The Chronicle "editorial board" is a motley and moveable feast, but this year is essentially comprised of the news staff and editors, editor Louis Black, and publisher Nick Barbaro. We endorse only in contested races, and not by vote but by conversational consensus although occasionally (as this year) we'll issue split or qualified decisions for various reasons, trusting our readers to hear us out and then to find their own way. And whatever we decide, the writers and editors are entirely free to go right on agreeing, ignoring, or disputing whatever "the board" came up with. That's why we like working here.
Mayor: Will Wynn
City Council, Place 2: Mike Martinez
City Council, Place 5: Brewster McCracken
City Council, Place 6: Sheryl Cole
City Charter Prop. 1: NO (with a dissent)
City Charter Prop. 2: NO (with a dissent)
City Charter Prop. 3: YES
City Charter Prop. 4: YES
City Charter Prop. 5: YES
City Charter Prop. 6: YES
City Charter Prop. 7: YES
AISD Board, District 7: Robert Schneider
AISD Board, Position 8 (At Large): Ed Leo
AISD Board, Position 9 (At Large): Karen Dulaney Smith
ACC Board, Place 8: Rodney Ahart
ACC Board, Place 9: Allen Kaplan
Austin City Council
Mayor: Will Wynn Partly for structural reasons, this year's mayoral campaign has steadily become a minor coronation. Incumbent Wynn faces no persuasive opposition, is genuinely popular citywide, and has embraced his job with enthusiasm and energy an impression amply confirmed by his performance during the hurricane emergencies last year. Even his challenger, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, declares that he is not running "against Wynn" but "against the status quo at City Hall," as a voice for an uneven collection of groups that say they're left out of effective public discussion. On the other hand, Wynn has been an engaged and effective mayor, has been at the center of major public initiatives like Envision Central Texas, the Mueller redevelopment, and the current work on affordable housing, and he deserves credit for leading the city through the economic downturn to much better times. We want to see what he can do with three years of unencumbered attention, when he should: 1) carry out the council promises of openness and transparency delivered in the debate over the charter amendments; 2) challenge city staff (top to bottom) to actually engage the whole council and the public instead of always being dragged by force to the public debate; and 3) somehow balance the economic push for downtown residential development with the growing need for affordable housing. Mayor Wynn has earned another term.
We've thought and talked long and hard about the Place 2 candidates, and while we believe both Eliza May and Mike Martinez could be worthy successors to Raul Alvarez, on balance we've decided that Martinez represents more of what the council needs right now. He's been dramatically successful as president of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters, winning collective bargaining and using that right to improve the lot of his members, while yet engaging the broader departmental issues like staffing and resources with the council in a manner that wins allies rather than alienates opponents. He's also lent his voice and energies on broad progressive issues, and in particular he's worked effectively to move the fire department forward on questions of diversity and equity. Moreover, his specific experience in negotiations is likely to pay dividends on the dais, where council members all too often find themselves effectively negotiating for authority with city staff Martinez is unlikely to be easily rolled.
Place 2: Mike Martinez
We applaud May's distinguished record of public service, especially at the Capitol, and expect that her role in city politics will grow. And we like Wes Benedict's persistence not only in running for office, but in holding the council's feet to the fire on the hypocrisies of the campaign finance ordinance but his reflexive Libertarian mantra of "lower taxes, smaller government" does virtually nothing to address most of the real, complex matters facing city government.
We've never endorsed the incumbent before in his previous races, so we're suddenly a bit surprised at ourselves. We owe thanks to his late-entry opponents for taking on an impossible battle, thus forcing Brewster McCracken to campaign more energetically while inadvertently highlighting his virtues that might have otherwise remained obscured. Of the three, only Kedron Touvell shows much promise, with seasoning, of growing into a serious candidate, should he pursue greater involvement in city service. Mark Hopkins cares only about fighting toll roads (about which he declines to acknowledge City Council has precious little say), and Colin Kalmbacher is an ideologically naive student newcomer who knows almost nothing about Austin city government.
Place 5: Brewster McCracken
By that admittedly lopsided contrast, McCracken suddenly seems like a dynamo of practical energy, an official fountain of knowledge, and a dogged implementer of effective city policies. He's done undeniably excellent work on city planning, transportation-oriented development, design standards, and amidst all the hysteria, the toll-road battle, despite his opponents' determination to hang TxDOT unfairly around his neck. He's also initiated good work on new technologies, public safety budgeting, even issues of equity like the fight over birth control prescriptions or his sponsorship of the domestic partner charter amendment. His virtues and vices run too closely together he charged off half-cocked over the Midtown Live loan controversy, made the argument over the Prop. 1&2 ballot language more personal than necessary, and we expect we'll be blasting his property tax cap wild hair before too long. But considering the ingrained passivity of several of his colleagues, if McCracken didn't light fireworks now and then, the whole dais might be in the dark.
