The Chronicle editorial board (consisting of the News staff and Publisher Nick Barbaro) makes the following recommendations, for your consideration, in approaching your early voting (Oct. 22-Nov. 2) or Election Day ballot. It's a lengthy list, and for Austin voters this year, the most important local questions are near the bottom of the ballot (or on the later screens on your e-slate). So please, whatever else you do, vote all the way down! We endorse only in contested races (that accounts in part for the abbreviated list below), and – in a departure from historical practice – this year we're recommending straight-ticket Democratic voting (with exceptions as noted below). That only covers the partisan races, however, so please note endorsements below for local propositions and in non-partisan races concerning Austin Community College, the Austin Independent School District, and the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. Find all our election coverage online at austinchronicle.com/elections.
We believe that in Texas, the Democratic Party (despite its many shortcomings) remains the most consistent, effective agent of political progress and progressive institutional action, and that it needs to be strengthened and broadened in order to undermine our state's de facto one-party Republican regime. When we eventually return to a two-party system in Texas, we can begin to speak (and vote) more freely in favor of third, fourth, and fifth parties. It's more than just state races we're voting on, though, so we've clarified our national position with an expounded endorsement of the president, below. For the record, in contested races:U.S. Senate: Paul Sadler
Few Chronicle readers will be surprised that we are endorsing the president's re-election, but we still wish to note our reasoning here. We've had our differences with some of Obama's policies – especially his still-reflexive extension of U.S. military power abroad (e.g., the use of high-tech warfare in undeclared wars) and his willingness to maintain unconstitutional abuse of legal rights (as in Guantánamo). But his administration has kept its commitments to bring to an end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it has also moved forward in health care, equal rights, and rebuilding the economy, despite relentless and destructively partisan Republican opposition to every administration initiative, without regard to the common welfare. An Obama presidency would maintain institutional leverage and public space for progressive political action on behalf of labor groups, human and civil rights activism, women's rights, and basic social services, including national health care. A Romney presidency would roll all these back to the Bush era, would substitute saber-rattling and threats for even the slightest movements toward cooperative diplomacy, all the while granting even more of a stranglehold to the U.S. financial and corporate interests determined to dominate the future of the republic.
U.S. Rep., District 17: Ben Easton (L): He's the only alternative to hard-right incumbent Ben Flores.
Railroad Commissioner, Unexp. Term: Josh Wendel (G): No Democrat filed to oppose appointed incumbent chair, Barry Smitherman.
Supreme Court, Place 2: RS Roberto Koelsch (L): The Lago Vista attorney is an honest alternative to hard-right favorite Don Willet.
Supreme Court, Place 4: Charles Waterbury (G): This Dallas attorney points to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer as a judicial model, and anybody would be better than GOP nominee John "10 Commandments" Devine.
While this five-cent hike (to 12.9 cents per $100 valuation) is hefty on a percentage basis, it would put Central Health on a more sufficient financial footing and represents Austin and Travis County's best current chance for a greatly improved health care infrastructure: medical school, teaching hospital, and a range of new clinics and services funded by both local taxpayers and potential federal Medicaid matching funds ($1.46 to every $1). State support for health care, especially for those Austinites who most need access to health care, is not forthcoming in the near future – indeed, more cuts are the orders of the day – and we must rely on ourselves to attempt to fill the gap. This self-assessment is an important and timely step in that direction, and we urge voters to support it.
Prop. 1 would move municipal elections from May to November; Prop. 2 would do that as well as adjust council member terms to four years (with two-term limits), stagger the member elections, and have them coincide with national elections. The advantage of spring elections is that they are simpler and focus attention directly on city matters, which will get short shrift at the bottom of a November ballot; the disadvantage is that steadily and increasingly, far too few people vote. Moving the elections to November (as most jurisdictions have already done) will increase and broaden turnout and (hopefully) motivate more citizens to be engaged in city government.
Prop. 3 would replace the current at-large council voting system with 10 geographic districts and the mayor (still at-large), and establish an "independent citizens redistricting commission." While it's certainly past time for this now large city to enact districting, we believe a mixed or hybrid system (e.g., Prop. 4) would better serve the interests of all citizens – including geographically dispersed minority groups – and is more likely to have the broad support of the Austin public. And while we do not oppose in principle an "independent" redistricting commission, it should not be one imposed by a single ballot phrase standing in for quite complex and unexamined legislation lacking public vetting and never subject to public debate and review.
Prop. 4 would replace the current at-large system with eight districts, two at-large places, and the mayor. Again, we believe it is time to move primarily to a districting system (and enlarge the City Council), but a hybrid system is more likely to serve the broad public interest, is likely more acceptable to a majority of Austin voters, and indeed is a more familiar U.S. pattern, from Congress on down to the local school board, better balancing localized interests with citywide concerns. It also offers some protection against purely "ward" politics, and a better chance for representation for minority groups not geographically concentrated.
