Council, Lite

illustration by Doug Potter Sans Sexy Topics, Public Input Is Slim

The council and city staff took a little field trip last Thursday, leaving the regular confines of Council Chambers to take the show on the road to a rec center in East Austin. Last week's was the first in an occasional series of away games that the council will hold in the hopes of bringing democracy to ye, the people. The on-the-road proposal came from Councilmember Ronney Reynolds, and goes hand-in-hand with his game plan for increasing public participation. At Reynolds' request, the council spent a good bit of last year toying with the council rules to do that, but it's not working too well. If anything, there's less participation. And though the new rules took months of effort, the council is now considering a proposal that will essentially return them to the time-schedule of old.

Public participation was certainly in short supply last Thursday at the Eastside Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center. The highlights of the public hearing were attempts by the local daily's new city reporter, Scott Greenberger, to get a photo of elusive mayoral candidate Jennifer Gale. The homeless transvestite has issued what she calls the "death penalty" against this paper and the local daily for not recognizing her mayoral campaign early enough. That means she refuses interviews and photo ops. (The In Fact newsletter is "on probation," since she says reporter Ken Martin hasn't asked her any questions.) The Austin Chronicle had snapped a picture of Gale at a candidates' forum, but the Statesman needed one for its series on council candidates. Greenberger had his camera at the ready for two straight days. When he found her at the meeting Thursday, she hid her face in her hair and refused his request for a shot. He finally got his chance to snap away when she addressed the council:

"I'm your next mayor of the City of Austin," Gale announced boldly, like a media darling under the flashing lights. "This council refuses to represent the people at large because policy decisions and city business are conducted during the day."

That is probably not the entire reason, or even a small part of it, but Gale does have a point about the lack of public input. Dozens of empty chairs at the meeting proved it. Of course, Reynolds' new rules shouldn't be entirely blamed for less participation, though the many changes are confusing -- the entire schedule of speaking times and executive sessions on both Wednesdays and Thursdays has been changed. More likely, as city consultants say, public input has tapered off simply because there are no hot issues the public cares to weigh in on. That would help explain the lack of attendance on Thursday, since most big issues had been left off the agenda, and the Councilmeeting Lite started at 6pm, instead of the usual 1pm. But that still doesn't entirely explain why only a handful of people showed up to lynch the council, since the purpose of the Eastside hearing was to get an earful from the public. Voiced were complaints about the unequal treatment of East Austin, and pleas for police intervention in areas of criminal activity. Legitimate concerns, of course, but the brevity of the messages made you forget that you were meeting in one of the most neglected segments of the city.

There was one meaningful issue considered: the Davenport MUD. The council has been dealing with the issue for months and months. Say it about 200 times. Finished? That's how sick we are of it. But it is a big deal, since the proposal, to extend sewer service to the MUD, will likely promote suburban development outside the city with no benefit except, at best, $183,333 a year in revenue to the Water & Wastewater Department. Annexation, on the other hand, promises to bring in $40-60 million more to city coffers over the next 25 years.

Despite the pittance currently on the table, the burgeoning alliance of Bruce Todd, Eric Mitchell, Ronney Reynolds, and Jackie Goodman had approved the deal on preliminary votes at two previous meetings. And they had ignored the opposition's request to link any sewer service deal with an annexation promise. The burgeoning BERJ -- Bruce, Eric, Ronney, and Jackie -- weren't expected to relent. But the three councilmembers in the New Environmental Minority -- Beverly Griffith, Daryl Slusher, and Gus Garcia -- made sure that if a deal were struck, then the BERJ alliance should at least be tortured with the words Davenport MUD, Davenport MUD, Davenport MUD....

The third vote had been slated for Wednesday, but Garcia had proposed a deal whereby the MUD would have to agree to partial annexation of the area to be served with sewer. Since staff had not correctly answered Garcia's complicated questions about financing the proposal, the minority asked for a delay. "I know this will pass," said Garcia. "All I want to know is: Are we structuring this in the best manner possible?" Goodman accepted the delay. The long-awaited showdown was set.

Thursday night, things went fast. Goodman surprised everyone with a resolution to study annexation. "This is in response to those who have made annexation their primary issue," said Goodman. She has held that her main concern is the environmental threat that the MUD's package water treatment plant would pose to the Colorado River. Package treatment plants "are not good for Williamson Creek, they're not good for Barton Creek, and they're not good for our drinking water," said Goodman convincingly.

On the mayoral campaign trail, Freeport caddie Reynolds is echoing Goodman's environmental reasoning. This should cause speculation among council observers since Reynolds, of course, is well known for carrying the development community's dirty water. And the deal is likely to spur development in the suburbs. Developers in the area to be served have approval for about 1.5 million square feet of commercial development -- more than the Barton Creek Square Mall.

Which helps explain why environmentalist Slusher was outraged. In fact, Slusher was so impassioned during his closing speech that he developed a super-strong Southern accent that made the sound system, and the ears of audience members, ring.

"Many times in the last two decades when the city has rushed into a deal it's been accompanied by calm and reassuring words about how it can't hurt us and how it's good for us," Slusher twanged. "That is definitely a boondoggle indicator! All of us will be paying property taxes, and they outside the city won't! I call that subsidizing development."

After the haranguing, Mayor Todd shouted: "Anybody else want to yell a speech?!"

"I do!" shouted Griffith.

"All right!" responded Todd. "Go ahead!"

Griffith didn't really shout. But she did talk about how this would contribute to the deterioration of the inner city, and about how there was no good reason to do it. But sometimes, the council just doesn't need a reason. In the end, the New Alliance approved the sewage extension, and agreed to have city staff study annexation.

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