The Mayor's Gift of Gag

Quiet Please...

Despite the icy road- ways, the city council refused to cancel last Thursday's meeting. The turnout was minimal, but with the humbling weather and small gathering, a general sense of togetherness prevailed, spreading beyond the lobbyists and city officials to touch even the few homeless persons in from the cold (fearful of the mayor's new encampment ordinance, none dared to sleep).

That sentiment never seemed to reach the center of the dais, though, where Mayor Bruce Todd wielded a brand of chairmanship colder than the weather, barring yet another constituent from exercising her first amendment rights.

The muzzled speaker this time? Environmental activist Karen Hadden, who apparently prompted the mayor's wrath by her participation in a group outburst last year. She says she doesn't know why she's being censored. In a run-in with the mayor at the AISD school board meeting on January 29, he simply asked her to give him a call. "I [told him] I have time to speak tonight, and he said, `No, I'm busy'," she explains. "He said he wanted to talk about a noise incident a few months ago. I couldn't figure out why he would want to talk to me; he usually avoids me."

Hadden was unable to reach Todd. But prior to Citizens' Communication last Thursday, Todd wouldn't allow Hadden to speak. Todd wouldn't say why, but stated that Hadden knew.

Nor would the mayor explain the censorship to this reporter. "That's between her and me," he said during the meeting. The mayor's mouthpiece, Trey Salinas, says the ban comes because "Karen and [environmental activist] Neil [Tuttrup] disrupted a couple of meetings last year." He could not, however, name the dates of the alleged outbursts.

Hadden presumes that the mayor wants her to apologize for an incident at the April 27 council meeting last year, where she and others blew whistles and shouted in protest of a cancellation of two public hearings.

"I don't feel an apology is owed for any reason," she says. "What he did on April 27 was a violation of the Open Meetings Act." Todd banned her from speaking at the May 4 council meeting, but she was allowed to speak at subsequent council meetings -- until last week, and Todd plans to ban her from future meetings.

The Mayor has also evicted Tuttrup for "damn[ing]" the council on July 20, following a vote to provide sewer services to Freeport McMoRan's Lantana development. Tuttrup has not been allowed to speak for the last two meetings, and won't be allowed to do so until he apologizes. Hadden did not even attend that meeting, but feels she is being blackballed simply for knowing Tuttrup. "Jackie Goodman told me that in fairness to Neil, I would be banned," she says.

The mayor's aide, Salinas, says that four members of the council support the censorship, but no public vote has been taken. A city resolution, passed in April, 1992, during the mayor's first term, allows the chair of the city council to bar citizens who disrupt the meeting only for "the remainder of the Council meeting." Any changes to that resolution, such as continual disbarment, require a majority vote of the council. Worse yet, according to Hadden, Goodman told her that the mayor may place a blanket gag order on others associated with Tuttrup.

Interestingly, the order comes just as a 333-acre development in Northwest Austin is close to returning to council for second and third readings. (For more information, see "Naked City.") The developer's lobbyist is lawyer John Joseph, of Joseph, Minter, & Thornhill, a regular contributor to the mayor's campaign fund apparatus, Friends of Bruce Todd. Hadden and her fellow environmentalists are providing the most vehement opposition to the project, since it encompasses the habitat of numerous endangered species.

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The mayor's penchant for suppression had some anticipating a gag order on the ER (Eric Mitchell/Ronney Reynolds) tag-team duo. Not because Councilmember Eric Mitchell had cursed out yet another constituent, but because the twosome presented more numbers and theories than an algebra textbook on why senior citizen homeowners should get a better property tax break. The first $50,000 of a senior citizen's property value is exempt from city taxes, and the twosome wanted to double that exemption ceiling to $100,000.

An abridged version of their central argument: rising property tax appraisals had stressed senior citizen's fixed incomes to the point that the only option is an exodus to the cheaper tax bills in that land aplenty called suburbia. Thus, the city's tax base suffers, and with less homeowners and more renters, neighborhoods become a crucible for crime and all things apocalyptic. There were many, many more sub-arguments and statistics (some hastily calculated by accountant Reynolds right from the dais), but suffice it to say that in the final analysis it seemed the fate of the entire city was at stake.

Yet there would be no collapse from Todd and Councilmembers Goodman and Gus Garcia (Brigid Shea and Max Nofziger were absent), who had a return volley for every argument served up by the relentless duo. For example, the $2.8 million loss in tax revenue is a setback that the coffers can't weather. And, the tax break would actually be a tax shift to other segments of the population.

Finally, after Mitchell less than half-jokingly suggested that the city's loss be made-up by selling city-owned wilderness preserves (in the BCCP), the council voted on a Garcia counter-motion for a staff review of the tax break. It failed on a three-to-ER vote (a measure needs four votes to pass). But ER's valiant arguments didn't sway a fourth vote either -- the tax exemption failed as well.

But hope lingered, even after the council had trudged bravely on to other items. A sheepish Reynolds later raised his hand to ask whether the council couldn't just reconsider that little Garcia counter-motion. Todd obliged, it passed unanimously, and the great tax-break debate lives to see another day.

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The council's bravery was sorely tested with the increasingly contentious SCIP II low-income housing proposal (Scattered Co-operative Infill Program) for the Anderson/Robertson Hill neighborhood in central East Austin. The warring factions remained generally the same, with SCIP II supporters Mitchell and Reynolds warding off attacks from Goodman and Garcia.

Garcia immediately went on the offensive, saying he couldn't support SCIP II, considering the latest twist in the plot: a letter of opposition from East Austin church leaders, the Reverend Marvin Griffith of Ebenezer Baptist Church and Father Bill Elliot of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. In an interesting turnabout, Griffith had supported Mitchell and the SCIP II counter-proposal until sending the letter in December. Elliot, and now Griffith, object to having 100 rental homes in the small Anderson/Robertson Hill neighborhood, because, they say, an over-abundance of rental units will spell the continued decline of the area. Elliot heads the largest Hispanic congregation in East Austin, and Griffith leads one of the largest and most influential black churches in Austin.

Though it's been more than six weeks since the letter was received, Garcia requested a one-week delay of the SCIP II item, to meet with Griffith and Elliot about making some of the homes owner-occupied. Goodman backed him.

Mitchell noted that the proposal, in order to secure a $1.2 million tax credit from the state, is on a 45-day deadline, and expediency is a must. City Manager Jesus Garza called for a resolution to the issue, and said the item could be reconsidered at the next Wednesday work session. The council agreed.

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This week in council: Returning today, February 8, are Mitchell's Central Urban Redevelopment fee abatement item, Nofziger's Drainage Utility fee abatement for churches, and tax abatement for downtown housing. Also, Goodman's resolution to disband the Housing Subcommittee.

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