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Austin @ Large: Searching for Candidates

While the lawsuits fiddle, the city begins to smolder

By Mike Clark-Madison, April 5, 2002, News

I took last week off thinking that, in the trough between elections, nothing much would happen. Plus, it was both Holy Week and Passover, so peace should reign throughout the land, right? Ha ha.

As I write, Judge Suzanne Covington has dismissed the lawsuit against Daryl Slusher by his most formidable challenger (file that under "faint praise"), Kirk Mitchell, and Judge Jeanne Meurer has put off until at least April 22 -- after early voting starts -- the lawsuit by Linda Curtis (a more formidable, if not persuasive, challenger) against Jackie Goodman. Mitchell and Curtis argued that when former Mayor Bruce Todd and his Citizens for Voter Choice PAC collected 1,850 signatures to add to Slusher and Goodman's term-limit-busting petitions, they violated the $100 contribution limit set by Austin's campaign-finance rules (which Curtis and Mitchell both helped get passed in 1997). Although at least some clipboard jockeys were paid $1 each for the signatures, Covington disagreed. Covington also ruled that Mitchell does not have the standing to bring a suit to remove Slusher from the ballot. Mitchell plans to appeal. Meanwhile, Goodman is arguing that her case should be heard after the May 4 election, while Curtis wants a trial on April 22.

At least in Florida, the litigants waited until after people voted. With Austin's election under a cloud before voting has even begun, will turnout sink below the 10% threshold we think is acceptable in our "politically active" town? Even if they aren't turned off by the presence of lawyers, citizens may be discomfited by the absence of issues. Have you seen them anywhere?

While We Were Arguing

Oh, here they are, underneath the piles of broken bones and bruised feelings and smudged signatures trailing from City Hall to the courthouse. The boom years that brought the green council to power are over, and despite brave noises being made about economic recovery, it's starting to look like the buffalo aren't coming back. In particular, the city budget's dependence on free-and-easy sales tax and an ever-expanding utility customer base is ending with an ugly thump.

This presents council members, whether returning or new, with a duty to go even beyond those storied "hard choices" everyone says they're ready to make when they're running, and then manage to avoid making once in office. With budget deficits of as much as $30 million a year stretching out to the horizon -- thanks mostly to hard-to-rein-in public safety and public health costs -- the council will need to rethink Austin's fiscal policies from the ground up.

Meanwhile, last we checked, the city was growing no more affordable, or safer and healthier, or free of smog and congested roadways, or truly hospitable to sustainable development, or better able to deliver the basic services its citizens desire and require, than it was at the peak of the boom. We've already lost at least a year -- thanks first to lame-duck Kirk Watson and now to this term-limit business -- of the City Council's genuine attention to these issues. We are unconvinced that the Sunshine State dramas playing out at the courthouse are making any of these problems more tractable. But perhaps we're wrong.

Bumping Slusher and Goodman off the ballot -- which should be done if the law requires it, but not just on general principles -- would further broaden the gap between the reasons we should elect council members and the reasons we actually do. Assuming Curtis and Mitchell won those seats instead, their genuine political positions would remain vague at best to the bulk of the body politic. She's a gadfly, and he's an environmentalist. Good enough for us! Hardly.

Courthouse vs. Ballot Box

This is not a call for leaving the incumbents off the hook, but rather a call to their challengers -- be it Kirk Mitchell, Linda Curtis, or in Beverly Griffith's case Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken -- to ask more relevant questions of the Three Amigos than "How many signatures did you really collect?" or "What did you know about Bruce Todd and when did you know it?" If they have a chance of winning, whether the good ol' fashioned way or the postmodern Florida way, then we need to know what makes them an alternative.

By taking the election to court before it happens, Curtis and Mitchell have made it easy for the other side to claim that Slusher and Goodman are such excellent officeholders that the only way to defeat them is to throw them off the ballot, which we think is untrue. Though we admit the possibility is not great, Curtis and Mitchell could each pose a challenge by focusing on the voters, and not the lawyers, in their campaigns. (Also as I write, the candidates are meeting with the Statesman editorial board. Mitchell, admittedly "distracted" by the courtroom drama, planned to be there and make a case. Curtis skipped the date with a tart letter blasting the daily for blasting her: "In an effort not to confuse my supporters, I decided you can keep your crummy endorsement.")

Let's be clear: We have generally backed all Three Amigos and will back them again unless given a superior alternative, because that's the way politics works. But we hardly think they are invulnerable. We are unsure what, exactly, makes Griffith so much different from her council colleagues as to justify the cultish support ostentatiously given to her and withheld from Slusher and Goodman. We are uncertain what, if anything, will allow Jackie Goodman to finish up business in the next three years that has gone unfinished in her previous nine. And what about Daryl? Whose voice would go unheard, and what issues would go unaddressed, were Slusher not on the dais?

In all three cases, we think the Austin electorate is hardly so satisfied with the-way-things-are as to place the Three Amigos beyond political reach. If they win, and then prove unable or unwilling to face up to the issues that are currently hiding underneath Austin's wacky election laws, perhaps reformers -- or just ordinary folks -- can haul out another of the tools buried in the city charter: the recall petition.

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