Our readers talk back.
Dear SOSAnista BoardDear SOSAnista board,
Your Chron/PR letter reminds me of poison ivy, so pretty to see and so impossible to live with ["Postmarks," April 14]. Truthfully, your clique views the COA as a weapon of mass development.
"You have a secret Chapter 245 committee that makes every single call about what development is grandfathered and what development isn't. ... You look at your own calendars, tons of meetings where you're doing city business. ... We ask for your calendars, we look in there, the overriding, prevailing characteristic is there's nothing there" statement of SOSA executive director Bill Bunch, March 9.
Office calendars are not meeting notes, so like President W., SOSA's looking for something that doesn't exist. SOSA believes nothing can overcome the SOS ordinance, but 245 was designed as bulletproof anti-SOS state law. State law supersedes local law, and Texas isn't pro-environment, so SOSA dredges COA office calendars for conspiratorial "insight" and proposes Big Brother "open" government.
How will Austin negotiate when all its thoughts are public and none of its adversaries'? What successful negotiation was ever made when everything was subject to constant cyberspace sniping at every stage? Who would negotiate under the conditions the amendments propose? The COA negotiated the Intel/CSC/Silicon Lab structures off the watershed area but could lose that ability should your candyass "clean water" amendment be adopted. A state court could legally rationalize such a result, which is why there's an office complex adjacent to Barton Springs when there shouldn't be. SOSA's positions don't advance; their city candidates don't win. So a gangrenous coup is staged by IR proxy, and everyone must fear 20,000 signatures. Didn't Griffith have about 20,000 signatures but less than 11,000 votes? Your "victory" is anything but assured.
The Nuances of PrivacyDear Editor,
As a privacy advocate, I would like to correct a basic mistake made in the discussion about Prop 1. At the special meeting to redraft council's previous (and illegal) ballot language, city attorneys boldly stated that "corporations have privacy rights" when trying to continue to justify labeling the OGO "privacy invasive" after the judge made clear that all state and federal privacy protection law will still apply. They were referring to the waiver requirements in the OGO to open up tax-giveaway discussions.
The Chronicle repeated this idea in its summary of the amendment at 9) ["An Honest Ballot," News, April 21]. "9) Any person or company 'seeking to engage' in economic development negotiations with the city must waive all rights to privacy concerning those negotiations."
This letter is not the place for a long legal memo on the issue of corporate "personhood," or on the long list of laws guaranteeing your privacy. Suffice to say, corporations aren't people, and any right these legal fictions may have to privacy is far from clear. But I don't have to go into the details of "corporate privacy" to refute the above mistake, because the economic development section of the Open Government Amendment isn't about individual privacy but about the information a company should share with the community when it asks for tax breaks information about the type of business and type of jobs a corporation wants to bring, its history of environmental compliance and good corporate citizenship, its history staying in a jurisdiction after the tax breaks run out, and other items of fundamental interest to the public.
Companies can now claim confidentiality for virtually anything about their business, including expected traffic impact and the results of environmental studies. The legal secrecy around tax abatement negotiations is used to hide a great deal of important information from the community and can only be overcome by a mandatory waiver. When Proposition 1 passes, companies will still get tax breaks, but they must accept our open process as the starting condition for negotiations.
The city doesn't need to know and wouldn't ask for the formula for Coca-Cola in order to entice a bottler to move to Austin. Companies shouldn't be given money by the city with one hand and allowed to hide information crucial to the community with the other.
Jordan S. Hatcher
EFF-Austin[News Editor Michael King responds: The charter amendment provision to which Jordan Hatcher of EFF-Austin refers is as follows: "The City must require all businesses and individuals seeking to engage in the type of economic development negotiations referenced in Texas Government Code § 552.131 to execute and deliver to the City a waiver of any rights to prevent the public disclosure of all information exchanged with the City. The City is without authority to engage in economic development negotiations with any company that has not first executed a waiver." Accordingly, the Chronicle summary of that provision is correct as it stands.]
