In Good With the Boys
Take an example from last Wednesday's work session on the draft policy budget, when Slusher touched off a flurry of questions about staff efforts to privatize the Hornsby Bend Water and Wastewater Plant. Referencing a June 19 city staff memo to the council, Slusher calmly asked why staff would privatize an award-winning operation. City Manager Jesus Garza explained that management mergers in certain areas could result in savings.
Other councilmembers then picked up the ball, pressing buttons that apparently angered the city manager while Slusher steered wide of the ruckus. Jackie Goodman and Gus Garcia expressed concern that the Water and Wastewater Department (WWD) staff were going through the privatization motions without notifying the council. According to the memo, staff was close to having a consultant prepare bid applications for the operation and maintenance of the plant. "The proposed consultant will work with the City to prepare a fair and `level playing field' for all bidders, and to define the detailed scope of work, performance measures, contractor qualifications, and bid evaluation criteria," the memo read.
Despite that wording, Garza reassured the council that a consultant hadn't been selected, and that staff had done nothing irregular and that the council would hire the consultant.
But Garcia and Goodman, who called the circumstances "all very secret," weren't convinced. Garcia complained that he had never given direction to staff to pursue privatization. In a rare backlash against his superiors, Garza replied, "Gus, it's within my purview to look at and compare my operating expenses. There are several points along the way where the council can say `Let's don't do this'."
Perhaps Garcia and Goodman were having mental regurgitations of a similar situation earlier this year with Mayor Bruce Todd's proposal to sell the Electric Utility Department (EUD). Numerous councilmembers suspected that city staff and the city's consultant reviewing the EUD, Price Waterhouse, were curiously in line with Todd's philosophy that privatization is the cure for the EUD's future. Now, Todd and city staff are teaming up again; it was only four days before the June 19 memo that Todd called for the privatization of five city departments, including WWD. "Before we become fearful of privatization, we have to understand that this is happening all over the country," said Todd, defending staff at the work session.
While privatization is nothing new -- the city has been bought off by private interests for years -- the rest of the council is hesitant to make it official. Adding to that hesitation may be Todd's personal stake in the matter. Shortly after he announced a desire to sell the EUD, it was discovered that his father-in-law lobbied for a leading EUD suitor, Texas Utilities. So did Kristen Kessler, his former executive assistant, and Don Martin, his campaign consultant, both at Don Martin Public Affairs.
Now, it's deja vu all over again. Waste Management, Inc. is a top candidate to manage parts of the city's Solid Waste Services division. Waste Management is already offering the city a replacement landfill after its current one closes down in 1999. On June 15, Todd called for the privatization of garbage collection. Martin and Kessler are no doubt pleased; they represent Waste Management, Inc. (See story, p.18.)
And consider this tidbit: Todd's call for privatization came just over a month after he left his accounting job to open Todos, a new public relations firm he and his wife, Elizabeth Christian (daughter of the aforementioned lobbyist George Christian), have created for his after-life in the private sector. Todos is planned as a sort of clearinghouse for PR work, farming out services with participating PR, advertising, and consulting firms. According to the May 7 Austin American-Statesman, Todd will also provide advice about "government regulations and local officials." He promised not to involve himself in projects that affect the city for an unstated period following the end of his mayorship next June, to avoid any conflict-of-interest charges. But the privatization issue will be on the table even then, and Todd and his partners will certainly benefit from the wheels he's setting in motion now.
Slusher's hard questioning continued at last Thursday's council meeting, which might well be called "The Daryl Slusher Show." Slusher prompted the majority of debate, and provided the lone dissent on numerous items without pissing anyone off. On first reading for a proposed development at the intersection of FM 2222 and Riverplace Blvd., Slusher complimented the developer, Pete Dwyer of Dwyer-Murphy Company, for his proposed water-quality compliance, then was almost apologetic in saying he'd have to vote "No" because the project could create undue traffic, and he wanted to see more information in that regard. Ronney Reynolds abstained for reasons unsaid and the rest of the council approved.
Beverly Griffith's first week was more reserved; she's no doubt trying to get her feet on the ground with complex city issues. Speaking of feet, though, she did team with Slusher for an alternative to the elimination of the $45,000-a-year pedestrian coordinator position. As expected, only Goodman and Garcia voted to keep the position. In an attempt to carry out the spirit of Max Nofziger's controversial ordinance creating the position, Todd proposed a resolution that city staff include "pedestrian-friendly policies" when planning for transportation. It was meaningless, since city staff already supposedly attempts that. Slusher and Griffith presented their own resolution, asking the city manager to bring back numerous reports and plans on improving pedestrian safety. Garcia, who would have provided the fourth and winning vote, was absent at the time, and the item seemed doomed for failure. Realizing this, Slusher agreed to remove the meatiest part of their resolution -- to create a planning team for pedestrian issues -- after Reynolds raised protests of "micro-management." But Griffith apparently felt betrayed, suggested that the item stay in, then almost demanded that the council delay the item until Garcia's return.
Still, when the Pro Tem resumed his position at the dais, Slusher didn't pursue getting the planning team back into the resolution. Todd instead suggested that the city's bike coordinator handle the planning. And although Griffith, Garcia, and Goodman weren't extremely pleased with the change, it helped the resolution to pass unanimously.
On first reading, the council also approved a franchise agreement with Central South West Communications. The proposed agreement promises a city-wide, broad-band computer network in five years. Approval was quick, though Mitchell complained that the negotiation process moved too swiftly, and he didn't have sufficient time to study the issues. After thanking city staff for a briefing earlier that day, Slusher chimed in with a similar argument. The agreement passed with Slusher abstaining and Mitchell voting `No.' Afterwards, Mitchell slapped Slusher on the back, and the two had a good laugh. n
This week in council: no meeting, no fireworks. The next meeting is July 11.