Point Austin: Refighting the Last Wars
Proposition 1, Proposition 2, saving Barton Springs ... and everything else
A few weeks ago, Advanced Micro Devices distributed a tabloid-sized, full-color AMD advertisement across the city, devoted not to marketing computer chips, but to burnishing the company's local image. The brochure (now available on the company Web site) was one high-profile aspect of AMD's ongoing campaign to defend its reputation as a good local citizen in the wake of public reaction to the company's decision to build a new, major research and administration campus on Southwest Parkway within the contributing zone and near the direct recharge zone to Barton Springs. "Growing Together: How AMD Is Renewing Its Commitment to Austin" was "printed on recycled paper, using 30% post consumer fiber," and it avidly defends AMD's contributions to the Central Texas economy ("$400 million in 2004"), to the local environment ("$11.5 million for green building, $5 million donation for open space ...), and to local charities (Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, and so on). The photos featured throughout the brochure are of flowers, rainwater-collection systems, Barton Springs, and a beaming Hector Ruiz leaning against a bicycle the text notes that the AMD CEO, whose Austin home is near the new facility, is an "avid cyclist." On the cover is a photo of a young woman, apparently an AMD volunteer, working with two children to plant a tree.
The amplified message of "Growing Together" is that AMD is not only a good neighbor but also a progressive defender of the Central Texas environment and that the new offices to be constructed at Lantana will be done so with the latest technology available, in an "environmentally sustainable" way.
Almost simultaneously, the Save Our Springs Alliance released a new animated cartoon, also about the AMD plans for Lantana, although not nearly so enthusiastic. "Once Upon a Time in Texas," featuring a red-haired, childlike purple amphibian named "Sal A. Mander," recalls the good old days, when Austin was just a "sleepy college town" populated by "smart and healthy people" who welcomed major employers like IBM and Dell to the desired development zone. This idyllic past, declares Sal ominously, is threatened by the dastardly plans of Hector Ruiz and AMD, who will bring only sprawl, highways, pollution, and toxic chemicals to the watershed. The fate of poor little Sal hangs in the balance. "I wish I knew the end of this story," he sighs, calling on viewers to "do what they know is best," and join the fight to save the springs.
It's a toss-up which of these PR exercises in finely calculated sentimentality is the more misleading, or the more incomplete and inadequate portrait of the growth and development issues facing Central Texas and Austin. Each adversary is certainly capable of better work. Faced with both official and broader public opposition to its decision to build at Lantana, AMD has indeed done its best to plan a facility that will use the latest technology and sustainable-building techniques to minimize environmental destruction and threats to the aquifer, and those plans have become its best public-relations weapon. If not AMD, they say, something else will be built here perhaps a shopping mall or apartment blocks or superstores or worse and without nearly such attention to environmental protection.
Similarly, in its broader public campaigns, SOS has done a better job of describing the long-term threats reflected in AMD's move, most specifically the concern that nearly 3,000 employees will become a magnet for secondary development in the area, bringing major housing developments, expanded highways, and all the consequent polluting by-products. Indeed, the SOS Web site features a much more useful map animation ("Two futures for the Barton Springs watershed") showing the broad, ongoing development patterns over the aquifer, the elaborate road and housing plans still in progress, and the advantages of acquiring more open space in preference to continuing intensive development. (But it's also worth noting that SOS has yet to explain how it expects the city will both pay for the charter amendments, if enacted, and for the open-space funding it is demanding for the upcoming and now-tentative bond election.)
Last week, AMD won the latest round of the argument. A judge rejected an SOS request for an injunction against the grandfathered status of AMD's development plans (i.e., pre-existing before the 1992 SOS ordinance) and allowed the company to resume construction at the Lantana site while the parties go to mediation. Although AMD continues to defy long-standing official Austin policy on the watershed, and SOS insists that this particular battle is not over, it seems increasingly likely that the AMD "Lone Star" campus at Lantana (yup, that's what they call it) will indeed be built.
Old Battles Resumed
Whatever the final outcome, it is this ongoing fight between SOS and AMD that is shadowing the municipal elections next month. There's been less attention on the campaigns for three council places and the mayor than on the debate over the two petition-generated charter amendments (of seven in all): Proposition 1 ("Open Government") and Proposition 2 ("Save Our Springs"). There would be no Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 if director Bill Bunch and the other folks at SOS didn't believe that the mayor and the City Council cannot be relied upon to protect the springs. Most specifically, they charge that the council and city staff "kept secret" for approximately four months last year's negotiations to persuade AMD to choose another site, instead of immediately announcing and denouncing the AMD proposal and mounting a public opposition. "If Will Wynn, Daryl Slusher, and all these people who say they oppose the AMD plan would have actively and openly opposed it," says Bunch at every opportunity, "it would have been dead long ago."
