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The Statesman is back to its old ways.

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Deciding that its future is as Central Texas' newspaper rather than Austin's newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman has repositioned itself in several ways. One of these ways has been to focus more on the region and less on the city. This, I think, has lead to an editorial realignment that has brought the Statesman back to its old ways. This criticism isn't just the alternative weekly using the daily for target practice. This is from a genuine concern that one major consequence of the Statesman's attitude will be justifying Austin-bashing in the state press and, consequently, the Legislature. If Austin's own newspaper thinks the local political body is out of control, what is everyone else to think?

The LCRA-City of Austin water deal is the most recent example of this. Without discussing the merits of the deal, let's look at the coverage. A state agency and city staff spent about a year behind closed doors negotiating a deal. When it was finally unveiled, it had a relatively arbitrary deadline attached. The city said, "Hey, wait -- a billion-dollar deal, let's take some time to think about this." The Statesman immediately started in: This was such a great deal -- how dare those salamander-hugging environmentalists question it, how dare citizens and activists examine it and have input on it. Here, according to the Statesman, was Crazy Austin, acting irresponsible again. But we're not talking about preserving endangered species or buying land for the future, we're talking about scrutinizing a billion-dollar deal.

Disregarding the Statesman's chiding, council, by all accounts, negotiated a better deal. This while being treated as some kind of freak in the political side show for not taking the first deal offered.

The headline on the front page of last Friday's Statesman says it all: "Austin, LCRA ink contract for water: 7-0 council vote, $100 million payment ends more than a month of public scrutiny on supply deal." A $100 million down-payment on a billion-dollar deal and those tree-hugging, bug-loving, people-hating wackos spent "more than a month" negotiating. I hope the Legislature whups them good when it comes to town.

I'm still not sure what I think of this deal. I tend to support it (though I'm not sure this is a view shared by the rest of the Politics staff). As with land, I think water is one of those things that we will not slap our head in 30 years and say, "Why did we buy so much?" It should be noted that when Roy Butler got us into the Nuke and Carole Keeton Rylander helped keep us there, they probably thought that no one in the future would complain about too much low-cost energy. They were wrong, and I might well be wrong about this water deal.

But, regardless of the quality of the deal, I think by pandering to the anti-Austin readership, the Statesman is setting us up for a rough time with the Legislature. On all sides, reasonable people are grappling with the complex consequences of so much growth in the Hill Country. The terms of the debate need to become more sophisticated, not reduced to good guy/bad guy, but a community working together to solve the issues we face. After a pro-growth history that saw it taking some outrageous positions, the Statesman, under Rich Oppel, had been providing real vision and leadership as we, the greater community, met the future together. Now they're indulging in the worst kind of Austin-baiting which benefits no group and negatively impacts on our city's future. To chastise politicians for paying too much attention to a billion-dollar deal is against all the voters' best interests. It makes no sense.

At some point, I would love to rattle on about why, despite brilliant performances and a terrific script, I don't think American Beauty is a very good movie, if for no other reason than to entertain Jeff McCord (who patronizingly chortles whenever I offer my position). But for now, we have a lot of mail. end story

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