Austin @ Large
I Once Was Smart, But Now I'm Dumb ...
History is written by the victors, which means Mark Tschurr is getting a little ahead of himself. The recently departed chair of the Save Our Springs Alliance and aspiring political tyro wrote the Chronicle recently to strongly take issue with our assertion (two weeks ago in this space) that SOS had supported Smart Growth. This is "inaccurate noise," Tschurr argues, adding that while his predecessor/nemesis Robin Rather and SOS co-founder Brigid Shea were gung-ho behind the corporate subsidies he opposes, SOS itself had nothing to do with it. No sir. We should check our facts, he says.
Okay, here are some facts. For several years in the late 1990s, moving major employment centers, and the growth that attends them, off the Edwards Aquifer was an official priority goal of the Alliance, just as it was a major goal of the city's Smart Growth Initiative. Leaders of SOS, including ideological stalwart Bill Bunch (later to become executive director of SOS), personally lobbied executives at Computer Sciences Corp., Intel Corp., Motorola, and Tivoli Systems, not to lure them to town, but to move their already planned Austin projects away from environmentally sensitive areas of the region. Which they all did. "To try to disassociate SOS from these efforts is just a lie," says Rather. "A serious, serious lie."
Intel and CSC, of course, moved downtown, and while center-city infill may not have been an explicit goal of SOS (as it was of the city initiative), it certainly wasn't something the Alliance objected to; Bunch attended Intel's groundbreaking ceremony. It was clear from the onset -- particularly with Intel -- that city incentive packages, involving funds that might otherwise be spent to help citizens and neighborhoods, would be required to move these reluctant companies to locations they had not preferred. Again, SOS had plenty of opportunities to object and did otherwise, even when others in the progressive camp balked at this particular aspect of Smart Growth. (Perhaps Tschurr is thinking of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, which resisted the subsidy deals from the beginning even as it joined SOS in inviting Intel in from the aquifer.)
Those deals do seem excessive in hindsight, with the Intel carcass hanging over downtown. And the even more excessive incentives now being bandied about for Advanced Micro Devices (which has not officially decided to locate its new plant here) do not have SOS support. And sure, Comrade Tschurr may be more ideologically pure than was the now-purged Comrade Rather. But not only did SOS support Smart Growth as a whole, just as we asserted, the Alliance made possible, and then supported -- or at least used none of its considerable power to oppose -- the very "corporate welfare" Tschurr now rails against.
Now, if Tschurr, an all-but-declared candidate for either mayor this year or City Council next year, were merely deranged or intoxicated, this would all be a waste of paper and ink. But his version of reality is handy for ginning up the angry peasants, and Smart Growth is a lame political horse if ever one was. Even the recent spate of mainstream-media tributes to Best Mayor Ever Kirk Watson, identifying the New Downtown as his legacy, managed to largely avoid using the S-word and the G-word in that order. If Smart Growth, both the good and the bad, is not the Watson legacy, then what is?
With Gus Garcia officially in the mayor's race, Beverly Griffith officially out of it, and outsider candidates from Tschurr to Sammy Allred still pending, it's not clear how much support Smart Growth, which is still official city policy, will have from the field in the November election. (Filing ends October 9; as of Tuesday, Jennifer Gale and John Havard McPherson are the others on the ballot.)
You should ask the contenders if it was a bad idea, or a good idea gone wrong. Did the City Council not have the courage of its own convictions? Was it thwarted by the Legislature or by the road warriors? Did it screw its chances for success by trying to sneak unwanted infill into the urban core under the guise of neighborhood-driven planning, as many neighborhood leaders argue? If Intel hadn't gotten its subsidies, would we now have a flyblown corpse of a corporate HQ draining filth into Town Lake?
The special election, which originally promised to be a casting call for a Kirk Watson body double, is looking more and more like a referendum on the Green Years. Whether we tack to the left or the right, where are we now? And are we better off than we were four years ago?
The Magic Number: 178. During the lengthy foreplay to this quickie election, we and others have been assuming that Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, and Beverly Griffith -- mayoral prospects all -- are term-limited and due to yield their seats next spring. We've known in the back of our minds that the City Charter, amended in 1994 to institute term limits, contains provisions for busting them. But for an incumbent to do so seemed not only politically risky but onerous, requiring petition signatures from 5% of the qualified voters of the city, which in the last municipal election would have been more than 17,000 people. That's only half what the Charter requires to submit a ballot initiative, but still.
Get Your John Hancock Ready --
But wait. The Texas Election Code has other ideas. Sayeth Sec. 143.005(d): "For any petition required or authorized to be filed in connection with a candidate's application for a place on the ballot for an office of a home-rule city, the minimum number of signatures that must appear on the petition is the greater of (1) 25; or (2) one-half of one percent of the total vote received ... by all candidates for mayor in the most recent mayoral general election." That would be 178 people. If busting term limits is as easy as a happy-hour visit to Stubbs with a petition in hand, the job of Council Member for Life is still open, no matter who becomes the mayor.