The Austin Chronicle

Beside the Point

Facing the Charter Music at St. Ed's

By Wells Dunbar, April 21, 2006, News

Maybe he should stick to writing about Neil Young.

Chronicle Editor Louis Black's "Page Two" screed last week against Propositions 1 and 2 – the "open government" and "clean water" city charter amendments – repeatedly surfaced at an April 13 debate sponsored by St. Edward's University. Former Mayor Gus Garcia, speaking against, read Black's indictment of the props as "sloppy piece[s] of legislation, in which intention, enforcement, actual implementation, and focus are way too vague." To which the ACLU's Ann del Llano scoffed, "I like Louis Black saying something is poorly drafted." Garcia was quick to respond over the laughter: "But his [language] does not get into the charter!"

Some 75 people were on hand to see Garcia and former council member (and ex-Chronicle politics editor) Daryl Slusher square off against del Llano and Save Our Springs Alliance director Bill Bunch. Alas, minus the media, proposition advocates and hangers-on, council members and other detractors, and a few extra-credit-minded undergrads, there were maybe 30 unclaimed citizens. As it proved, neither were these undecided – the goateed or Birkenstocked environistas jeered and hissed their former public officials, working themselves into a lather over promises of "sunshine online" and "migrating into the new generation." During the Q&A, one voice – possibly the evening's sole undecided voter – politely described the atmosphere as "polarization."

If he had been hoping for clarification, Everyman had come to the wrong place. Just as cooler heads had been recently rising in an increasingly acrimonious campaign, the debate was a bloodletting, a return to mutual venom.

"If anything characterizes the debate," del Llano declared in a rare moment of agreement, "it's confusion." The "open government" Prop. 1, she said, is threefold, beginning with a "purpose"or "vision" statement: glowing language but not to be interpreted literally. The second aspect involves moving already-public information online, while the third proposes posting "very discreet" info online that isn't currently available. This includes police officer meet-and-confer negotiations, police misconduct files, tax "giveaway" and abatement negotiations between the city and businesses, city settlements, and "agency memoranda," including council members' and city officials' calendars, logs, and communications. Del Llano brandished her ACLU credibility in discussing e-mail from citizens to the city, the most contentious area of interpretation between opponents. "No e-mails are required to go online, period," she said, noting a provision that nothing in the amendment should be construed as violating privacy rights.

Bunch provided the righteous indignation, describing a city "being built for developers, not our community." As he sees it, "It's always done deal first, public disclosure second." Slusher began by describing "The Secret Path to Openness and Unity," his name for the process followed by the self-selected amendment authors, who call for an open and public process while in fact practicing the opposite. Prop. 1, he said, would likely mean a tax increase to pay for an online program and administration, which would in turn "delay the bond election we're having – we were going to have – in November." He also addressed the controversial e-mail provision, noting that the amendment defines e-mail as public information, and Section 3 instructs the city to "as expeditiously … and to the greatest extent possible, make all public information available online in real time." He hammered at the definition (or lack thereof) of "real time," and also the timeline for implementing the program. (At one point, Bunch rose to deliver a frog-throated Slusher a bottled water, one he jokingly examined for tampering.)

The cordiality soon evaporated. "Prop. 1 is necessary because council won't act on its own," said del Llano. "Two people here have failed to do that." Then both groups turned to Prop. 2, the "clean water" amendment. Slusher began by noting that even though the company's name is directly in the language, the amendment wouldn't prevent Advanced Micro Devices from building in the Barton Springs contributing zone. Citing SOS's legal defeat last week in its case to block AMD's grandfathered move to the aquifer, Slusher argued that Prop. 2 would send the city back into court with the same "very, very weak" argument that was just thrown out. He also predicted that its passage would in fact create more impervious cover, as developers would increasingly file for grandfathered permits to skirt regulation; would arbitrarily conflict with bankruptcy and property law; and in the end be a "lose-lose for the environmental community."

Responding, Bunch compared the proposition to the 1992 SOS Ordinance. "For many years we got incredible protection out of that ordinance," he said, "not because of the words on the page … but because the people said, 'Save our springs.'" And as for the legal chances, said Bunch, "It may be possible that some of this grandfathering stuff won't hold up in court. But it may." He also dismissed Garcia and Slusher's reluctance to amend the City Charter, saying it cracked him up to hear how sacred the "dusty stuff" was. "That's such a trifle," he said. "I would hope that Mr. Bunch would think that the United States Constitution is not a trifle," Slusher shot back to a chorus of boos and heckles.

Slusher made his last stand fielding audience questions. Facing a skeptical, self-satisfied crowd, Slusher enumerated what he saw as several failings in the propositions. Despite assurances that e-mails and electronic messages aren't required to be posted online, Slusher emphasized that "anyone can sue the city if they feel it's not interpreted correctly … [some groups are] very fond of suing the city. Some are here tonight." And, he said, for legislation "based on distrust of city government and city council" to let the city define what constitutes public information "doesn't make sense." Hinting at the failings of the petition and referendum process, its language and amendments unalterable once initiated, he said Bunch and del Llano had a clear resource they hadn't used, called "council elections."

The charter language will "possess a chilling effect on information," Slusher told the crowd. The roomwide response was a steady, sustained hiss.

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