Meet the Man Who Will (Probably) Draw the New Dallas City Council District Boundaries

Categories: City Hall
Bill Betzen.jpg
Image via Amarillo.com
"Gerrymandering damages communities," says Bill Betzen.
We know you're sick of hearing about this, but bear with us: Dallas is, like, thisclose to getting some shiny, newly redrawn, possibly less-gerrymandered city council districts. The Redistricting Commission sat through another marathon meeting Tuesday night and voted to move forward with just three out of the 15 plans they still had before them. The three plans that made the cut were: cPlan05, drawn by commissioner Hollis Brashear; cPlan 16 (and don't call it the "Unity Plan"), designed by commissioners Domingo Garcia, Brooks Love and Billy Ratcliff (but really mostly by Garcia); and wPlan03, drawn by ordinary guy, not-commissioner Bill Betzen.

If for some reason you haven't been following redistricting with undivided attention, Betzen's name might not be familiar to you. But if you've gone to even one meeting, he's impossible to miss: He's the gent with silver glasses, snowy white hair and a mustache to match, sitting somewhere near the front of the room and smiling like he's watching aurora borealis or something. He always looks genuinely delighted to be in these commission meetings, no matter how long they drag on, and he listens intently to every public speaker. Betzen is also the submitter who's presented three different maps to the commission, two of which made it to the final 15 Tuesday night.

So who is this guy, and why has he devoted the last four months of his life to redistricting?

"I've been concerned about politics and gerrymandering for a long time," Betzen told Unfair Park in a phone conversation Wednesday. Betzen is a native Texan who moved to Oak Cliff in the mid-70s. A former Catholic seminary student (he quickly decided against the priest thing), he was a social worker for 28 years, 17 of them as a child abuse investigator. His decision to move to Oak Cliff, he said, was based on that job: "I knew this zip code had one of the lowest child abuse reporting ratios. I knew people didn't beat their kids as much here. I didn't want to run into my clients."

In 2000, Betzen switched from social work to teaching; he was the computer applications teacher at Quintanilla Middle School until earlier this year, when he took the buyout and retired. He was already five years past retirement age, he said, and "there were a lot of young teachers coming in" who could use the jobs, so he decided it was time to go. His main crusade during his time as a teacher was against the high dropout rates in DISD schools, something he's going to return to full time once redistricting is over.

Three or four years ago, though, Betzen noticed "how terribly gerrymandered the south side of town is." It's a situation that he's convinced the "white power structure" of Dallas has deliberately allowed to develop, he said. "They allowed the south side to gerrymander themselves because they knew it would politically handicap them." (Interestingly, one of the only commissioners who didn't vote to move forward Betzen's plan was Mary Hasan, who represents District 8 -- his own district. "I was surprised," he said, sounding a little hurt, adding that he would "love to know why" she didn't vote for his map.)

Redistricting meetings haven't exactly been packed to the gills, something Betzen acknowledged. "It is hard to get people's interest, because very few people understand what it's about," he said. "Part of the problem is that in our schools we don't talk about gerrymandering and redistricting and what districting is. We need to talk about it more, because it's really a core basic of representative democracy. We don't tell kids enough about how it can be manipulated.

"The terrible stalemate going on in Washington is basically due to gerrymandering," he continued. "All those guys can sit there and do nothing, and they know they're going to be re-elected. If we would draw tight, tiny districts that weren't scrambled all over the place, then those guys might work a little harder."

With that in mind: There's just a few more meetings left, including tonight's, plus a public comment forum that will be held on August 20. You can come down to share your thoughts on any redistricting plan, or maybe just scope out the commissioners and the ordinary guy who have all given so much of their free time to redistricting. There might even be more shouting, though honestly, things have been comparatively civil the last couple times. (Giving the commissioners a bathroom break and some chocolate cake -- er, separately, of course -- seemed to help their mood tremendously Tuesday night.)

Betzen said "rough edges" are all part of the redistricting process, in his view, and added that the way Dallas is going about redistricting is actually incredibly progressive. "Austin, Houston, Philadelphia -- Dallas is way out ahead from everybody about how open they were about this," he said, pointing out a recent press release documenting how how a private company in Philly is trying, for the first time ever, to solicit redistricting plans from the public.

