The Austin Chronicle

Chronicle Endorsements

April 19, 2002, News

City Council and Charter Amendments

Despite the length of its meetings, the Austin City Council really does only two things: It spends money, and it manages growth. From our perspective, although the last five, or 10, years of progressive leadership on the Council has led to a lot of Stuff being done -- some of it Good Stuff -- the city is still way behind the curve on both spending money (wisely) and managing growth (effectively). We need to do better.

So why endorse the three incumbents -- Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, and Beverly Griffith -- currently standing for re-election? Well, one reason is that we're not convinced any of their challengers would do any better, and we're firmly convinced that most of them would not. But more importantly, to paraphrase (and second-guess) Abe Lincoln: whether or not we change the horses, we're still in the middle of the stream -- up to our neck in problems caused by Austin's rampant growth and the ensuing mismatch between the community's resources and the community's needs.

We've heard the Lincoln argument already during the campaign: Now, with a groaning city budget deficit and the post-boom hangover not getting any better, is not the time to turn the city over to challengers who'll need on-the-job training. On the other hand, we don't think the citizens can afford to re-elect Slusher, Goodman, and Griffith and say "Y'all do your best," and pay no further attention until the next campaign, which is what too many Austinites do.

Many did that with Kirk Watson, and look what happened. Under the leadership of Mayor Wonderful, Austin did an excellent job of solving the previous decades' problems. We have a new airport, a strategy (if not a "plan") to protect environmentally sensitive lands, an Eastside redevelopment effort that is actually bearing some fruit, reinvestment in the urban core, and such like.

But when the city confronted the new problems borne of the new boom, Watson went off the grid -- and for more than a year the City Council has been saying the right things, feeling the pain of the citizenry, and doing nothing constructive about it. City leaders have been preoccupied with the shufflings of the local political deck -- Watson resigning, the campaign to replace him, the battle to overcome term limits, and now the election itself. In a couple of months the issue du jour will be, Who's going to succeed Gus Garcia?

Meanwhile, unbridled, ill-managed growth has turned Austin, for the first time, into a major city with major-city problems. Austin's rich are still rich, its poor are getting poorer and more numerous, and the middle class is being squeezed into the suburbs. Our economy is wildly imbalanced, with too many people employed by too few major high-tech firms who've received too much of the city's largesse, while small businesses more often than not find that City Hall is standing in the way of their growth.

The Shape We're In

What was one of America's cheapest major cities is now among its most expensive -- we have a shortage, not just of affordable housing, but of any kind of housing within the city limits. Which puts more people on the fringe, and more cars on the road, hence our traffic problem -- which will never and can never be solved until city officials are willing to take meaningful stands to increase the housing stock and actually regulate land use.

"Meaningful" means listening to citizens but not always agreeing with them, a point of balance the city has a hard time finding. Either the tiny minority of politically aggressive Austinites gets to shut down otherwise good projects, or the city yokes itself to otherwise bad projects just to prove a point. We've been told that the culture of conflict at City Hall is changing -- with initiatives like neighborhood planning -- but that changes take time. They don't take time. They take leadership.

And they don't take money, either. City government is facing hard times, in large part, because previous city leaders weren't willing to make the decisions that would help Austin to be sustainable, decisions that would have been much cheaper than the bailout measures we now have to take. There's plenty of blame to go around here -- if the right wing had let the left wing control sprawl in the Hill Country, we'd be better off, but if the left wing had let the right wing build a modern road network before it was too late, we'd be better off, too.

Do the Right Things

Now, as Austin's sales tax collections continue to slide -- another consequence of the outmigration of Austin's middle class -- the City Council is not going to be able to spend much new money on problem-solving, and in fact will be hard-pressed to honor all the promises to spend money it's already made. The city can't afford to operate the parks, libraries, police and fire stations, and miles of new roadway for which billions in bond money was approved during the boom. We doubt that, in the short term, there's much to do other than gradually increase property taxes, cut spending judiciously, set priorities that the council actually follows, and otherwise muddle through.

