Natural Born Leader

Mayor Hits the Ground Running His First 100 Days

by Kayte VanScoy

A Kirkquirk: Watson often presides over the council meeting while standing behind his chair like the conductor of a political symphony.

photograph by Jana Birchum

One hundred days after his swearing in, the rookie-dominated council Mayor Kirk Watson leads has been treated to one of the most difficult initiations imaginable. For both city staff and council, each day of the new council's tenure has been more challenging than the last, and Mayor Watson has risen to the call for leadership at every opportunity. Out ahead on every tough issue of the summer with seemingly boundless energy, the mayor has earned an even wider circle of admirers than the broad-based support of the May election would have suggested. In his first 100 days in office, Kirk Watson has shown himself to be a consensus-builder who possesses loads of charm, humor, and heart. But he's no pushover. In fact, in the blink of an eye, this easy-going Clintonesque leader can strike back as swiftly as a rattlesnake, and with deadly effect. The public got perhaps its first glimpse of Watson's aggressive side at last week's council meeting when the mayor, who is a master at putting people at ease with a funny anecdote or self-effacing tale, ripped into citizen activist Kirk Mitchell with the cunning of a surgeon. Drawing on his 20 years of experience as a trial lawyer, Watson had Mitchell squirming like a hostile witness while he peppered him with more than a half hour of questions -- some earnest, others viciously sarcastic.

Mitchell appeared before the council to support a proposed charter amendment known as "Our City, Our Choice," (OCOC) which would have brought all city expenditures outside the city's corporate limits to a public vote. OCOC saw it as a way to put decision-making power for managing growth and promoting tax equity into the hands of Austin's citizenry. Some councilmembers saw it as a crisis of confidence in them. Watson says he thought the amendment was poorly crafted. In any case, Mitchell's group was seeking to sap power away from its elected leaders, and Watson was having none of it. The mayor meant to blow Mitchell and the OCOC amendment out of the water, and, with a tone as patronizing as any criminal prosecutor, that is precisely what he accomplished:

Watson: Let me ask you a question. You keep saying that what you're worried about is subsidizing growth outside the city limits. Is that what you would say is the key point of what you're trying to do with this, is to stop growth outside the city?

Mitchell: No. I think tax equity is a primary concern. That's why it's so popular, and also environmental protection comes into play. We're using our dollars to subsidize suburban sprawl beyond our control...

W: Well, how 'bout, for example, our animal shelter? That is a public facility, wouldn't you agree?

M: Sure it is.

W: It is a public facility that serves areas outside the city.

M: Yes.

W: So, it would fall under [the amendment] too.

M: And that may be one of those things where you say "we want to buy some land outside the city and we want the public to approve buying it outside the city, so let's put it to a vote and let's see what the public thinks."

W: If the goal is having an unambiguous charter amendment that was geared at stopping sprawl, the animal shelter has nothing to do with sprawl, does it?

M: Um, I can tell you that, you know... if you nit-pick it to death, I mean... First of all, the public would approve that.

W: Do you think somebody other than me might try to pick it to death if we passed a bad charter amendment?

M: You know, you can nit-pick it, but it doesn't seem like you're making any very impressive criticisms of it.

W: Well, maybe not for you. How 'bout our health clinics? Are they public facilities?

M: Uh, yeah, and we subsidize the county with them.

W: Do they serve areas outside the city?

M: We have a long-standing unfair subsidy at the city with our unfair, city-financed health system.

W: How 'bout the senior lunch programs that provide meals at five sites in Travis County? Would that be furnishing lunches at a public facility?

M: If we're going to take care of elder folks who live outside of this community, the citizens of this community are well-known for a disposition toward that sort of thing and if we want to benefit the older folks of western Travis County with city funds, put it to a vote... And when the citizens vote on it you can be absolutely sure that it's gonna be an easy sell.

W: But you think we oughtta pay $100,000, $200,000 to have elections like that, even though it doesn't stop sprawl or even achieve the goal that you've said?

M: We would package all of them together once in a while and say, "Hey let's vote on all these things we want to do outside the city with your money."

W: And they don't eat until we do, huh?