"This is going to a pioneering example of how to do it in the future," Betzen said. "I really think we're breaking ground here. I'm very, very proud of Dallas."

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31 comments
Bbetzen
Bbetzen

Thank you to Anna Merlin and everyone for the powerful support.  Sadly Plan 3 was voted down last night after the Saturday forum. It appears almost certain that Plan 16 will be the one voted to go forward to the City Council on Tuesday. It received 10 of 15 votes Saturday evening after the forum. It will still represent significant progress. It will eliminate 125 of the gerrymandered miles of City Council District boundary. I hope to be involved in this process again in 2021 to eliminate the other 40 gerrymandered miles, and finish this job. Hopefully there will be many more people wanting to do the same thing then if we cannot get it done in 2011.

Thank you for your support

Dallas1965
Dallas1965

What a breath of fresh air!A concerned citizen. A man who takes criticism well and head on (and even offers his maps and computer to figure out a solution to a critic's complaint).He could be playing bridge, traveling to florida, playing golf or sitting around writing anonymous blog criticisms about everything he doesn't like about this city.....

He's what a "citizen legislator' should look like.

Thanks for your service to the city. How can we help you?

Sam_Merten
Sam_Merten

Bang-up job, Anna, on your coverage of this important issue.

Chevytexas
Chevytexas

To those of us who are "away" a lot, I have to say regardless of the boundary disputes, Bill's deportment bring him my respect, and truly reflect the type of personal involvement --along with others as I can see from the dialogue in this thread-- that makes me feel better about Dallas. Only if we ourselves engage the problems directly will we find consensus instead of having something forced upon us. Applause for all of you.

Brenda Marks
Brenda Marks

I too respect Mr. Bentzen and the time he's spent working on this, but his map is a disaster for my neighborhood, Oak Lawn (PD 193) which point has been explained to him on several occasions and in several posts on this blog.  It cuts a rather small, continguous vital and vibrant area into jigsaw pieces and scatters them among 4 (5 depending on where one border actually falls -- can't tell from this viewer and my bad eyesite), that, if allowed to stand, would have horrible effects on our neighborhoods.  We have enough trouble already maintaining a level playing field in the on-going redevelopment wars.  This will kill us.  Thanks Mr. Bentzen, but no thanks.

J. Erik Jonsson
J. Erik Jonsson

Districts 2 and 14 don't make any sense to me on Domingo's map.

Livable Perspective
Livable Perspective

I respect Mr.Betzen's intentions because I know he is doing what he feels is best for thecity as a whole. However, his plan severely divides the central core of thecity including PD 193 (Uptown/Oak Lawn) and the economic core of thecity. In his plan, PD 193 is divided into 4 different districts, leavingthose communities at the hands of council members who may have preferredinterests in other communities. Oak Lawn's interests are not the same asthe White Rock area. Uptown's interests are not the same as those of SouthDallas. This process is not about Republican or Democrat, but to unitecommunities of interest and to bring fair representation of neighborhoods toCity Hall. The central core of the city cannot be sacrificed and just stuck with whatever is left over from the neighboring communities.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Is there a requirement that re-districting not oust a current councilperson? Scott Griggs would no longer be in District 3 if Brashear's plan is selected as submitted. I really hate to say this, but I like Domingo Garcia's plan best, if only because it doesn't disenfranchise me.

Watching
Watching

Betzen's map has district lines that are not perfect, but so much better than any other plan.   They are compact and sensible. 

Titus Groan
Titus Groan

I think if Bill's districts get used, we should make any official elected from them write a letter to their future selves about what they intend to accomplish during their time in office.  Then we put it in a vault until next election time and make them read it in a press conference.

Facebook User
Facebook User

Bill is a registered Democrat and as a result will focus his attention on making the lines more fair. Fair to black and Hispanic majorities. Fair is in the eye of the beholder and Bill will be as fair as he can be. Republicans and whites may not agree with his definition of fairness. We'll see.

Mike
Mike

Isn't the Commission just a warm up act for the City Council?  Councilperson Carraway said as much.  Exactly what did gerrymandering do to hurt South Dallas?  North Dallas does not really care about South Dallas.  No amount of boundary magic is going to get them involved.  Physical separation is too great. 