Prop. 1 Best Option on BallotDear Editor,
Although I would certainly hate for Jim Bob Moffett or any of the Stratus folks to "open their kimono" ["Postmarks," April 21] before they were ready, I still object to secret deals being made by city staff or City Council. From the Stratus deal, which has thrown open the floodgates of suburban development over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone in direct violation of the SOS ordinance, to the highly popular toll-road plan, to a commuter-rail plan, which for all practical purposes gives all of Austin's mass transit funds to the hamlet of Leander, secret agreements, which are presented as immutable, take-it-or-leave-it "done deals" are frequently not in the best interest of the public, who must live with these deals long after the deal makers have moved on to bigger and better things. When I see high-level city officials driving around in giant, gas-guzzling SUVs, it is clear to me that these people do not understand critical, pressing issues, such as global warming, peak oil, and the massive trade deficits and military decisions, which are undermining our security and our economy. Everyone has a right to be ignorant, of course, but I don't want ignorant people making decisions and deals on my behalf, which I can't provide input to before it is too late. It's just that simple. A public vetting slows things down, but it also guarantees that no stone has been left unturned before a decision is made. When we're making decisions that will have an enormous impact on our community for decades, doesn't it make sense to have an open process and make sure that we get it right? Yes, Prop. 1 isn't a perfect solution. It will, however, help put a stop to secret deals like the examples cited above, each of which is likely to have an enormously detrimental impact on our community. If you have a better proposal, let's here it; otherwise, Proposition 1 is the only option I see on the ballot.
Supporting Prop. 2Dear Editor,
I swim in Barton Springs, and I've noticed that in the afternoon there's a ton of algae floating in the water. I believe the algae is due in no small part to "grandfathering," where developers demand and the city of Austin gives exemptions from the Save Our Springs Ordinance. Some developers don't want to comply with the law passed by Austin voters 14 years ago. We told them the "rules of the game," and yet 14 years later, they want special treatment to allow them to maximize profit at the expense of our springs.
When the city approved Advanced Micro Devices' plans for a major office complex over the watershed without a single City Council public hearing or vote I knew I had to start doing something again. The AMD plan doesn't come close to meeting SOS pollution removal standards. AMD falsely says they're complying with the SOS ordinance, and no one on council even stood up to publicly oppose the move.
So I'm supporting Prop. 2, the Save Our Springs charter amendment, so the city will stop giving exemptions to our water quality laws when they don't have to and will at least hold a public hearing on developers' "grandfathering" requests a big change from the current "behind-closed-doors" approval "process."
And companies (and their spin-offs) that move major employment centers to the fragile Barton Springs Watershed don't get city subsidies our tax dollars if we approve Prop 2. AMD's spin-off Spansion has already requested hundreds of millions of tax dollars in subsidies from the Del Valle Independent School District and will probably come to City Council as well.
Prop. 2 gives voters the opportunity to speak clearly to both council and developers that we care deeply about Barton Springs, and they should respect our vision for Austin.
Iraqi Body Counts in DisputeDear Editor,
In last week's Chronicle it was stated in "War Watch" [News, April 21] that "Iraqi civilian body count, as reported in the media, is at 36,841." I personally believe that there is no way that the number could be this low, and in fact some respected sources place the death count at 10 times this figure. The point is there is no way to really know, which is the saddest part, aside from the actual deaths that is.
Colby Spath[News Editor Michael King responds: As we have reported numerous times, independent sources of civilian deaths in Iraq, although not confirmable, are indeed much higher than the confirmed, media-reported deaths as tallied by Iraq Body Count.]
Gratitude From Ana SisnettDear Editor,
Thank you, friends and family, near and far, for so lovingly sharing your time, energy, and creativity as I undergo treatment for ovarian cancer.