As a testament to Watson's influence, the charter amendment eventually lost even the votes of its sponsors, Councilmembers Bill Spelman, Beverly Griffith, and Willie Lewis. But in the scuttlebutt around council chambers that day, the merits of the proposal took a backseat to amazement over Watson's fearsome display of lawyerly precision. Our City, Our Choice's de facto leader, Mike Blizzard, summed up the group's feelings about the exchange when he nervously stepped up to the podium to follow Mitchell. "I hope I'll be treated as a citizen giving public input, and not as a witness on the stand," he began. "Well," teased Watson, "we'll see," breaking the tense chambers into gales of laughter. Despite the comic relief, though, Blizzard was still sweating.

Council insiders testify to their own first-hand experiences with Watson's aggressive style of discussion. "The best way to say it is that he is a gentle arguer," chuckles Councilmember Gus Garcia. "When he goes after somebody, he always starts by putting his left hand over the knot of his tie and saying `help me understand this.' When he starts that way you know he's gonna tear the head off that son of a bitch."

Susan Sheffield, aide to Councilmember Jackie Goodman, puts it this way: "It's not that it's terrifying to go up against him, it's just that you're not going to win."

Open-door Policy: City hall insiders did double-takes when Mayor Kirk Watson broke with his predecessors' tradition and threw open his doors to city hall colleagues and the media.
photograph by Jana Birchum

As Garcia points out, though, Watson risked tainting his public popularity with the vehemence of his attack on Mitchell. "It was a complicated issue and you could tell the mayor was not happy about it," Garcia says. "He's this cool-headed guy who, some have said, walks on water, and all of a sudden he appears to have lost it. So, he resorted to what he's good at, which is to try cases."

However, Garcia says he personally was behind the mayor's intent 100% in deconstructing the amendment's flaws, as was Councilmember Daryl Slusher. And though no one would say it for the record, there was a general feeling that Mitchell, well known for some obnoxious behavior in the service of laudable issues, dug his own grave by casting aspersions on the council's commitment to managed growth. Watson "was right to defend himself, to defend all of us. It had to be pointed out that there were problems with that [amendment] so that citizens who support [the amendment] don't get the impression that we don't support that issue," Garcia says.

Watson, who says he considers Mitchell a friend, adds that he is not worried about the way his cross-examination of Mitchell might play to the general public. "I think when we are elected, the public is saying to us that they want us to ask hard questions. I also think it is fair for us when faced with hard decisions to be allowed to show why we're thinking how we're thinking. While I agree with the purpose [of the amendment], I had real problems with the actual proposal," he says, explaining that he found the OCOC language too vague for serious consideration. Mitchell did not return Chronicle phone calls, but was noticeably incensed for the remainder of the meeting.

That Watson -- the only lawyer currently occupying a seat on the dais -- has used his advocacy skills to make things happen at city hall comes as no surprise. But what has shocked some city activists is Watson's power to persuade -- some have even said seduce -- other city councilmembers, the media and, as a result, the public, to sign on to his agenda. A champion consensus-builder constantly thirsting for new challenges, Watson will form a task force or drop in on an editorial board faster than you can say "public input." Far from a Lone Ranger type pushing his own agenda, Watson strives to get everyone on board and head off nay-sayers at the pass. And from the firestorm over the homeless campus to the opportunity presented by the repeal of SB1704, Watson's first 100 days have been a catalog of leadership tactics that will likely guide Austin well into the next century.

What Honeymoon?

"The city is ready for somebody like Kirk Watson," is the simple explanation for his popularity from Watson's campaign consultant David Butts. At 39, Watson is the youngest member of council and the least experienced in the workings of city government, yet he quickly and easily became the group's undisputed leader. "First of all, people like him," continues Butts, bringing up the obvious contrast to Watson's predecessor Bruce Todd, who was known for what Slusher calls an "imperial" demeanor around City Hall.

Some might wonder whether all that council chumminess comes more from the councilmembers' common progressive proclivities than any personal charisma on Watson's part. However, Slusher says that much of what is perceived as like-mindedness among councilmembers belies Watson's work in building consensus behind the scenes. One Todd supporter says that while Todd was known for "forcing consensus," Watson has the power to actually convince people why it's best that they bend to his will.

