Page Two: Indecent Proposals
If you oppose these propositions, you must be on the take
I am not comprehensively addressing the actual merits or legal and legislative realities of these propositions, though I am clearly and strongly against them. Vote for them or don't vote for them; that is your privilege and your business.
My concerns are:
1) This is a campaign of semantics and good intentions, with supporters seeming to be remarkably unconcerned with substance. Yes, they are well versed on the intentions of the propositions, less so on the realities of what will happen if they pass including the consequences of the actual wording and subsequent legal, enforcement, regulatory, and budgetary impacts.
Waves of supporters seem intoxicated by the cosmetics of "open government" and "Save Our Springs," which is the idea. Certainly, SOS is counting on the fact that few would argue against those headings, regardless of the actual content of the propositions.
If the propositions are passed, the intentions of those who drafted them, as well as the way they were understood by voters, will be essentially meaningless.
2) Read them. They are ridiculously crammed with dictates and restrictions. The two propositions will require so much in the way of implementation that any discussions of cost and staffing are ridiculous at this point. For example, here are just some of the issues addressed, and thus affected, in the Open Government proposition:
"Section 3: Open Government Online. (A) Open Access To City Business, (B) Open Access To City Calendars, (C) Open Access To City Electronic Communications, (D) Open Access To City Functions, (E) Effective Access To Information. Section 4: Public Information. (A) Information Relating To Civil Litigation, (B) Economic Development Information, (C) Agency Memoranda, (D) Personnel Files. Section 5: Open Meetings. (A) Settlements, (B) Economic Development, (C) Meet And Confer Negotiations"
Keep in mind that is just an excerpt of the range of issues addressed. The propositions are overly ambitious, badly and too hastily written, and will be far different, when enforced, from the ways in which those supporting them claim.
3) These are proposed changes to the city charter, the core document that structures the city: They are not guidelines, or even laws, but charter amendments!
Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro is, in general, supportive of the ideas and approaches in the propositions. If they were offered in a more careful, detailed, and specific way, he would support most of them but he doesn't think they work as written, and he is extremely uncomfortable about actually amending the city's charter in such an encyclopedic way. News editor Michael King is probably close to Nick in this thinking.
I'm not. I don't like a lot of the propositions' intentions and would oppose them regardless, but given what we are asked to vote on, the decision becomes pretty clear-cut. These propositions would be hard to enforce and difficult to figure out how to implement, are potentially expensive, and would set some dangerous precedents.
4) Given that no one can reasonably estimate the actual costs of these propositions, the social and economic justice communities are again shocked, if not exactly surprised, by the arrogance of the environmentalists' privileged take on the matters at hand. Many of the groups concerned with the health and well-being of our city's poorest and most needy citizens have come out against Prop. 1. Those groups have a hard enough time squeezing nickels out of the council and the community; yet, on top of the tens of millions being proposed to buy open lands, supporters cavalierly assure us there will be no unintended consequences and very limited costs. Forget affordable housing, living wages, the consequences of gentrification, and the racial and economic inequalities that exist in Austin.
5) Supporters' tunnel-vision certainty that these amendments will do exactly what they believe they'll do is troubling. This is accompanied by a firm conviction in their own righteousness, coupled with an equally firm conviction in the inherent dishonesty of any who oppose them. By God, unless I'm missing something, progressives are more an endangered species than so numerous and powerful as to be able to afford wasting political capital by fighting among themselves. Yet these propositions, prepared by so few and quite hastily rushed onto the ballot, have divided this community.
Not that you would know this from the pro-Props campaign. Their ads claim all the opposition is from developers and developer interests (with the clear implication that they are greedy and corrupt). Anyone who opposes the Props, even longtime activists in the environmental community, stands accused of selling out. Talking to some of the supporters, I questioned this accusation. They quickly assured me that it is mostly true, and the other side has so much money that they are buying people off.
Later, when talking about a public forum, one of the SOS spokespeople explained how the opponents of the Props were playing politics in their support while the advocates were "educating" those in attendance. In other words, there aren't principled, differing points of view regarding these Props there are only the truth and lies, good and evil.
Michael King and I have editorialized against the propositions. In response, this paper's long history of championing environmental causes has been forgotten and King's strong advocacy of liberal and progressive positions negated. We've received hostile accusations of being corrupt and masking a hidden agenda through our opposition. Clearly, it could not be the case that we think the Props will make bad law. Instead, there is a range of corrupt and corrupting reasons: A) Because of South by Southwest, I must have some deal with the city; B) we are worried about losing readership if the city has open Web access (I don't even really understand this one); (C) we are "the Establishment," which I guess means that none of our specific objections need to be addressed.
6) In pursuing this "open government" agenda, the framers of these propositions did much of what they supposedly "oppose." They were put together quickly by a relatively small group, without much public input. They have been rushed onto the ballot without really giving voters or politicians a chance to read or understand them. They have been given electorate-friendly labels rather than have their ambitions, difficulties, and complexities spelled out. When we asked why the Props are so jammed with provisions, we were told it's because any proposition is hard to pass, so, rather than come back again and again, they crammed them all together. A contingent's agenda has become far more important than the community's informed consent: The propositions represent the moral certainty of a small, insider, special-interest group that knows its concerns are more important than electoral government or constitutional guarantees. As SOS president Bill Bunch made clear, they were very much drafted to deal with SOS' specific concerns.
7) As another example of "Do what we say not what we do," I had an e-mail exchange with a gentleman who wrote Michael King that we must be opposed to Prop. 1 because it "will add to [the continuing declines in print media circulation and revenues] because the public will be able to learn what city hall is doing over the Internet and not from the Statesman and Chronicle."
I wrote him that I thought "... the kind of political arguing that insists upon polarization rather than discussion ... is polluting the process far more than many of the 'problems' these Props are 'addressing.'"
He responded, "Mr. Black: I am not interested in your views." So I suggested, given that he is a public "open government" advocate, that our exchange would find a happy home here in "Page Two." Eventually, he declared " ... I've got the best contingency lawyer in town available to look at this right now. ... [I've] got LOTS of insurance; don't play games you can't finish." Finally, he added, "What is truly disgusting is to witness what used to be a progressive voice become just another cheerleader for the Chamber of Commerce and RECA."
Forget open, honest discussion it isn't that we think these Props are bad law and bad government; it is that we are corrupt!
8) The form of this debate is as upsetting as the content of the propositions. So certain of their moral rightness, supporters seem to be giving no consideration to not only the civic and legal costs and consequences of these Props, but what a burnt, civil-war-ravaged landscape they are creating in Austin's politically progressive community.
There is a lot more to say here that I'm not going to say. I expect these propositions will pass. I don't expect them to have nearly as catastrophic consequences as some of us fear, but I also doubt they'll do much good.
John Kunz of Waterloo Records and Kathy Marcus stunned, if not the whole world, then at least sizable chunks of it, when after decades of being together, they got married this past weekend. Our love and best wishes to them.