Austin @ Large: Vote, With Your Feet

This week's elections set the stage for years of citizen butt-kicking to come

Austin At Large
Yes, I remember writing a few months back that Saturday's elections, particularly for the Austin ISD board of trustees, would involve the most significant choices local voters would make all year. And yes, when I wrote that, I assumed that the AISD contests would be at least slightly competitive, instead of being just the latest episode of The Jennifer Gale Show. (Is she or isn't he?)

As we noted in our endorsements, the all-but-unopposed slate of trustee candidates means either Austinites are really, really satisfied with the school district status quo, or that citizens feel AISD's situation is so dire that they don't want to get involved. Unfortunately, I think the latter is true. Look for comparison to the Austin Community College trustee races, which have drawn a full roster of good candidates. (Even Marc Levin, whom we'd likely oppose on almost every issue of substance, is by conventional standards a "good candidate.")

You see, ACC has hope; the college has momentum dating from last year's successful effort to raise its capped tax rate, and it has new executive leadership to replace the departed and unmourned Richard Fonté. Candidates like our endorsees Jeffrey Richard and Guadalupe Sosa – who show admirable comprehension of the goals and needs of the people ACC actually serves – can anticipate that some of their new ideas might actually become realities.

There's little such daylight at AISD, which will likely remain in triage mode even if the Lege doesn't actively (further) damage the district's fiscal health, and where Superintendent Pat Forgione is, by design or default, in the position to call almost all the shots. Serving on the AISD board is unlikely to be a fun gig for a very long time.

Even so, it's disappointing, perhaps even pathetic, that more candidates didn't file – particularly for the open seat being vacated by Ingrid Taylor, who represents the older central-city neighborhoods, with their older, smaller campuses, that are fast becoming the focus of a backdoor quasi-public proxy debate over the demographic future of AISD and of the city itself. But there is good news, one supposes, in the very existence of such a debate.

Though far from what it could be, there seems to be a trend toward more aggressive parental engagement – in the central city, on the Eastside, and in the suburbs – in specific political issues facing AISD, from school safety to curriculum to the upcoming bond program. In the absence of a good, hearty election contest, Austin families and taxpayers need to keep applying pressure directly: kicking their elected reps in the butt, or giving them the cover to do the same to Forgione, or helping the AISD community unite to do the same to our distinguished legislators in November and beyond.

Here's to Your Health

Though the debate is certainly more lively, citizens will likewise need to keep voting with their feet for adequate community health care, regardless of what happens Saturday to the Travis Co. hospital district. I think the district's passage is such a sure thing that I haven't really given much thought to what Plan B would be if it fails. Unfortunately, neither have the district's vocal opponents, but what else is new? It's so much easier and more fun to bitch about your taxes! The gap between how our public health care system works, right now – that is, not very well – and how district foes think it works (or should work) is big enough to swallow Frost Bank Tower. Let's not go near it.

That's why even a resounding victory on Saturday will really be only a tiny baby step toward what we actually need – a coordinated regional, multijurisdictional, multimodal, public/private system for delivering health and human services and funding it through equitable revenue sharing. You know, like our transportation system, and we've seen how efficient and painless it's been to come up with solutions on that front. Citizens, let the kicking and screaming commence.

A Collective Bargain

Ironically, people who claim to get this big picture on health care (and transportation) – like the Statesman editorial board, or Daryl Slusher (speaking, I can only assume, for Toby Futrell) – have marched in the opposite direction when it comes to the labor rights of the city's firefighters, and by extension its other big bloc of unionized employees, the police officers. On this front, it is also easier, though much less fun, to bitch about your taxes – and thus to argue that we as voters should make long-term decisions about process and policy based on short-term fears of sticker shock. Little of the opposition to Proposition 1 is to collective bargaining per se; it's to the current, specific goals the firefighters want to pursue.

The notion that collective bargaining would give the firefighters carte blanche to get whatever they want, I think, mostly reflects Texans' ignorance, even among progressives who should know better, of how organized labor actually works. (Ask Capital Metro drivers – or, more pointedly, the UT Shuttle drivers – if their federally guaranteed labor rights have made them fat and happy.) After all, it's not as if the current meet-and-confer model has encouraged fiscal restraint and good government.

With the cops, it's produced mammoth (and, City Hall now seems willing to admit, unsustainable) fiscal commitments, after marathon negotiations conducted out of public view, over contracts that the City Council has little choice but to accept once presented. For the firefighters, it's simply failed to produce – they've been working without a new contract for years, a state of affairs that City Hall, or the citizenry, should not find desirable.

True collective bargaining – for the firefighters, and the police, and likely other city employee groups besides, the Lege willing – would require city leaders to admit that labor-management relations are inherently adversarial (even if civil) and thus take strong stands to advocate for the citizen interests they've been elected or appointed to represent. For a decade, City Hall has failed to do this, and indeed has done the opposite, forging political alliances with the unions against the perceived interests of many citizens. For my part, I tend to be sympathetic with the specific goals of the firefighters, but even if I weren't, I'd vote for collective bargaining, if only to give the council and city staff yet another swift kick in the direction of doing their jobs. end story

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Election 2004, election, Austin ISD, Austin Community College, hospital district, collective bargaining, firefighters, meet and confer

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