Daryl's Dilemma

A True Believer Is Tested

Three days ago Councilmember Daryl Slusher threw out his back and left the office early. The timing is nothing if not ironic, since some environmentalists now fear that Slusher doesn't have the political backbone to hold true to his roots. "He's only been in office for two months," notes Frank Belanger, formerly one of Slusher's most committed campaign workers. "But I think already he's going to turn around and betray us."

The test at hand is the ongoing saga of just what to do with the Save Our Springs (SOS) water-quality ordinance. In it, former Chronicle columnist Slusher finds himself in the greatest dilemma of his short political career. From the citizens' initiation of the SOS referendum in 1992 to the ongoing court tribulations,Slusher has been the movement's lodestar. As the city's most thoroughly educated journalist (according to Texas Monthly) on how it could protect the Barton Springs watershed,Slusher successfully advocated the passage of SOS, and has taken the hard line in persuading the council to continue enforcing it. That role helped propel him almost within reach of the mayoral seat in 1994, and was a major factor in his relatively easy election to the council in June. Nonetheless, today he's expected to part with his past.

City Attorney Andrew Martin wants Slusher and his colleagues on the council to approve an ordinance stating that a weaker water-quality ordinance, the Revised Composite Watershed Ordinance (CWO II), was the law between December, 1994, and July 31 of this year. The council scrambled to create the CWO II two years ago after a state trial court ruled SOS illegal, and city staff warned that the watershed lacked an ordinance to protect it. Thus, the less-stringent composite ordinance seemed better than nothing, and the council enacted it with the caveat that it would be in effect until the entire court struggle over SOS ended.

But the world turned dramatically three weeks ago. A Texas Court of Appeals upheld the SOS ordinance, rendering it legal since its 1992 passage, thus nullifying the CWO II. As a result, last week the council officially re-enacted SOS from July 31 on. But to balance the recent ruling with the city's original promise to developers that the weaker ordinance was in effect, legal staff also recommended that the CWO II remain the law for that 20-month window when SOS was on appeal.

Many environmentalists whose mission for the past four years has been first the enactment, and then the enforcement of the SOS, are staunchly opposed. About 30 speakers attended last week's meeting en masse, full of righteous indignation that their ordinance would be "retroactively gutted," in spite of the court's ruling that SOS was, and has always been, legal.

"You're snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," complained Robert Singleton in a tearful appeal to councilmembers. "We win an appeal and we still don't have a victory."

Another argument that some environmentalists make is that the CWO II should never have been on the books anyway. When it was enacted two years ago, it only received five votes, but six votes are required to repeal a citizen-initiated ordinance.

SOS-ers like Bill Bunch, lawyer for the SOS Legal Defense Fund, says 70 projects and more than 1,500 acres of land over the watershed are awaiting development under the CWO II. Bunch warns that about three to four times as many apartment complexes, businesses, and concrete over the watershed will be allowed under the weaker ordinance, and he claims the new construction will quicken the destruction of Barton Springs and Barton Creek. His key request is that the only development applications that the CWO II should govern are the eight in which the bulldozers are already rolling; SOS should apply to all other applications, with minimal variances allowed.

Bunch's dire predictions of harm to the aquifer are hard to prove, but Slusher doesn't reject the arguments. In addition, he says he understands that the CWO II was never legally passed. Still, last week Slusher seemed to be laying the groundwork for a vote against applying SOS retroactively to the 20-month period, pleading that his most faithful constituency understand the legal side of the issue. He says changing the rules on the developers now leaves the city legally vulnerable: "The (CWO II) was what the city was enforcing when people filed their development applications and that's what we are going to have go by. That's the way it looks to me now." Slusher adds that with the legislature coming to town in January, the city needs to act with caution, so "that the lege doesn't stomp on our head and make it worse for the Springs."

Huh? Could this be the same guy whose general philosophy for years was that environmentalists, not developers and lobbyists, should be running the city? And could this be the same Slusher who wrote time and again that the city should never kowtow to the lege, they'll spank us anyway?

Slusher doesn't think he's changed, and presents this self-granted pardon: "This is much more complex [than past issues]." He adds that not acting responsibly could set the environmental movement back.

But SOS supporters worry that an even more catastrophic setback will occur if one of the city's most powerful environmental advocates suddenly favors the development community over the common people. "It would be unconscionable," says Belanger. "He's going to lose a lot of friends. But he might make some new ones."

More thoughtful environmentalists are not so quick to call Slusher a Judas, and are withholding judgment to see how the legal issues play out. Slusher renewed hopes that a solution could be found when he successfully delayed council action last week in order to gather more information, but judging from his comments, the delay was only a stay of execution, and he's ready to join the council majority.

"I'm not going to vote just to please the crowd. The easiest thing would be for me to say that this SOS won't get a majority of the council ... and I could just vote on the losing side to help myself politically. I won't do that," Slusher says. "It might feel good for a while but if you do that stuff too much you start losing the respect of your colleagues and the public."

But either way, the some of those who supported SOS could be pissed. As Slusher's close friend Bunch says, "I'll be deeply disappointed. But I can't imagine that Daryl would show such flagrant disrespect for the voters." Brace yourself, Bunch.

This week: The SOS saga continues. Public hearing on the privatization of the health care clinics at 6:30pm.

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