But if this council, whether under Gus Garcia or the next mayor, isn't going to make the decisions to break the boom-bust cycle for the long haul, then who will make them? And how much more damage will have been done? Austin is very lucky in that, far more than almost any other city its size, it is still clean and green, its working and middle classes have not been driven away entirely, its urban core has not been hollowed out by years of neglect. It is still a place people love, a place people want to be, and worth saving. We'd better start.

So we endorse the incumbents with every intention of riding herd on them for the next three years like never before, and we encourage all Austinites to do the same. Really, Daryl, Jackie, and Beverly, you only have to do two things. Spend money wisely, and manage growth effectively. We can afford to give you one more chance.

Place 1: Daryl Slusher

Place 3: Jackie Goodman

The best alternative to Slusher in the race is Kirk Mitchell, who we feel is (a) a single-issue candidate and (b) a showboater. But Mitchell would be a better council member than Linda Curtis, Goodman's most formidable challenger, who herself says she has no real problem with Jackie. If we had better choices, we don't know for sure that we'd pick Daryl and Jackie, but given the choices we have, it's a pretty easy call.

Place 4: Beverly Griffith

This race is much more problematic, since we have not one but two challengers to Griffith -- Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken -- who would make decent council members, and we're not nearly as wild about Beverly as are many green-blooded central-city folk (you know, our "core readers"). But we also don't think Griffith's stubborn -- at times, far too stubborn -- defense of her values and constituents at the cost of "consensus" is entirely a bad thing, and that's McCracken's main argument for himself as a preferable alternative.

Dunkerley, with her years of service to Austin as the city's financial whiz, certainly offers a strong portfolio -- perhaps stronger than Griffith's -- on one of the two things the council does; we're sure Betty would spend money wisely. But that leaves the other thing, managing growth effectively. We don't think Dunkerley's résumé or financial skills are going to help her decide controversial land-use and development issues -- the ones that, for many Austinites, are the most important. And we can't say we have a big problem with the way Griffith has voted on zoning cases, downtown subsidies, and other land-use issues. So while we feel Dunkerley still has a lot to offer the city, we don't think it's enough to merit choosing her over Griffith.

Charter Amendments

Prop. 1 (Fair Elections Act): No Endorsement

Prop. 2 (Repeal of Contribution Limits): No Endorsement

Proposition 1 is the Austin Fair Elections Act, which would institute a public-financing matching-funds system for local candidates to replace the $100-limit scheme adopted by voters in 1997. If Prop. 1 fails, Prop. 2 would simply repeal the 1997 rules, which would leave us with no limits on campaign contributions unless the City Council devises new rules.

In 1997, the Chronicle split and offered dual endorsements, pro and con, on the initiative that either of these would repeal. We aren't doing that this time, because the differences between the two positions (and thus between the members of the editorial board) are, in our view, irreconcilable. We can all agree that there should be some form of public financing. We might be able to agree that candidates who choose to accept public financing should abide by contribution limits.

Where we fragment, though, is on mandatory contribution limits for all candidates. Was Austin government that bad before they were instituted? Has it gotten better since? Has the role of big money in local campaigns really changed? And is it ever really justifiable to limit the right of citizens to use their money as they see fit? Some of us answer "Hell, yes!" and some "Hell, no!" to all these questions, in each case acting on what we see as principle. We likewise urge voters to choose according to their consciences.

For the record (and because the ballot language is unclear), here's what Prop. 1 would do regarding city council elections:

  • Set a $200 limit on all campaign contributions, replacing the current $100 limit.

  • Create a public/private financing system wherein qualifying candidates (with signatures and $5 contributions from 500 registered voters) would get money from the city to match contributions they raise privately; council candidates who accept public money would agree to spend no more than $100,000 on their campaigns (the mayoral limit is $200,000), of which some $72,000 could be public funding (i.e., a 2-to-1 match of contributions).

