Austin @ Large: Where's the Mayor?

And do we care? Putting out an APB for Austin's fearless leader

Austin @ Large: Where's the Mayor?
Illustration By Doug Potter

As I write this, it's cool and rainy (64 degrees) in Bonn, Germany, this week's featured stop on Mayor Will Wynn's tour of Europe. Fearless Leader, along with Austin Energy's Roger Duncan, will be speaking at an international renewable-energy conference and talking up Austin's designs to become the capital of that world, too. It was warmer last week – though nothing like our 100 degrees – in Athens, Greece, where Wynn was a featured guest at the World Congress on Information Technology's biennial meeting. (The same meeting will be held in Austin in 2006.)

In short, the mayor picked a good time, weatherwise, to get out of town and take advantage of some of the perks of his position. Being an honored guest at international conferences in glamorous European capitals (well, Athens, at least – Bonn is neither a capital, anymore, nor very glamorous) is probably more fun than the last public gig I saw Wynn do before he left: dressing in cowboy drag and getting up-close with an APD horse in front of Faulk Central Library to kick off the latest Mayor's Book Club. (Wynn, remember, is from East Texas, though he didn't look any less convincing than, say, Matt Damon.)

I'm sure the daily and TV newsies are already looking into this, but I neither know nor care who's paying for Wynn's Eurojaunt, and as a fellow travel addict I can't begrudge him taking a couple weeks off to roam from one chicken-dinner conference gig to another. But it does sorta ... irk me a little that, y'know, the folks in Germany and Greece get to see Wynn acting like, y'know, a mayor. An honest-to-God big-city mayor. Why can't we see that here?

Where Was Will?

In case it needs repeating, I like Will Wynn personally and have since getting to know him back in his days at the Downtown Austin Alliance. (I know people who don't like the mayor, often for very specific and experiential reasons, but I should note that he's never chewed me out, which makes him different from his three predecessors, each of whom has had a piece of my hide. Of course, Wynn hasn't read this yet.)

I also think Wynn's vision for the city is basically a sound one. Indeed, Wynn's example may be one small reason why other local leaders are now so eager to embrace regionalism and urbanism, after years of thinking people like Will Wynn spoke some other language, similar to Middle Texan but nonetheless unintelligible. But in the year since he became mayor, all Will Wynn has offered – or been able to offer – to the citizenry is that language. He thinks out loud a lot. Action happens elsewhere, or not at all.

I wish this weren't true, or at least not true as often as it has been. For example, Wynn talked last year about making big, mold-breaking, paradigm-shifting changes to the city's budget priorities – closing facilities, getting out of certain lines of business, and so forth. He talked the talk of budgetary responsibility all through the spring campaign. By midsummer, when City Manager Toby Futrell's budget was already on the table, he was still talking.

By that point, it was too late to do much about it, and Wynn ended up on the losing end (sometimes all alone) of most of the budget votes. It's now a full year later, and the fiscal 2005 budget – another one writ in red ink – is almost at the printer, and if Wynn has been leading the community in the big dialogue about hard choices and forced tradeoffs and changing our models, he's been doing it very, very quietly. Perhaps he's having these discussions in Europe.

Then there's the ticklish business of jump-starting the city's half-finished Downtown initiative, left hanging in midair (under the Intel building) by the departing Kirk Watson on the threshold of the economic bust. Before becoming mayor, Wynn – Mr. Downtown – was all over this issue like the proverbial cheap suit (cheaper than any of his own suits), and you may remember, just two months ago, reading in these pages his call for a unified Downtown strategy linking Block 21, Seaholm, and a dozen or so other projects lying dormant in the Warehouse District. (You know, the domino thing.)

It was, in fact, to accommodate just such a big-picture strategy, we were told, that the city initially delayed issuing its requests for proposals for Block 21 and Seaholm dance partners. Months have gone by, and both those city assets are now on the block. And if Austin has in fact taken steps to develop an overall public-private Warehouse District strategy – as opposed to swinging deals for Block 21 and for Seaholm in isolation – it doesn't appear to have happened with the mayor around, or to reflect any of the supposed passion, expertise, and leadership he could ostensibly bring to this very issue.

Lead, Follow, Or –

Even this disappointing level of engagement and follow-through is more than we've seen from Wynn on the other defining issue of his first year in office – the interlocking crises gripping APD and its frayed relations with the African-American community – although on that score, it's not hard to not blame the mayor for not knowing what to say. The entire council has been tentative, trying to keep from making things worse. But let's just say that this talk-without-action thing is starting to look like a pattern, one that makes it entirely too easy not to take Fearless Leader very seriously.

It's common to hear nowadays that there's no leadership of any kind at City Hall, that Toby Futrell and her lieutenants are running the city single-handedly and supplying their own policy guidance to fill the vacuum left by the council. This, to me, seems unfair to the Other Six, who have at least tried to be engaged on certain issues at certain times – Jackie Goodman on the arts-and-music front, Betty Dunkerley on health care, and even rookie Brewster McCracken on urban-design issues that are supposed to be Wynn's specialty. But where is the mayor?

I don't think we need to start talking recall here, but a year in office is long enough to give the mayor a proper performance evaluation, and I think we're looking at "needs improvement." Whether that's Wynn's fault or that of his enemies, whoever they are, I cannot say. But it probably needs to change quick, for the mayor's own sake. Again, if civic leaders (and his City Hall colleagues) begin to conclude that Wynn is all hat and no cattle, the resulting donnybrooks and jockeying for position will quickly stall whatever forward momentum Austin has at this sensitive time. Perhaps this has already begun, but it'll get worse – especially since, as soon as this year's budget cycle is complete, the next council campaign cycle will begin in earnest.

Come back, Will! Come back! Austin needs you! (Or does it?) end story

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