A New Social Order

Whither Equinomics?

Originally, the equity initiative was to be another prettily packaged deal, announced at a press conference with each council member earnestly reading his or her part. "Equinomics" would be the name, social equity the game. A united council would present a very specific agenda, which would likely be vetted at a few public hearings, tweaked accordingly, and approved. But nobody except the mayor's office seemed to be warming up to the terminology, and preferred to hold off on the press conference. Similar events in the past, said Bill Spelman, "left most of us with a bad taste in our mouth ... [and] gave the impression that we were all of one mind." Daryl Slusher concurred, saying he was looking for a "much more open process in developing the economic ideas -- like in a [council] work session. You won't see a big sweeping announcement on it," he said. "One of the Chronicle's best criticisms of the council is the way that ideas spring fully formed onto the public stage."

Watson doesn't think much of that criticism, however, characterizing that attitude as, "We don't want ideas to be fully formed. We always want them to be half-baked."

Look for this philosophical rift between Slusher and Watson to further express itself -- on the dais -- in coming weeks. Slusher has been asserting independence since his June inauguration speech, in which he called for employers to provide a living wage, and for developers to voluntarily comply with the SOS ordinance. He said the speech signaled his "going back to the foundations of why I got involved in politics in the first place. Our environment was being destroyed, the cost of living was getting beyond the reach of average folks."

Slusher's messages -- especially the one about voluntary SOS compliance -- were heard in the hinterlands. One developer's representative said that Slusher's speech was duly noted by business types: "There were some people who said, 'Ouch, that hurts.' People in the business community were talking about it afterward."

Still, Watson and Slusher need each other. Slusher has been touting Smart Growth themes -- now most closely associated with Watson -- since his days at the Chronicle. When Watson came along, he had the shared vision, as well as the ability to sell it to the good ol' boys. For his part, Slusher's presence on the council, and on the mayor's team, gave street credibility to Watson's consensus-building platform.

It's only a small exaggeration to say that if Watson's motto is, "you've got to give a little to get a little," Slusher's is, "you give 'em an inch, they take a mile." Add to the mix Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who has shown more individuality in her votes since she took a stand against moving the day labor site to 51st Street, plus Beverly Griffith, who has developed a tendency to oppose things on the grounds that the mayor supports them, and Willie Lewis, who continues to march to the beat of his own, mysterious drummer, and you have a recipe for increased intrigue at City Hall.

(Nowhere was this more evident than at last week's hearing on lowering impervious cover limits on areas that were once part of Austin's ETJ. The debate was about whether to postpone the change, in fairness to landowners who were not properly notified of the change, and risk a land rush by developers eager to build under the old, higher impervious cover limits. See "Council Watch" for details on that vote.)

Back to the equity initiative. One week before the city manager was scheduled to brief the council at a July 29 work session on the city's current social programs -- a briefing designed to initiate public discussion on how to enhance those programs -- the mayor made a surprise move. He released a memo to the press that outlined $3.8 million in possible social spending for 1999-2000. Though the memo insisted otherwise on its cover sheet, it (along with a similar one by Mayor Pro Tem Goodman; see p.24) was received as a pre-emptive, almost credit-grabbing move that threatened to undermine the substantial consensus being created on the council.

Also whispered around City Hall was that a set of proposals under Watson's byline would result in opposition from Griffith, who has developed a tendency to oppose his major initiatives. Watson insists his memo meant no harm. "What I was trying to do was make an outline of what we have been hearing [about social equity]. ... I don't have a vested interest in any part of that."

In the days before the July 29 work session, there was a lot of back-and-forth about whether the meeting should even take place. Were the council members close enough together on their ideas to start talking publicly yet? Should the briefing be postponed until things were a little cleaner? On the day of the meeting, a postponement was announced.

Fearing that this delay would simply allow for more horse-trading among council members, Spelman requested that the council put their respective social equity wish lists "in their sock drawers" for a couple of weeks, to allow for more basic discussion of the issues. Spelman said he was trying to avoid battling wish lists, or an "I'll give you your program if you'll give me mine" situation. Instead, he said, the council should be asking things like, "What's the cheapest, most affordable way to solve the affordable housing problem?"