City Manager Jesus Garza says that thanks to Watson, his job is "fun again." He attributes the change to Watson's ability to bring the council together on issues. In fact, immediately after taking office, Watson was so intent on getting everyone on the same page, so to speak, that he held a retreat in order to get city staff in line with the new green council's philosophy and policies. Watson told city staffers that the almost adversarial nature of the relationship between them and council would no longer be endured: cooperate, or else. Garza says Watson's knack for building council consensus makes the job of implementing policy worlds easier. "There was a lack of clear direction before," Garza says. "Now we're working together on those challenges in a good, healthy way."

And there have been challenges aplenty for Watson over the summer, beginning with the tragic July 1 car-jacking death of Juan Cotera, a friend to many at the city, including the mayor. The tragedy was not only both stressful and personal, it also sparked a city-wide debate about Austin's law enforcement priorities, especially in the face of a frustrating search for a police chief. With pressure mounting for city manager Garza to scrap his chief search process and begin again, Councilmembers Griffith and Willie Lewis both, separately, called for a reevaluation of the search's criteria and scope. But an early indication of Watson's leadership style showed when the council quietly dropped its protests after it became clear that the mayor would stand behind Garza's choice -- Stan Knee. And the city, at least in this pre-Knee stage, has enthusiastically followed suit, embracing Knee with hope on editorial pages and around kitchen tables.

On the heels of the police chief crisis, Watson successfully navigated the council's way through the murky mid-July waters of the BFI zoning rollback. Although the BFI debate had been brewing long before Watson took office, its resolution was the first manifestation of Watson's willingness to haggle over details from the dais -- usually while standing behind his seat like the conductor of a grand, political symphony -- in order to achieve the all-important "win-win" solution. On the night of the final BFI public hearing, Watson guided the Eastside recycling plant's owners and its disgruntled neighbors through a delicate bargaining over zoning options, finally arriving at an acceptable solution for both sides. The large color photos of a council chambers packed with applauding citizens, which the Statesman ran on the day following the hearing, were as much a trophy piece for Eastside activism as they were a tacit endorsement of the new council.

No sooner had the council come up for air from BFI than a new dilemma unexpectedly emerged in the last week of July. The Ivanhoe tract, a central piece of wildlife habitat in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve area, was offered for sale to the city if the necessary $4.5 million could be raised in less than two weeks. City staff were preparing to come up with the lion's share by selling a similarly pristine tract of land directly across the highway from Ivanhoe for the development of a strip mall. Watson joined Griffith in refusing to accept staff's plan. "It was one of these classic deals where I was being told `You've got no choice.' The rock is you lose Ivanhoe, and the hard place is you get all this development out there. The problem set my irritation level up a notch," Watson recalls. With the clock ticking, Watson called on an unlikely ally, old law school chum Richard Suttle, lawyer for the Lakeway Partners and FM Properties at Circle C, for ideas. Within 24 hours the old pals had negotiated a sweetheart deal which allowed Lakeway to purchase Ivanhoe for Austin in exchange for federal environmental impact mitigation credits on Lakeway's own site west of the city.

"He has an uncanny ability to reach across lines and basically disarm people," explains Suttle. "He'll say, `Hey, I want you to help me on this deal,' and it works."

"For some people [Watson] may move a little bit too fast, but he has a great sense of humor and that will give him a lot of power," Councilmember Gus Garcia, pictured above chatting with Jackie Goodman and the mayor.
photograph by Jana Birchum

Following Ivanhoe's almost unnaturally perfect resolution, serving the interests of both real estate developers and environmentalists, Watson's standard rap on searching for "win-wins" by "brainstorming without judgment" among the "stakeholders" began to take on the ring of gospel in a city looking for a messiah to wash away the sins of deadlock committed in the eternal struggle between developers and environmentalists. But just when the mayor thought it was safe to let the world spin without him for an evening, he was awakened by a middle-of-the-night phone call which would swallow any hopes of summertime relaxation. "SB1704 was repealed," an urgent voice whispered through the phone, and Watson switched instantly into high gear.

Task Force Mania

Senate Bill 1704 was specially crafted by the 1995 state legislature to allow all Austin developments to comply only with the ordinances under which they had originally filed permits, no matter how many years had passed between permit approval and construction. Most notably, 1704 virtually gutted the S.O.S. ordinance -- which protects the Barton Creek watershed -- by grandfathering many projects in S.O.S.'s jurisdiction under less-restrictive water-quality codes. When SB1704 was accidentally repealed by the 1997 legislature, the city council had a golden opportunity to revamp environmental protection in Austin's development process. And Watson's coalition-building skills had the opportunity to be put to the test.

