Point Austin: Hot Topics

The hot-air season is upon us – and everybody's an energy source

Point Austin
It was touching to see Statesman pundit Arnold Garcia attempting to prove up his East Austin street cred last Sunday, sneering at the City Council's decision not to pursue any further the Austin Water Utility's proposal to move the Green Water Treatment Plant to Roy Guerrero Park. "City leaders couldn't have been more ham-handed, insulting or condescending in announcing the proposal to plunk the water plant into the park in Southeast Austin," Garcia wrote. "Spare me the usual 'good intentions' song and dance and listen to what this sounds like: 'We need a water treatment plant, so let's put it in this park. It's just East Austin, for Pete's sake. Those people will get over it, and we'll throw $5 million at them to help 'em do it. That ought to keep them in red beads and blankets for awhile.'"

Which "city leader" is Garcia trying to "sound like" in that remarkably tendentious translation of the park proposal? Um, that would be ... Arnold Garcia. His caricature of the proposal reflects in essentially no detail what actually happened in the utility's proposal for the plant. In fact, the need for a new treatment plant, and the more generalized discussion of the feasibility of moving it eastward on the Colorado River, has come up repeatedly in public meetings (including City Council meetings) for several months, if not longer. The reasons are various: Green is old and inadequate; its downtown location could be readily redeveloped (including the possibility of a new and cheaper central library); the present location is dangerous to the water supply during storms (call this the Moriarty Factor); moving it eastward would mean that more highly symbolic Barton Springs water (in molecular theory) would thereby find its way into the city water supply, giving Austin an even more tangible stake in saving the Springs; and so on.

But the formal proposal by the AWU's Chris Lippe lasted all of about 48 hours. The headline outcry, just as the city election campaigns are reaching full throat, scuttled the plan before it could even get a full hearing – although after local environmental and neighborhood activists had loudly declared it a "done deal," concluded in the "back room," without any public input, and so on. Maybe it was only a medium-rare deal. Or maybe the process worked exactly as it's supposed to, even a little hastily: The proposal was drafted by AWU staff, it was heard by the Parks Board (en route to additional review, including the council's), the board didn't much like it, and the council abruptly intervened to say, forget it.

The Secret Team

According to Mayor Wynn, the specific deal-killer for him was learning that the full Guerrero Park master plan included a grand entryway and other amenities for that previously undeveloped portion of the park. "One of the reasons we were considering this spot is that it is currently undeveloped," Wynn said, "and we hoped to use the mitigating funds [$5 million] as a way to begin funding that master plan. But there's no point in doing it if you're going against the plan."

As for the "secrecy," like virtually every standard real estate transaction, city land purchase discussions, and most especially negotiations, are normally private until they move toward a conclusion – that's the reason for the real estate exception in open-records laws – and the alternative tracts are now in private hands, subject to negotiations, and therefore unidentified. Today (Thursday), we may learn a little more about those tracts, but it's not clear if their locations (when eventually revealed) will be sufficiently politically correct to pass muster with those now demagoguing the issue.

For the record, the city's existing wastewater treatment plants, like Green, are all in West Austin – the toniest neighborhoods – so the notion that the AWU proposal was somehow racist business as usual is simply nonsense. Equally unpersuasive is the claim that this "secret deal" had already been concluded, six weeks before it was even scheduled to go before council, and – as it happens – so secretly that the council members who supposedly agreed to it don't even know who they're supposed to be. But, as Garcia rightly points out, the Green tale is now being deployed as Exhibit No. 1 in evidence that the voters must approve Prop. 1, the "Open Government" charter amendment, so that we can all be certain that before decisions like Green are made they can be subject to a public process.

Like this one, um, was.

Have Bucket, Will Shovel

Alas, Arnold Garcia is hardly the best advocate for that argument, since his notorious 2003 e-mail exchange with Mayor Wynn over a pending Temple-Inland headquarters expansion – telling the mayor he'd "keep a lid on it" while Wynn lobbied for council votes – is being widely circulated by SOS as primary evidence of the need for Prop. 1. Of course, the Garcia e-mail was released by the city via existing open records laws, the Temple-Inland expansion never happened, and arguably the only one who got dope-slapped in the whole deal was ... Arnold Garcia.

Far be it from me to complain about a symbolic public exercise in political hysteria that includes the mayor and council, self-righteous environmentalists, Eastside hotdoggers, and the Statesman all at once – this is why I come to work in the morning. As we get closer to this spring's exceptionally grandiose municipal ritual of cleansing and purification, it seems certain that my job is just going to continue to get easier and more entertaining, by the bucketload. end story

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Austin City CouncilGreen Water Treatment Plant, Arnold Garcia, Green Water Treatment Plant, Roy Guerrero Park, Chris Lippe, Austin Water Utility, Will Wynn, Temple-Inland, Prop. 1, Save Our Springs

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