Each racial group will get its allocation of seats and will set up boundaries to ensure it retains its share until the next redistricting.  Nothing substantial will change.  Whether Pleasant Grove is in one district or three or four won't change anything.

DISD Teacher
DISD Teacher

My concern is that Bill will subconsciously draw lines more likely to elect the kind of candidate he personally prefers OR that he will draw lines that include social justice elements intended to redress his perceptions of past wrongdoing.

Bill is a passionate person.  He passionately questioned the number of Anglos and middle-class kids present in the magnet schools in DISD, even though those students live in DISD boundaries and their parents pay taxes.  I interpreted his comments to be that, since the district is 5% Anglo, the magnets should not exceed a 5% Anglo average.  That's not fair to interested Anglo kids and I'm against unfairness to any child, even if they are white, rich, and plain lucky.

He feels passionately that the drop-out numbers are improving, even though multiple people well versed in the statistics completely disagree with his method of computation.

I agree that gerrymandering is a destructive evil; Bill, I just hope you can leave the understandable desire to arrange things way that lines up with one's personal preferences at the door. 

Bbetzen
Bbetzen

You asked how you can help.  Attend the Public forum tomorrow starting at 2 PM and give your opinion about the best plan.  The parking will be free and it will happen in City Council Chambers, 6th floor. You can call 214-670-5735 to register to speak, or arrive by 1:55 pm Saturday, 5 minutes before the scheduled start, so as to register to speak.  If the crowds are big they may also ask people to stand and indicate which plan they want to pass.

Bill Betzen
Bill Betzen

Brenda,This morning they placed the updated wPlan03a, as well as the other two plans, on the City Redistricting Web site at http://www.dallascityhall.com/...  On that page you can look at the wPlan03 as amended by the votes at the Tuesday meeting.  I agree that there may be a way to improve PD 193 that has not been found.  You can click on the map icon on that page for wPlan03a and a large 36" x 48" copy will load.   Maybe you can find a solution that has not been seen yet.  It is not easy to find and balance all the other interests that are conflicting on these maps such as compactness and minority representation as well as balanced district population numbers, all of which are listed higher in priority on the Guidelines given out by the city than communities of interest, which is where PD 193 would fall. A copy of these guidelines can be seen on page 4 and 5 of the document at http://www.dallascityhall.com/....

I just now spent 30 minutes looking for the map of pd 193 in the Commissioners packets.  I know it is there but could not find it.  As I recall it covers a rather large area.  I will be at tonights meeting with my computer where I can work on changing my map.  Will you be there?  Do you know the boundaries of pd 193 well or do you have a map.  I would be glad to help find a solution.

Omar Jimenez
Omar Jimenez

They are netural, so it can or won't oust a person, ethier way, this was not supposed to influence a map.

Sharon Boyd
Sharon Boyd

I'm a Republican, and I think Bill's map is great.  Bill's sense of fairness is not based on how he votes, but how he is as a human being.  John Wiley Price is a Democrat and the new County Commissioners' districts are outrageously unfair and partisan, but then he's not much of a human being.

Watching
Watching

The 2001 district lines sliced up the southern sector into ridiculous shapes that stretched from one side of the city to the other. 

Bill Betzen
Bill Betzen

DISD Teacher, you are correct in that any good map that is both compact and provides adequate minority representation, so that the City Council makeup reflects our city, will also involve a redress of past wrongdoing to some extent.  But your comments about the magent schools and anything over a 5% anglo average is way off.  I complained about anything over 50%! or over 10-times the Anglo percentage in DISD.  When a student body in the best school in the district becomes that unbalanced and non-reflective of the DISD as a whole we are certainly in incomfortable territory to say the least.  In that case I only suggested a very simple solution: give a numberical credit of some type for every year an applicant was a DISD student.  This could be applied in the audition process at Booker T Washington other of the most popular magnets.