Possibly after May 13, and certainly after June 17, either Darrell Pierce, DeWayne Lofton, or Sheryl Cole will be on the Austin City Council, and the others won't. That's unfortunate. Rather than choosing the lesser of evils that is too often the hallmark of American democracy, voters in this year's Place 6 race can take comfort that, no matter who they choose, it would be hard to go wrong. All three candidates are thoughtful, committed leaders with long and successful track records of community service and smart ideas for leading Austin into the future. And unfortunately, all three are competing for the same seat that Austin's increasingly idiotic and now de facto racist "gentleman's agreement" has come to reserve for a lone African-American on the council. Darrell Pierce has given years of service on boards and commissions (and the recent "quality of life" effort); DeWayne Lofton has also done grassroots work, most recently on the citizens' bond committee; and Sheryl Cole has also been in the trenches, especially on two major bond campaigns (city and AISD) that lend a candidate effective knowledge of broad city priorities. She's also been a board director with Leadership Austin and the Urban League, given volunteer service at the PTA and neighborhood association levels, and on the stump appears to have an edge in her knowledge of the details of city government. Cole's résumé is impeccable, and if elected, she would also become the first African-American woman to hold the seat. We urge readers to vote for Cole
and we urge Pierce and Lofton to run again in 2008 on their own merits, but partly to undermine the quota system that now allows only one talented African-American among the leadership of a city whose population will soon be majority-minority.
Place 6: Sheryl Cole
Austin City Charter Amendments
Proposition 1: NO The so-called "Open Government Amendment."
Most of us are strongly, several adamantly, opposed to the so-called "open government" Prop. 1 on several grounds, most broadly because it was conceived, written, promoted, and balloted entirely in direct contradiction to the "open government" principles it supposedly celebrates, by a handful of activists bitter over a half-dozen lost battles (some still raging) they want to reverse by fiat. The process was not public or democratic (we routinely oppose state constitutional amendments on similar grounds), there was no opportunity to perfect the propositions once any signatures were collected (via generic slogans), and for such a complex proposal, it is literally impossible for voters to have any real certainty what the question actually is. There are also a host of more specific objections: 1) The cost is unknown, but could be many millions; 2) the actual requirements for online posting of public information are unclear and contradictory; 3) honest citizens expecting privacy in at least some communications with city officials (e.g. whistleblowers or city employees) would hesitate if they know they will be instantly publicized; 4) ending all private communications concerning economic incentives is in fact a mandate to end the incentives, and should be honestly presented as such; 5) rewriting the police officers' contract and conditions of work by fiat, without any discussion with those directly affected, amounts to union-busting; 6) the shotgun attempt to install direct-democracy-by-computer is both naïve and casually disdainful of representative government. Not least, we shouldn't have to provide exhaustive arguments about an extremely complex proposition that voters will have to intuit instantly, without access to detailed explanation. What is good in Prop. 1 has mostly to do with making planning information more immediately accessible, and the city was already moving in that direction before the petitions were drafted. We strongly urge our readers to vote NO on Prop. 1.
A couple of us believe that the dire predictions issued by opponents of Prop. 1, especially on the potential cost, are mostly official hysteria, and that in fact the amendment will likely do what it says it will: open government to more public scrutiny and accountability. To the extent the measure overreaches in practical terms, the City Council is empowered to implement it only to the extent practical, and therefore to amortize any major costs over time by which time savings should also occur. Similarly, the "real time" requirements apply directly only to those elements for which it makes sense e.g., official calendars, which are public information now, but might get more attention if citizens could see them more easily. And although the charges of "secret deals" can be exaggerated, it remains true that too much public business especially planning and development deals that often involve major public policy issues is largely arranged behind the scenes by officials, developers, and "experts" who may believe they know best but must in fact be subject to the open air of public accountability. Finally, we frankly don't trust the deep-pocketed opponents, who with a few exceptions are all the usual developer and investor suspects, lined up against environmental and civil liberties activists, who are usually on the side of the good guys.
Proposition 1 Dissent
The so-called "Save Our Springs Amendment."
