Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

The Smoking Gun: Some Kind of Weapon Is Being Held to the Heads of the Hurry-Up Council

Austin At Large
Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, who this session had the dismal task of being speaker pro tem of the Texas House, was handling the gavel last Thursday as the chamber ran through a kajillion local-and-consent bills. Even by Lege standards, Turner moves fast -- before reps had even gotten to say "move adoption," he was already calling for the vote. This may have been Turner's last session, since he's the odds-on favorite to be the next mayor of Houston. But given his demonstrated alacrity, should he decide to relocate, he'd have a future in our own City Hall.

Perhaps the Lege is influencing our own City Council through some form of sympathetic magic, but Austin's time-tested tradition for sluggish city policy-making has taken a huge beating this past month. Sure, council meetings still feature "permanent agenda items" like amending the neighborhood-planning ordinance, up for vote today (Thursday) for what seems like the 47th time. But Mayor Gus Garcia's smoking ordinance is up for final approval as well, after what by City Hall standards is a whirlwind pace for public input -- which is exactly what annoys so many of us about it.

And even the smoking ban has proceeded glacially compared to the tax-rebate deal for the Domain project OK'd last month, or the new Children's Hospital deal, which -- if approved next week, as expected -- will have raced from the back room across the dais in less than one month. Has anybody seen the gun being held to the council's heads? I haven't. But it must be really big.

Just Trust Us

Now, Garcia might argue that the smoking ordinance has been under discussion for nine years -- the near-total ban that the council has now approved 4-3 on its first two readings is what he wanted to pass back in 1994, but the votes weren't there. After June 16 -- when Garcia returns to private life and either Brewster McCracken or Margot Clarke becomes the seventh vote on the Wynn council -- the votes may once again not be there. McCracken definitely opposes it; Clarke supports the ban but has raised valid questions about whether doing it right now, and on this fast track, is the way to go about it.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman made noises last week about appointing some sort of task force to bring the polarized sides to consensus. But even if she succeeds in delaying today's vote until June 12 -- Garcia's last meeting as mayor -- it's doubtful Goodman would be able to reverse the momentum inside City Hall to get the smoking ban done before Garcia leaves office. Not that actually passing an item on third reading settles the issue -- as Betty Dunkerley has done with neighborhood planning, Goodman or Will Wynn or (if he wins) McCracken could always launch into further amendments of the just-adopted smoking ban once the council reconvenes in mid-July.

It's certainly what I'll be calling for. As a question of policy and principle, I oppose the smoking ban, although compared to many partisans on both sides my passions on the issue are well under control. But as a question of process, I yield to nobody in my disgust with the egregious mess that has passed as "debate" of this controversial issue. Basically, Dunkerley and Daryl Slusher, from the dais, have made the only attempts through this entire saga by smoking-ban supporters to actually listen to and accommodate the valid concerns of the most affected stakeholders: the bar and club owners.

The citizen supporters of a smoking ban have amply shown they frankly don't give a damn about the clubs. Convinced of their rightness (and righteousness), tobacco-free folks have spent weeks pretending they know more about the entertainment economy than do the people in the scene itself; they have treated club owners as an enemy to be vanquished, with the same disrespect for the meaning of "democracy" that drove the Killer D's to Ardmore. And Garcia's office has allowed this to happen. It's a good thing Garcia says he doesn't want the smoking ordinance to be his "legacy"; to me, this railroad job seems a dismal way to conclude such an admirable career in public service.

Hold Your Horses

On the other hand, maybe the citizens really are getting sick and tired of the usual Austin way, in which every stakeholder is massaged at length, and the resulting policy, when it finally gets made, satisfies almost nobody. (That's what's happened with neighborhood planning, after all.) And maybe Garcia will long be lionized for his willingness, as a soon-to-be-former politician, to tap into this Zeitgeist and buck the status quo. But surely one meeting with club owners, or with citizens in the community, before laying a total smoking ban on the table wouldn't have thrown too much sugar in the City Hall gas tank.

And what's the excuse for the Domain or for the Seton/Children's/Mueller deal? Did these need to go through before Garcia left office? Will Wynn is totally on board with the Domain; only Slusher had the temerity to ask whether it was proper for the city to be approving a subsidy package (oh, grow up; let's call things by their real names) under an economic policy that doesn't really exist yet. The Domain developers, Endeavor Real Estate Group, said they needed to hurry up so they could go flog the property at a convention in Las Vegas. I am dubious. I'm more inclined to think Endeavor wanted the Domain done before too many people (including both Clarke and McCracken) caught on that they were also midwifing a giant Wal-Mart over the aquifer.

Seton hasn't even been that specific on why it's in such an enormous hurry to get city approval (both for the Mueller land use and under its Brackenridge management deal) for its new Children's at the old airport. It just is. Could it be that the deal must be done long before Austinites get to vote on a hospital district -- which would have controlled Children's but now may not, since the new facility will be owned by the Sisters of Seton?

Whatever the caliber of the gun being held on the council, the more important question is whether it will be holstered when Wynn takes the gavel. As we move into the budget season, we need as a community to be willing to slow down and take the time necessary. No matter how much we dislike Austin paralysis by analysis, the alternative may already have proven to be much, much worse. end story

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Sylvester Turner, city council, Gus Garcia, Domain, Children's Hospital, Brewster McCracken, Margot Clarke, Jackie Goodman, Will Wynn, Betty Dunkerley, Daryl Slusher

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