Rights of Citizens Marginalized

RECEIVED Mon., March 17, 2008

Dear Editor,
    As races for the Austin City Council get seriously under way, I want to address an overarching issue that I see as one of the most important: encouragement for citizens to participate in their own government.
    Over the years, I have watched rights of average citizens become marginalized. Examples follow.
    1) The City Charter states that citizens should vote on utility revenue bonds. With the exception of part of the funding for the South Texas Nuclear Project, this was the norm until November 1998, when the last election held for revenue bonds occurred. Now the city routinely authorizes debt for utilities with little thought about asking the people that pay for them. What about Water Treatment Plant No. 4, which will raise our rates 12-15%? What about a possible coal plant that may cost hundreds of millions of dollars? Shouldn't these be public decisions?
    2) The charter also states that the City Council may not sell or lease "substantial" parts of utility facilities without a public vote. What about the utility-owned land at Seaholm Power Plant and Green Water Treatment Plant? This is 14 contiguous acres in one of the fastest growing downtowns in the country. Is this "substantial" enough to vote on? How much will it cost to replace?
    3) Recently a series of work sessions regarding rail transit for the Austin region was held. The forums were public. But the public asked to ride and pay for rail was not allowed input.
    4) Citizens have historically used their City Hall Council Chambers for public events whenever it was not being used for city business. But this right was arbitrarily taken away from us without a public vote or process.
    5) Information about Austin's electric utility was once considered public. But much of this is now withheld. Restricted information includes bills of large industrial customers who get huge rate breaks and information related to planning for clean energy sources.
    6) Even our right to speak to council has been threatened by a proposal to clip public comments at council meetings from three minutes to two minutes. Fortunately, the proposal has gone nowhere, but my guess is it will be back.
    Where do council candidates stand on these issues? I want my rights back.
Paul Robbins
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