Point Austin: Clean Is as Clean Does

When you signed that petition, did you get to read the fine print?

Point Austin
Just about the time you've realized there's an election this week – and perhaps decided whether to "Save yourself for Kinky (or Carole)" or instead hie yourself down to the neighborhood polling place this Tuesday and weigh in on a couple dozen Democratic or Republican primary battles – the City Council begins considering this week whether and what to add to the May municipal ballot (beyond the already running candidates) in the form of proposed city-charter amendments. Proposed amendments can reach the ballot either by public petition or direct council action, and as of this writing (in the first week of March), it looks like there will be five amendments making the cut, and at least four of them will generate considerable public heat, although inevitably less light.

Allowing for details and nuances of language (and in legal matters, the devil is always in the details), and roughly in the order of publication, this is the abbreviated list:

• An amendment to extend benefits (i.e., spousal health insurance) to the domestic partners of city employees (proposed by council);

• An amendment to enforce stronger city restrictions on development over the Edwards Aquifer and the Barton Springs Watershed (submitted by petition);

• An amendment to require that most or all substantive city documents be made available online to the public, and that all public interactions by council members, major officials, and their staffs be documented and posted online "in real time" (submitted by petition);

• An amendment to extend the terms of office of municipal judges from two years to four (proposed by council);

• An amendment to revise current campaign finance law, to raise the limits on personal donations and out-of-town donations, to clarify the city limits for donation purposes, and possibly to create new limits on independent political action committees (proposed by council).

It's safe to say the fourth listed, the municipal judges amendment, will not generate much opposition. It's not safe to say much else.

Instant Lawmaking

The domestic partnership amendment, a retry of a noble effort that went down in hysterical flames some years ago, had barely begun to generate new headlines (which will return) when it was overshadowed by the two "Clean Water, Clean Government" amendments proposed by Save Our Springs Alliance, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and a brace of other activist organizations. Although the proponents say the two amendments stand independently – and some organizations are more devoted to one or the other – the "cleanliness" rhetoric is of a piece, and the petition campaigns were run together (primarily by paid signature-gatherers under the direction of former state Rep. Glen Maxey, who now works as a political consultant). The "SOS Amendment" would add strict enforcement power to aquifer-protection measures that are now city policies not always successfully enforced; the "Open Government Amendment" would require almost immediate disclosure of virtually any substantive city action, up to and including any business-related conversation by any council member, major officials, or their staffs, in "all informal and formal meetings, including but not limited to telephone conferences, video conferences, happy hours, and luncheons." The city argues that these two amendments, as drafted, are neither legally nor financially reasonable, as inviting costly litigation and chilling city business, and specifically incurring a $36 million start-up cost for the online project required in the name of open government; the proponents reject the legal claims, and dismiss the cost estimate as wildly inflated.

The petitions for both these amendments are in the process of being certified, and despite public speculation about some "forging" of signatures (a common but generally minor problem with petitioners paid by the signature), they will likely be confirmed. A brief effort to produce "compromise" amendments that could be introduced by council collapsed two weeks ago, amid city charges of intransigence by SOS, et al., and activists' countercharges of hypocrisy and misrepresentation by the city. Tempers may yet cool, but what seems to be building right now is a polarizing fight between dedicated groups of people who should be working together, and an inevitable up-or-down vote on environmental and open government absolutes that should instead be constant, public, community works in progress.

Zestfully Clean

There's still a good deal of time to discuss the substance of the amendments – the campaign finance draft, for example, has yet to take final form, but it might best be described as an effort to fix bad law produced by earlier amendments – but the early stalemate is not really a consequence of bad tempers or bad faith. It's a consequence of the petition system – on the state level, it's known as "initiative and referendum" – which is pure and simple a very bad way to make law. The draft ordinances are filled with broad, vague, overreaching language that could in theory be perfected – but once the petitions are signed, the petitioning groups cannot alter the language significantly without undermining the petitions. Yet anyone who's ever signed one knows that petitioners on street corners asking passersby to support "clean water and clean government" are not debating the details of legal language requiring the city, for example, to oppose any toll road "leading to" the Barton Springs Watershed – language so broad as to be meaningless, but locked into the proposed ordinance by the petition system.

We don't have to ask the proverbial man on the street. I read the "open government" provision concerning instant online posting of "happy hour and luncheon" conversations to Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, one of the groups officially endorsing the amendment. "It says that?" asked McDonald. "Well, we supported the amendment in principle, but we didn't get into the details. I wouldn't withdraw the endorsement, but we obviously should have paid more attention to the details." McDonald also didn't have much good to say about initiative and referendum. "We only support I&R as a very last resort. It's not a good way to make law, because there's no deliberative process."

That would appear to be what we're being handed this spring, under the feel-good advertising slogans of "clean water and clean government." Suspect policy, poorly drafted laws allowing no serious public discussion and requiring an up-or-down vote, and no deliberative process, at all. end story

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Austin city government, city council, charter amendments, Save Our Springs, Glen Maxey, Craig McDonald

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