Page Two: Unreasonable Discourse

When it's 'good vs. evil,' political discussion is impossible

Page Two
Both high-profile propositions, 1 and 2, will likely win this Saturday. They have any number of things going for them, including most prominently their marketing labels: "Open Government" and "Save the Springs!"

Waving the Barton Springs banner high, proponents have adopted the morally superior certainty of a medieval Passion Play. They've had a holy vision, some greater force has shown them the future, so they know the ambitions and intentions behind the propositions are as good as implemented fact. If you oppose them, it is because you don't want to Save the Springs, are against open government, or have just sold out in general.

Come on, be real – it pained us to come out against these propositions, especially given our readership. It wasn't and isn't easy. It was done only after much thought about the merits, intentions, and consequences. Now, calling those of us opposed all kinds of stupid is just the political discourse – but supporters are instead challenging our principles and purposes, questioning our ethics, insinuating improprieties, and smearing our integrity.

There are many problems with the propositions, but the most unavoidable ones are how overreaching they are in terms of scope and ambition. Badly worded, confusing, and/or lacking in specifics, they don't often make it clear what is being mandated. Given this complexity, they have been moved along too quickly, allowing insufficient time for voters to study or understand them. Breaking the discussion down to the merits of the many, many separate sections is pointless – because the vote is a simple "yes" or "no." The costs of implementation are unknown and uncertain, with both high-end and low-end projections equally fictitious. These are two unwieldy pieces of legislation so overpacked that there is no way to predict their impact.

More often than not, the campaign for the propositions has itself failed to show much regard for open discussion, accessibility, and reasonable input. The campaign's numerous mistakes, reported violations, and difficulties in understanding and complying with even the simplest election laws (they left off crucial, legally required attributive wording on their campaign signs) should have given them some pause. Instead, they maintain their shallow and baseless assurances that implementation will be cheap and easy – merely expanded bookkeeping. New government procedures are never cheap and never easy.

Lofty goals and ambitious, visionary statements aside, these two propositions were consciously crafted to address SOS frustrations with City Council and staff decisions that they don't like. The props are less about opening up the political process to all than they are about increasing SOS and allies' input and control over city and development agendas. This is very clearly special-interest legislation, and to dispute that term by claiming the public good trumps the more partisan reasoning is beyond disingenuous.

To understand just how specific, deliberate, and mendacious the intentional crafting of these props was, just consider Prop. 1, Sec. 11: All police personnel files must be public, and not subject to union negotiation. And Prop. 1, Sec. 15: All police officer meet-and-confer negotiations must be negotiated in public, and this provision is not subject to negotiation. Even in such an inclusive smorgasbord of interests as we find in Prop. 1, these two stand out as being of a different stripe than the rest, and somewhat artificially inserted. This is because these two address certain obsessions of the local chapter of the ACLU, which helped draft the legislation. They are designed to negate clauses in the negotiated contract between the police and the city that the ACLU doesn't like (meet-and-confer negotiations and APD personnel file protection). Instead of being up front, however, this anti-union effort is camouflaged as to purpose and consequence. This is open government?

Many of those involved in drafting these propositions are against any form of economic development support. They would find significant support in the community for this point of view, yet instead of openly proclaiming it, they finesse it indirectly by attempting to make it nearly, if not completely, impossible.

Again and again, these propositions have masked ambitions, disguised goals.

These propositions were drafted and vetted, and the election scheduled, in almost exactly the opposite way than that in which they insist the city must proceed. A small group met and the propositions were crafted around their special concerns, with little input from differing points of view, related organizations, local leaders, or the public. The greater community never really had a chance to consider them, nor were they really invited to participate. When Kirk Watson later complained that this process was itself closed, he was indignantly labeled a manipulative liar because he had specifically been invited to participate. I can only hope that the difference between a widespread, open, honest, and welcoming community vetting of such important legislation and inviting one specific citizen to give input on the drafters' terms are not even in the same neighborhood.

The propositions were pushed forward at such a pace to give supporters, opponents, the undecided, and the disinterested precious little time to reasonably consider them and come to any sophisticated understanding. Supporters answer this objection, as they answer so many, by becoming sticklers for the rules, pointing out that they are not the elected government and their legal responsibilities are not the same.

But logically, wouldn't the first requirement of any propositions mandating extensive amending of the city charter be that the process take as long, and be as open, as is needed? Not just to get the wording, intentions, and implemented results of the propositions in complete sync, but to make sure the greatest number of voters were aware of and had input into them, in order to achieve a public consensus?

Advertising in support of the two propositions declares, "DON'T BE MISLED!!! The claims of those opposing Propositions 1 & 2 are so misleading a District Court Judge threw them out of the ballot language as not based in fact."

