A Few Questions for a Newcomer

Got a Problem With Salamanders, Bare Feet, and One Algae Tie?

by Daryl Slusher

In late August, the Austin American-Statesman's new editor Richard Oppel used his
column to pose
"A few questions from a newcomer." In something of an odd style of construction, Oppel then proceeded to answer the questions himself, or at least to elaborate on the thinking that led to his asking. In those answers, or elaborations, Oppel lashed out rather nastily at some local citizens, in particular those of the environmental persuasion. He fumed that Austin needs to "grow up." He ridiculed the deep level of "distrust" in the city, heaped scorn on those who care about the fate of the Barton Springs salamander, and stated in no uncertain terms his irritation with locals who try to show him their files on the Circle C subdivision.

Now, it could be a worthwhile thing for Oppel to come in and rail at Austin's peculiarities and impasses. Maybe he could spur some reflection and examination of long-held positions. Perhaps a little tough talk could help locals confront issues in new ways and break out of our long standing impasses. Yes, that could potentially be a very good thing, and I hold out hope that it might yet happen.

Oppel's column, however, looks to me like just more of the same. It is only the latest in a long line of embittered, irrational attacks by Statesman management on those who resist the booster/Chamber of Commerce/Statesman vision of Austin's future. When Oppel says Austin needs to "grow up," I fear he means that Austin needs to grow up into another homogenous corporate-dominated stop along the American landscape. He wants to make us like the places he came from rather than learn to love Austin's distinctions and uniqueness.

It seems to me that Oppel's energies would be best placed working to make the Statesman "grow up" into a real newspaper rather than lashing out with contempt at many of his new neighbors. In a neighborly spirit, I'm going to assume that he really meant to set off discussion and reflection with his column, and just got carried away lashing out at things that he doesn't understand. So, in that spirit, here are a few questions for the newcomer. They are followed by my own elaboration.

Don't Show Me Your File

You seem very contemptuous of local environmentalists, while in earlier columns you expressed concern for the city's finances. Your paper has continually portrayed environmentalists as wasting city tax dollars, while maintaining that what the Statesman defines as the "business community" is better equipped to make sound financial decisions for the city. The problem is, a preponderance of evidence points the other way. Many of the projects promoted by the "business community" and opposed by environmentalists also turned out to be terribly damaging fiscally. That you totally miss the connection here is an indication that, well, you're getting all your news from the Austin American-Statesman.

Question: Is it possible that your paper might acknowledge, or at least entertain the possibility, that the city would be much better off financially today if it had followed the advice of "environmentalists?"

Elaboration: This phenomena dates back at least to the South Texas Nuclear Project (STNP), supported enthusiastically by your paper, and heralded by boosters as an inexpensive solution to Austin's electric needs. Environmentalists, then called No Nukers, warned that the plant would not only be an environmental hazard, but also that its cost would be prohibitive. STNP finished more than six times over budget, has cost Austin ratepayers more than a billion dollars, and constitutes 40% of every resident's electric bill.

Environmentalists and allied citizen groups also opposed a number of other major public expenses over the years, including many of the bond issues that make up the city's massive bond debt, a debt about which you have expressed concern. The same folks opposed most of the municipal utility districts (MUDs) that now ring the city. The MUDs contribute not only to the bond debt, but also to the urban sprawl you profess to oppose. (By the way, on STNP, bonds, and other matters discussed here, there were many business people who sided with the environmentalists. These business people seldom get mentioned when the Statesman invokes the "business community.")

The most notorious MUDs are those at the Circle C Ranch, which is located above the Edwards Aquifer/Barton Springs recharge zone and also outside the city limits - meaning outside its taxing jurisdiction. You ridicule those who try to show you their Circle C files because you see this as "fight[ing] the lost war." I'll try to make this brief for you due to your aversion to hearing about the subject: Circle C was made possible through multi-million dollar subsidies from the state, county, city, Austin school district, and the federal government. The state extended MoPac Expressway across the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone to the front gate of the subdivision, and State Highway 45 along its southern border. The state also put in half a million dollars for a circular bicycle path called a veloway, and the city threw in around $300,000. The city guaranteed more than $35 million in bonds to provide water and wastewater service. When the city tried to impose stricter water quality regulations and pondered future annexation, things they had the right to do under their contract with Circle C, Circle C's developer went to the Legislature and got those parts of the contract voided. The city, however, is still guaranteeing more than $35 million on the bonds, and will pay over $3 million in Circle C debt service this year.