The mayor wasn't the only one to publish an early social equity plan. A few days after Watson's July 23 memo, Goodman circulated her own version, detailing items in her areas of interest -- child care and neighborhood planning. The most ambitious of council members on the social equity beat, Goodman asked for about $2.5 million for these initiatives, plus an extra $100,000 to fund telecommunications and multimedia projects, and to leverage private dollars. The report also estimated a need of $1.6 million for affordable housing, which pushes the whole ticket more than a million over the $3 million which Garza included in the draft city budget. Goodman has said her approach is fiscally responsible, if not fiscally conservative, and that such boldness is needed in times of economic prosperity.

Meanwhile, Beverly Griffith is floating the concept of a "Social Fabric, Phase II" initiative that would build on the social programs for youth that she and Gus Garcia championed in 1996. The program, which has been funded at $1.5 million annually since its inception, focuses on things like mentoring, athletics, arts, and academic programs, especially for at-risk youth.

Originally, Griffith proposed a "New Start" program where, at one site, people could receive assistance with workforce development, child care, transportation, basic health care, and life skills. And for affordable housing, Griffith believes that the Traditional Neighborhood District ordinance is an important tool. She said she's talking with developers about getting more TNDs approved on the Eastside, near the destination parks approved in last year's bond election, and near major employers like Motorola. As council aides hashed out the one-site services idea, however, the logistics became overwhelming. Alternate proposals include reserving some space in a city-employee day care (a top proposal of Goodman and Slusher) for people in job training programs, and possibly reserving some space at the center for job training classes. Griffith is advocating a transportation component, too, that's being developed by Capital Metro Director Karen Rae, who formerly chaired Buffalo, New York's welfare-to-work initiative.

Reconciling Differences

In more recent developments, according to one source, the council members and the mayor have "gotten over" their spats, and are moving peacefully toward the completion of a group-consensus social equity plan. Instead of coordinating the social services out of one location, as Griffith originally suggested, the council is contemplating the formation of a clearinghouse that would collect and disseminate information to be shared among the various social service programs. This would be among the cheapest social equity items the council is considering -- an estimated $100,000 to $150,000 for salaries, computers and whatnot. According to Griffith aide John Gilvar, the council member's experience on the United Way board convinced her that "If you don't invest in coordinating different services, then any dollar you spend is not going to go as far."

photograph by John Anderson

"We don't want ideas to be fully formed. We always want them to be half-baked." -- Kirk Waston

photograph by John Anderson

Needless to say, several council members are hoping for more than the $3 million identified in the city manager's new Policy Budget -- out of the overall $1.6 billion budget -- for "council initiatives" that weren't funded last year. City officials say the $3 million figure is arrived at roughly by assessing how much money the city has, and how much is needed to continue existing programs, and letting the council spend the difference. But there seems to be some room for play in the numbers, especially since it's changed in recent months. Earlier this year, council sources say, there appeared to be as much as $10 million available for council initiatives. Then council heard from staff that the number would be zero, before Garza bounced it back up to the current $3 million.

Garza "does this every year, and every year, more or less magically, he finds a little more," says Bill Spelman. Garza has also found a one-time sum of $4 million in the Austin Energy budget to fund transportation spending, including improvements to several overloaded intersections, and some council offices may try to divert some of that money for social equity spending. There's also some talk of looting the $2 million set aside to purchase the Mexic-Arte Museum building -- on which council postponed action earlier this summer pending further study -- and dedicating that money to social spending. If the transportation and Mexic-Arte money is diverted, the equity package could top $9 million. But some council factions oppose the idea, so don't expect this to happen without a fight.

If that doesn't work, the council could always resort to "Queen Betty's Shoeboxes." The term refers to chunks of cash that City Financial Manager Betty Dunkerley stashes in obscure corners of the city budget, for discreet retrieval when council members need a little something extra, like an affordable housing program. "None of us are quite sure where that money is," said Spelman. Which is "a great idea, because if we knew where it was, we would probably raid it, and then it wouldn't be there later."

What Will Become of Smart Growth?

It would be simplistic to say that the council spent the last two years working on environmental and development issues, and intends to spend the next two years working on social and economic ones. Nonetheless, there is a kind of symmetry to it, and certain interest groups want assurances that the council's environmental initiatives won't be derailed by the new focus on equity. Nobody wants to suggest that the city's have-nots hang on a little longer while the dominant coalition completes their victory lap. But neighborhood and environmental activists alike want assurance that the Smart Growth course is going to be stayed.

