Residents here Saturday voted nearly 2 to 1 to enlarge the city council and provide that most council members will be elected from single-member districts, in a plan designed to bring the city in compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.
The vote was a victory for Mayor Jim McConn and the city's business leaders, who had supported the proposal, and a defeat for a coalition of liberals and conservatives who had pushed for a more sweeping change in selecting the council.
Only about 11 percent of the city's electorate voted on the proposal to enlarge the city council from the current eight to 14 members, with nine to be elected from districts and five at-large.
The referendum was prompted by a Justice Department ruling that the city's current method of electing the entire city council at-large violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act by diluting minority voting strength.
That ruling, in effect, suspended municipal elections in the nation's fifth-largest city until a single-member city council plan satisfactory to the Justice Department was devised.
Saturday's vote split sharply along racial lines. About 83 percent of middle-income white voters approved the "9-5" plan, while 87 percent of the black and 72 percent of the Mexican-American voters opposed it.
Voter turnout, however, was in most cases at least twice as great in white precincts as in minority area. The pro-"9-5" effort was clearly better financed and organized than its opposition.
That opposition included minorities, liberals and some whites from recently annexed suburbs who felt their areas would be inadequately represented. They had hoped to propose a plan to elect 16 city council members by district and four members at-large after defeating the "9-5" plan.
"We haven't got all we've wanted, but we've made progress," said State Rep. Ben Reyes, a leader of the anti-"9-5" effort. Reyes urged the coalition to prepare a slate of city council candidates for the November elections here.
He said that former Houston city controller Leonel Castillo, who resigned Friday as director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, probably will be a city council candidate on that slate. Castillo has said he is interested in running for the Houston city council.
The Justice Department must still approve the way district lines will be drawn, but McConn said he is confident such approval will be forthcoming.
"This vote gets Houston back in the business of running its affairs," he said. The margin of approval "should indicate to the Justice Department that the ["9-5"] plan is acceptable to a majority," he added.