illustration by Doug Potter
TOP NINE SIGNS THAT MAYOR KIRK WATSON IS THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
Yes, we elected him, and yes, his job approval rating is the envy of every politician (except maybe President Clinton). But sometimes it seems like Mayor Kirk Watson acts more as monarch than mayor. Here's how:
1. Cedar Avenue Settlement. The clearest indication he's confused about his job description. The settlement of the lawsuit was a great socio/political accomplishment (and a risk the mayor didn't have to undertake), but the subsequent call for Austin's white folks to repent their racism crossed the line. Not because we didn't need to hear it, but because we didn't need to hear it from him.
2. Downtown plan, Act I. Watson first showed his royal independence crafting his (first) deal for downtown -- two apartment complexes built on city land. No bidding process for the building contracts? No problem. The objections of Councilmember Beverly Griffith and others were drowned out in a kowtowing carnival at city hall as every professional in the city lined up to curry favor with the business-boosting mayor.
3. Downtown plan, Act II. The size of the dollar amounts involved (well into the hundreds of millions), the numbers of involved and duly acquiescent people and organizations (including six out of seven councilmembers), combined with the speed of the deal (announced publicly only weeks before its initial approval), make the CSC/City Hall plan Watson's biggest, boldest mayoral adventure yet. Time will tell whether this project will turn out to be his finest hour, or his baddest boondoggle.
4. Auditorium Shores, Part 1 (Ice Bats Version). First of all, the "revitalization" of Auditorium Shores with a new performing arts and civic center couldn't happen without the Ice Bats, Watson said; and the team was willing to build us a new hockey stadium/civic center if we'd donate the prime Town Lake land. Besides, he said, a city like Austin needs a sports team downtown. Plans were made.
5. Auditorium Shores, Part 2 (Rental Car Tax Version). One week later: After murmurs of opposition from downtown neighbors threatened to escalate, the Ice Bats plan -- the only one that would work, remember? -- went quickly and quietly away and another means of funding the civic center manifested itself: a 5% rental car tax. Austinites passed the plan easily as part of the November bond package.
6. Annexation Autocrat. Never mind that the entire council was behind the push to annex 30,000 new citizens into Austin -- it's Watson whose face ultimately got stamped on the plan. Even if this entire council gets voted out by angry suburban annexees, the largest annexation in Austin's history will be remembered as Watson's baby.
7. Bound by Bonds. Not only did Watson manage to garner credit for passing two sets of bonds in separate elections (both contested by angry annexees), in the process he brought together two longtime warring factions -- the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Save Our Springs Alliance.
8. Ting-a-ling goes the Triangle. After Watson fought Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro to a draw at the state Special Board of Review hearing in June, a stream of admiring subjects paid the mayor homage ("I'm glad I worked for your campaign, mayor," and the like) for nearly half an hour after the meeting broke up. Though the endless deal plods on and the layers keep changing, Watson will make the Triangle happen if he has to build it himself.
9. Keeping City Pools in the Swim. Yes, it's good to be king. You not only get to order the executions, you get to throw the banquets as well. When the thermometer topped 100 and the August closing date on local swimming pools approached, Watson donned his most benevolent smile and granted us all a month more of watery bliss without so much as a peep about the $120,000+ that the extension cost.
TOP NINE BACKROOM RIFTS
They were sold to us as the 7-0 Green Council. And a remarkable amount of the time, that's the way they vote. But that doesn't mean there's no conflict. Here are some below-the-radar struggles dogging the "unified" council and its hangers-on.
1. Daryl Slusher vs. CSC. Though he claimed it withstands the scrutiny of his personal boondoggle-o-meter, Councilmember Daryl Slusher's support of the Computer Science Corp./City Hall deal is something of a mystery. Though he's smiling on the outside, is Slusher gritting his teeth as he crafts the blockbuster downtown deal with his longtime nemesis, Assistant City Manager Jim Smith, whom he once called "the development devil" in the pages of the Chronicle? Kind of makes you wonder what Watson promised him in return for his vote, and the instant anti-boondoggle street cred his support brings.
2. Jackie Goodman vs. S.O.S. Perhaps a sign of renewed fissures in the environmental community, the animosity between S.O.S. and Save Barton Creek-er Goodman is heating up again. Most recently, it took the form of Goodman aide Richard Arrellano and longtime enviro-political consultant Mark Yznaga trading insults -- and veiled threats -- over the Forum PUD (which, according to one source close to council, will find less support on the council when it comes back for second- and third-reading consideration later this month).
3. John Gilvar and Larry Warshaw. For every parliamentary parry between Beverly Griffith and Kirk Watson in the 1998 headlines, you can be sure there was a wall-eyed fit behind the scenes. Gracious Griffith and Warm Watson in a knock-down-drag-out? Hardly. The politicians leave the real brawls to their aides, John Gilvar (for Griffith) and Larry Warshaw (for Watson).
4. The Barton Springs Salamander and S.O.S.From mascot to albatross, the salamander became a burden to its benefactors, the Save Our Springs Alliance. Don't look for proof on the record, but behind the scenes there was a buzz among Greens about bumping the little critter back off the Endangered Species List to avoid having to close Barton Springs Pool. Isn't that ironic?
5. Jackie Goodman and Beverly Griffith. When Griffith stepped forward this spring to champion the Waller Creek Tunnel, she landed directly on Goodman's toes. Goodman, who ordered a study of Waller years ago, kept mum about Griffith's grab for her pet, and Griffith characteristically shrugged off her detractors.
6. Jesus Garza vs. Council. The rumored day of reckoning never comes for City Manager Garza. This is it, went the whispers after the Austin Energy reorganization fracas. This time he's gone too far. But a tense council work session, where councilmembers demanded a public explanation for the changes, turned into a closed-door executive session; when it was over, all parties were appeased.
7. Toby Futrell vs. herself. Smart and ambitious, Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell takes on so much that she literally makes herself sick: During this year's annexation hearings, she came down with walking pneumonia. As dedicated as she is, though, Futrell may have finally bitten off more than she can chew, attempting to mastermind Smart Growth and the Land Development Code rewrite simultaneously.
8. Professor Bill Spelman vs. Councilmember Bill Spelman. State ethics laws require that he do his council job for free, so the citizens of Austin are more than getting their money's worth out of Spelman. Still, some have griped that he spends too much time at his regular gig as a professor at the LBJ School of Affairs, and only moonlights as a member of the council. Has Spelman, the academic, taken that democratic ideal, the part-time citizen legislator, too much to heart?
9. Watson and his constituency. Our beneficent dictator, Mayor Watson, had Austin marching to his drummer in 1998, but was it the music that the voters wanted to hear? The secretest split of 1998 will become the most public of debates in 1999 -- between the people of Austin and the man they love to love. Watson seems sure that his every idea is a boon for citizens and money-makers, real estate moguls, and black-capped vireos alike, and he takes the public silence as his proof. Give us a minute to catch up, Kirk, and you may get an earful.