Prop. 5 would enable council members to hire and manage their own staffs; that is already the de facto situation, although formal power is vested in city management. Making reality official makes sense.
Prop. 6 would move hiring and reporting of the city attorney from the city manager to the City Council. In the past, the manager's direct influence on the attorney has made for awkward or even corrupting pressure; dispersing that over the full council should add independence and some clarity to the attorney's role.
Prop. 7 would reduce the number of petition signatures required to force a public vote on a proposed ordinance change by half (to match the percentage currently required for charter amendments, set by state law). We endorse this proposal reluctantly, only because we can't change state law to raise the charter requirement, which is laughably low. This change would at least mean less arbitrary tinkering with the charter, and allow duly elected councils to revise ordinance changes as necessary in the ordinary course of business.
The editorial board was split on Prop. 8, which would create a 30-day period after election for a council member to raise funds to retire campaign debt. Proponents say debt retirement is standard across other jurisdictions and argue the current system gives an unfair advantage to wealthy candidates; they note that the Charter Revision Committee recommended this change "to ensure newly elected or re-elected council members can focus on job responsibilities rather than be concerned by lingering personal debt or unpaid campaign bills." Detractors, on the other hand, note that none of the CRC's other recommendations regarding campaign finance (bundling restrictions, reporting requirements) made it on the ballot; they say that without those, this measure just allows special interest money to avoid showing up on campaign finance reports until after the election is over. Your decision as a voter rests with what you see as a bigger threat to our civic elections.
Prop. 9 would let the city lease parkland to a school district (such as AISD) for a purpose that the City Council concludes is a park purpose. This proposal grew from discussion of ways for the city to assist the school district (via shared resources) in response to state cuts to public education, and is both narrowly defined and requires a two-thirds vote of council.
Props. 10 and 11 would extend civil service protections in hiring, firing, and discipline to most city employees (Prop. 10) and emergency medical services personnel (Prop. 11) – essentially those not currently covered by public safety employee protections. Basically, the current "at-will" system, which gives all such power to city management, without appeal, would be replaced by a "just-cause" system, allowing a council-appointed commission to review management decisions where there is a dispute. This is a modest but important improvement in the rights of city workers, common in other cities, and we strongly encourage Chronicle readers to approve this change.
We don't profess to love everything in this $385 million bond package, but there's plenty to recognize as good investments for our community – infrastructure repairs, watershed protection, parks improvements, and affordable housing. As we noted in our bond endorsement six years ago, this package's price tag could also have been reduced if items such as facility repairs and maintenance were covered by general operating funds. History reminds us that some bond projects either get shelved indefinitely or, rightly or wrongly, become subject to greater political scrutiny in later years. Going forward, the city has committed to adding a greater layer of transparency to the 2012 bond package by posting status reports on the city's website. Overall, we believe the package offers a promising vision for smarter growth, and we urge voters to approve this package in its entirety.
Much as we dream of Austin as a city of mass transit, we're still very much a car town, and cars need roads, and roads, like everything else, have needs. Taking into account two of Austin's biggest transportation problems – persistent bottlenecks and a high rate of accidents and fatalities – $8 million would go toward addressing arterial congestion and crash-risk mitigation, while another $15 million* would be directed to sections of I-35. We are pleased to see a bump in sidewalk funding with the inclusion of $25 million for sidewalks and ramps (and their accompanying curbs and gutters), and an overall list of multi-modal projects that support a better sense of place.
Not as much as the $57 million recommended by the bond advisory committee, this is still a good chunk of change to invest toward acquiring environmentally sensitive lands to ensure aquifer water quality protection for future generations.
We support this proposition while strongly encouraging the city to follow the task force recommendation to include repairs and maintenance in future parks budgets. Additionally, the $2 million targeted for improvements at city-owned cemeteries is just a fraction of what's needed for the long-term upkeep and preservation of these historic treasures.
This is one of the more popular bond proposals – not only because of the obvious need for affordable housing, but also because of the success borne out of the 2006 housing bond program, thanks in large measure to Austin's savvy and dedicated community of housing professionals and advocates. Should voters approve this measure, funding would help pay for such projects as a long-in-coming Downtown housing development for low-income residents and an ambitious home-repair program for seniors.
Projects don't include the new Austin police headquarters that APD had hoped for (a proposal that never moved out of committee), or a new Northwest fire station that firefighters had wanted, but they do include more of a nuts-and-bolts and brick-and-mortar plan to help cover the costs of a new police substation in Northwest Austin, women's locker room additions to a handful of fire stations, and ambulance bay expansions at three EMS stations.
