What's Next for Bankrupt SOS?
Staff says life will go on, but tactics may change
Last week, the environmental activist group Save Our Springs Alliance announced that it's filing for bankruptcy reorganization in federal court. The clean-water watchdog recently suffered the largest financial blow in its decade-and-a-half history, when the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear SOS' appeal of its lawsuit against the Lazy 9 Municipal Utility District, and its Sweetwater development, and ordered the organization to pay the MUD's attorney fees of $294,000.
"For now, we're just continuing to operate pretty much as usual," said SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch, and assuming the reorganization plan filed with the bankruptcy court is approved, "I imagine we're going to try to get through it fairly quickly," he added, noting he hopes the restructuring is resolved in three to four months. "Pretty much all of our friendly creditors will agree [to what we can pay under bankruptcy]," said Bunch. As one of them, he should know. He and fellow staffers Sarah Baker and Colin Clark are all owed unpaid wages; board member and longtime financial supporter Kirk Mitchell is also owed on a $100,000 loan. "Whether our hostile creditors will agree, we'll see."
Aside from the fees owed the Lazy 9 MUD, and $175,000 to the American Bank of Commerce, SOS owes more than $200,000 in fees in a case initiated to halt the Rock Creek development over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. That judgment is currently on appeal. While Bunch says SOS' work will continue undeterred, the judgments will affect the organization's method of fighting developments through lawsuits. "We've been doing conservation advocacy in the courts for 12 years and never had a court order us to pay attorney's fees then we had two different courts order us to do so, within 10 days of each other," says Bunch. "We'll certainly be a little more careful on what we file in state court, that's for sure," he said, noting that the group will likely shift those litigious efforts to public education and issue advocacy.
The change marks another shift in SOS' approach, one that, according to accepted Austin legend, began June 7, 1990. With a planned unit development threatened near Barton Creek, 700 people signed up at City Hall to speak in opposition to the PUD. After hours of testimony, stretching well into the next morning, City Council which had previously leaned toward approval unanimously rejected the PUD. It was the beginning of an environmental journey for SOS one initially recounted in the pages of the Chronicle through the advocacy reporting of then-News Editor Daryl Slusher. The culmination came in 1992, when, through a petition campaign, the Save Our Springs Ordinance appeared on Austin ballots. Passed overwhelmingly, it capped impervious cover around Barton Springs and included several other anti-pollution measures; despite several challenges, it still stands to this day.
As Austin continued to grow, SOS saw more victories; Slusher and SOSer Brigid Shea's election to council and an implicit acceptance on the part of most politicians since to direct growth away from the aquifer and to protect the springs. But as their concerns were mainstreamed into Austin politics, fears of diluting their agenda created splits within Austin's environmental community. These problems were exemplified by Slusher's position on the council. Responsible in part for the massive turnout that evening in 1990, he was ultimately challenged by Kirk Mitchell himself in 2002, who in one debate called him a faux-environmentalist "wolf in sheep's clothing."
The most recent example of SOS' ideological purity or stubbornness, depending on your view was the ill-fated proposition campaign the group mounted last year. Motivated by Advanced Micro Devices' decision to build its corporate campus over the aquifer, and what SOS saw as insufficient City Council action to stop the company, petitioners collected signatures placing two amendments to the city charter on the ballot. But instead of recapturing the momentum of the petition and referendum vote from 1992, the propositions which SOS dubbed the "Clean Government" and "Clean Water" amendments were derided as expensive, overreaching, and vague and suffered a blowout at the polls. The confrontational language of the propositions, and the bitter public debate around them, was a marked departure from the original SOS Ordinance. It cost too; SOS spent at least $211,000 in advocating for the measures.
"It was a lot of money," says Bunch. "It was a priority effort," but one that didn't have any effect on the bankruptcy presumably because the bulk of the funding was donated especially for that purpose. But did the proposition campaign and SOS' more recent approach to advocacy as a zero-sum, winner-take-all game cost the organization more in terms of goodwill or relevance? "Not that we can tell. We made a good-faith effort," he said of the propositions. "Folks didn't like it hopefully there was some education along the way." He also notes that City Council's promises to take the amendment's premises greater transparency and springs protection haven't been carried out. "We have governments at every level federal, state, and local failing the public, failing the environment. Without watchdog groups like ours around, there would be even less compliance. We see our watchdog role as important, and we'll continue to do the work, but there is somewhat of a shift to public policy and advocacy."
For now, SOS has sent out a fundraiser appeal to core supporters and is continuing operations; Bunch anticipates submitting the reorganization plan in a couple of weeks. "Everything we bring in, we spend," he says. "We never tried to build up an endowment. We always felt like the battle is here right now. We're not interested in setting ourselves up for long-term security."
*Oops! The following correction ran in our April 27, 2007 issue: Last week's story "What's Next for Bankrupt SOS?" reported in error that in its bankruptcy filing, the advocacy group cited more than $200,000 in costs stemming from an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Rock Creek development in Dripping Springs. The judgment was actually for two suits, one against Rock Creek and another against the Belterra development, also in Dripping Springs. The Chronicle regrets the omission.