A partial list of Smart Growth initiatives and/or planning tools that are still churning through the system includes the Land Development Code rewrite, the Land Use Study, the Traffic Study, and the Smart Growth Task Force. And some say the kind of big picture planning that would give muscle to all the smaller Smart Growth initiatives is still lacking.

"In terms of getting the policies on the ground, we haven't succeeded yet," said one longtime environmental activist.

Then there's SB 1704. The city has been conspicuous by its silence in the wake of the infamous legislation, which is allowing a raft of grandfathered projects down in the Barton Creek zone back into circulation. "I can't imagine that this council would walk away from their environmental [initiatives] now," says SOS Board Chair Robin Rather, while emphasizing her support for the equity initiative. The Alliance has nevertheless expressed dismay that the city has not begun litigation on this front.

In his inauguration speech following his re-election in May, Slusher agreed that "a top priority has to be to finish institutionalizing environmental protection into our city government. I had hoped to spend a lot less time on environmental issues this term and put the time into economic issues, but I'm just going to have to work real hard on both. Now that our friends up the street there came to town," he said, referring to the Texas Legislature, "thousands of more acres will be grandfathered under old, weak regulation. If all those developments get built, that's a serious threat to Barton Springs and our drinking water supply."

Then there are the neighborhood groups -- as represented by the Austin Neighborhoods Council -- which fear that without close supervision, unintended consequences of Smart Growth may wreak havoc on neighborhoods. In the harshest terms, said Watson, "You can't have it both ways. You can't tell us we can't have development over the aquifer, but you can't have growth anywhere else." On the other hand, he said, "What we haven't done a good job of is [preventing] fear. We need to rectify that. [Smart Growth] is supposed to be something that helps the neighborhoods." Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell has reportedly begun meeting with yet another Smart Growth-related group, including neighborhood representatives from the Northwest and East sides of town, which is seeking to address this conflict.

photograph by John Anderson

photograph by John Anderson

Part of the problem is growth pressures from outside Austin's jurisdiction, and interference from other governmental entities. Rewriting the Land Development Code, for example, would be easier if the Legislature would leave the city to its own devices, instead of "helping us out" every couple of years. And then there are not only the other cities and counties surrounding Austin, but also the Texas Department of Transportation and the Lower Colorado River Authority, both of whose decisions have a profound impact on how Austin and its environs grow, and both of which remain wild cards at best when it comes to the city's plans for itself. In the meantime, the mayor hopes to team up with neighboring cities and landowners to hammer out agreements on growth and planning issues.

How Long Will It Last?

All this long-term talk begs questions of continuity. It's all well and good to concoct a five-year plan for social initiatives, but the makeup of this council may be substantially different five years from now. There may be retirements, or even upsets at the polls. There are, indeed, saber-rattling signs that not everyone is on the team: The Real Estate Council of Austin's recent report charging that the city's building fees are the highest in the country seems to blame the city for the affordable housing crunch (never mind that Austin's real estate market is one of the hottest in the country).

And then there's Austin American-Statesman editor Rich Oppel, whose curious attacks on the city's Water and Wastewater Commission have expanded in scope to include all of city government and the council itself. City Hall gossip surmises that Oppel's screeds indicate that conservative forces are marshalling against the council, in the person of either Spelman or Lewis, whose terms expire next year. Furthermore, Garcia and Slusher have both said these may be their last terms on the council, and Mayor Watson says he won't decide whether to seek re-election until early next year.

But Watson says that even after he and his cohorts are gone, the city's house will remain in good order. "There are other people who can do good things," he said, noting the long-term nature of the programs the council is considering. "If we're smart, and if we're methodical, I think you can institutionalize (the council initiatives)." Instead of debating whether to pursue social equity, Watson predicted, "People will be talking about how to [modify] the five-year plan."

That the council has agreed in principle to spend any available millions on social programs is no small matter. Though $3 million or so out of a $1.6 billion budget may be little more than just a symbolic expenditure, the symbolicsignificance of the social equity initiative cannot be underrated. There are plenty of people who, finding themselves on the council dais, would have very different priorities. "We've changed the way the whole city thinks," said Watson of the council's environmental achievements. If this council can do the same for the idea that providing for the city's have-nots benefits everyone, then it will have accomplished something even bigger.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle