Round Two

Much has been made of Mayor Kirk Watson's public grilling of Kirk Mitchell over the language of the Our City, Our Choice (OCOC) charter amendment that failed to secure a spot on the November 4 ballot. Had the Austin City Council moved to place the measure on the upcoming election ticket, voters would be deciding how much say they should have in local tax dollars going toward building or extending certain services outside the city limits. In deep-sixing the proposal, Watson stole the show with his country-lawyer inquiry of Mitchell, who, it should be noted, held up remarkably well under questioning. And who better than Mitchell (no fraidy-cat he) to take the heat for the proposed amendment's ambiguous language -- language that Watson suggested would leave Travis County's elderly folks and homeless animals in a real fix. Now, two weeks later, the OCOC organizers are preparing for Round Two -- this time in the form of a massive petition drive that will put the matter before voters in the next available charter election, November 1999. And it's not social service issues that are driving the OCOC agenda, says Mike Blizzard, a leader in the grassroots campaign. Rather, he argues, it's more costly matters like providing city water and wastewater services to leisure-class suburbs whose residents don't pay city taxes. "The city has spent over $300 million in infrastructure outside the city in the last 25 years," Blizzard says. "We're not saying all this has been bad and we're not saying it should also have to stop. What we're saying is that we're concerned about the impact this type of growth has on basic city services. We should be able to plan for these expenses and vote on these expenses, just as we do for bond packages."

While acknowledging that their first effort was hindered by time constraints in their rush to put the measure before voters this year, the OCOC steering committee members -- largely made up of environmental and neighborhood association representatives -- will spend the next six months collecting upwards of 20,000 signatures which will then be banked down at City Hall until the November 1999 charter election. That's the earliest the city could hold another charter election, unless voters reject the upcoming campaign finance reform measure that a federal judge ordered to be placed on the November 4 ballot. It was that order that sent the OCOC scrambling to have its issue put on the ballot as well. With little time to collect a sufficient number of signatures, the group opted to put itself at the mercy of the city council, to no avail.

Before OCOC launches its petition drive, the group is trying to build an iron-clad remake of the proposed charter amendment that Watson poked full of holes. "The language will change, but not substantially," says Blizzard, who is considering bowing out of the OCOC picture once the effort gets off the ground. "We hope to have several attorneys review what we come up with, and to look for any potential problem areas. The city [government] is chock full of attorneys who can spend a lot of time trying to find ambiguities. We don't have that luxury."

Would the council have passed the measure had OCOC submitted a finely tuned charter amendment free of ambiguity? Blizzard pondered the question for several seconds. "I'm not really sure," came his reply. "But I do know that this council has the foresight to realize this is an incredibly popular issue and it's something people want."

Not everyone buys the OCOC premise, of course. And clearly the measure doesn't appear to have many supporters among the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Capitol Area Builders Association, or the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA). The chamber and the builders' group both spoke against the proposal, and these are the same groups who applauded Watson from the sidelines after the mayor raised question after question about the OCOC proposal.

"The whole thing is kind of silly," says RECA President Alan Glen, an attorney with Fulbright & Jaworski. "If we're going to try and manage our growth we don't need a divisive, all-or-nothing proposition. I'm glad the mayor did what he did, and I'm happy that we have someone capable of good, critical, technical thinking on the dais."

Kerry Tate, a downtown businesswoman and former chamber chair, expressed her distaste for the OCOC proposal as well. "It mystifies me because I don't think it's in keeping with regional thinking," she says. "I tend to agree with Kirk Watson wholeheartedly that this was a poorly drafted amendment with holes all over it. It's my sense that this is a special-interest issue. These are the same people who demand an inclusive process, but has this charter amendment been an inclusive process? No. Getting signatures on a petition is not inclusive in my mind."

All the same, some 10 Austin neighborhood associations had signed off on the OCOC by the time council considered the issue on October 2, and the group says it will pursue more neighborhood associations as well as individual voters on November 4, and, in December, the hordes of folks meandering through the Trail of Lights at Zilker Park. One Austin couple -- Harriet Harris and Karl Galinsky, who live amid a large Republican voting bloc west of MoPac -- have thrown their support behind the measure. "My husband and I really want Austin residents to have some input in providing services outside the city," she says. "We've come to realize that allocating money outside the city is not in the best interests of local citizens. I don't mean this to sound harsh, but I don't buy the argument that senior citizens and children out in Del Valle will suffer as a result of this charter amendment. The real issue here is do we really want to keep supporting Gary Bradley and Circle C and the Veloway?"

Watson's attack on the OCOC proposal created an interesting twist as many in the business and development community cheered the mayor on from the sidelines. While Watson did enjoy support from those camps during his campaign for mayor last spring, his strongest base of support came from Austin's environmental community -- the same community left feeling a mite bruised and confused in the wake of Watson's aggressive reaction. Yet the greens deftly managed to avoid venting any of the indignation or spite they used to unleash on the infamous RULE council when it appeared to side with developers in the past.

Mayor Kirk Watson blasted the Our City, Our Choice amendment as too vague as Kirk Mitchell (back to camera) did his best to defend it at a recent council meeting.

photograph by Jana Birchum

"There is a big difference between the way Kirk Watson handled the disagreement over Our City, Our Choice, and the way the RULE council handled S.O.S.," says S.O.S. director Brigid Shea, referring to the former city council majority made up of Ronney Reynolds, Charles Urdy, Bob Larson, and Louise Epstein. "I talked to Kirk privately and he discussed the problems he had with the [OCOC] proposal. That was a much more honest exchange than you could ever expect to have had with RULE," she says. While Shea acknowledged that the OCOC's charter amendment "definitely needed more depth," she noted the current council has the snap to recognize that the city has been "incredibly foolish" in its past, namely in subsidizing growth in Southwest Austin's hinterlands.

Still and all, some councilmembers took the OCOC a little too personally, and Daryl Slusher, his voice carrying the tone of hurt, seemed to wonder aloud why the organizers would want to pursue the measure in the first place, when everyone knows that this council won't be responsible for another Circle C. That's true, Blizzard said later, but come May 1999 the makeup of the council may change.

Despite its initial failure, the OCOC debate did leave an indelible mark at city hall. Now there's talk about the city council extending its decision-making powers in matters relating to providing water and wastewater service extensions to outlying areas -- a suggestion that Councilmember Jackie Goodman voiced during the OCOC discussion on October 2. Now the idea is moving swiftly toward a city council vote, perhaps as early as October 23. The three-fold proposal would eliminate administrative approval of water and wastewater extensions, require a council 5-2 majority approving an extension, and call for a public hearing prior to council's vote. Had the measure been on the books a year ago, Davenport Ranch would likely have been up a creek without the city's water and wastewater services. "It's not meant to discourage the OCOC effort," says Councilmember Bill Spelman, who, along with Beverly Griffith and Willie Lewis, sponsored the measure. "It's meant to make sure we have something in place for the next two years, before the next charter election." Added one city staffer: "People are looking seriously at the goal of what was brought forward by Our City, Our Choice, and frankly, before they came along I had never heard this kind of discussion from councilmembers."

Was the OCOC issue a turning point for the council and its relationship with the green community? That remains to be seen, but it's clear that some folks on the dais are aching to establish their independence.

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