Bunch dismisses any argument that city officials might have reasonably calculated that immediate publicity would only serve to confirm AMD in its decision, and the city's parallel defense that every alternative site was indeed summarily rejected by the company, and even the undeniable fact that AMD has continued firmly to defy widespread public opposition to the move over the past quite public year. The City Council also declined to consider a nonbinding resolution requesting that AMD reconsider most say they don't support purely symbolic gestures so that notion too is built into Prop. 2 (Section 1, Part C), requesting other major employers, and AMD by name, not to locate in the Barton Springs watershed. Bunch says he also suspects that AMD explicitly or implicitly (and perhaps "secretly") threatened to move its existing Spansion facility out of East Austin if the city is too vociferous in its opposition. That suggestion inspires only quizzical looks at City Hall, but it's hardly a stretch to imagine that a company might consider relocating if it came to believe it is no longer welcome here. (And even Bunch conceded, at an amendment debate last week, that whatever the fate of the amendments, it's unlikely they will have any direct effect on AMD's Lantana plans.)
Not only the AMD fight underlies the proposed charter amendments. There are a handful of battles lost or more precisely, only partly won by local activists of various stripes over the last several years that consequently have their terms rewritten into the proposed amendments. The strategic aim is not only for another fight on those revisited grounds, but to cobble together a coalition of local interests as at least temporary allies in the campaign to pass Props. 1 and 2. Here's an abbreviated list of the various complaints yoked strainingly together in the two complex propositions:
Samsung Incentives: Last year, the state of Texas, area school districts, Travis County, and the city of Austin all joined in a $231 million incentive package (Austin's vigorish: $58.5 million) to persuade the South Korea-based high-tech conglomerate to do what it finally announced it would last week build a major new chip facility in northeast Austin. Some activists object to all corporate economic incentives whatsoever; others object primarily to the initial secrecy and lack of subsequent public debate of the Samsung plan. In various ways, Props. 1 and, especially, 2 would make future economic development incentives anywhere in the city extremely difficult, if not literally impossible.
Toll Roads: The toll-road plans of TxDOT and CAMPO have been roundly condemned by much of the local public, but they proceed in various forms, with only partial and grudging approval by city representatives, as a necessary evil imposed by the state in order to fund or maintain newer highways. SOS describes the toll roads as effectively a long-term stealth plan to pave the watershed with borrowed money, and then to impose financially failing toll roads on the taxpayers. Prop. 2 responds by attempting to withdraw city support for any toll roads "in or leading to" the watershed and that rely on projections of increasing traffic a circular argument in any discussion of roads.
Police Officers: During negotiation of the 2001 police contract, ACLU representatives charged they were double-crossed by the city and the officers' union in the eventual agreement to create a police monitor system that still leaves general discipline files closed to the public. Prop. 1 would short-circuit the negotiation process, and remove any city authority to agree either to closed files or to negotiate meet-and-confer agreements in private.
Neighborhood Zoning: Some neighborhood oxen inevitably get gored in zoning disputes, and many neighborhood activists insist that the city's permitting and planning process continues to favor developers and large landowners at the expense of residential neighbors, that the projects are approved in virtual secrecy, and that the city does not sufficiently defend neighborhood interests. In theory, Prop. 1 would end allegedly "secret" city processes, make development discussions and decisions transparent in "real time," and make substantial economic incentives for development very difficult.
Settling Scores: It shouldn't be underestimated that the prominent players on both sides of these issues Bill Bunch vs. Daryl Slusher, Ann del Llano vs. the APA, Sal Costello and Linda Curtis vs. CAMPO, Brewster McCracken vs. central-city activists, and so on have been accumulating political scars and nursing old wounds for a number of years. Some of the venom invested in the campaign rhetoric understandably reflects that bitter history; some of it is buried in the details of the amendments themselves, which is not likely to assist ordinary voters trying to make a considered decision.
There are other old battles like the Eighties and Nineties fights with Gary Bradley and Freeport-McMoRan buried in the fine print of the charter amendments, that cannot be clearly reflected in ballot language remotely apprehensible to nonspecialist voters. Prop. 2, for example, would attempt to remove any "grandfathering" rights from any once-bankrupt entity a dubiously targeted limitation on property rights and even more broadly, would attempt to make companies permanently liable for the potential future actions by separate companies ("spin-offs") they may once have owned. The amendments also reflect a trendy and touchingly blind faith in the ability of the Internet to save us from official corruption and malfeasance, in the blandishments of Prop. 1: "An open and online government allows our community to benefit from and respond to the wisdom, knowledge, experience and interests of everyone." And everyone who henceforth logs on to the city's Web site, like all those well-meaning folks currently occupying the World Wide Web, will no doubt have nothing but the city's best interests at heart.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Thin Skins
The process that brought us to our current pass with the City Council glowering over the dais, rewriting its drafted ballot language under a judge's order, while a handful of activists yell, "Liar!" and, "Shame!" has its own unhappy history. Last fall, frustrated with the AMD experience and other setbacks and operating under Bunch's oft-stated conviction that there remains only a "seven- or eight-year window" to save the springs SOS approached Kathy Mitchell and others from the ACLU to begin drafting proposed amendments to the charter, which, paradoxically, can be sent to the council with only half as many signatures as proposed ordinances. Bunch says the group sought input from a "broad coalition" of people and organizations and Texans for Public Justice, Public Citizen, the Gray Panthers, EFF-Austin (not to be confused with the national Electronic Frontier Foundation), and some neighborhood representatives indeed took part in basic discussions but SOS, ACLU, and EFF-Austin were most directly involved in the drafting. (That relatively private process has been called an "open government" contradiction by opponents, and it also meant inevitable opposition from other environmental groups, council members, and others who charge that the amendments themselves are not the product of real public discussion and debate.)
