Bond Brouhaha

Council Reenacts for Public What It Did in Private



If voters approve, we'll see more road improvement projects, like this one at South Congress near Oltorf

photograph by John Anderson

During the marathon of Austin City Council meetings last week, it was open meetings be damned. If you wanted to watch the crafting of some important city policy, you might have looked for a posting about a confab being held in some back hallway of city hall, or Town Lake Center, or maybe at the Cedar Door. You wouldn't have found such a posting, of course, but those were the places where the deals were made regarding the final roster of proposals to be included in the fall bond election. Those were the sentiments echoed by many who witnessed - or at least tried to witness - the council's deliberations on the upcoming bond package. When those sentiments reached a critical mass by the end of last week (and after a Statesman reporter questioned whether the backroom discussions had crossed the line and violated the state's open meetings laws), Austin's ever-diligent council repented: In order to make sure its deliberations were all aboveboard, the council decided to take up the bond issue yet again this week at its Wednesday, August 12, work session, and gave it one final public airing before officially calling the election. The decision was a good one. Eminently justifiable as the council's proposed bond package appears to be, there was something unseemly about the way councilmembers let assembled citizens and the press cool their heels for more than six hours in front of a vacant dais as they sat behind the scenes, making decisions on the very issue their audience had turned out to observe. One city official said that although County Attorney Ken Oden - the guy with the authority to make such judgments - found that the council hadn't violated open meetings requirements, the bond election was sufficiently important to the city's future that it shouldn't be embarked upon with even the appearance of fishiness.

(As if to further underscore their commitment to an open process, the council will decide in a special-called meeting on Monday whether to stick with the original September 26 election date or move the vote to November, to coincide with the general election, saving the city money, and ensuring a bigger voter turnout. For details, see sidebar).

That aside, here's the bond ballot the council approved: $339.7 million worth of general obligation bonds, and another $234.3 million worth of revenue bonds, to be sold over the next six years. The G.O. portion of the bond ballot would allow voters to decide on five propositions, representing the following categories of projects: Public Safety; Parks and Recreation; Libraries, Museums, and Cultural Centers; Public Works and Transportation; and Flood Erosion and Control (see chart ).

The bonds will be sold over a period of six years, instead of four years as planned by the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee, allowing the city to issue less debt in each year.

In addition, about $52.4 million in funding for the projects will be paid by cash from the general fund. A product of the team of councilmembers Bill Spelman, Daryl Slusher, and Mayor Kirk Watson, and their 11th-hour search for additional dollars to fund transportation priorities, the cash option had been on the books as a recommended city financial policy but never used. It's a good deal if you have the cash handy, since projects financed by debt cost about twice as much as those paid for in cash. The only catch: The cash expenditure plan approved by this council is not binding on its successors, so it's possible that some of the items slated for cash funding might get axed if the political climate changes, or if our rosy financial situation should take a turn for the worse.

Meanwhile, further down the ballot, the once-hot debate over which revenue bonds to include in the September election got shoved to the bottom of everyone's agenda. Quickly approved last week was a change in city policy which allows the city of Austin to issue water/wastewater bonds for areas inside the city limits and the Desired Development Zone without voter approval. The change will reduce the size of the revenue bond ballot from the originally proposed $332.6 million to $234.3 million.


The Chamber's Role

Turns out the seven-month-long process of deliberation and public input by the highly acclaimed, first-ever-in-Austin Citizens' Bond Advisory Commission was just the beginning of the assembling of the bond package list. As the council was eager to insist, their changes meant no disrespect to the CBAC, which was packed tight with community activists and other committed Austinites. But councilmembers said it was the council, not the citizens' committee, that is ultimately responsible to voters for the contents of the package. Still, though the package approved by the council isn't radically different than the one proposed by the CBAC, commission member Clare Barry said she thought the council should have taken the CBAC recommendation more seriously. "The process they set up was public, representative," she said. "That process should be given a lot of weight - not all this last minute, back-room lobbying."

The lobbying Barry refers to is the late push for more public works/transportation money in the bond package, which she surmises came from outside interests who chose to sit out the public input/CBAC process and negotiate directly with the council, in private. The result of these negotiations: An increase in transportation funding from the CBAC recommendation of about 38% of the package to 45% - just shy of the 50% requested by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The problem, Barry said, is that the CBAC was never even made aware of the Chamber's goals; chamber representatives attended only the last of the CBAC's meetings, and, she added, the panel never received a copy of the chamber letter that requested the 50% for transportation spending. "Why didn't they participate in the meetings for ordinary citizens?" she asked. "Do they not think of themselves as ordinary citizens?"

