. "Ward courtesy" is an informal agreement among Council members to defer to the council member whose district would be affected by the vote. And nothing affects a district like zoning. Council members consequently get a de facto veto of zoning changes and conditional use requests in their districts. This turns wards into little fiefdoms. Property owners save a bit of time, I guess -- it's less trouble to pay a visit to one council member rather than seven -- but if that one council member is dead set against your project, you're done. Because so much often depends on a single council member's vote, the system invites backroom dealing, at best, and outright bribery and corruption at worst.
In Austin, "ward courtesy" would stifle, slow, impede, strangle -- pick your verb -- infill development in central Austin, because central Austinites tend to vote for the statist, anti-development types. My sense is that's what turns them out to vote in the first place. They don't like change, they don't like densification, they don't like outsiders parking on "their" streets. They will elect council members who don't like change, don't like densification, and don't want outsiders parking on "their" streets. And these council members will give short shrift to property owners and developers proposing dense, infill developments that rile their constituents. Even when the developments would produce a net benefit for the city as a whole.
I've recently seen the ward courtesy system in action in another city. It's not pretty. And it's convinced me that single-member districts would be bad for Austin.
There is a simpler fix for the flaws in the current system of city-wide elections. Have municipal elections coincide with national and state elections. Council would better represent the city as a whole (and we'd save a little money to boot). But even the status quo is better than than the single-member district system. For whatever reason, even though Council elections are dominated by central neighborhood voters, Council members are often surprisingly reasonable in the aggregate. There is a group dynamic that tempers the more extreme views. Single-member districts would destroy this dynamic. And subject us to the arbitrary preferences of a single person.