What's at Stake at City Hall?

City elections bring debate over people, priorities, and propositions

What's at Stake at City Hall?
Illustration By Doug Potter

The upcoming May 13 municipal elections are threatening – just – to get interesting. Last week a former Playboy model filed for Place 5, and then a few days later Mayor Will Wynn had to apologize for manhandling a tourist. Alas, within a few days the looker – in fact a 40-something local marketing consultant, Laine Jastram, whom the mag had featured as a "Broadway Babe" in 1985 – withdrew, leaving us all to wonder forever what she might have meant by advocating "transparent government." Wynn's version of the police incident is that a SXSW visitor, whom he didn't know, was harassing him at a gathering in the mayor's apartment courtyard, and when the man wouldn't take a hike, Hizzoner finally had enough, grabbed him (Wynn says by the arm), and escorted him off the property. Although APD officers said they saw no visible injuries, we may not have heard the last from the outraged tourist, who claims Wynn choked him and that he has the X-rays to prove it. Could this incident have any method-acting connection to Wynn's full-make-up cameo, a day or two later, as a zombie extra in the local film production of Z: A Zombie Musical? Nah.

One alternative theory is that as his re-election campaign picks up steam, Wynn wants to shore up his street rep as a tough guy. Challenger Danny Thomas spent 20 years as an Austin cop, has a voice of biblical thunder, and is built like a brick firehouse; when Thomas shakes your hand, it stays shaken. Wynn may have wrapped up all the establishment endorsements and the deep pockets, but next to Thomas he looks like a brunette Napoleon Dynamite. He may feel the need to convince any wavering West Austinites that should he ever need to bodily evict Jennifer Gale (also running, inevitably, for mayor) from council chambers for singing off-key, he can do the job.

How to Hold Down Turnout

With its staggered three-year terms and a campaign finance system that now protects (and then ejects) term-limited incumbents, change comes to the City Council only incrementally. There are nominally four seats at risk this spring, but the only real races are in Places 2 and 6, the traditionally minority seats where incumbents Danny Thomas (Place 6 and as senior member, Mayor Pro Tem) and Raul Alvarez (stepping down rather than pursue the expensive and exhausting ordeal of a petition drive) are moving on.

Thomas' challenge to popular incumbent Wynn seems frankly quixotic; he has little campaign cash and an uncertain base, although he may garner some small conservative support over his moral opposition to Prop. 6 (the amendment that would re-revise the city charter in order to let city employees buy health insurance for an additional household adult, e.g., a domestic partner). More likely, like his lonely opposition to last year's state Proposition 2, that stance will hurt Thomas and help the mayor with Austin's socially liberal electorate. Curiously, last week Thomas told the Austin Neighborhoods Council that he supports the "open government" and "Save Our Springs" propositions that will appear as Props. 1 and 2 on the ballot – although he raised no objection to the vote-killing language adopted unanimously (i.e., including him) by the council, and the potential expense of Prop. 6 (to which he says he objects) is dwarfed by even the most conservative estimates of the expense of Props. 1 and 2.

So the mayor's race, and also the race for Place 5 – where incumbent Brewster McCracken faces three late-appearing opponents of little name and less experience – appear effectively to be ceremonial exercises. And we will lose two very solid and methodical members, in Thomas and Alvarez, who have been particularly dedicated (lately as a team) to East Austin redevelopment and revitalization, projects we can only hope will not lose momentum in the changeover. (Can somebody please tell me, again, why it's a good thing to fire reflexively two perfectly good council members who were just hitting their stride?)

In that vein, each year the so-called "gentlemen's agreement" that reserves Place 2 and Place 6 for minority candidates looks less like the heritage of desegregation and more like a straitjacket. With Austin nearly or already a majority-minority city, and with particularly a burgeoning Hispanic population, a larger council with at least some single-member districts looks increasingly inevitable, although nobody is eager for the transitional headache. As a beginning, may we suggest that the issue be raised and debated in this campaign, and not only in Place 2 and Place 6?

What Else Is New?

Setting aside the races themselves, the council campaign is likely to get completely bollixed up in the polemical (and polarizing) arguments over the proposed charter amendments, most particularly 1 and 2. On Wednesday, several council members, the most prominent council candidates, and a brace of institutional environmentalists gathered at City Hall to denounce the two propositions as ill-considered, ill-drafted, and just plain ill. On Friday, one response arrived, in the form of a ballot language lawsuit (parties including ACLU firebrand Ann del Llano and former state Rep. Glen Maxey) that the council had richly earned by downwriting the prop language to the point of negative parody. (What does this do to the argument that passing the amendments will generate lawsuits?) Most of the institutional voices are already on the city's side, so SOS, ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and their overlapping allies are already screaming "Insiders!" at the prop opponents.

It's too soon to tell if the high-sounding, evanescent populism of the "clean water/clean government" campaign can combine with a low-turnout election to make a race of the proposition fight. Should the uprising somehow overcome all the institutional opposition, it will have the paradoxical effect of imposing the new charter on a council – no matter who actually wins – that will have declared its unanimous opposition to laws it will now have to figure out how to articulate and enforce – and pay for, in the budget deliberations that will commence over the summer. (Department of Small Comfort: What's bad for the city is undoubtedly good for local journalism. So there.)

Momentarily lost in all this mutual red-faced bluster is a much more serious and broad agenda, by grudging agreement of all the parties – the final makeup of the November bond package that the current council is now considering and revising to new specifications. The official working consensus – for what that's worth – is that the $614 million offered up by the citizens bond committee is simply too much for the city's staff-and-budgetary snake to swallow, and at least $100 million must go. Will the cuts come in drainage and transportation, or open space, or affordable housing, or facilities (e.g., the new central library)? While you're thinking about who (and what) to vote for May 13, you might spend a few moments boning up on the bond package (readily accessible on your city's already existing "open government" Web site), and send your council your two cents (of wisdom) on the subject.

Certainly they're going to need it; and your more tangible cents will be following, willy-nilly, soon thereafter. end story

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