The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2004-05-21/212032/

Health, Wealth, and Happiness on E-Night

May 21, 2004, News

A-OK for Hospital District

A victory celebration that started as a subdued affair swung easily into a lovefest by 9pm Saturday, when the crowd grew thick with politicos and celebrants who were by then 100% certain they had kicked anti-tax butt with solid passage of a countywide hospital district. With city residents' "yes" votes outnumbering the "nay" votes from county boxes, the proposition maintained a comfortable 55% to 45% lead throughout the evening.

Clarke Heidrick, chairman of the hospital district steering committee, had spent the final days before the election with his stomach in knots. Now, with a secure lock on what had been his baby for the past two years, he began to show signs of loosening up under the party lights at Serranos Symphony Square. "I feel great for our community and for all the people who worked so hard," he said. "This was a broad-based group of people who were not used to working together on the same issue. It was great that everyone was willing to cross the line to make the hospital district happen."

The location of the victory party – a couple of blocks from the publicly owned Brackenridge Hospital – was no coincidence. The hospital will serve as the centerpiece of a district that will also bring about a dozen city/county health care clinics and the Austin Women's Hospital under one administrative roof. The Seton Healthcare Network and the UT Medical Branch will continue operating the two hospitals under existing lease agreements.

Mary Lou McLain, an emergency room nurse at Brack who served on the district steering committee, has years of firsthand knowledge of Austin's struggling healthcare network. Travis Co. is the last of the major metro areas in the state to adopt a tax-financed method of funding public health care. The new system will establish a uniform tax rate countywide, bringing to a close a decades-long era wherein Austin residents shouldered most of the costs. "I'm hoping that the expense of primary care access will decrease, as well as the number of patients coming to the emergency room with conditions ... that could have been prevented if they had been able to be seen in a clinic or by a physician," McLain said. "This will really improve our ability to continue providing top-notch trauma care."

The time and sweat that went into realizing a hospital district may seem relatively easy compared to the massive transition phase ahead. The Austin City Council and Travis Co. Commissioners Court's first line of action will be to establish a district board of directors and appoint its members. – Amy Smith

Firefighters Ring the Bell

With 60% of voters in favor of Proposition 1, Austin's firefighters won their bid to secure collective bargaining rights in future labor negotiations with the city. Despite last-minute opposition from a fledgling anti-tax group and the teeth-gnashing agitation of the Statesman's editorial board – which opined that collective bargaining would give firefighters a gold key to the community chest – city voters weren't swayed. Austin Association of Professional Firefighters President Mike Martinez said he and the union membership are satisfied with the outcome. "The membership is really ecstatic about the support they received this weekend."

The union is in the process of assembling a bargaining team; members will spend this summer getting training on negotiation tactics and mediation skills to prepare for their first bargaining session, which could begin as early as Nov. 1, Martinez said. (By law, the parties cannot begin bargaining until 30 days after the start of the new fiscal year.) Meanwhile, Martinez said he is preparing for the upcoming city budget process, during which he expects to see renewed proposals to close "redundant" stations and to cut back on staffing by buying so-called quint trucks, which combine ladder and pump functions in one vehicle. Winning the right to engage in collective bargaining is a "good step in the right direction," to improve the city and the fire department, he said, but there is still more hard work to come. – Jordan Smith

Gale, Levin Show Strength

"Oh, Jennifer Gale! That's who I'm voting for. I always vote for the woman." So said one spirited but confused Northeast Austin lady of a certain age, one of the 11,735 citizens who elevated Austin's favorite eccentric perennial candidate of indeterminate gender to her best showing ever in her dozen or so tries for local office. Gale, who in her City Council campaigns typically gets about 2% or less, pulled nearly 40% in her challenge to AISD board President Doyle Valdez in the only contested school board race.

Gale's previous best was in her 1998 head-to-head against Valdez, in which she earned 34% of the vote, and local political mavens assume that the Northeast Austin woman indeed does speak for many. A female name on the ballot, especially for a school board race (and, sad but true, running against a Hispanic) is guaranteed a sizeable share of the vote. Gale actually won, tied, or lost by just one vote in more than 40 precincts all over town, from far East Austin to Sunset Valley, and from Onion Creek to the Arboretum. Valdez insisted to reporters Saturday night he "took this race seriously," because the stakes facing AISD are so high – a point echoed by Gale, who (despite having already announced her write-in candidacy for Congress in the new CD 10) likewise expressed anguish over the results. "I'm really worried about what's going to happen to the kids," she told the Chronicle. "This community's really polarized. I think it's going to be a disaster."

