No Pity for Our City, Our Choice

The Shortest Slam-dunker

If council meetings were basketball games, then the proposed amendments to the city's charter would be the big, orange balls, and Mayor Kirk Watson would be Michael Jordan hanging off the rim. Come to think of it, a sports announcer's enthusiastic play-by-play would not have been out of place at last week's council meeting. About as dynamic and competitive as such parliamentary proceedings are likely to get, the spirited debate last Thursday will be echoing off chamber walls long into Austin's future. All the tongues were wagging that day over charter amendments -- which ones were in and which ones were out. The deadline for the council to draft language for the November 4 election was nigh, and three citizen initiatives jockeying for charter changes were clamoring for council to grant them a place on the ballot. By court order, the council already had its hands tied on putting the charter to a vote in November when a judge ordered the campaign finance reform petition drafted by Austinites for a Little Less Corruption (ALLC) onto the ballot. And because the charter can only be amended every two years, the court order sent the other two citizen groups scrambling to marshal their forces in time for Thursday's meeting. The result was even more dismally disorganized than predicted, but far more entertaining than standard council fare.

First up to the mike was "Our City, Our Choice," (OCOC) a group seeking to amend the charter to ensure that all city expenditures beyond the city's corporate boundaries would come to a public vote. Sponsored by Bill Spelman (whose former campaign manager Mike Blizzard is the group's leader) and Beverly Griffith -- the Defiant Duo whose powerless but vocal voting block first became a thorn in the mayor's side during budget season -- the OCOC initiative could have easily failed on political incorrectness alone, given that the council is now in the business of rewarding the appearance of consensus. Instead, though, Watson gave the amendment the chance to fail on its own merits.

By chance, it was Kirk Mitchell -- the Save Our Springs activist whose penchant for environmental advocacy has earned him a reputation as a self-righteous hack about town -- and not the more likable Blizzard who had the first whack at defending the proposed OCOC charter amendment. Mitchell didn't get very far. In a terrifying display of textbook Socratic method, Watson laid into Mitchell and didn't let up until he and the amendment were fully dissected and dismembered. (For a partial transcript of their exchange see "Natural Born Leader," p.16.)

Tag teaming with Watson, Daryl Slusher first stripped Mitchell of his attempt to align himself with the councilmember, and then treated the chambers to a long-winded account of his actual political alliances and opinions in regard to managed growth. (Suffice it to say, Slusher's for it.) Bravely sidling up to the podium after Mitchell limped back to his seat, Blizzard begged for leniency from the jury, er, council, casting himself not as a witness to be cross-examined, but as merely a concerned citizen offering public comment. "Don't worry, I'm not a lawyer," offered Jackie Goodman in sympathy.

With OCOC handily laid to rest, and Mitchell relegated to mumbling obscenities from the audience, the council took up drafting the language of the ALLC campaign finance reform amendment. As the council attempted to alter some of the petition's original language from the dais, ALLC's unassuming leader Brent White sat quietly stewing. After a full year of signature collecting, council hedging, and court battles, White was raring to see the amendment land on the ballot. When Spelman tried to delay a vote on the charter amendments for a week -- to give OCOC time to regroup -- White protested and only Spelman's Defiant Du-ette, Griffith, joined him on the motion to delay.

White wasn't taking much of a shine to the council's move to include the words "campaign expenditures" on the ballot. Limiting campaign expenditures could be considered unconstitutional, and while the council wrangled over the official language, White was adamant. "We believe we have a right to the caption language in the petition," he argued. "I want the word `expenditure' out because it could be used to confuse people and make them think that there's an unconstitutional piece in there. And I know people will try," he said. White must have been wishing the amendment had included language to limit political wind-baggery, especially when Watson followed White's comments with a lengthy speech regarding his genuine love of citizen initiatives and his disappointment that single-member districts didn't make it on the ballot.

Perhaps in fear of the same kind of gutting Watson treated Mitchell to, though, White stepped in and rolled over. "For fear of jeopardizing the election, I will yield on the language and not be too nit-picky," he offered, followed by two "Yes, Virginia!" style thank-yous from Watson and Slusher, and a resounding 7-0 vote to place the ALLC amendment on the ballot. At the end of the day, the council got the "expenditures" in ballot language and ALLC got their amendment, which, specifically, asks voters to say yay or nay to "limiting campaign fundraising and expenditures in city elections."

And what of the hotly contested, overly editorialized historical hot potato, the promised charter amendment to create single-member voting districts? What, indeed. Although during the recent council election Spelman forced the issue when he took the "Hispanic" Place 5 seat, and Garcia promised almost every day of the campaign to change the electoral system, it was Watson who began wrestling the beast of the ballot legalese in an attempt to somehow circumvent the two-year rule, and buy more time by getting a postponement on the vote without closing the window of charter-changing opportunity. Watson's best efforts failed and, with Garcia's committee to study the issue still in its infancy, the mayor did not even place the item on the agenda. It was still there in spirit, though, with the hot winds of dais speechifying calling its name.


Live Oak Plants Roots

Not to be outdone by the scene-stealing charter debate, the Live Oak Theatre campaign to secure $2 million in bond money to refurbish the run-down, 62-year-old State Theatre at 712 Congress Avenue marched back into chambers with a cast of thousands. Well, all right, dozens. Council challenges and this reporter's own comments in this space two weeks ago had feathers ruffled and wills steeled to guarantee the approval of the public investment into the private nonprofit, in the face of challenges on financial grounds from the parks board and challenges on equal opportunity grounds from the Latino Arts Consortium (LAC). Fortunately for the Live Oak crew, Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell was behind the wheel. A level-headed, tough-talking campaigner when she gets behind an issue, Futrell was going to park this baby in the garage if she had to push it uphill all the way. Futrell had handy answers to every question, providing a list of minority participation in Live Oak productions for the LAC, and an itemized estimate of restoration costs for the parks board.

For those who questioned the theatre's reliance for expansion purposes on the next-door Reynolds Penland building, which does not have a contractual relationship with the city, Futrell toughened up the legal relationship between Live Oak and Reynolds Penland by furnishing a guaranteed-use agreement. And when Griffith requested contractual language to protect the general fund from ever subsidizing the theatre, Futrell humbly complied.

All this agreeableness made it hard for the council to delay any further, especially given the fact that only Defiant Du-ette Griffith was backing up the parks board's financial concerns and mega-mayor Watson was gunning for approval. That didn't stop LAC chairman Tomas Salas from expressing his disgust with Live Oak's attempts to assuage LAC's concerns. "We just feel like we keep getting left behind. The Mexican American Cultural Center (MAC) keeps getting put off in favor of other projects that don't serve the Latino community," he says, adding that "[Live Oak] has not been very receptive to having Latino shows in [its] place." The MAC failed to receive voter approval for bond funding in 1992, but the city has set aside land for the facility at 600 River Street.

Despite LAC's protests, Live Oak's funding to renovate the State Theatre was approved, with even Griffith climbing aboard Futrell's jalopy for a spin around the block.

This Week In Council: Public hearing on the annexation of 183 East and Spelman's repeal of the bike helmet ordinance.

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