Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Sending Out an SOS: Can the Fractured Austin Polis Find a Common Future?

Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Photo By Doug Potter

Okay, riddle me this. According to the survey results announced last week with the launch of the LiveableCity campaign/coalition/movement, Austinites think the environment is important to our quality of life, but they're more worried about transportation, affordability, and the state of the schools, and think that's where we should be expending our civic energies. So, I ask -- as I rewrite this week's column, with apologies to LiveableCity, to keep up with the times -- why did 733 people sign up to vent about Stratus Properties' plans to build in the Barton Springs Watershed?

Yes, the anti-Stratus turnout surprised me; I expected about 100 people, which is still a lot but not unusual. (Since only 59 actually spoke last Thursday, by the time the hearing continues July 11, the total turnout may grow, or it may shrink.) And yes, I was also surprised by how close not just Daryl Slusher but other members of the City Council -- and Toby Futrell! -- came to calling Bill Bunch an asshole. Which makes me think that the Save Our Springs Alliance leader could turn out 7,000 people to sign up, and the Stratus deal is still going to go through.

It must be hard to brand people sellouts and traitors and still be totally dependent on their kindness, which is about the state of Bunch's relationship with the City Council. What threat do Bunch and his 733-plus Tribal enviros and Southwest suburbanites really pose? (I hadn't planned on using that T-word again, but enough people seem to be proud of the label -- I am told of a Tribal dance and secret handshake -- that what the hell?) Each group had its chance to unseat Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman and defeat Will Wynn and Betty Dunkerley. They failed. How many people have to sign up and dance on the head of a salamander to change the City Council's collective mind? Perhaps we'll find out.

Put Up Your Dukes

In my mind, and I'm clearly not alone here, Bill Bunch finally did this week what SOS should have done years ago, back when it was imploding over the Bradley settlement: file a lawsuit challenging the applicability of Chapter 245 (better known as "HB 1704"), the state laws grandfathering developers' claims, to Stratus' tracts and to others covered by the Save Our Springs Ordinance. Instead of goading and shaming and whining at the City Council for betraying him, if indeed they did, Bunch and his fellows could have spent the intervening years convincing Austin citizens -- as opposed to each other -- that City Hall was wrong, and/or raising the money and muscle for SOS to bring the suit itself.

Kirk Watson failed to charm the Lege into exempting Austin from 1704, and ever since then the city's strategy has been to settle. If subsequent Austin elections have been referenda on environmental policy, the city's strategy has been validated. As long as 1704 is out there, the city is not going to change its strategy. We can all pout and stomp our feet as much as we want to. But nothing will change unless the legal axe is lifted, which will happen only if SOS prevails in court. Any pre-Watson City Council would have tied its own hands and let the watershed be paved without delay. Instead, City Hall has spent time and a half crafting better-than-nothing deals with Bradley, and now with Stratus. That represents the sum total of political change wrought at the Austin grassroots by the Tribe since the passage of the SOS Ordinance in 1992. If the ball has not been moved farther, whose fault is that?

Handicapping the Horses

Which brings us back to poor, upstaged LiveableCity. The Circle C neighbors who have joined with SOS to combat Stratus are, as LiveableCity postulates, more worried about traffic than they are about the salamander, but that's only one tree in the forest. The difference between the Tribe and LiveableCity -- which, whatever its own intentions, is the obvious counterpoint to today's SOS -- is not, repeat, not about different portfolios of issues. Progressives of every stripe, and most everyone else in Austin, all see the same writing on the same walls. Despite the creative-cum-mystical LiveableCity paraphernalia -- the cards, with all their echoes of the Tarot -- I don't think they have access to secret knowledge that somehow escapes Bill Bunch. He likes motherhood and apple pie and pretty flowers, too, I'm sure.

Nor is the difference between LiveableCity and the Tribe purely socio-cultural. There is no question that the LiveableCity board is an elite, and though it's a diverse group, so is the Tribe. Like any elite, it has social and lifestyle connections as well as political ones. Public life in Austin is, and has long been, and probably will long be, conducted over beer and queso in center-city hangouts with one's friends and allies. The existence of "factions" or "communities of interest" is assumed by American democracy. Not every faction is a Tribe.

Right now, LiveableCity represents the reigning elite, filling a void at the center of what is now a three-party system with the SOS wing (the Tribe) on its left and the Real Estate Council wing on its right. It's no accident that the LiveableCity board includes Brigid Shea and Robin Rather, leaders of SOS when it held Austin in the palm of its hand, now personae non grata within the Tribe. The old Green Machine, led to power in 1997 by SOS, was a center-left coalition; now we have a center-right coalition, although the conservative wing is less than fully comfortable with this. Does that make the Tribe "grassroots" and "populist" by default, because they are in the opposition, and thus inherently right, and justified in storming City Hall? Or does it mean they had power, and they lost it in a volatile political market, and need to figure out what it takes to get it back?

In time, LiveableCity may turn into its own Tribe, imposing its own litmus test on civic leaders and their ideas, and if that happens I'll be ready to slap them around, too, and I doubt they would remain the reigning elite if that happened. I think a Tribe is exactly what LiveableCity doesn't want to be, but five short years ago it was ludicrous to think that a Green Council would be itching to call Bill Bunch an asshole. Things change. And LiveableCity is quite honest about not knowing what it will be when it grows up -- a think tank? A political action committee? Both? Somewhere in between?

What LiveableCity is trying to do, it says, and there's no reason not to believe them, is what SOS did so successfully 10 years ago and fails to do today -- meet the people of Austin where they are, find out what they actually think, and show them a way out of the wilderness, an actual alternative to the status quo. It's not too late for the Tribe to compete and win in the same game, and by taking 1704 to court Bunch has finally decided to suit up. But it is too late to argue the game shouldn't be played. n

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