Nowhere in that drafting process was anybody from the City Council or staff or legal office consulted in any way even though, should the amendments pass, it will be these officials who will be charged with interpreting, enabling, and enforcing any legal consequences. Asked how, in that situation, SOS could claim it had "tried to work with the city" and proposed the amendments only as "a last resort," spokesman Colin Clark said, "We mean in terms of a real response to AMD. The City Council simply refused to do anything."
Once signature collection began, the complicated language of the charter amendments could not be altered, and Bunch insists that many signers "read the amendments, or planned to" when they were asked on street corners to support "clean water and clean government." Under the direction of political consultant and former state Rep. Glen Maxey, two sets of approximately 20,000 signatures were collected by paid petitioners. Last week, a belated campaign-finance report confirmed that at $1 per signature, plus expenses, it cost the Clean Water Clean Government PAC about $75,000 to fill the petitions.
In February, as the submission date neared (the city clerk must accept and then verify the signatures, generally by statistical sample), there was finally a brief, melodramatic attempt at last-minute negotiations between the proponents and the city, as represented by Council Member Lee Leffingwell and City Manager Toby Futrell. As Maxey tells the story, SOS, ACLU, and other groups were asked to attend a meeting that would attempt to address detailed and specific concerns officials had about Prop. 1. When they arrived at the meeting, however, Leffingwell told them that both amendments must be considered together, and he declined to itemize problems with just the one. "I was really angry," says Maxey, "and I told them I had never had such an experience in all my time in government. I told them I felt like I'd been lied to." Leffingwell says he'd never talked to Maxey before that meeting scheduled by the city manager so he doesn't understand how he could have lied to him. "We had reviewed the amendments in detail over the weekend," Leffingwell continued, "and we had many overlapping problems with both propositions. And we really felt they were the sorts of things that couldn't just be fixed by tinkering."
That stalemate ended any quixotic attempt to resolve the issues by negotiations, the petitions were duly verified by the city clerk's office, and a vitriolic campaign began from both sides. In drafting its initial ballot language a summary for the voters of what's included in the proposed charter amendments the council, mostly voiced by Brewster McCracken, made it clear that the city thought the amendments were overwhelmingly damaging and counterproductive, and council members wanted those negative effects (including the estimated costs, still in dispute) set forth explicitly. The amendment proponents charged foul and won a decision by Judge Stephen Yelenosky that the council's ballot language had overreached. The proponents were far from satisfied with the council's rewrite, and the special, rushed session two weeks ago to respond to the council's order was loudly acrimonious, with proponents charging the council with dishonesty and the council responding in kind. The final result (see "An Honest Ballot," p.24) is likely to please nobody, especially not the voters, as the ballot attempts to boil down into a few abstract lines two propositions with complex and overlapping sections, cross-pollinating (or polluting) effects between them, and provisions defended by the proponents as perfectly plain to everyone and yet already visibly subject to radically conflicting interpretations.
Indeed, amendment supporters who initially argued for the props as profoundly changing the way the city does business have more recently defended them as not nearly so far-reaching as the council fears, and in any case subject to enabling ordinances and interpretations by the council and city officials although the amendments literally make it plain that the drafters do not trust city officials to so much as have a beer at Scholz's without the public peering over their shoulders, "in real time." The proponents have also dismissed privacy concerns governing citizen e-mails and similar postings as inflated and hysterical but they are inevitably assigning to the city attorneys and city staff, whom they've made clear they find completely untrustworthy, the delicate, vexing (and time-and-money consuming) task of determining exactly what "public information" can and must be posted on the city's Web site for all to see, "in real time."
In the last two weeks, following the special council session to revise the ballot language, the angry rhetoric has diminished somewhat. Proponents have been issuing statements suddenly devoid of the earlier reflexive personal attacks, uttering sub-rosa apologies for widely comparing Daryl Slusher to Karl Rove, and, mysteriously, the cartoon of corrupt D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff abruptly disappeared from the "Clean Government" Web site. A few days ago, Brewster McCracken conceded to me that the council may have overreached somewhat in its initial ballot language, but that "feelings were really high on the dais," and council members remain convinced that Props. 1 and 2 will be "bad for the city and bad for the springs."
So that's where we are, with three weeks to go until the municipal election in which, numerically, Props. 1 and 2 might seem only a minor part of the ballot. But thus far they have overshadowed virtually every other aspect of the upcoming vote, since both supporters and opponents maintain they could alter profoundly the basic processes of Austin city government, and in ways that nobody on either side can with certainty anticipate.