To call this misleading would be the same as not calling SOS a "special interest" because they tell you that they aren't. The judge ruled on the wording of the proposition, which he found was not representative, exclusively negative, incomplete, and misleading. Harsh criticism indeed, but this was concerning the wording on the ballot, not any overall claims or content. The judge also ruled "the ballot language includes a cost that is not sufficiently certain and references a tax increase the city concedes is not compelled by the proposed measure." This was not a judgment call to the claims or positions of Prop. 1 & 2 opponents, but simply a statement that the numbers weren't sufficiently confirmed – under those terms, he might have accepted or rejected numbers that were half as much, or twice as much. It wasn't about motive or cost; it was about support for that particular amount.

The ad states "DON'T BE MISLED" as it endeavors to mislead you.

Little is certain about the cost. But when SOS President Bill Bunch makes a statement like "The truth is that the mandatory provisions of the amendment can be implemented for $2-3 million, and the city has discretion to implement the remainder as 'practical'," the only thing certain is that he is not telling the "truth." No one yet can or does know what it will cost, so there is no "truth."

Finally, there is the hostility, viciousness, and absolute certainty of purpose and righteousness polluting the debate: There is good and evil, right and wrong. Since the SOS gang is right, that means everyone against the props is not just wrong, but evil. City officials are corrupt; opponents are on the take; city staff has sold out; no one who speaks against the props is doing so from honest convictions. Those against this proposition: A) are morally bankrupt, wrong, have sold out, and/or have turned traitor to the progressive cause; B) don't want to save Barton Springs, but instead want to build toll roads everywhere; C) have been paid off and/or are just stooges of the powers that be; D) love development and developers; E) all of the above.

When I brought this up in a meeting with several proponents, they nodded their heads for a half-second, but then quickly assured me that such was the case: the other side had a lot of money and was spending it freely. Again and again, you are offered assumed truths with no basis in fact – including the presumption that everyone in opposition is paid off.

Do you not think it pained us to come out against those propositions? Especially given the Chronicle's predominant constituency? It wasn't and isn't easy. It was done only after much thought about the merits, intentions, and consequences of these propositions. Again, call us all kinds of stupid, and that's the discourse, but this insistence that all the opposition is consciously villainous is pathetic.

Most upsetting is that this truly ugly tone now dominates the discussion of the proponents. An accusation is a conviction, although it is usually based on even less evidence than Sen. Joe McCarthy would have considered reasonable. Here is some of the loving and enlightened discourse:

"So a loud, corrupt few are desperately striving to protect their secrecy: case in point of why we need access to specific documents, schedules and archived communication (not "live": that's a lie). So for a healthy government, look past the subjective hype of 'bad language' (the judge said the ballot language was bad, not ours) and 'too costly' (even at the inflated cost analysis already deemed a flat-out lie in court, it still cost less than one bad back-room deal)."

"Neither [Mike] Clark-Madison nor the former City Council members who oppose Clean Austin have chosen to reveal how much they're being paid by, a name taken straight from the playbook of the Bush administration, since the primary goal of this PAC is to obfuscate, hoping to confuse voters into voting against their own best interests. ..."

"I also believe that the print media is particularly threatened by the continuing declines observed in overall print media circulation and revenues. Prop 1 will add to this decline because the public will be able to learn what City Hall is doing over the Internet and not from the Statesman and Chronicle. ... I attribute much of the anguish and gnashing of teeth over Prop 1 that I see at the AAS and Chron to this perceived threat."

"Those of us who are spending our own time and money working for Props 1-2 because we feel that the system is badly broken sure do resent the people like Clark-Madison, and (likely) former City Council members Slusher, Goodman, and Garcia, who are being paid to work against Props 1-2." (Emphasis mine.)

"Recent 'Page Two' comments by Louis Black [April 7], and Michael King's 'Point Austin' [April 21], bring to mind how 'Establishment' the Chronicle has become. ..."

"Black's diatribe is so vehement ... one must wonder if this editorial is some kind of payback for the special treatment SXSW, which is a great thing but still Black's private business, got from the city this year. I guess we'll never know because we don't (yet) have open government!"

"Yes, I will be the first to admit that the Barton Springs recharge zone is fundamentally a religious issue for people like Bill Bunch and myself; why else would we put ourselves through all this when we could be collecting cash from Stratus for looking the other way instead? ... Nevertheless, in this case our religious, if you will, convictions coincide precisely with good public policy, maximizing the quality of life for the general public, and helping to prevent economic failure and environmental catastrophe." end story

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Propositions 1 and 2, Prop. 1, Prop 2, Austin elections, Austin open government, Save Our Springs, SOS, Bill Bunch, SXSW, South by Southwest, Mike Clark-Madison, Austin City Council, Austin city government,, Austin-American Statesman, Austin Chronicle, Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, Gus Garcia, Michael King

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