Regarding dropout rates, you pick the statistic you want to use.  They have ALL improved over the past 5 years for DISD!  (Some of these issues are discussed at http://www.studentmotivation.o...  I simply think a dropout number is more solid when you count all students in 9th grade and compare that to the number of diplomas ultimately given out.  When you introduce the work of a coding clerk who can give a code that eliminates them being counted as a dropout you are on your way to what we had in Houston in 2000 when they claimed dropout rates below 2%, yes, below two percent.  More than one principal has said in public that their coding clerks are their most valuable employees.  We need to count real people and use real numbers.  

Watching
Watching

Look at his map.   Your comments don't connect at all.  14 city council districts vs 9 DISD districts (which take in parts of several other cities) have no parallel.

Facebook User
Facebook User

Don't get me wrong, I prefer Bill's fairness over JWP's anytime. But I can't imagine ANY member of the GOP would appreciate Bill's map except as an alternative to the other proposed Democratic maps.

Mike
Mike

I don't deny South Dallas districts had weird shapes.  My question was what difference would it have made besides having the councilperson spend more time in car going from meeting to meeting, the complaint I see most often?  Is there any evidence we would not have the same level of representation from that area?  The subject of the blog thinks gerrymandering helped keep South Dallas poor.

DISD Teacher
DISD Teacher

I'm going off of memory here, but I'm pretty sure you were not happy that while the district is only 5% Anglo., the magnets are more Anglo.  That's race-based thinking.

Who cares if the school is "reflective" of the community?  Are you going to limit the number of males if there are more females in the "community"?  And define community.  Are you talking about the community that pays DISD taxes OR only the people who send their children to DISD while they save for a house in the suburbs?And your solution to "credit" kids for DISD attendance would punish kids, who through no doing of their own, attended private school until their parent, for whatever reason, decided it was time for them to go to public school.  Why would we punish children for parental decisions?  Giving credit for every year the parents paid DISD taxes would have been ok, but it didn't jive with your desire to see fewer whites and/or middle class kids in the magnets.All of it was your attempt to reduce the number of whites in magnets in one way or another.  That's your idea of social justice: hold a child accountable for the color of their skin.First it's the whites who are restricted; next it will be the middle class kids.  After so many restrictions that punish kids for the family they are born into, DISD will become a school with zero racial or economic diversity.  The schools do not exist to promote one person's idea of utopia.  The schools are a service.  We all pay for the service and we all get to use it.This is why I am not sure you are the best person to be drawing redistricting lines.

pool boy
pool boy

Didn't see his comments here supporting the Cesar Chavez street naming did you? Anyone who saw those knows who he is and what he's all about.

Texas Our Texas
Texas Our Texas

Interesting however Mr. Betzen actually said something slightly different than what this comment attributes to him:  South Dallas gerrymandered itself, he says; he does not hold anyone outside of South Dallas "responsible" for South Dallas gerrymandering or "keeping South Dallas poor."

Having heard Mr. Betzen speak about redistricting I am convinced he does not have a race-based mindset.  At all.  I'd describe his mind-set on redistricting as fair, reasonable, and logical.   

Texas Our Texas
Texas Our Texas

Yes -- if a map like Bill's had been in place previously it would have made a huge, positive difference.  And Dallas would be a better place as a result.

Suggestion:  nose around on the internet for academic and legal literature on the several and varied social pathologies that result from gerrymandered districts.  There's a lot of material.

As an example of one of the many pathologies, it's much harder to raise campaign funds in a non-compact, gerrymandered district.  And so in the case of the City of Dallas, that makes southern districts more beholden to donors in northern districts. 

DISD Teacher
DISD Teacher

More precisely, Bill says in this very piece that he believes the "white power structure" is responsible for keeping South Dallas poor through gerrymandering.

His race-based mindset, which is increasingly irrelevant in today's racially-mixed society and in fact probably impedes progress for minorities, concerns me.

Dallas cannot become a whole city as long as we are forced to accommodate and approach every topic based on race.  

Bbetzen
Bbetzen

You ask an excellent question: "Who cares if the school is "reflective" of the community?"

Remember, you are speaking about some of the best high schools in the U.S.A., not just DISD. 

The simple answer to your question would be the 95% of the community care who are not Anglo.  They are watching their own children unable to have a spot in these local excellent schools they also pay taxes on.  Their children are unable to attend because as many as 50% of those spots are going to the 4.7% of DISD who are Anglo.

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