Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

What will Will Wynn do? (Well, what would you do if it happened to you?)

Austin At Large
Last week, a local club bill -- according to the information sent to the Chronicle -- featured three bands with videos "banned from the Austin Music Network by Mayor-elect Will Wynn." This was news to me. It was also news to Will Wynn, who (like me) had not realized he had such weighty powers. (Wynn voted against funding the music network, but that's not quite the same.) "I wonder what other powers the mayor-elect has?" he asked me via e-mail. "And do they continue upon becoming mayor?"

Good question. What power does Will Wynn have? And what should he do with it? For example, does Will Wynn have the power to kill the smoking ordinance? And does he have the power to propose cuts in next year's budget beyond those already suggested by City Manager Toby Futrell?

Poof! Goes the Smoking Ban

I reported last week that both Brewster McCracken and Margot Clarke opposed Mayor-for-now Gus Garcia's smoking ordinance, which Clarke points out is not true -- she does support tightening Austin's smoking rules, although she told the Chronicle's Amy Smith that "I don't think pushing it through at this time is the best approach." I think most of the current and aspiring council members (except McCracken) support a stronger smoking ban in the abstract. But all except Garcia have misgivings about its impact on the clubs at this politically and economically inopportune time.

But does Wynn, who after a good deal of thinking-out-loud on the campaign trail came out against the smoking ordinance, have in his mayor-elect trick bag the power to kill it? He could try to stall the issue until after Garcia leaves, he moves up, and either McCracken or Clarke replaces him. Or he could try to sway the votes of Daryl Slusher, Betty Dunkerley, or Danny Thomas, none of whom evinced much glee as they sided with Garcia two weeks ago.

Sure, the real question is whether we should expect Wynn to try to flip the council's current 4-3 split in favor of a measure he opposes. On paper, the mayor, or the mayor-elect, is just one vote. But in real life, and on the dusty campaign trail, mayors-to-be are viewed as leaders and judged accordingly. Unlike, say, the Domain -- which we all knew Wynn would support, both as (in his view) good economic policy and good urban design -- the smoking ban is a controversy where Wynn is poised to lose unless he does something. To quote Dr. Seuss, what would you do if it happened to you?

Changing the City Hall course before his actual swearing-in may be too much for Wynn, who is not what you'd call the most intimidating man in city politics and who is just as ambivalent about the smoking ban as his colleagues. It would make a good question for the Mayor-Elect Entrance Exam -- "You have X amount of political capital. Do you try to change the votes of people (Slusher and Dunkerley) who on most issues will agree with you anyway, or do you save your capital for future battles?" Add the unpleasantness of arguably disrespecting Garcia just as the old lion rides back into the sunset, and it's easy to see why Wynn would take a pass. The citizens and voters may expect him to do otherwise, but the path between the ballot box and the dais isn't always easy to follow.

Pow! Goes the Budget

Austin hasn't had a mayor-elect on the council since Ron Mullen in 1983, so Wynn has little precedent to guide him on the smoking ban. But every mayor-elect gets to worry about the following year's budget, which will hit the dais on July 31, six weeks after Wynn takes office June 16. Four of those six weeks will be holiday time at City Hall. So now would be a good time for Wynn to wade into Austin's ugliest fiscal landscape in a generation.

At the May 14 budget worksession, Wynn noted that of the scenarios presented by City Manager Toby Futrell, "only one includes spending cuts, and seven include tax increases, and I'm not sure I like the message that sends." What he meant is that the working scenarios all include the same target figure in further General Fund cuts: $24.5 million, the most Futrell feels can be pruned, scrubbed, and tweaked. Beyond that, "you've already cut through muscle, and you're going into bone," she said, adding that a budget bridging Austin's budget gaps -- about $55 million next year, more than $200 million over the next three -- purely through spending cuts would require "closing one branch library" (or whatever) "to open another one." (Remember, there's a bunch of new boom-sized facilities, backed by the Billion Dollar Bonds of 1998, coming online now at the bottom of the bust.)

Anyone with sense (not, as we saw, a prerequisite for a mayoral campaign) should know that tax hikes of some size are inevitable. Yet Wynn reminded his colleagues that, on the trail as he talked about "gut-wrenching" budget decisions, he felt voters were prepared to hear about deeper cuts and "forced trade-offs" -- do we close the library or the rec center or the fire station? Some citizens and voters are impatient to hear the worst and, Wynn suggests, may feel anything less than the worst is a cop-out by City Hall.

Now here is an area where Wynn has unique powers as a mayor-elect. Futrell's orientation, as she has candidly expressed, is just the opposite -- she doesn't want city employees to feel she's exaggerating Austin's fiscal problems to justify sweeping layoffs and service cuts. For years, city councils have complained that the real budget decisions are made by management, and they just get to nibble at the margins. But in a bad year, being outside the loop has its upside. And asking Futrell to eviscerate her own organization, and thus act against the interests of her constituents -- the people who work for her and for Austin -- is a bit unfair and a bit silly, and Wynn knows this. This is the mayor's job -- or, given the tight time frame, the mayor-elect's. If Austin is ready to accept a radically smaller city government in lieu of dramatically higher taxes, then Wynn can take the lead laying out the dreadful options.

None of which is as much fun as personally reviewing the videos on the music network, but power has its price. end story

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Will Wynn, mayor-elect, Austin Music Network, smoking ordinance, Daryl Slusher, Betty Dunkerley, Margot Clarke, Brewster McCracken, Gus Garcia, smoking ban, budget deficit, Toby Futrell, gut-wrenching

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