Proposition 2: NO
Our objections to Prop. 2 are not as far-reaching the proposition is shorter and less complex but just as firm (and the general Prop. 1 objections to the undemocratic process remain equally valid). In general, the amendment is first an attempt to write the purist SOS theory of "grandfathering" into the city charter, which might be defensible if that theory didn't regularly get poured out at the courthouse and didn't set the city on a collision course with the Legislature, which would just love to return to the Austin-bashing of the Nineties. Setting aside the potential legal expense, those provisions are mostly rhetorical, but many of the nuts-and-bolts provisions (only suggested in the ballot language) are even worse: 1) attempting to restrict all infrastructure improvements in the watershed, even those necessary for environmental protection; 2) attempting to ban "any and all" incentive programs in a huge land area that includes many long-established neighborhoods; 3) trying to make certain that any company that ever did or does anything that SOS doesn't approve gets punished financially, in perpetuity; 4) trying to impose broad policy decisions on toll roads only tangentially related to Barton Springs, that may make it harder to stop the roads, in a frankly cynical attempt to enlist support from the toll warriors; 5) rashly inviting lawsuits from property owners whose legal rights would be subject to veto because of other owners in the title chain. There's more, but that should be quite enough yet another objection to dropping this bushel-basket in front of even attentive voters and expecting them instantly to sort out the potential consequences.
Oh, balderdash. The Save Our Springs Amendment would simply embed into the charter what is supposed to be city policy already: protecting the Springs and the Edwards Aquifer, guiding major development away from that area, and doing it in such a way that it creates long-term protection to the watershed. The city will not incentivize major developments, it will not support toll roads dependent on future expansion over the watershed to meet financial expectations, and it will not allow major employers or developers to move over the watershed without major consequences to their bottom lines, or at least their expectation of official support traditionally given to local businesses. All property rights are subject to legal limitation, and if we are to protect Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer, we need to take substantive, particular actions that institutionalize that protection. That's what Prop. 2 would do.
Proposition 2 Dissent
Change the initial date of the term served by the mayor and council members to comply with a change in state election law?
Proposition 3: YES
This is a clean-up provision responding to a recent change in state law that moved the uniform election date to the second Saturday in May and made the timing difficult for Austin city elections, especially if there are run-offs terms currently begin on June 15, and there could well be a June 17 run-off in at least one of this year's council races. The amendment would fix the base date in the charter but also allow flexibility by ordinance in the future, should the state calendar change again.
Allow a council member or mayor first elected after April 30, 2006, to serve for three terms?
Proposition 4: YES
Although we're not all of one mind on the principle of term limits, we're agreed that two terms (i.e., six years) on the Council barely gives a member time to learn the system and initiate programs before he is either out on his ear or else spending too much time and money chasing petition signatures. One campaign-buzz proposal would leave the two-term limit while lengthening the terms to four years but that option is not on this ballot. Especially since the measure does not affect current incumbents, we strongly endorse expanding the limit to three terms.
Limit contributions from individuals outside the Austin city limits, increase and adjust for inflation the aggregate contribution amount that a council member may collect and the maximum individual contribution to a candidate for city council, allow a person elected to city council to fund an account to pay officeholder expenses, and allow fundraising by unsuccessful candidates and retired council members to retire campaign debt?
Proposition 5: YES
This amendment would refine (and index to inflation) the campaign contribution limits imposed by the voters in 1997. Contribution limits would be raised to $300 per person (from the current $100), overall limits would also be raised (from $15,000 to $30,000, $20,000 for a run-off), and the regulations governing "in-city" contributions would be simplified by using ZIP codes rather than the literal city boundary, which can be confusing. Campaign finance reformists are waiting for the council at the moment spinning its wheels to act on limiting PAC funding before they'll endorse this proposition. But the current limits are both onerous and irrational, in and of themselves. While we definitely need to address the PAC problem, there's no reason that can't be done as part of a separate effort.
Restore a city employee's ability to purchase additional benefit coverage, by repealing Article IX, Section 4 (Employee Benefits) of the City Charter?
Proposition 6: YES
The ballot language is not particularly helpful, but Prop. 6 is fundamentally a matter of equity it would allow city employees to buy insurance coverage for an additional household member, conventionally described as a "domestic partner" but with similar application to other members of a household (indeed, for example, unmarried heterosexual partners). But since the political opposition is likely to be expressed as opposition to "gay couples," let's address it head on: The current law discriminates against gays and lesbians, and as such needs to be overturned. If Austin voters wish to stand by their opposition to such discrimination, as expressed in the ground-breaking local vote against the state's gay-bashing Prop. 2 last fall, we should come out in large numbers for Prop. 6.
Increase the term served by a municipal court judge from two years to four years?
Proposition 7: YES
The municipal court handles parking and traffic violations, violations of city ordinances, and other misdemeanor offenses. An appointed judge has barely begun her term before she must begin the reapplication process, which is why most municipal courts in Texas use four-year terms. The downside is that four years is a long time to endure a bad judge but on balance, we think the change merits approval.
