Point Austin: Green Fallout

Picking up the parties and the pieces, there remains much work to be done

Point Austin
It wasn't until Sunday morning, waking after a too-long Saturday evening of surfing election parties (and the occasional partygoer) that I realized how exhausted I was (and no, I wasn't drinking). Not just from election night, but from literally months of hyperbolic forums, angry e-mails, phone calls, endorsement meetings, and the occasional private arm-twisting over some issue or candidate or other. I remain personally ambivalent about Chronicle endorsements, having arrived from previous publications where, for reasons of policy or nonprofit status, we didn't endorse candidates, and I do miss the relative journalistic freedom of covering campaigns without feeling even indirectly implicated. On the other hand, the Chronicle's public role in this very particular community has made me realize the value of our engaging in the process – in the same way that, as an individual voter, I read my ballot, make my choices the best I can, and hope that the officials we've elected together will do the same.

Most of you aren't as tired as I am, not because I'm such a devoted hack, but because most of you – roughly 88% of registered voters – didn't bother to get off your duffs and hit the polls. You deserve no sympathy, nor even a free beer. This has been a particularly bitter campaign, focused primarily on the volatile debate over Props. 1 and 2, and it will take at least a few weeks for the green dust (or rather, mud) to settle. What struck me first in my crosstown travels Saturday night, when it was already clear that the two headline props were doomed (while the others were clear-sailing, evidence that this 12% was a thoughtful, prepared electorate), was the general insistence that the negative vote did not portend a backlash against open government or environmentalism. Candidates, officeholders, and public activists – who had endured weeks of rhetorical abuse as purportedly corrupt "insiders" who are reflexively "selling out" the city in "secret deals" – were unanimous in volunteering to me that they intend to renew the focus on opening up city processes for greater public involvement, as demanded by Prop. 1, and to address more rationally the aquifer protection issues raised by Prop. 2.

That sentiment didn't just come from green activists determined not to let the split over the propositions diminish the city's commitment to environmental protection. It came from officeholders loudly accused of having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Council Member Jennifer Kim, visiting the Mike Martinez celebration at Azul, expressed the general official sentiment. "These were educated voters," she said. "They weren't just going down the ballot accepting or rejecting everything. They didn't like the way those particular propositions were drafted. Now we need the pull those things out [of the props] that will work well, both on open government and on saving the Springs."

Kim also hinted at a larger structural problem that has bedeviled recent councils, especially since the advent of term limits: the bureaucratic resistance of city staff to engage the public – including sometimes even the council itself – early on in the development of policy and projects. Kim said we need a concerted effort to "change the administrative culture." Did she mean there is indeed a "culture of secrecy" at City Hall, as charged by Prop. 1 proponents? "No," Kim said. "I don't think there's a 'culture of secrecy.' I think there's just a general reluctance to recognize fully that it's the nature of public policy to be a messy business because we have to involve everybody who has an interest. Some people believe that just gets in the way of getting something done. That's not 'secrecy'; but public policy can be messy, and we just have to accept that."

Take Up Your Bonds

So now we return to the more conventional political situation, which is to hold the duly elected officials' feet to the fire on policies enjoying broad public support, but still full of contentious issues – like cost. Some of that diligence can occur over the alternative "open" and "SOS" ordinances drafted by council members and beginning to make their ways through the boards and commission process. More immediately, the next two council meetings, amidst all other business, will be emotionally devoted to the Battle of the Bonds. This actually resumes a process fully engaged by the citizens bond committee last fall and largely derailed by the election campaigns – now we're back before the council itself, where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

The public hearings will address several related questions: 1) How much debt can the city safely and prudently assume – and is Betty Dunkerley the default final authority on all such questions? 2) Do all those apparent maintenance and operations costs have to be shoveled into debt assumption, or can a hunk of that be paid for up front in the budget, with bursting sales tax receipts? 3) Can the central library survive one more round of single-interest partisanship, after being ignored in the last bond election in deference to neighborhood branches? (As the librarians like to say, if you kill the trunk, the branches will die.) 4) Can money (and how much?) poured into affordable housing programs really make a visible community impact, or are we bailing the ocean with a runcible spoon? 5) And certainly not least, can the environmentalist factions, mutually bruised over the Props campaign, reunite under the banner of open-space acquisition – and even if they do, precisely whence should the money come?

Whither SOS?

These are all very engaging and vexed questions; although, for the next few weeks the prevailing wind-check will be whether the campaign axes can be buried sufficiently for the campaigners to move on. In the wake of the props' overwhelming defeat, there has been at least some noise from victorious parties – i.e., at least the real estate wing – that the city shouldn't be in any tremendous rush to forge a compromise on development restrictions. And among the defeated, a few holdouts are still denouncing the "liars" who somehow nefariously deluded 70% of the public to reject their own best interests and vote against the props out of sheer ignorant cussedness.

To his credit, Save Our Springs director Bill Bunch has been issuing conciliatory statements, although SOS faithful should certainly be asking themselves how much was risked – in both money and public credibility – on one very grandiose throw of the dice. On the SOS Web site, Bunch laments, "The urgency of the threat to the future of the Barton Springs posed by AMD's planned move into the watershed propelled us to act in haste, and this has had a terrible cost." Questions have been raised whether the organization enters the rest of the year self-crippled on public policy, and perhaps even legally restricted under IRS rules, for example, on how much it can effectively lobby the city on the bonds or other legislative questions. Similarly, the questionable strategy of incorporating the not-entirely-germane issues of the toll warriors and the anti-cop cadre – and adopting their reflexive tactics of character assassination – seemed to limit rather than broaden the political appeal of the props.

More broadly, whatever one thinks of the initiative and referendum process (and in general, I think very little of it), this time the kitchen-sink approach to legislation has been mightily tried and found wanting. Whatever a voter's position on this year's Prop. 6, the domestic partner insurance proposal, or even last year's smoking ordinance proposition – when you entered the booth on those measures, you knew precisely what you were voting for or against. That just couldn't be said about Props. 1 and 2, and despite all the histrionics over the council's insufficient ballot language, alternately reducing the meaning of these complex provisions to "open government" and "clean water" was every bit as inadequate. Whether it precisely constituted "lying" I'll leave to the myriad self-appointed experts.

To their credit, those few who did vote saw through the hyperbolic rhetoric and chose well. It's done. Let's get back to work. end story

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Austin municipal elections, city election, Jennifer Kim, Save Our Springs, Betty Dunkerley, bond election, Bill Bunch

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