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Check Your Scopes

Election notes

By Wells Dunbar, Fri., May 5, 2006

Robert Singleton
Robert Singleton
Photo By John Anderson

The controversy over Liveable City's study of the "Open Government Online" Proposition 1 landed at City Council last week. At the lectern to address Council Member Lee Leffingwell's own proposal on online transparency – basically boilerplate, telling the city manager to look into it – environmental activist Robert Singleton chided council for the city's $36 million cost estimate of Prop. 1. He paraphrased Liveable City's most contentious finding: that the city could "spend a tenth of that [$36 million] to achieve nearly all of what current advocates consider most crucial."

Props. 1 and 2 proponents Clean Austin have called the study vindication, saying it "proves" the amendment would cost as little as $2 million to implement. "The City of Austin has now confirmed Liveable City's cost estimate," reads their press release, "and Clean Austin has confirmed Liveable City's interpretation as accurately reflecting the priorities set out in the amendment."

However, Clean Austin's trumpeting carefully elides some Liveable City sour notes. "Whether or not the proposed Open Government amendment passes," reads Liveable City's release, "the council can and should, through a well-crafted ordinance, meet the intent of the amendment while minimizing administrative costs and reducing the degree of litigation." This new, and entirely unofficial, proposal – "prioritizing the areas of most concern" – is the one with the comparatively low $2 to $3 million estimate, not Prop. 1 as drafted. After much (and reportedly contentious) deliberation over the weekend, Liveable City took no position on either Prop. 1 or 2.

Back at council last Thursday, Leffingwell reminded Singleton that the city can't cherry-pick enforcement of particular parts of the proposition. As for the city's reported confirmation of Liveable City's estimate, Council Member Betty Dunkerley said she and the city manager put the report's author in contact with city staff; they helped Liveable City estimate the cost "if the scope were this small," said Dunkerley, signaling a smidgen with her fingers. "Unfortunately, the scope is this big," she continued, flinging her arms apart. "Scope size is what drives cost. … Very frankly, I think the implementation costs are going to be higher than $36 million." Despite her contention that it is a conservative estimate, Dunkerley said $36 million would be the amount allocated in next year's fiscal budget should Prop. 1 pass.

Singleton was undeterred. "Doesn't this constitute using city resources to campaign against a ballot item?" he said of city's insistence on the much-maligned $36-million estimate, increasingly the thunder of Prop. 1's storm. Said city attorney David Smith: "Short answer, no."

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