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Point Austin: The Ultimate Game

The political ripples are uncertain but plentiful

By Michael King, Fri., June 24, 2011

We haven't heard the end of this.

By "this" I mean the Place 3 City Council election, which to hear the partisans tell it was either a desperate attempt by the developer class to seize control of council once and for all in the name of drought, devastation, and the almighty dollar, or a last-ditch effort by high-dollar neighborhood associations to drive all residential development to the suburbs, where it can forever spread concrete and global warming out to what once was the Hill Country. For my own part, I consider this sort of mutually reflexive hyperventilation yet another manifestation of the narcissism of small differences (as Yogi Berra used to say, you could look it up). For occasionally suggesting that notion, I was duly blasted by advocates of either Randi Shade or Kathie Tovo.

It's a political season, and it comes with the territory.

Thanks to Shade, who served the city well. And congratulations to Tovo, who I believe will make a fine council member. I said the same on general election night to one of her celebrating supporters, adding that I didn't see why it was also necessary that Shade be an ogre; came the rejoinder, "So you're supporting Shade, eh?"

Like I said, it's a political season.

Beyond that, I also think there's a lot of national and state displacement going on in these local contests right now, as our mostly progressive Austin electorate feels largely helpless to effect much change at the Legislature or Congress (or even, alas, in the White House). Instead, we're symbolically fighting out these grand, ideological battles in a local arena where the stakes are neither so high nor so well-defined – and where the hyperpartisan analogies don't really hold up very well.

So when people tell me this has been a watershed election that will determine the fate of Austin for the next decade, I feel a lot like maverick former Cowboys running back Duane Thomas at the Super Bowl, asked how it feels to be playing in the "ultimate game." "If it's the ultimate game," Thomas responded, "how come they're playing it again next year?"

Traffic Jam on Congress

But for the 10% or so of us (based on last week's returns) that still follow local politics, it remains the only game in town. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens in council deliberations, as the occasional Lee Leffingwell/Mike Martinez/Chris Riley/Shade alliance is now diminished by one member, replaced by the Bill Spelman/Laura Morrison/Sheryl Cole/Tovo coalition (though it needs noting strongly that, depending on the specific issue, every one of those remaining seven names has been and can be in play).

The election has certainly had an immediate effect. Literally while I was typing that paragraph on Wednesday, I got a courtesy call from the mayor's office telling me Leffingwell would move to postpone the decision on fee waivers for the White Lodging Congress Avenue hotel project (announced last week) because at the Tuesday work session, several members suggested they just aren't ready to vote on it; moreover, said spokesman Matt Curtis, it seems reasonable to let the new council (including soon-to-be sworn-in Tovo) make the decision. (For more, see "City Hall Hustle.")

On Saturday night, the mayor had told me he didn't anticipate much opposition to the hotel approval because it's a standard procedure on most major projects (especially with a big financial and infrastructure benefit for the city) and doesn't represent much "real money" (by far the largest item is waiving the fee for blocking a lane of right-of-way during construction). But on Tuesday, Morrison linked the hotel decision to the Formula One issue (both Richard Suttle projects) and wondered what all the rush is about. Although a co-sponsor of the hotel resolution, at the work session Spelman suggested similar hesitations – so here we are.

Let Us Reason Together

I asked Leffingwell on Wednesday if he anticipated a similar motion to postpone the decision on the city's participation in Formula One. "You never know," he said. (By the time you read this, we may.) Certainly Cole and Morrison suggested this week that the volume of information on the proposal demands more review time, a lawsuit to block the state transaction was filed Wednesday against Comptroller Susan Combs by Bill Aleshire on behalf of three plaintiffs who object to the state's $25 million contribution, and opponents are circulating other objections to the pending contracts that may make council members want to look deeper before they leap.

If one thing this election means is that it will be a little more difficult for Downtown power brokers to get their deals done as quickly as their clients would like, you won't hear any complaints from me. On the other hand, the pretense that we can, by zoning or other legal maneuvers, somehow freeze-dry "Austin" into a simulacrum of what it was in 1990 or 1970 (or should even want to) is a delusion better suited to Waco, or maybe Cedar Park.

By the same token, if council publicly explodes into infighting over everything from building heights to parking fees to districting to rank on the dais, it might not be great for public policy, but it'll make more entertaining copy for reporters like me and readers like you. Right now, the winners and losers are making all the right conciliatory noises about sitting down together and working things out. "I'm confident the city is still in good hands," Cole told me reassuringly in the wake of the election. "I think we will go forward and continue to build a better Austin."

Who can argue with that?

I don't think we'll need to wait too long to find out.

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