Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Wynn Some, Lose Some: Council takes one for the team -- within limits

Austin At Large
We admit it: Compared to the lively traditions of American urban politics, Austin City Hall is a pretty dull place. People don't fight in public. They apologize if they have to disagree in public. They're all so nice it makes your teeth hurt. So for one of the Super Seven to earn a public rebuke from the others is at least medium-sized news.

Especially when the miscreant is Will Wynn, who is only a wee bit less earnest and self-conscious than his image would suggest. But Wynn has indeed been a bad, bad boy, earning a trip to the spanking tree last week when he rashly suggested that, since the council was cutting everyone else's budget, it should cut its own as well.

See, each council member has two staff assistants (technically, an aide and a secretary, but the distinction is sometimes blurry). Earlier this summer, when Wynn's (and before him, Bill Spelman's and Brigid Shea's) assistant Frank Kopic left City Hall, Wynn didn't replace him, given the city's fiscal crunch. This was duly reported by us media leeches with due honor to Wynn's willingness to take one for the team -- allowing him to burnish his image as a budget hawk, which could be useful if (when?) he runs for mayor and beyond.

A couple of weeks back, as the budget entered the home stretch, Wynn prepared a proposal -- which seemed to hit the papers before the ink was dry -- suggesting that other council offices could follow his example and reduce their staff. After all, he claimed, having one fewer body in his office just meant that voice mail answered the phone, without any huge detriment to the constituents. This would trim the council's budget by nearly 20%, proving that Our Leaders had embraced City Manager Toby Futrell's call for "sharing the pain" of lean times across Austin government. (He even implied that he would vote against the budget entirely if it didn't include a cut to the council's own spending.)

All Prices Slashed

Anyone who's ever dealt with office politics, not to mention Austin politics, can figure out where this is going. To a one, Wynn's colleagues were irate -- not to mention their assistants, who would be reassigned should Wynn's suggestion bear fruit. Even if the City Council thought this was a good idea, they were annoyed to have to talk about it in public -- although they didn't have any problem complaining about it to Wynn, in public, during the first budget adoption meeting Sept. 9. "I think when we have these kind of proposals, we need to have a different process," Mayor Gus Garcia told Wynn, who ... well, "cowered" may be too strong a word, but if a hole of sufficient size had opened in the floor of One Texas Center, he would have disappeared into it.

Wynn's colleagues also got in his face at the implication that their office budgets were padded. Garcia -- whose own staff is, of course, much larger -- not only claimed, but produced a spreadsheet to prove, that the overall council budget has not kept pace with either inflation or Austin's population growth. Daryl Slusher took pains to note that the purportedly expendable assistants "do more than just answer the phone." And Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman -- who's been notably assertive, not to say cranky, this budget season -- remarked that "my office uses very little money that's not spent in direct constituent service, and that's been true year after year. Constituents get excellent service at a great price."

Wynn knew his original proposal was dead on arrival, but he did manage to get the council to agree to reduce its own budget by 4.2% -- exactly $70,359, with specific cuts to be named later. That's the average cut taken by non-public-safety departments in the General Fund, so the City Council can now say it likewise took one for the team. Any hard feelings had softened enough for the council to honor Wynn on his birthday the following day. (Imagine spending your birthday, every year, reading the city budget.)

And yet, and yet. That average 4.2% cut in the rest of the General Fund did not mean trimming the food-and-ice budget, or copying on both sides of the paper, which is basically what it will mean for the City Council. Instead, Futrell dictated that departments work leaner and smarter, re-engineer and process-improve, come up with new service delivery models, and all those other good concepts. This is what Wynn did when he halved his own staff. It is something we, the citizens, should consider more broadly.

Shrink-Wrapped Government

Don't get me wrong; I tend to feel, and have said as much in print, that the council staff (indeed, the council itself) is too small rather than too large. Considering our local culture -- all accountability, all the time -- and the resulting citizen demands that press in on City Hall, each office could easily have four or five or 10 staff members without them running out of useful things to do. Right now, when a big issue -- like Stratus -- rears its head, everything else at City Hall grinds to a halt, as it does for six weeks every summer during budget season. Austin is getting too large for this to be a pragmatic way to govern.

Yet expanding the council's collective staff runs squarely against not only talk-radio libertarians and their calls for limited government, but City Hall's own commitment to the council-manager system (a commitment shared by Wynn). Technically, according to the charter, council members aren't even allowed to hire assistants -- it was decided, more or less on the spot when Wynn's proposals were being discussed, that the existing council staff actually work for the city clerk.

This separation of powers is supposed to prevent "micromanagement" and "politicization" of what in theory is Futrell's scope of work. But of course, the City Council already does -- and often is forced to -- micromanage and politicize City Hall decisions, because that's what the citizens want them to do. If Futrell and Garcia and the rest take a good, hard, broad look at how the council actually functions, they might conclude that the current model is not optimal. It might cost more to expand staff resources, but it would still be working smarter -- which should leave everyone satisfied. n

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city council, Will Wynn, Frank Kopic, Toby Futrell, Gus Garcia, Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, budget

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