Speaking of polarization, controversial right-wing activist Marc Levin – founder of the Austin Review – pulled off at least a mild upset, taking advantage of conservative agitation against the hospital district and firefighters' union to force a run-off for the Austin Community College board against Veronica Rivera. The four-way race – including Rodney Ahart and Guadalupe Sosa – proved fairly evenly matched; each candidate won more than one precinct outright. Election observers theorized that Rivera's money (she was the best-funded candidate in the race) and mainstream backing, and Levin's under-the-radar outreach to conservatives, helped them remain standing while Ahart and Sosa split the progressive base that backed ACC's 2003 tax referendum.

Levin stayed on message on election night, announcing his opposition to future ACC tax increases and reiterating his call for the college to adopt "colorblind" policies. Rivera (who earned 31.9% of the vote to Levin's 29.8%) is the early favorite but predicts a tough race. In the other ACC race, Chamber of Commerce VP Jeffrey Richard scored an easy victory over UT prof Thomas Krueger. And ACC grew overnight as voters in the Del Valle ISD agreed to join the college district. – Mike Clark-Madison

Growth Battles at Ballot Box

Two Hill Country towns struggling with growth issues saw two different responses from voters on Saturday, with Bee Cave residents apparently satisfied with the village's pro-development leaders but Dripping Springs voters removing one of the town's pro-growthers from office.

In Bee Cave, the re-election of Mayor Caroline Murphy and her husband, Alderman Mike Murphy, could clinch a proposed retail development that opponents say will lead to the degradation of the village's rural character and the waterways that feed into Barton Springs. Despite this opposition, a four-person slate of challengers that likely would have deep-sixed the proposed Shops at the Galleria failed to secure seats on the village board. Had residents in the village's extraterritorial jurisdiction – who will bear the brunt of the project's impact – been able to vote, the outcome may have been altogether different. As it turned out, the Bee Cave mayor won re-election by a 54-vote margin over Sage Johnston, while her husband captured 15 votes more than the second top vote-getter, Mike Monthei, who will also fill an open seat on the board, along with newcomer Jim Boushka.

Across the county line in Dripping Springs, residents appeared more willing to rock the status quo with the defeat of incumbent City Council Member Mike Firle, whose 70 votes were insufficient to return him to his seat. Incumbent Doug Phillip got enough votes for a second term, but the big surprise was the top vote-getter – Joe Volpe, a member of the city Planning and Zoning Commission, who took 87 votes in the low voter turnout. (Twice as many votes were cast in Bee Cave as in Dripping Springs, which is over twice as large.) In an e-mail wrap-up of the results, Rob Baxter, president of the Friendship Alliance, a development watchdog coalition in Hays Co., praised Volpe as a voice of reason. "And now he can bring that reason to bear in council chambers. We couldn't be more pleased," he said, "even if it is 7,000 or so ETJ plat approvals too late." – A.S.

And in Other Races –

Sunset Valley Mayor Terry Cowan – a newsmaker in last year's battle over Lowe's – easily won re-election, as did Webberville Village commissioners Ken Moon and Tom Trantham. The latter two faced opposition from candidates who, they charged, wanted to roll back the nascent village's controversial incorporation. In Wimberley, which likewise spent years fighting over incorporation, Hill Country Sun publisher Allan Kimball narrowly lost his bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Steve Klepfer.

As has become its habit, San Marcos kicked its mayor to the curb, with Council Member Susan Clifford Narvaiz handily unseating incumbent Robert Habingreither – the fourth change in the top job in as many elections. Libertarian-ish Texas State professor Habingreither might have done better had he not spent much of his term getting his neighbors and strongest supporters (and himself) de-annexed, and thus ineligible to vote in San Marcos.

A good day for library supporters across the region: Lake Travis voters agreed to create a stand-alone community library district funded by sales tax, and Leander approved a $3.2 million bond for a new city library. – M.C.M.

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