Point Austin: Greens vs. Greens

Charter election rhetoric begins rising all around

Point Austin
If it's an ill wind that blows nobody good, you couldn't prove it by the beleaguered crew assembled in front of city hall last week, leaning into a bitter March gale for the benefit of the TV cameras and a handful of reporters longing wistfully for an indoor venue. The hastily assembled press conference was the latest official salvo in the current municipal Punch-and-Judy routine also known as the campaign over Prop. 1 and Prop. 2, the "clean water" and "clean government" propositions that will appear – in some form, pending the usual litigation – on the May 13 election ballot. Several City Council members – Lee Leffingwell, Betty Dunkerley, Jennifer Kim, Brewster McCracken – spoke out strongly against both propositions, backed by a chorus of new council candidates (Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez, Eliza May) and a brace of local environmentalists, who undoubtedly looked good on camera but told me afterward they couldn't hear a word anybody said in the flaring wind.

That's show biz. The speeches were not news to anybody on hand, but rather an initial attempt to advertise public solidarity among current and former council members (Raul Alvarez sent best wishes, as did Daryl Slusher) and many green advocates that the proposals to amend the charter, however well intended, would neither protect the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs, nor make city government effectively more "open" to the public than it already is. These propositions were drafted, said Leffingwell, "behind closed doors and with no public input"; they will have "unintended consequences" far beyond their apparent good intentions; and because petition-submitted amendments, once subject to signatures, cannot be altered, there has been no real opportunity to correct "errors or omissions" in the language that, if adopted, moves directly into the city charter.

Leffingwell described the risk to progressive city programs like solar rebates and SMART Housing by a ban on any "incentives" in the Barton Springs Zone, and reiterated the "$36 million up front, and $1 million a month" mantra that the city insists it will cost to implement the instant-online portions of Prop. 2. Dunkerley argued that the cost estimates, rather than inflated, are more likely too low, and will come at the expense of other pressing city needs, from public safety to public health – concluding, "I am vehemently opposed to these propositions." Kim described the in-progress, multijurisdiction regional water quality plan as offering better hope for aquifer protection, and said that promises of online document access in "real time" are simply recipes for public dispute and disappointment. A little later, McCracken itemized three reasons to oppose the amendments: 1) the excessive cost (a six-year estimate of $96 million); 2) the apparent ban on water/drainage infrastructure improvements in southwest neighborhoods; 3) the "severe restrictions" on citizen privacy rights in e-mails and discussions with city officials.

Recharge Zone

Needless to say, the amendment proponents – two overlapping groups of activist organizations, with the core leadership from SOS, ACLU, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation-Austin – reject every one of these arguments as misleading, overdrawn, or simply "lies," as Jordan Hatcher of EFF (who helped draft the open government proposition) called Leffingwell's description of the online e-mails proposal. Hatcher insisted that the amendment is simply not as onerous as officials say, and that the city would retain much "discretion and judgment" about the standards for what must be posted ("in real time") online. He didn't say what happens if the official judgment should differ from that of the amendment advocates. He also said that by researching open-source and Web-based software, proponents have already reduced the city's $36 million initial cost estimate to $24 million – not exactly a dramatic breakthrough, nor especially the sort of insignificant detail to be worked out after the fact.

"It's unfortunate that we want to spend this kind of energy in fighting among friends," said Ted Siff, after he stepped down out of the wind. Siff, former director of the Austin Parks Foundation and longtime parks and open-space advocate, had been joined by George Cofer of the Hill Country Conservancy, Mary Ann Neely of the Save Barton Creek Association, Jim Marston of Environmental Defense, and several others (all officially speaking for themselves, not their organizations) whose record of environmental advocacy is at least as long as those promoting the amendments. Siff said he's particularly concerned about the effects the projected amendment costs might have on the current bond proposal for open space acquisition – now at $45 million, from an initial goal of $75 million – adding, "part of the reason for the bond election postponement [from May to November] was the introduction of these amendments."

Although nobody at council claimed that at the time, on this day Betty Dunkerley concurred with Siff, saying that the amendment costs had landed on her desk as the council addressed the bond package. "The timing itself is not the main issue," she told me. "But when we set our budget [this summer], we can't use numbers based on someone else's speculation. We have to use the best numbers estimated by city staff. And that money's got to come from somewhere."

Inside and Out

As I write, Austin voters have six weeks to sort out these arguments. They're not likely to be helped much either by the council's "doomsday scenarios" (as the proponents' lawsuit, argued today, describes the official ballot language) nor by the cheerful Springs-and-flowers promises of "clean water" and "clean government" used by advocates to market extremely complex legislation with multiple potential effects, good and bad. As we huddled in the cold wind, I asked onlooking SOS spokesman Colin Clark how it happens that so many prominent environmentalists would find themselves in opposition to proposals supposedly so green and progressive. "Those people are all 'insiders,'" Clark said. "People who feel like they're insiders don't feel a need to open up the process of local democracy."

If those are indeed the terms of the discussion, voters can expect to spend much of the next several weeks trying to get out of the wind. end story

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Austin city governmentelectionscharter amendments, charter amendments, Lee Leffingwell, Betty Dunkerley, Jennifer Kim, Brewster McCracken, city council, Barton Springs, Jordan Hatcher, Save Our Springs Alliance, EFF-Austin, Ted Siff, Colin Clark

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