The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: How Are We Managing?

Targeting city manager may be hunting the wrong game

By Michael King, April 20, 2007, News

The embattled folks in the Northcross-area neighborhoods, still fighting the looming plans for a massive Wal-Mart, are mad enough to spit blue mud. Indeed, they're mad enough to start a local rebellion – or at least to contemplate one. Earlier this month, targeting City Manager Toby Futrell as the nexus of the policy failures that allowed Lincoln Property Co. to plop a massive big-box store in the middle of their neighborhoods with virtually no public discussion, Responsible Growth for Northcross, the activist group leading the neighborhood fight, wrote to City Council, "RG4N supports creation of a Charter Revision Committee in order to open a public dialogue about the city manager form of government under which Austin currently operates. Our interest is to explore shifting more authority to elected officials, who are more accountable to the citizens, in order to ensure that the rights of neighborhoods are adequately taken into account in development matters."

I'm not going to rehearse today the arguments over the Wal-Mart itself, which are continuing and still raising enough official frustration that Mayor Will Wynn lamented it again at last week's council meeting. Wynn also reiterated that under current law, other than persuasion, there is little the city can do to change Lincoln's plans. "When [development] proposals also meet the current code – the current regulations that any city has – essentially city staff is required to also approve a plan. So there has been literally, technically no discretion whatsoever of City Council regarding that proposed development and very little discretion on the city staff side." In short, Lincoln presented the city with decades-old tract zoning in place, filed its administrative application thereunder, and has thus far successfully defied any neighborhood or official to dramatically change its big-box plans. (And legislators-on-retainer have again signaled their reflexive willingness to repress any Austin deviations from the statewide status quo.)

What we've got here is an old Texas conundrum: property rights (i.e., capital) trump civic rights, and big property rights trump all. I continue to wish RG4N godspeed in their challenge of that institutionally anti-democratic presumption, certainly much larger than the Austin city limits. But I was particularly intrigued by the group's notion that altering Austin's basic form of government might also lead toward better outcomes. They blame the city manager and her staff for insufficient attention to the "rights of neighborhoods" and suggest shifting executive power away from appointed management to duly elected officials – a change that would require dramatic revisions to the city charter.

Changing the Balance

I asked RG4N's Hope Morrison if the group would like the city to move to a standard strong-mayor system – with the mayor taking on the role of elected chief executive over a single-district council – or more simply would call for the city manager itself to be an elected position. She said they were not taking a specific position right now but are concerned that "power is out of balance between neighborhoods and developers," and in their view, this imbalance "is consistently reinforced by the current culture at City Hall, in which neighborhood concerns are simply not treated with the same level of priority" as those of major developers. "It's not just our situation at Northcross" that raises these issues, she said. "Again and again, neighborhood associations tell us that they are only brought into the conversation after decisions have already been made" at the administrative level. "And then they go to the council to complain, only to be told, 'There's not much we can do.'"

On the theory that officials further removed from voters feel less responsible to those voters, Morrison says, RG4N wants a charter-review commission (already proposed by Council Member Mike Martinez) "to start that examination and begin a dialogue about whether it might be better to change the relationship." They believe too much power has devolved over time onto city staff, that too many important public decisions have effectively been delegated to hired administrators, and that the council needs to re-examine that devolution: "We need to call into question just how well-managed things are."

Although RG4N's specific beef is with Futrell, Morrison says this debate should be less about Futrell and her staff than the larger question about what's the best form of government for Austin.

Strong Is as Strong Does

I asked several people, including Futrell, for their opinions of that potential debate (setting aside for the moment the specific issues that generated the questions). The city manager responded that it's not surprising that she's a strong proponent of the city's council-manager form of government, but she believes it particularly works best for Austin, because under a "strong mayor" system – the most common and likely alternative – "too much power is consolidated under a single person." She noted that council-manager governments originally arose as reformist reactions against the strong-mayor form – "to separate the politics from implementation" – and that Austin's culture of "government by consensus" would not adapt well to power centered in a strong mayor.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, Futrell's answer didn't differ much from that of other citizen activists. Mark Yznaga of Liveable City, quite critical of the current city administration, thinks that independent election of a city auditor might do more to keep city management in line. But as for moving toward strong-mayor or similar solutions, he said, "Be careful what you wish for," for many of the same reasons as Futrell. Yznaga's sentiments were echoed by former City Council Member Bill Spelman, who also said that it's more likely that the charter revision will finally get serious about single-member council districts, which he believes would address some of the current complaints. "If the Northcross neighbors had an individual council member advocating for their position and their district," said Spelman, "that could have made a difference. Right now everybody [on council] is responsible, so nobody's responsible." Spelman hopes a "mixed" system – some at-large members, some from districts – eventually evolves out of the current charter discussions.

Indeed, the folks I spoke with about these matters were more likely to point the finger directly at City Council to address the problem of weak representation. "I wish I had a silver bullet," said Spelman, "to make the City Council do its due diligence." Futrell pointed out that whatever city staff might implement, "Policy is set by the council, and only the council has the power to change policy."

Former Chronicle City Editor Mike Clark-Madison, who has watched, written, and agitated on these matters for many years, hit the nail more precisely on the head. "I don't really think we want a strong mayor," he said, "and I also don't think that's very likely. But we definitely could use a stronger council."

That's one deficiency a charter revision alone won't cure. end story

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