SOS Dooms City, Part II
Ordinance Swallows City, Millions Perish
Last week, after years of legal battles, a state appeals court ruled that Austinites were justified in creating and voting for a law that they wanted. Nevertheless, the doomsayers are back again, this time trying to trivialize the court victory and marginalize the effort that led to the creation of the ordinance.
On August 2, the editorial writers at the local daily said the decision was "hollow," "no real victory," and that it was "largely symbolic." Councilmember Ronney Reynolds said the only winners in the ruling were "the lawyers." Mayor Bruce Todd, who, contrary to what has been reported in the local daily, has never supported SOS, said the ruling was "subject to legislative control."
Before you believe the gloom and doom prognosticators, take a moment to recall a bit of history. Remember 1991, when the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce paid Ray Perryman, the best economist money can buy, $10,000 for a study which claimed that strict water quality measures in Austin would cost the city $9 billion? Remember the politicians who said it would ruin our tax base? Remember the overpaid CEO who predicted that no Fortune 500 company would move to Austin because of its land-use policies?
Then look at reality. Austin is booming. People are moving here in droves. Unemployment rates are among the lowest in the state. Chipmakers are putting up billion-dollar factories at breakneck speed. SOS hasn't stopped growth. It hasn't even slowed growth, although Austin would probably be better off if it grew at a slower pace.
The editorial writers at the daily are right about one thing: SOS is a symbol. And perhaps the victory in court is only symbolic. We will see. But politics is all about symbols. And what better symbol for voters to have than one which affirms their right to create and pass legislation without relying upon politicians? The voter-driven petition and referendum that created the SOS ordinance were truly democratic. The SOS ordinance is the antithesis of politics as usual, where spin doctors, lawyers, and lobbyists decide what will be said, what bills will be passed, and which contracts will be awarded.
Last week's court decision is the biggest affirmation Austin voters have had in a long time. And the city's voters need to know that their votes count. Why is that important? Look at the low voter turnout rates. According to figures from the City Clerk, just 46,364 people -- 12% of registered voters -- voted in the June city council runoff. In the SOS election four years ago, 73,308 people -- about 27% of registered voters -- voted. Maybe it's a coincidence. Or maybe voters are tired of their government not listening to their concerns, so they just stopped showing up.
The Save Our Springs ordinance was the result of one of the biggest mobilizations of voters in Austin history. By a margin of 2 to 1, voters said they wanted to protect Barton Springs. But ever since that vote, their will has been thwarted. And now, even though a court of appeals has ruled that the ordinance is indeed valid, the city has not begun enforcing the will of the voters.
Rather than follow the will of the people, the local daily's answer is to create a "regional system of water quality and land use regulations." That's a great idea. But who is pushing for it? Where is the political will to create such an entity? Land speculators like Gary Bradley and Jim Bob Moffett have convinced the state Legislature to pass laws that allow them to ignore Austin's regulations. Do the editorial writers at the daily honestly believe that Bradley and Moffett will allow such a deal to happen?
The battles over the SOS ordinance are not over. Roy Minton, the attorney who represents New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan, is saying they will appeal the decision to the Texas Supreme Court. Yes, the fight over the Barton Springs watershed will continue, but SOS is worth fighting for. It is worth fighting for because it is an example of people taking power away from politicians and making an honest effort to protect a natural treasure. SOS was and is an example of citizens doing what their political representatives wouldn't do. It is an example of democracy in action. And if that isn't worth fighting for, then nothing is worth fighting for.
Death of a NaturalistThe death last week of Roger Tory Peterson marks the end of an era. Peterson revolutionized birdwatching by combining his skills of observation with a deft hand at painting and writing. The end results were field guides which allowed the uninitiated to quickly identify birds. He was the modern equivalent of John James Audubon. He brought passion and skill to natural history, and inspired others to do the same. And although Peterson was revered in birdwatching circles, he was a humble man who chatted easily with his admirers, signed their books and listened patiently to their birdwatching tales. He was a mentor for prominent birdwatchers around the world, including Austinites Victor Emanuel and Greg Lasley.
In an interview for the Chronicle in 1991, Peterson called birds "a very vivid expression of life. And I find now that I am getting older, I am more and more concerned about life. Every day is terribly important. Every moment is important."
Peterson also expressed concern for the future. He called human beings the "ultimate predator, but we are [also] the ultimate threat because of the changes in the environment. We are at the point where millions of people are facing starvation. And their survival is going to gain priority over wildlife, no matter how much we fight to save things. The real problem is overpopulation."
Peterson was 87.