  • The City Ethics Review Commission, which would enforce the financing regulations, would be granted "sovereign powers" -- that is, investigative and enforcement power distinct from the City Council (who could not regulate their own campaigns).

  • For a fuller explanation, see

    Prop. 3 (Single Member Districts):

    Yes (with reservations) or No (with reservations)

    Unlike on campaign-finance reform, we disagree on single-member districts, but not as a matter of principle. We all agree that a system that encourages broad representation and citizen participation is what we want. Under current state law (which, for example, bars proportional representation or cumulative voting), is this 8-2-1 scheme the best way to do that?

    In favor, we argue that: Half the city is non-Anglo, and the current system under which white voters, bound by the "gentleman's agreement," choose who will represent non-white Austin is untenable. (Who are these "gentlemen," anyway?) Even leaving race aside, much of the city not only the suburbs but, for example, everyone north of Hyde Park and west of MoPac -- is not or has never been represented on the council. While some issues facing the city aren't really "geographic," the geography of Austin does reflect very real demographic and philosophical differences that aren't reflected on the council now. If basic services at the neighborhood level are what citizens crave and care about, and we know many do, then districts are a necessary first step toward local district councils and district-based service delivery. Districts will make it easier for city staffers to work together with the council to solve neighborhood problems. And having districts will do more to make council members more accountable to ordinary folks, and to allow and encourage good people to run for council, than any campaign finance reform.

    In opposition, we argue that: The illusion that districts are somehow more democratic, and thus more representative of the city's diversity, is false. Districts with a low turnout will elect a council member with the same power as those from high-turnout districts. This will dilute the votes of some and magnify the votes of others -- it's not good for democracy to have some council members who won with a few thousand votes while others need tens of thousands. The specter of ward politics -- whereby unproductive blowhards concerned only for their own back yards end up ensconced at City Hall for decades -- is a very real one. If the council seems ineffective now, imagine what it will be like when impasse is its most common consensus. The narrowness of the current, green-blooded central-city council is as much a function of poor opposition and low turnout in the suburbs as of any flaw in the system; if folks on the fringe voted and got behind credible candidates, those candidates could win. Citizens have the power if they vote -- single-members districts insist they have it even if they don't vote.

    The majority of the Chron editorial board leans toward single-member districts, but our position is not unanimous.

    Prop. 4 (Repeal of Term Limits): Yes

    No conflict here. This proposition would repeal the term limits set up in 1994. Even if you like term limits -- which we basically don't -- the rule allowing incumbents to bust them by collecting a vast number of signatures is silly and doesn't work. We'd much rather not have term limits than go through this crap again.

    Prop. 5 (Electronic finance publication): Yes

    This allows the City Clerk to publish campaign contribution-and-expense reports over the Internet, instead of requiring that candidates publish them in the newspaper. Duh. Do we really need to amend the Charter to make this happen?

    Prop. 6 (Resign to Run): Yes

    This is a resign-to-run provision for municipal court judges and other City Council appointees (presumably, the city manager, clerk, and auditor). In March, three municipal judges ran for higher courts, two against each other; if they had been county-level judges, they would have had to resign, and it makes sense to us that they shouldn't be hearing cases and running for office at the same time.

    Prop. 7 (Utility Consumer Analyst): No

    This would allow the council to hire an electric utility consumer analyst. We could give a rip whether adding new council-appointed positions somehow pollutes the council-manager form of government. But the City Council is the board of directors of Austin Energy, and if it feels it needs more or better information so it can advocate for utility customers (who are also voters), then it should just ask for it. If there's a problem here, isn't it a problem between the council, city manager, and AE staff, and not a flaw in the charter?

    Prop. 8 (Purchase Authority): Yes

    Originally, the proposal was to allow the city manager to make purchases without council approval beyond the limits of what we thought prudent. The current version "clarifies" the charter without giving the manager as big a blank check, and we support it.
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