Ain't Misbehavin'

Robin Rather hit the nail on the head when she said the S.O.S. Alliance wasn't fun to watch any more. She was talking, of course, about the mellowing of a political climate that used to keep Austin throbbing with passionate, ideological debate, and more than a few good brawls that pitted environmentalists squarely against developers and a majority pro-growth City Council. It's hard to remember what a good war feels like any more. But Rather, who is going into her second term as the S.O.S. chair, kind of grooves on political harmony. She is, after all, a Quaker who hails from the lay-down-your arms school of thought. Apparently, this non-confrontational approach to protecting the environment seems to be rubbing off on S.O.S.'s early headstrong visionaries -- Brigid Shea, Bill Bunch, Mark Yznaga -- who have in recent months tried to temper their stridence to fit the softer tenor of the times.

Is this for real? Are we talking about the same S.O.S.? Yes, said Rather. And no. "I know this sounds unfortunately fuzzy and New Age -- like something out of a Nineties community-process handbook," Rather offered, vaguely apologetically. "But this is a very deliberate and very intelligent response to what developers would call 'market forces.'" Market forces? Now, that is different. So, to meet these forces head on, S.O.S. underwent a period of deep soul searching over the winter holidays. Its mission was to figure out how best to counter a formidable squadron on the horizon: a massive commercial development that promises (or threatens) to be the Arboretum of southwest Austin, only bigger. Called The Forum, this multi-use retail and office complex, slated to go up along South MoPac at William Cannon, far exceeds the impervious cover cap imposed by the existing S.O.S. ordinance. But project developers are hoping to clear that hurdle by earmarking other, separate, tracts of land for preservation. That sounded pretty enticing to City Council, so last November, the very council that S.O.S. helped sweep into office gave its preliminary thumbs up on the plan. The vote was unanimous.

It was then that we caught a glimpse of the old S.O.S. -- the snide, the snippy, the threatening. It was almost refreshing. "That was a yelp of frustration," Rather recalled of the Nov. 19 meeting. "All of us were practically in tears." It didn't help matters that the councilmembers, too, got their dander up, and there were hurt feelings all around. "So," Rather continued, "we decided it was time to regroup, to try a different strategy."

As it happened, the S.O.S. board had been looking to try out a new community inclusiveness schtick for the new year, and its leaders had already begun trying to rustle up some new blood for the organization. Rather, who is well-versed in the use of marketing strategy as the president of Reality Research, a local high-tech subsidiary of New York-based CMP Media, decided to recruit from the mainstream. "There is an extremely large number of suits who are environmentalists," said Rather. "That segment has always been there. They're a little more conservative than your stereotypical environmentalist, but these are the people we need on our team."

With that, here's how the new board and the shifting of duties shake out under Rather's leadership this year: Bill Bunch, the group's general counsel, takes on the added responsibility of executive director. Bunch and Brigid Shea had sort of shared the director's role last year, although Shea found herself spending more time fixing the copier and other general maintenance quirks than spreading the S.O.S. gospel. With the birth of her second son in October, Shea has scaled back her hours to a part-time position of communication and outreach, along with some fundraising, an area where she is particularly adept. Last year, for example, she put her networking skills to the test and raised close to $300,000, mostly through individual nickel-and-dime contributions that go directly into S.O.S.'s modest budget.

Assuming the vice chair's position this year is S.O.S. newcomer Mack Ray Hernandez, who replaces old-timer Mary Arnold, who remains on the board. Hernandez, an attorney, is the former chair of the Austin Community College board of trustees. His claim to environmental fame came a couple of years ago when he stood up against a proposed ACC campus in southwest Austin. Also new on the board's executive committee is secretary Erin Foster, a realtor and the mayor of the Village of Break Creek, just over the Hays County line, and treasurer Jeff Heckler, a public relations consultant and a former aide to state Senator Chet Brooks.

Does S.O.S.'s shift away from the fringe to the center mean no more fireworks from Austin's environmental faction? Not necessarily, Rather said. "We can still scream, we can still throw a lawsuit, we can still go off if we have to. As far as we're concerned there is still very much a war."

For now, at least, the heavy artillery -- known collectively as Bunch, Shea, and Yznaga -- has reined itself in.

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