Then there's the federal government, which chipped in around $90 million to pay off Circle C developer Gary Bradley's bad loans. Perhaps one reason people want to show you their Circle C files is because those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The most amazing thing of all is that you followed your tirade on that with the question, "Why does distrust run so deep in this community?" If you would look at the Circle C files you might get a clue.

Rush to Judgment

You do quite a bit of name-calling in your column, including this centerpiece: "Austin could be the state's high-tech center and education center. Unless it grows up, Austin won't be the center of anything but lunatics with algae ties and bare feet screaming obscenities in city council chambers."

Q: Doesn't this type of name-calling mask a refusal to actually engage in serious factual discussion? Isn't it the type of tactic that is poisoning public debate in this country?

E: Your approach seems worthy of Rush Limbaugh or his local imitator Paul Pryor. It takes the allegedly wacky or fringe actions of an individual, or a few individuals, and uses them in an attempt to discredit the legitimate concerns of thousands. This tactic also involves ignoring some fairly major realities. For many Texans, Austin has long been the education center of the state. We are home not only to the University of Texas, but also to Huston-Tillotson, St. Edwards, Concordia Lutheran and Austin Community College. And, maybe you're too new to have noticed, but Austin has become quite a high-tech center. Many of the biggest, multi-national high-tech corporations located plants here and an abundance of independent high-tech support companies have sprouted up. One algae tie hasn't done much to prevent Austin from becoming a center for either education or high tech.

By the way, your characterization involves quite a bit of creative license. The one time that I remember an algae tie at the council, only one person was sporting one, and he was not barefoot or screaming obscenities. One barefoot person did scream obscenities at a recent meeting. I don't approve of this either, and I think it hurts the cause of those who do it. It would have been nice, however, if the Statesman had detailed the mayor's manipulations of the agenda that had the gentleman so angry.

As to wearing algae ties, sure that's a little wacky, but what's wrong with characters and diversity? Anyway, the tie was just meant to show the council the kind of stuff that's growing in Barton Creek, just below FM Properties' land. If you hate algae ties, why not put the Statesman's immense resources to work fighting the pollution that causes the massive algae blooms that frequently sprout downstream from Freeport's golf courses and the neighboring courses at Lost Creek Country Club? (Treated sewage is used to water the golf courses at both.) At least devote serious articles to the subject.

In fairness, the Statesman has done some coverage of the algae blooms, but they have yet to do a serious financial analysis of the impact that approval of Freeport's Barton Creek PUD and the corresponding city sewer would have on the city treasury. Nonetheless, your paper has editorialized in favor of the PUD for five years and bent the news in favor of it to an incredible degree. Also lacking is a financial analysis of the Lantana water deal for Freeport which set off the angry citizen who so bothered you.

Name-calling and singling out wacky acts is a lot easier than addressing real issues and the legitimate concerns of many citizens. This tactic seems particularly offensive when the name caller is a newcomer to town having a tantrum over things he doesn't like about some of the locals. It's even worse when the newcomer is editor of the only adult daily newspaper and makes a habit of waxing sanctimoniously about the sacred tenets of journalism.

How High's the Fecal, Oppel?

Q: Would you be willing to stand at the entrance to Barton Springs next time it's closed due to fecal pollution and explain to children arriving to swim why they can't? Or, when the pool is not closed but high fecal warnings are posted, would you explain to children what this means? Also, would you explain to adults and children why you consider it so idiotic to care about the salamander?

E: You write that you have "earnestly tried to generate appropriate angst for the Barton Springs salamander" and end your column with the suggestion that "When Robert Mueller Municipal Airport closes, why not open a theme park called Salamanderland?" This is sort of cute, and granted, the endangered species act fight can be quite bizarre, and is a ripe subject for ridicule. The larger issue, however, is that Barton Springs is one of the main reasons Austin is here in the first place. Thousands of people - spanning races, classes, and political persuasions - swim there every year. It draws visitors from around the world, some of whom are turned away because of fecal pollution. For at least 25 years, thousands of citizens have been engaged in a struggle to preserve its once-clear waters. They've been continually betrayed by political leaders and alternately ignored and ridiculed by your paper. The salamander is just one avenue through which people are trying to preserve the springs for this and future generations.

Have you ever heard of the concept of the canary in the coal mine? If the canary died, the miners knew they'd be next if they didn't evacuate. The health of the salamander is an indication of the health of the springs, and the indicators right now are very bad. Not only do salamanders serve this function for the springs, but many believe the springs themselves are Austin's canary in the coal mine. Perhaps you should give more serious consideration to this matter before you leap in with your newcomer's scorn. n

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