Councilmembers said it wasn't the influence of the chamber, but of voters, that prompted the increase. During his presentation of proposed increases in the transportation section of the package, Councilmember Bill Spelman cited a recent city customer satisfaction study in which citizens rated concerns about Austin's growing traffic problems "number one with a bullet." Chief among these increases were almost $30 million to get all of Austin's major arterial roads up to A- or B-grade level, and enough money (about $15 million) to synchronize every street light in town. While these goals are supported by just about everybody in town, some observers felt there was something arbitrary in the way the deal went down: "With all the horse trading," said neighborhood activist Karen Akins, "they don't necessarily know what they're giving away."

Akins, along with "downtown institution" Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance, visited the council to ensure the promised reinstatement of the Great Streets initiative to improve pedestrian infrastructure downtown. The item, now earmarked for $5 million out of the overall $28.7 million in Prop. 1's street improvement projects, had been cut out of the original package - inadvertently, said council aides - during Wednesday's negotiation frenzy. While she expressed satisfaction with getting the Great Streets program funded, Akins said she found the extra money added to the bond package somewhat arbitrary - that the allocation of money among bond proposals could be more effectively distributed. "With transportation, there are so many other pots of money to draw from," she said. "We have to be more effective in getting that money."


How Parks Fared

Some of the money for the transportation increases came from the Parks and Recreation portion of the proposed package, though the cuts were slight compared to those suggested in the original Slusher/Spelman/Watson proposal. The much-talked-about "$45 million" for the destination parks and greenways proposal was cut to a less memorable but still substantial $40.5 million (which included $2.5 million less for land acquisition for parks, and $2 million less for land acquisition along creeks). The Walnut Creek Recreation Center got the axe, as did $2 million of the $12 million slated to "develop general recreational amenities" in Colorado River Park, which was lauded as both "Zilker East" and the "last great urban park in America" during last week's proceedings.

The debate over destination parks recalled the salad days of the environmental movement in Austin - to see Bill Bunch, Brigid Shea, and Mark Yznaga huddled together on a bench outside last Wednesday's work session doubtless brought back memories for veterans of the bygone Austin environmental wars. This time, however, the trio weren't there as warriors, but as educators and general supporters. Ultimately, Bunch said, "we'll support whatever the council approves."

Bunch distributed a letter urging the council not to skimp on funding for acquiring parkland. The letter went on to say that if it chose, the city could marshal the purchase of large amounts of green in support of the parks development goal. "When parkland is acquired, adjacent landowners enjoy a windfall - the value of their land shoots up because of proximity to the park. ... [The city should enjoy this windfall by buying larger areas] which could be zoned appropriately and resold for development." The resulting windfall to city coffers could be reinvested in further park development, Bunch theorized.


Ends Justify the Means?

In the end, however it happened, the bond package approved by the council is better for bearing the scrutiny during those last feverish hours of - if not the public, at least the council and its seemingly tireless aides. Just because a given "process" is baptized by public input doesn't make the results sacred. That some deals get done away from the public eye is a fact of life, and to some degree, necessary. But what makes this case different was the way the council took a long, open, citizen-driven process and took it behind closed doors for no discernible reason.

When a reporter asked Slusher whether the deal shouldn't have been brought from the back room to the dais, to take place "in front of God and everybody," Slusher allowed as how God had probably been privy to the proceedings, and as for everybody else, they'd had more than a chance to get an earful at the previous day's work session. Furthermore, he said, they would have needed "a lot of breaks" to get background information from city staff on the finer points of the various proposals. Hmm.

A situation like this can turn a person philosophical pretty quick: What to do if, in fact, a little back-room dealing results in a better bond package? Dig out your copy of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall and take it for a spin: As long as the potholes get fixed - and if Austin voters approve the whole September ballot, they will - the voters will be happy. Anyway, with politicking, as with most things in Austin these days, the old timers say things just ain't like they used to be. As one longtime player observed outside the doors of last week's work session: "Compared to the old days, this is like a picnic."

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