There's never enough money to meet the demands of health and human services, but most every improvement project on the HHS list – from the women's shelter to infrastructure challenges at the Betty Dunkerley* campus – is evidenced by the growing demands placed on the city's health and human services department.
This bond measure combines Austin History Center and neighborhood library improvements with cultural arts, including studio funding for city-tenant Austin Film Society and the replacement of the time-worn Dougherty Arts Center – all worthy investments in our view.
Newly drawn district boundaries have forced two incumbent directors on the board to vie for the same Pct. 4 spot, while a write-in candidate is being sought for Pct. 3 (both precincts include parts of South and Southeast Austin). Alas, we have no immediate suggestion for the seat with no takers, but we wholeheartedly endorse board veteran Goodman for Pct. 4. We haven't always agreed with him, but we've never doubted his commitment to protecting Barton Springs. His opponents are current Pct. 3 director Bob Larsen (not to be confused with former Council Member Bob Larson) and Jerry D. Hering.
This race pits two excellent candidates against each other. Barbara Mink, incumbent and current board chair, has been fully engaged with ACC from its founding, is professionally and academically committed to building community colleges here and across the nation, and has a lifelong commitment to public service. Brig Mireles is a longtime adjunct faculty member who helped build and defend the faculty organizations at ACC, has a personal understanding of student and college needs, and speaks for those new ACC districts underrepresented on the board. We applaud both candidates, but in light of her deep administrative experience, we give a slight edge to Mink.
Three-term incumbent Kaplan has substantial experience with the college and has served well as a board member. His opponent, Daniel J. "DC" Caldwell, is a Texas State Guard employee without relevant administrative or academic experience.
The residents of Southeast Austin deserve a good school board campaign, based upon the serious issues that have afflicted education in this area. Unfortunately, they got an increasingly bitter and personal fight, as incumbent Sam Guzmán and challenger Jayme Mathias have chosen attacks over substance. That said, Guzmán's refusal to distance himself from the more scurrilous attacks on his opponent have been more than just disappointing. Moreover, his reflexive support for IDEA Public Schools and its takeover of Allan Elementary, his dismissal of critics, and his pretense that the administration's only real problem has been poor communication, have alienated many in the community. Mathias is politically green, and may have a difficult learning curve – not least in distinguishing true educational allies from would-be "reform" advocates – but his energy, combined with a willingness to listen, should be a major board asset after the toxic environment of the campaign.
Retired AISD teacher Ann Teich went from challenger to presumptive nominee earlier this month, when incumbent Christine Brister suspended her campaign due to illness. Brister remains on the ballot, but it's unlikely she will serve even should she win. Moreover, Teich's advocacy for true community outreach, as well as a deep understanding of the complex issues facing the increasingly diverse North-Central district, is deeply impressive. She is not, as some critics have attempted to paint her, a "throw the bums out" candidate, but a considered and approachable candidate, who seems committed to finding innovative, neighborhood-led solutions to AISD's problems. The presence of a teacher on the board – especially one with Teich's knowledge of the real struggles in classrooms around AISD – is long overdue.
Central and West Austin is often regarded as the most affluent part of the city. This year, it is certainly gifted with two trustee candidates of the highest caliber. This may have been the toughest decision we faced this election season, and it's a narrow one. Amber Elenz is a highly experienced advocate for campuses and has an understanding of the dynamics of the district, and we believe she'll remain a force for progress within AISD, on or off the board. Charlie Jackson may be newer to AISD politics, but he brings a combination of business community experience and progressive social activism that presents an opportunity for increased accountability and a new policy emphasis on social justice, one that we believe will best suit the current needs of the board.
The departure of Annette LoVoi leaves a huge gap, and we believe that Gina Hinojosa is by far the better candidate to replace her essential voice. The primary purpose of the board of trustees is to hold the superintendent accountable, and Hinojosa's opponent, Mary Ellen Pietruszynski, seems too eager to defer to the district's number one employee, rather than provide necessary guidance. We also believe Pietruszynski's perspective relies too much on top-down, foundation-guided planning and funding. Hinojosa presents a future in which the board actually listens to the community, rather than writing off their opinions. AISD has become audibly afraid of driving away middle-class families, but Hinojosa also raises the concern that it's the kids from poorer communities who are really fleeing, either by switching to charter schools or dropping out. We believe her bottom-up approach presents far better options for the district's future.
*The Prop. 12 bond proposition endorsement originally stated $35 million would go toward I-35 improvements; that figure has been corrected here to show that the allocation figure is $15 million. The Prop. 17 endorsement suggested that funding would go toward the Austin Animal Center; rather, funds will be directed to the Betty Dunkerley campus.
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