War of Words

And in This Corner ...

Spotting the propaganda is the easy part; any layman reading with a critical eye can do that. More difficult is to know when Oppel is just flat-out getting things wrong. That takes a more knowledgeable observer. One such person is journalist Ken Martin, who has been covering city politics for nearly two decades, formerly as editor of the Austin Business Journal and since 1995 with his advertising-free newsletter In Fact, now In Fact Daily (http://www.infactnews.com).

Ken Martin, photograph by John Anderson

photograph by John Anderson

Martin has lambasted Oppel in recent issues in direct response to the Water and Wastewater columns; one of his most damaging rebuttals came in regard to the Arscott case. In his July 6 edition, Martin noted an Oppel claim that "For two months the water commission dithered and debated whether to stick Arscott with developer's fees of at least $8,000 for water-sewer hookups before granting him a waiver." But Martin pointed out that "Arscott's case was not on the commission's agenda until June 1, so there was no delay." Martin also reminded readers that the commission did not and cannot "grant" a waiver -- but it did recommend one to council, as it is allowed to do.

Martin interviewed Arscott and quoted him as saying, "It's not fair to put all the problems on the Water and Wastewater Commission. It really had to do with the logistical problems of so many people." Martin then wrote: "The city manager's office, some council offices, department staffs, and the Water and Wastewater and Planning Commissions were all involved, Arscott said. Regarding Oppel's columns, Arscott said, 'With respect to our situation, the facts were incomplete. It shows how difficult it is just to research this issue and report on it accurately.'"

Oppel decried the alternative wastewater systems that the commission sometimes recommended as being "risky, untested and vaguely described" and "cockeyed ... schemes that most sanitation engineers believe are untested, expensive and impractical." (June 13) Martin countered that "The Environmental Protection Agency is so impressed with Austin's work in this arena it will conduct a three-day workshop here Aug. 24-26, including a field trip to see "innovative water/wastewater infrastructure." (June 15)

In Oppel's July 25 column (titled "Note to suburbanites: Watch your wallets"), he alleged some great conspiracy on the part of the supposed "no-growthers" to deny utility extensions to recently annexed suburbs, again citing some of the cases above. But as Martin pointed out, the city is in fact moving forward on the service extensions and is on schedule to have them completed within the two-year period specified by law -- extensions which were recommended by the Water & Wastewater Commission.

As for the debated extensions, Martin writes: "What Oppel hasn't figured out is that virtually all the discussion at the Water and Wastewater Commission concerning what to recommend with regard to requests for sewer service concerns property that is outside the city limits. City staff and its attorney have always quickly set the record straight about what the law requires for annexed areas, which by definition are inside the city. Oppel confuses the two totally different kinds of circumstances to argue that the city is trying to renege on its obligation to newly annexed areas. Of course, the Statesman still has not sent a reporter over to the commission, not even while Oppel is writing one misdirected diatribe after another, so it's no wonder he continues to screw up the analysis." (July 26)

Martin's June 15 In Fact column opined that "The truth suffers when editors tear into something they haven't covered, and doubly so when their reporters haven't either. As one who regularly covers the commission, I can't recall ever seeing a Statesman reporter there, nor can commission chairman Darwin McKee." McKee told In Fact, "I welcome the opportunity for someone to look at what's going on there. To the extent it gets noticed, it's good. To the extent it's ignored and then blasted, that's a less evenhanded approach than I would have like to have seen." (Ironically, Oppel held up McKee on June 20 as "trying to lead the commission beyond the control of the no-growth guerrilla fighters.")

And finally, in his Aug. 8 slam on Slusher, Oppel insisted, among other things, that the council member and former Chronicle Politics editor "seemed anxious to avoid a public hearing" on closing a legal loophole that might encourage development outside of Austin's Desired Development Zone, and suggested that readers should contact Slusher and "demand" a hearing. If you missed Slusher's Aug. 14 response in the Statesman, the most salient point with regard to this is that the hearing was already scheduled -- "Oppel ... missed the opportunity to inform readers about the upcoming hearing," Slusher wrote, "which he instead called on readers to demand."

Why Now?

So what does all of this mean? The question on the minds of many people around town is: Why is he doing this? Rumors and conspiracy theories spilling out of City Hall would have the Texas Capitol Area Builders Association feeding all this anti-environmental material to Oppel. But Harry Savio, TxCABA's longtime front man and newly appointed executive VP, says that while he agrees with Oppel's assessment of the city's boards and commissions, he wasn't the one whispering in the editor's ear. Anyway, he continued, TxCABA's members aren't exactly big fans of the Statesman, and any attempts to direct the paper toward developer-friendly coverage "would be counter-intuitive, and not unlike trying to coach the Chronicle on your coverage."

As for Oppel, he's not terribly forthcoming about how he arrived at his new bully pulpit. In a rather terse interview, Oppel told "Media Clips": "My columns speak for themselves. I'm sure my readers can understand them, and so can you, and if you can't, I won't help you." Asked about Martin's rebuttals, Oppel replied, "Who?"

Oppel didn't volunteer much else. Asked to respond to Arscott's In Fact comments, he said, "Arscott knew exactly what I would be writing, and he was okay with it at the time." Asked about Martin and McKee's assertions that the columns were so error-ridden because the Statesman doesn't send reporters to cover Water & Wastewater Commission meetings, Oppel said, "I'm not going to tell you how we do our reporting." And he wouldn't answer any of Martin's other points, saying, "I don't care what Ken Martin says ... I'm not going to respond to Ken Martin." End of interview.

The whole exchange with Oppel was disappointing -- in many previous conversations, he has always been forthcoming, straightforward, and helpful in explaining decisions made by the Statesman. It was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- it looks and sounds like Oppel, but we're not sure it's really him.

This could be dangerous portent. Is the Statesman reverting back to its former enviro-bashing days? We don't need our city's monopoly daily again becoming a newsletter for those who want completely unregulated development in Austin.

The Statesman spent many years trying to convince us that those crazy enviros would destroy this city's growth. In fact, if anything, enviros are guilty of destroying the city with growth -- they did such a good job of making Austin a livable city that now everyone and their dog (and their computer company) moved here. They did it by creating mechanisms which can get a grip on growth and steer it away from enviromentally sensitive areas. Now it's time to let those mechanisms work, not tear them down.

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