Calling on six environmentalists and six developers to sit down at the table with him, Garcia, and Slusher, Watson immediately crafted a unique task force to build a replacement ordinance for SB1704. So far, SB1704 is the premiere example from a dozen such task forces and similar mediated discussions to crop up in this first three and half months of his tenure, suggesting that "inclusion" will remain a watchword throughout his term. "Two heads are better than one, four heads are better than two, eight heads are better than four," explains Watson of his reliance on task forces. Once everyone was on board, the 1704 train embarked on its unprecedented journey, with Watson promising he would not seek the unlikely consensus of the two opposed factions, but would instead draw from task force member input to inform an overall restructuring of the city's development codes. During the complex construction of the new law, Watson promptly paid visits to both the Chronicle and the Statesman editorial boards, and so far his hard work has paid off with a distinct lack of suspicion from Austin's media.

Some have called the resulting ordinance a success by dint of the fact that it didn't wholly please either faction. While real estate interests are concerned that the new development deadlines imposed on their projects are unrealistically short, water quality advocates -- including Mitchell, who chairs the S.O.S. political action committee which endorsed Watson -- are irked that the new ordinance amended the hard-won S.O.S. "I was afraid even before the election that [Watson] was more interested in consensus than content, and I think 1704 showed that," comments environmental activist Robert Singleton.

Amy Barbee of the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), which endorsed Watson's mayoral opponent Ronney Reynolds, admits that her group is not happy with the ordinance, either, but she doesn't seem to hold it against the mayor. "It could have been worse, but I think that everyone was very impressed with the different process that Watson brought to the 1704 issue," she says.

Former RECA president Jay Hailey, who sat on the 1704 board, agrees. "I can't say the development community is happy, but with [Watson's] leadership it was able to be pulled more to the center than it might have been," he says.

What a coup -- both sides hate the ordinance, but Watson emerges from the process unscathed. Still, there are voices of discontent who accuse Watson of stacking the "stakeholders" deck in his favor. It is worth noting, for instance, that in the case of the 1704 task force, Watson chose as the group's mediator Michael Curry, whose politics leaned heavily to the environmental side. And among developer representatives, he used Hailey -- who supported Watson in the election despite his RECA connections -- and old pal Suttle, whose developer connections and support of Reynolds kept his Watson ties well-cloaked. However, arguably the most hard-line environmentalist in the 1704 group, S.O.S. legal counsel Bill Bunch, certainly did not feel any special privilege was being given to the environmental side of the debate, and he balked under what he felt was pressure from Watson to come to a consensus within the group.

Some critics also say that Watson's superior ability to argue makes his task-forcing merely a means to co-opt his enemies into inevitable Watson-mandated solutions. Slusher disagrees, saying that although he and Watson did not always concur during the 1704 debate, he never felt pushed. "He is good at picking the brains of people, but there's no question about the fact that he has an agenda," admits Garcia. According to Curry, it's Watson's leadership skills that give him the winning advantage. Watson "only starts a fight that he knows he's going to win," Curry says, "and that's the definition of good judgment."

On the other hand, Watson's task force mania has left city hall staffers scrambling just to keep up. When the county commission and the city council held a joint meeting in late August to discuss tax equity, Watson immediately pitched a task force on the issue with representation from Austin, Travis County, and other incorporated cities in the region. Later that day, a clutch of council aides gathered, furiously scribbling notes onto a hastily-drawn city map. "I've got one from the Northeast, do you have one from South Central?" Garcia's aide Paul Saldaña asked the group.

"Are you putting together that city-county task force?" this reporter interrupted.

The group visibly deflated. "No," replied Saldaña, "we're still trying to get that single-member districts task force together. Hey, you wanna be on it?" he joked. "We're running out of people to use."

The Need for Speed

"Brilliant," says Garcia, explaining that it is the deadly cocktail of Watson's proclivity for hard work and his sharp intelligence that make him such a formidable political force. "For some people he may move a little bit too fast, but he has a great sense of humor and that will give him a lot of power," predicts Garcia. Through this summer's relentless onslaught of issues, Watson displayed amazing mental agility and stamina. "I don't know if the man ever sleeps," jokes Director of Finance Betty Dunkerley.

Sometimes, however, Watson's enthusiasm can get ahead of itself. "It seems like decisions are made even before the public knows it's an issue. It's nice to see that you're getting things done and it's not bogging down," Bunch notes, "but the public and other councilmembers should have a say-so."

While Watson's aide, Larry Warshaw, describes the phenomenon of the mayor's pace as a state of "constant eureka," Watson takes the criticism to heart. "It may be my biggest negative. I said it the day I was sworn in: `I'm going to be fair. I'm going to be thoughtful. But I'm not going to be patient.'" Should anyone doubt Watson's gift for turning a negative into a positive, just read that last quote again.

The minute the 1704 task force was underway, Watson's quick-action style was once again in the news with early August's debate on the camping ban and its proposed foil, the homeless campus. With Garcia promising a repeal to the ban on sleeping in public places during the campaign, and Goodman long-since on record against the homeless-targeted "camping ban," a move was afoot to repeal the law. After weeks of public hearings and several "stakeholder" meetings organized by Garcia's office, Watson created a stir when he handed off the problem of finding a site for the campus from the vocal Homeless Task Force to a new group of his own design, the Capitol Area Homeless Alliance. Only a week and a half later, Watson so hastily called an early morning press conference on the issue that even his own office was unaware it was taking place. Flanked by members of the new task force, Watson announced that the search for a campus site was being relegated to the back-burner for the foreseeable future. Interestingly, none of the stakeholders were in sight this time around as Watson prioritized a rushed conclusion over public input. He explains his thought process this way: "All of these decisions are hard and have consequences, so there is no need to be delaying. Let's get the job done so we can deal with the consequences. Sometimes I worry about the negative consequences of just delay."

Several weeks later, when the new council had to make appointments to the planning commission, Watson's need for speed rushed in again. When all the council appointments were made, the planning commission was left without Hispanic representation and Watson lost no time in addressing the resulting outcry from the Hispanic community with what turned out to be an overly simplistic solution. Although Watson's go-around at planning commission appointments would not come until 1998, he made a snappy executive decision to address the concerns of the Hispanic community by asking the commission's president, Sid Sanders, to step down to be replaced by Hispanic realtor Art Navarro. The result, at least temporarily, was a media fiasco. As call-in radio shows were flooded with complaints about the political ramifications of a realtor advocating for citizen planning issues, it became clear that the Hispanic community was not going to be as easily appeased as Watson might have hoped. He was, for the first time, so far out ahead of the issue that he stood alone in the line of fire. Still, Watson never wavered, and the flap over Navarro has subsided.

Watson would find himself out on the edge again in the coming weeks. In mid-September, when he interrupted the harried week of city budget adoption to announce an ambitious plan for the city's annexation of 30,000 acres of land, Watson left heads spinning all over the city. "That was a little too fast, even for me," admits Slusher, who strongly favors annexation in general. Watson, however, made the rounds to the Chronicle and Statesman editorial boards once again to give personal de-briefings on the issue, and subsequently the media has been going right along with the mayor's push.

And finally, in these last weeks of September, when the city charter election was pushed up to November 4 by order of a federal judge, several charter reform efforts were thrown into fast motion. Since the charter can only be amended every two years, the race to draw up ballot language was on. Our City, Our Choice came forward without time to work out language acceptable to the council, and this council's campaign promise to put single-member districts to a city vote was also called to the table. Overriding council input, Watson immediately launched an effort to craft ballot language that would allow the single-member districts issue to be postponed without having to wait for two years, as city rules require. The mayor's last-minute tinkering, which some predicted would be challenged as unconstitutional, never even made it through the chamber doors.

Winning without Fighting

Some council watchers question how long Watson can remain so far out in front of every problem under the purview of city government. The mayor's name recognition and popularity are phenomenally high with the average citizen, but his style has already begun stepping on toes around city hall. Insiders are well aware that Griffith and Watson have been at odds for several weeks, especially after their spirited disagreement during budget season regarding property taxes. At the end of the day, Griffith, and her cohort Spelman, who tried their best to keep the increase in property taxes at the rate of inflation, left chambers looking like heroes of the people while Watson and Slusher were cast as bad-guy big-spenders. Griffith refused to comment on the issue, though she did express respect for Watson's work ethic. And when asked whether the mayor's open-door policies, in which he regularly visits with his colleagues, extended to the whole council, Griffith curtly replied: "Not with me." Watson downplays the rift. "Relationships do not require agreement all the time," he says. "That happens in day-to-day life, too, and we shouldn't expect that it is a failure of governance."

