Austin @ Large: What Happens Next?

Some suggestions for the 2004 City Hall to-do list

Austin At Large
Forgive my Grinchiness, but here on the Austin-public-life beat, the happiest tiding of the season is that 2003 is nearly over. (Actually, I don't feel like the Grinch; I feel like the fish in the pot. Sorry to mix my Dr. Seuss metaphors.) It's been a pretty horrid year -- unless racial and class conflict, public poverty, confusion and dishonesty in positions of power, and an emerging trend of 4-3 council votes are the sorts of things that make you proud to be an Austinite. Even the victories -- Wal-Mart, Sixth + Lamar, the smoking ordinance -- came in battles that shouldn't have needed to be fought.

So what happens next? I have no answers. But I do have a lot of questions. Like:

Stan Knee? Why?

Jimmy Chapman is gone. That is good. Yes. But look at this department! Just look at this mess! (Said the fish in the pot.) The retirement -- under a great big ol' dark cumulonimbus cloud -- of the APD assistant chief may bring an end to the Mala Sangre scandal in which Chapman (and his buddy, disgraced Sheriff John Maspero) played a starring role. But how Chapman's slipping away untouched, under the shining aegis of his lawyer Terry Keel, jibes with APD Chief Stan Knee's personal commitment to "meet problems head-on," I cannot say.

Stan Knee? Is he still here? Why? Even if the Mala Sangre story is over (it ain't, but we can pretend), the APD still has this little race problem to attend to. I can't say I have any personal animus against Stan Knee, but all the reconciliation parties in the world (hosted by Frank Garrett, of all people) will do little good as long as the same decision-makers are in charge.

People have started to connect the dots between internal scandals like Mala Sangre and external debacles like the Jessie Owens shooting, realizing they may be different sides of the same problem. And the police union has gained power -- too much power, many think -- by asserting leadership amid the great sucking vacuum left by department brass and City Hall. It may be unfair, but it is how politics works, and being a big-city police chief is a political job. In most big cities, Stan Knee would be out the door.

And Betty Baker?

Hazel Obey was wrong, in our cover story about her nephew's death, about one thing: It isn't just in East Austin where the city's favorite response to trouble is to create "a freakin' task force." It's in every neighborhood, and on most every issue. Take historic preservation. Please. Or just take Betty Baker. Anywhere.

I expect some will find this inappropriately personal, but most everyone, on every side, thinks Austin's planning and development process is a nightmare. And Betty Baker -- the bossy, imperious chair of the city's Zoning and Platting Commission -- has, for decades, held more power over crafting and sustaining this process than anyone else. You do the math. Why is she still here?

Too many people whose opinions I trust -- on planning Austin neighborhoods and on preserving Austin history, two issues where it's hard to avoid colliding with Betty Baker -- tell me she has single-handedly, and on a grand scale, messed with their lives and their projects, to the city's detriment. Now it's about to happen with historic preservation, where Baker is chairing the de rigueur task force.

Baker's life in power -- first as a city staffer, and now as the city's most powerful council appointee -- has been prolonged by the heroic measure of splitting the old Planning Commission into two new boards. (That's not why they did it. Supposedly.) If your zoning case or what-have-you falls in an area with an adopted neighborhood plan, you get to go to the current PC, which is filled with friendly and reasonable people. If your case lies elsewhere -- in the nether regions where most of Austin lives -- you get the ZAP, which has two kinds of members: Betty Baker's friends, and Betty Baker's victims. The two commissions, with supposedly identical roles and powers, often take completely opposite positions on issues of the day. It's time to abandon this failed experiment, return to life with one PC, and make sure Betty Baker is not one of its members.

And the Budget?

Lest my querulous mood spare my friends and thus spoil my image: Will! Brewster! Daryl! Betty! Whassup with the budget? Where are those mold-breaking way-of-doing-business-changing ideas that will polish Austin's fiscal future to a fine shiny gleam? Specifically, what's going to get cut?

Yes, I know. But council-manager this, buddy: When you're talking about eight-figure deficits and no clear exit strategy other than hoping for "economic rebound," your fiscal and operational management becomes a policy issue, and the council should be dirtying its hands rather than just wringing them. And if you're going to use the city's fiscal crisis to justify what are clearly already (controversial) policy decisions -- Domain deals, gutting the historic zoning program, whatever -- then you need to have some skin in the game.

It's Christmas, and I hate to rush things, but once we all come back in the new year, there will be an election cycle that will soak up all the attention that Austinites normally pay to politics until about May. The budget ball drops July 31; by May, Toby Futrell will already know, more or less, what she's going to propose. I have been hearing the complaints of council members for years that they're kept out of the budget loop. So? Get in the loop.

If another budget cycle goes by without meaningful leadership from the council -- that means proposing major cuts and changes of your own, council folks -- I will conclude that such leadership will never happen, and I will launch a drive to amend the charter to provide Austin with a strong-mayor system, so future electeds will not be able to hide behind the city manager, even one as nice and smart as Toby.

Okay, I'll stop now. Merry Christmas, everybody. Let's hope it's a happier new year. end story

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Stan Knee, Jimmy Chapman, Jessie Owens, racial reconciliation, Frank Garrett, Mala Sangre, Terry Keel, Betty Baker, Zoning and Platting Commission, ZAP, Planning Commission, PC, historic preservation, task force, city budget, council manager

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