Point Austin: You Think Austin's Weird?

Consider the ballots beyond city limits

Point Austin
Seeing as how it's election time – early voting began Monday for the May 12 Joint General and Special ... – we've already gotten a complaint about our lukewarm endorsement of Proposition 1 (and only). The constitutional amendment would apply last session's property-tax cuts to the elderly and disabled (missed because their taxes were already frozen). One reader objected, reasonably enough, that the ballot language of the proposition – by providing for "the reduction of the limitation on the total amount of ad valorem taxes that may be imposed" – seems to suggest the opposite: that is, enabling a tax increase. That's yet another illustration of why government by proposition is a bad idea – the language of this proposition is a particularly egregious example, although it's unlikely that any voter will sue on grounds of obvious vagueness.

And if indeed the proposition would unilaterally increase taxes on the elderly and disabled, talk shows and editorials across the state would be calling for Lege-heads-on-pikes. So if you can't trust us or the official bill analysis or the House bill analysis, how about the League of Women Voters: "The amendment would ... provide tax relief to such elderly or disabled taxpayers who did not receive tax relief as a result of the school tax rate reduction passed in the 79th Legislature, 3rd called session." There: The LWV says you can vote in peace, for a little less money for the schools.

Overall, this is an odd-lot election, and most Travis Co. voters who remember to go to the polls will find a ballot so brief they'll wonder why they bothered. Southeast Austin voters (District 2, Austin Independent School District) will choose among four candidates for a one-year seat on the school board, and neighboring jurisdictions will mostly be voting as well for school trustees.

Pave Those Hills

It's frankly difficult to find good candidates who are also willing to endure the free labor and long hours on school boards, and the proliferation of tiny school districts in Texas – most of them dating from racial-segregation days – says something about our willingness to endure expensive inefficiency in the name of "local control." And as much as one might decry literacy tests for voters as relics, literacy tests for candidates – at least school board candidates – might not be a terrible idea. Here's a Lake Travis ISD candidate on eminent domain: "Its not popular with the public and its not needed in our district ... [and Trustees] need to be able to reign in administrators." Wonder how he'd do on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test?

Beyond county limits, perhaps the vote of most interest to Austinites is the Hays Co. bond election. Outgoing commissioners plopped a $172 million road bond on the ballot, effectively for three county roads (RR 12, FM 1626, and FM 110) that the Texas Department of Transportation wants to turn into major commuter highways. Almost needless to say, these will cost much more than they'll be worth, feed suburban sprawl, and continue the degradation of the Hill Country environment and more specifically the Edwards Aquifer leading to Barton Springs. Also on the Hays Co. ballot is a comparatively trifling $30 million for parks and open space acquisition. Far be it from me to question the mathematical priorities of the Hays Co. Commissioners Court – but do Hays Co. voters want to spend all that money to smooth the way of bedroom commuters en route to Austin, past horizons of subdivisions that used to be the Texas hills? Or would you rather make a small investment in the permanently green future of Central Texas? Your call.

West Lake Mud Bowl

Closer to home, the most entertaining neighboring race thus far appears to be the pitched battle over City Council in the sylvan paradise of West Lake Hills, population 3,116. In that tree-lined metropolis, where Mayor Mark Urdahl surprisingly upset 10-year incumbent Dwight Thompson last year, three challengers (Robin Vaughn, Amy Simmons, Mike Beuerlein) have stepped forward to take on council incumbents (Jane Noble, Jim Pledger, Earl Broussard), and the political feathers are flying. The anti-toll warriors took dubious credit for upending Thompson (a Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization member at the time), who seems rather to have been a victim of his own complacency. This year, the thorniest issue is spending on a new sewer system, and especially the potential and growing expense to run sewer lines to businesses along Bee Caves Road. Call it the growing pains of a small town becoming a booming municipality, as well as generational insurrection.

The council has polarized between the three incumbents and the (normally nonvoting) mayor. The incumbents, accustomed to winning 3-2 votes, have issued dire warnings that should any of them be defeated, the mayor will thereby achieve "complete control of your city government." (First West Lake Hills, then Berlin.) The incumbents also warn grimly that the newcomers have "no experience" in government – more often than not a gold star in these suburban campaigns – and call themselves West Lake Citizens for Honesty (you can guess the implication). Urdahl insists the challengers are running on their own, although their slate Web site, called Complete the Change, at least implies a unified rising tide of rebellion. (Watch out for pikes and pitchforks marching up Redbud Trail, any day now.)

Two of the three challengers are minor local celebrities. Robin Vaughan (Place 1) is a music-industry executive and spouse of the legendary guitarist Jimmie Vaughan (who's raised his political profile in recent years by supporting various quasi-libertarian causes). Amy Simmons (Place 3) is the founder and owner of Amy's Ice Creams, also a founder of Choose Austin First, the small-business group that formed partly in distinction to the Austin Independent Business Alliance. (Even more independent, I guess.) Mike Beuerlein (Place 5) has, so far as I know, no high-profile backstory, but the whirring campaign blogs (WLH is nothing if not heavily wired) accuse him of being Urdahl's puppet and inflating his résumé. (Another intermittent campaign grumble is a plague of inconsistent orthography for "West Lake Hills" – good luck on that one.)

The challengers' Web site now features a photogenic "Mud Alert" – a rugby or soccer player, natch, covered in the stuff – and both campaigns are righteously denouncing the lies and distortions emanating from the other side. (Particularly baroque accusations involve who unvoted a previous budget vote on council and which current or former candidate really erected an illegal fence at his residence.)

For those of you nostalgic for an old-fashioned, down-home exercise in small-town (property) values and the curious habits of the local hill-dwelling gentry, I invite you to check out www.completethechange.com and www.wlhcitizensforhonesty.com. Fair warning: You may find yourselves longing unreasonably for a nice, sane Austin City Council campaign. end story

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politics, League of Women Voters, Hays County, West Lake Hills, Amy Simmons, Robin Vaughn, Mark Urdahl, Mike Beuerlein, Dwight Thompson

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