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Local Elections: Welcome to Ironyville

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The great failure of our local elected leaders has not been their priorities, as has often been accused, but their lack of vision. The prosperity of the Nineties should have allowed this city to plan for the next several decades -- not just to look toward the future, but to deal with problems of the past. Instead, we got mostly the usual patchwork of some planning and some crisis management.

A range of civic leaders has charged that, instead of concentrating on the basics of city services, the City Council bows to special-interest groups, is obsessed with saving the salamander, and was seduced by the foolish vision of Smart Growth. The budget crisis, the land purchases, the outstanding trio of Downtown disasters (Intel, CSC, and Vignette), and the deterioration of basic services like libraries and parks are offered as evidence.

Actually, other than needing a more coherent vision, the city has two basic problems. The outrageous growth of the past couple of decades (especially the last half of the Nineties) overwhelmed every aspect of the city, from services to traffic. That pro-development forces blame such problems on the environmental community is a sad irony. Trying to protect quality of life and the environment, and to control growth so city services could expand in the most logical patterns, became enormously complicated time- and money-consuming tasks, given the developers' all-out orgy of building. It's ludicrous to argue that, rather than think about the former issues, the city should have just thrown up its hands and tried to match services to excessive and haphazard growth.

But the more overwhelming problem is that citizens do not want to pay for the quality of government services they demand. This is understandable -- everybody already feels overtaxed, and everything is so much more expensive -- but it is central to many current budgetary problems.

Texas, for example, is either dead last or almost there in all kinds of social spending, yet the Legislature is currently chopping funding in every area. Some feel government on every level has simply gotten too big, and by cutting fat, refocusing priorities, and rethinking government's responsibilities, we can make these budget problems largely disappear. Others argue that government is underperforming, but we don't have the stomach (or the wallet) to give it the kind of money it needs. At the center is the conception of what government is and does. Unfortunately, the next state budget is going to provide a lot of information on the consequences of smaller government.

In Austin, over the next half-century, the city's land purchases and the basic tenets of Smart Growth are going to seem more logical than outrageous. Preserving the environment and maintaining a vital downtown are in the long-term best interests of the city. Outside of such controversial expenditures as the Pfluger Bridge or the Austin Music Network (relatively small amounts in the scheme of things) or the excesses of Smart Growth, most of what city government has done makes sense. The city simply can't afford the best police, fire, and EMS services possible and an outstanding parks program and to repair roads and to maintain an outstanding library system and an effective health care system and to run the city day to day, all the while planning for the future. Everyone has a few projects they would cut, but they are not all the same ones, and most would negatively impact a part of the community. The reality is that the city is sprawling out in every direction, resulting in an increasing, and increasingly complicated, demand for services.

There is no quick-and-dirty solution to Austin's problems. A long-term plan, with a real commitment to it, would have made an enormous difference but wouldn't have compensated for the budget shortfall. It is great to talk about supporting local small businesses, but one of the largest problems facing them is the incoherent planning process. For years, every candidate for office has promised a simplifying of the process. Not only have they not done it, candidates don't even promise any more. This is a past problem that negatively impacts every day.

The vast majority of the city budget is noncontroversially well spent. There is another chunk, more controversial, that I would argue is equally well spent. The crushing problem is growth and demand, not the salamander. This, coupled with the budget shortfall, leaves the city in a painful position.

In the next few years, the city will be fighting more of a rear-guard action to stay functional than having the time for the hardcore planning that needs to be done. This may mean the makeup of the council is even more important.

Will Wynn is very smart, knowledgeable about the issues, and committed to bringing people with disparate views together as a way of solving problems. Despite three years on the council, being every other mayoral candidate's fall guy, and getting beat up on KVET's Bob Cole and Sammy Allred show, his greatest weakness is that he really isn't that weathered. Very accomplished, Wynn expects accomplishment: He has an expectation of compliance when he leads, of cooperation when he legislates. Being mayor will weather him pretty quickly and deepen his understanding of governmental realities. His greatest strength is his understanding of compromise and negotiation.

Max Nofziger is weathered but little else. Nofziger was a great symbol but a minor council member, much more a follower than a leader. Enamored of his own rhetoric, Nofziger says all the right things, but has little idea how to deliver, claims credit for most of the positive community developments of the last two decades while placing blame for any failures. This is amateur-hour politics; expect a similar style in governing. Marc Katz, surprisingly, is more bluster than agenda, and Brad Meltzer could be in Oshkosh, Wis., for his grasp of local politics. Both argue that not only will they run the city as a business, but that their success in business thus qualifies them. I would hope that neither of them would stake a successful steel executive to a restaurant. Conversely, running the city is not like running a restaurant.

A note to the two as well as to the Libertarians: The government is not the same as a business. A business needs to generate the revenue it needs to exist, covering all costs, as well as being expected to turn a profit. Government often performs functions that would never break even, much less be profitable. We all kick in money to make these things happen because they are in the best interests of our community. Depending on for-profits and nonprofits to cover all areas of social-service and community needs sounds great on paper in the same way that having a superhero like Superman solve real concerns looks good.

That said, the two incumbents deserve to be re-elected.

The difficult choice is in Place 5. Brewster McCracken was the Chronicle favorite going into the endorsements meetings. A number of people I hold in high regard supported and spoke highly of him. But here we all felt that not only had consultants way overpolished and smooth-planed the candidate, but that his priority would be the look of his résumé in future races. Liking many of the other candidates, we were surprised to realize that Margot Clarke was the easy first choice of all of us. A community leader boasting a proven track record, she will bring a crucial but not overly compliant sensibility to the new council.

end story

All this said, if the council approves the no-smoking ordinances, then they are hopeless hypocrites. This is not the economic environment in which to offer a social policy experiment with potentially disastrous consequences for small businesses and live music clubs. If such an ordinance is withdrawn or defeated, it will benefit the local economy in a number of ways -- including that most of the no-smoking leaders are paid organization officials whose future employment will be thus ensured. As popular as the idea may or may not be, don't be fooled into thinking this is a community initiative. Rather, it is driven by special interests, some funded by tobacco-settlement money. Cole and Allred call Austin Goofy Town, but I prefer to think of us as Ironyville. end story

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local elections, Austin elections, May 2003 elections, city planning, Austin planning, economic boom, Nineties boom, Austin civic leaders, local civic leaders, Austin City Council, Barton Springs Salamander, Smart Growth, Austin budget crisis, Austin economy, Downtown

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