I firmly believe that I am here, full of hope today, because of your love, hugs, calls, prayers, cards, e-mails, rides, visits, donations of house cleaning, medical care, meals, funds, and other much-needed resources.
Please also continue to increase awareness about ovarian cancer.
With eternal gratitude,
Michael King questions how we can afford to protect thousands of acres of land in the fragile Barton Springs Watershed and implement Open Government Online (Prop. 1) ["Point Austin," News, April 21].
The real question is "How can we afford to spend billions of tax dollars paving and polluting the Barton Springs watershed and continue allowing our city to use closed-door negotiations to give hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to some of the wealthiest corporations?"
It's simply cheaper to save Barton Springs than to pave its watershed. For a small fraction of the proposed $1.25 billion in toll and highway paving CAMPO has planned for the Barton Springs Watershed, we can protect thousands of acres, preventing an onslaught of traffic and sprawl in the Hill Country that will ruin Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer. Watch an animation of these two futures at www.sosalliance.org.
City Council will soon finalize a bond package for the November election. The council should include $90 million for protecting land in the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Watershed. (Last year, San Antonio voters approved $90 million to protect land in the Southern Edwards Aquifer.) The city has in the past successfully purchased land, placed restrictions on the land that strictly limit development, and resold the land to private buyers. The city can recoup its investment while accomplishing long-held conservation goals.
Likewise, implementing the Open Government Online charter amendment (Prop. 1) will save the city millions compared to the cost of secrecy. When you tally up the cost of secret deals the city has done over the last seven years, it's a staggering $700+ million (read the full list at www.cleanaustin.org). Businesses across the globe are moving to online information systems because it saves money. The same will be true for the city of Austin if voters approve Prop. 1.
Save Our Springs Alliance
Stop Sassin'Dear Editor,
I've noticed a trend over the past year or so of an increasing number of responses from Chronicle staff members to letters published as if the editors and writers have to get the last word in. Moreover, the responses tend to be snooty and sarcastic rebuttals, direct slams against the letter-writers. It's your rag, but I feel that responses are only justified when the letter-writer states something glaringly inaccurate, and maybe not even then. Letter-writers will tend to be a bit bombastic and/or critical of publications, but that doesn't mean you have to reply with ...
What? You say it is indeed your rag and that if I don't like it, I don't have to write a letter and be a target for ridicule. OK, maybe so, but did you really need five responses last week and the week before too? Oh, I'm being hyperbolic, and I can't count, since it was only four?
Regardless, are Louis Black and Michael King, among others, so thin-skinned that they can't let a few critical comments and even inaccuracies slide by without challenging them and name-calling back? After all, the letter-writers don't often get a chance for a rebuttal to the rebuttal, do they?
What? You mean if I stop asking questions in my letter, you might not be so tempted to offer a response? I just did it again? Oh, got it. On a final note, I see that your Web letters are "posted as we receive them during the week, and before they are printed in the paper." Is that real-time?
Rob D'Amico[Editor responds: The Chronicle's policy has long been that staff responds only to errors of fact in the paper. Online is open territory. Recently, for a number of reasons, we have gotten lax over restricting the print responses. Thank you for bringing it up; we will be more careful in the future.]
House Wins in Several CategoriesDear Editor,
Just an FYI. You posted the winner of the bloat contest today and wanted to send a tree to the owner of the house ["We Have a Winner! Sort of ...," News, April 21].
To my knowledge it has not been sold. It was built from an out-of-neighborhood developer that obviously lacked any sense of scale or taste.
My wife and I couldn't resist going to tour it on one of its "open houses" (which is almost every weekend of every month). We scaled the oversized stairwells, knocked on the hollow doors, and can sum it up as such: spit and toilet paper piled 35 feet high.
By the way, a friend of mine who is a big realtor in town told me that the realtors association of Austin recently took their own tour of homes in the area. This one was on the docket and was unofficially voted as the ugliest house currently on the market.
If realtors are saying this, buddy, you know the thing's a stinker.