AISD Board of Trustees
District 1: Cheryl Bradley (incumbent), unopposed
District 4: Vincent Torres, unopposed
District 6: Lori Moya, unopposed
District 7: Robert Schneider When we endorsed Schneider four years ago, it was partly on his merits but also because his opponent was a devotedly single-minded privatizer. Undeniably qualified, Schneider began his trusteeship primarily as an advocate for southwest neighborhoods and district expansion, but he has grown into one of the most able and knowledgeable members overall, with a broad reach of attention to most of the district's programs. He is also among the trustees most insistent on holding administrators accountable and refusing to roll over if he's not satisfied with current or proposed policies. Challenger Mel Fuller clearly has experience with teaching and school systems, but he has much less direct knowledge than Schneider of the Austin district and would have a much higher learning curve. We thank Schneider for four years of dedicated service, his willingness to re-enlist, and we enthusiastically endorse him for re-election.
This is a very difficult choice, between an experienced nonprofit leader, public servant, and legal activist (and dedicated AISD parent) in Annette LoVoi (of Texas Appleseed) and Ed Leo, a longtime educator who worked in the Valley, in D.C., and for many years as a principal and administrator in AISD. We find both of these candidates highly qualified for trusteeship and personally engaged in the issues confronting the school district, as well as exhibiting refreshing independence of mind. On balance, we endorse Ed Leo because of his direct, hands-on educator's experience in AISD, and because we believe his very particular experience and talents will provide a perspective and voice much needed on the board.
Position 8 (at large): Ed Leo
We found it quite hard to choose between the broad educational background of Smith and the dedicated, school-specific activism of opponent Alberto (A.C.) Gonzalez. (Kennard Wright is also running as a certified write-in candidate, appears to have administrative and educational qualifications, and should file on the ballot next time around.) Both have children in AISD schools, both know the district well, both have particular strengths and priorities in addressing district programs, and both have worked to do their best by Austin schools. After much deliberation, we're supporting Smith because of her breadth of education experience as well as her specific research experience as an expert in wage-and-hour law, which just happens to have been a crucial AISD issue in recent years. We applaud Gonzalez's very vital activism in Austin's schools, and know that he will maintain that energy; in this election, we're supporting Dulaney Smith.
Pos. 9 (at large): Karen Dulaney Smith
ACC Board of Trustees
Place 7: Barbara Mink (incumbent), unopposed
Place 8: Rodney Ahart The choice between Rodney Ahart and James McGuffee boils down not to strength of qualifications, but rather to the kind of experience most needed on the ACC board. McGuffee, a computer science professor at St. Edwards University whom the Chronicle endorsed when he ran in 2000, has demonstrated an admirable commitment to ACC in annexation campaigns and in developing the new South Austin campus. He also brings to the table a solid nuts-and-bolts understanding of higher education issues. Ahart, on the other hand, seems more comfortable working broadly on policy and outreach. A lobbyist for the American Cancer Society and former legislative aide, Ahart acquired a high profile running the campaign to pass Austin's smoking ordinance, developing contacts and skills that will serve him well in his stated goal of raising the college's profile and polishing an image tarnished after several years of snafu and scandal. At a time when ACC's greatest challenge is finding the resources to serve a growing and increasingly majority-minority student body, we were convinced that Ahart's particular skills and experience will better enable him to woo Austin's neighbors into the ACC taxing district and to recruit the business community to fill a larger role in the funding puzzle. We hope McGuffee gives it yet another go but this year in Place 8 our endorsement goes to Ahart.
With 12 years of service already under his belt, incumbent Allen Kaplan gives us little reason to doubt his experience or commitment to another six years of unpaid work shaping ACC policy. We also like the fact that he's been an architect of ACC's living-wage policy. Challenger Ana Mejia-Dietche has strengths of her own: A lawyer who has worked in a host of nonprofit and advocacy positions, Ana has hands-on experience helping the kind of people ACC serves. She is a former grant-writer for ACC and currently directs a Skillpoint Alliance program that helps nontraditional students into health careers. Mejia-Dietche has racked up a slew of endorsements from Austin progressive groups, while Kaplan has the support of the unions, and each is fully engaged with the ACC community, to the degree that we wish there were a seat available for both. Were Kaplan not the incumbent the choice would have been harder, but we were ultimately swayed by his experience and the stability he will bring to the board.
Place 9: Allen Kaplan
Polls are open 7am-7pm. Voters must vote in the precinct in which they are registered, except certain Hays and Bastrop County residents living in Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction eligible to vote on Proposition 2 on the city of Austin municipal ballot.
ELECTION DAY: SATURDAY, MAY 13
To find a precinct voting location, Travis County residents can call 238-VOTE or go to www.co.travis.tx.us/county_clerk/election/20060513/polls.asp. Voters uncertain of their precinct number can call 854-9473 or go to www.traviscountytax.org/showVoterSearch.do. For Williamson County voter information, call 943-1630 or go to wcportals.wilco.org/elections/.