Beside the Point

God or the Devil in the Details?

Now the entire city charter was of one language and uniform words. And it came to pass when AMD traveled from the east, that they found an Aquifer and settled there. And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a corporate campus and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name."

"We're not asking you to place ballot language … that reads, 'Shall the city charter be amended because one multinational corporation called Advanced Micro Devices wants to urbanize and pollute the Barton Springs watershed so the executives have a shorter commute?'" emphasized luxuriantly-locked Save Our Springs Alliance communications director Colin Clark, no doubt sapped of his Samson-like strength after hours of delay. The rhetorical flourish, coming in the late afternoon instead of a scheduled morning showtime, cut to the quick the debate between SOS and council over how to accurately reflect on the ballot the proposed charter amendments punishing development over the Edwards Aquifer and making city info more accessible online.

Any hopes that council might have dulled the edges of its ballot language sailed through the windshield last week, when the aquifer amendment ballot wording was punched up by Will Wynn himself to be even less inviting (see p.30). The mayor's prediction is that under the ordinance, corporations would have to carry contingent liability insurance should any of their future developments somehow run afoul of the aquifer, something they'd be unwilling to do: Hence, "the city's ability to enter into economic development agreements" would be "severely" limited "anywhere in the city."

A laundry list of city programs were also hung out to dry, in the new language: roads, water quality, drainage infrastructure, and more. Never one to let a talking point lie when he can bludgeon it to death, Brewster McCracken repeatedly gonged the "misleading, inaccurate title" of SOS' amendments, their "Clean Water" and "Clean Government" initiatives no better than the Bush doublespeak of "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" in his estimation. "We have a duty to tell the truth to the voters," McCracken insisted.

Lee Leffingwell didn't agree that SOS was intent on bombing the city back to a Luddite prehistory in which the only advanced micro devices would be smooth stones, but said the proposers simply fell victim to "flaws inherit in the [petition and referendum] process. … I don't think that there was any intent on the part of the writers to write an amendment that would have all these effects."

And SOS descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of man had built, to stop it, and grandfathered permits, and incentives, and recordeth all the Happy Hours in the city, and putteth it in the Charter.

The city attorneys returned to their crypts to draft the final language, with council returning to ACLU/SOS' "Clean Government" proposal following the weekly zoning progression. McCracken's version enumerated (opponents insist overstated) the myriad potential consequences: requiring the online posting of all private e-mails, phone calls, and meetings with citizens and co-workers would have a start-up cost of $36 million (and $12 million annually), and "limit the ability of citizens to keep private the details of these communications."

SOS attorney Sarah Baker called McCracken's language "factually inaccurate," including an inflated cost estimate that's "yet to be bid on." Clark returned to the podium, arguing that proponents aren't hoping for argumentative language like, "amend our charter to reform our city government to end the disproportionate influence that high-paid city lobbyists and insiders have over our city," and asked the same from the council. Nobody was listening. McCracken, treating the amendment as Austin's answer to the PATRIOT Act, raised the possibility of librarians having to disclose what books their patrons checked out. "I think you're attempting to construe this in a Big Brother way," said Clark. McCracken replied, "I don't have to construe it." "All we're asking you is to be fair, be honest …" implored Clark. "The ballot language is not the right place to campaign and scare voters."

And then the Council said, "Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of their initiative." And the Council scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and AMD continued building the city.

Sensing a foregone conclusion (McCracken's language was unanimously adopted), Bunch and the other proponents seemed more intent on circumventing the council, promising voter education and outreach on what they feel the true impact of the amendment is. They'll be facing an uphill battle, as former Council Member (and former Chronicle politics editor) Daryl Slusher circulated an e-mail last week detailing his objections to SOS' approach – the least of which is placing the term "happy hours" into the city charter (see p.30).

We catch a breather this week, while council shotguns Lone Stars over SXSW and spring break. But expect the babble to keep bubbling, at least until May.

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city council, save our springs, city election, charter, amendment, Colin Clark, Will Wynn, Brewster McCracken, Lee Leffingwell, Bill Bunch, open government

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