On the other hand, Watson's convenient alliance with Slusher shows the mayor's savvy in keeping potential enemies closest of all. "Some folks were saying I was going to be the de facto mayor, and I've gone out of my way to not let that happen," says Slusher.

But some among the former Chronicle writer's grass-roots, environmental constituency suggest that Slusher may have sold out to win the powerful support of the get-it-done-now mayor. Most council enthusiasts have been used to watching Slusher fight city hall throughout his career, haggling over the details on development proposals and gnarly budget issues, often acting as the lone questioner and the voice of doubt, both as a journalist and on the dais. In light of his newfound friendship with Watson, some worry that their old champion may become a little too enamored with the slick new mayor. Growing from their joint work on 1704 and their negotiations during budget season, the pair's alliance was unmistakable during the recent charter amendment debate. "During the last week I've been accused of both being a tool of the mayor and of stopping him from putting [Our City, Our Choice] on the ballot," Slusher observes. "But if we both agree on something, does that mean one of us is thinking for the other one?"

Slusher says that he, too, was concerned about having another "Chamber of Commerce" mayor when Watson took office, and he even told Watson about it. However, Slusher says, he's subsequently found Watson's views to be close to his own. "So why should I fight somebody just for the sake of it?" asks Slusher. "If I'm winning without fighting, then why?"

The Right Stuff

Watson watchers are not surprised to find that even those who cannot agree on his solutions and methods have been quick to concede that Watson is a born leader. In mending the kind of deep political chasms that Austin has, you gotta start somewhere, and so far, rallying around the mayor seems to be as good a place as any to begin.

It is interesting to note that, while Watson's green tendencies had many in the developer faction quaking in their wingtips when he took office, confidence in the mayor's fairness is high. As evidenced in the reaction so far to his annexation plan, input from the real estate community has been surprisingly tame, and some developers chalk that up to Watson's involvement. "I represent clients that don't really want to be annexed," says Suttle, legal counsel for FM Properties in Circle C, "The only shred of hope is that since [Watson is] doing things differently, maybe his annexation will be different too."

RECA's Barbee concurs, calling Watson's annexation push a "great sign of leadership that we have needed." Hailey explains that it is leadership, not specific policy decisions, that is the real attraction to Watson. "I think people just want someone who will articulate a direction," he says, adding that from the development end, Watson seems to be a bridge to the rest of the environmentally sympathetic council.

Watson's talent may be that he anticipated these reactions from the start. "People's political knees might jerk, and they might say they would never vote for `this council,' but the fact is that [those people] are having the same concerns we are and we're addressing those concerns in imaginative and thoughtful ways," he says, adding, "The success we have enjoyed in trying to change the paradigm in this 100 days will not be a great success down the road if we don't do this more than just now. It's going to take time for us to get used to it and figure out new ways and better ways to do things."

Indeed, Watson has been so successful with the business/development community that the progressive enviros who brought him into office may be feeling a bit neglected, even a little picked on, especially after last week's blasting of an S.O.S. activist. The longest-lasting member of council, Garcia, suggests that time might mellow Watson from aggressive attacks like the one he recently visited on Mitchell. "After he's been on the council a while, he'll probably decide not to do that, but then again, it's his style. He's new and he wants to have an impact," Garcia says.

"In the first 100 days there has been no question about the fact that Watson comes on as a star, but the fundamental questions people are asking is `Can he keep up this pace?' and `Will reaction to some of this behavior come back to haunt him?'"

Despite all the rush of the first three months, Watson is already looking to future initiatives. He plans to tackle downtown development, the reuse of Mueller airport, traffic and transportation, and the restructuring of the city's budget process. That Watson has weathered the storms of his first mayoral season with no casualties is surely a feat, but it's only the beginning of this boat race, and not everyone is sure they know all there is about Austin's new captain. On the horizon lies a tidal wave of issues that will determine how Austin will forever look and feel. Affordability concerns, growth issues, and privatization pushes are all looming ahead. The question is: What course will Watson set for Austin?

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