Beside the Point

A Funny Thing Happened ...

Politicians like to joke about Austin's terminal case of democracy – how almost every piece of municipal business has a dozen sides, how every proposed change is task-forced and commissioned within an inch of its life, how the term "stakeholder" has to be, hands down, more popular per capita in Austin than D.C. or the U.N.

They're wrong, most of the time. (I don't remember anyone asking me about the bulldozers lining the hike and bike trail.) But not in one instance –the May City Council elections.

By BTP's exceedingly rough count –tallied from Place 3 candidate Randi Shade's website, who's kept a comprehensive list – there have been some 22 forums so far, with neighborhood associations, endorsing bodies, Demo­crat­ic clubs, and yes, various and sundry "stakeholder" groups. At least eight more loom on the horizon. Excepting the Chronicle's own endorsement meetings, I've made it to three – assemblies sponsored by the North by Northwest Democrats, the Austin Neigh­bor­hoods Council, and Responsible Growth for Northcross – which have run the gamut from Keystone Kops disorganization to second-hand precision. I plan on attending a few more before election day, including the one today, April 17, in City Hall chambers, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Ethics Review Commission. (Now there's a goo-goo matchup in muckraking heaven.)

Regardless, since the start of March, we've been inundated with dozens of meetings, the whos, whats, whens, and wheres of local government, People's Republic style. The only question is: Why?


Hoteliers and Libertarians

The answer, of course, is so voters can make an informed choice this election. But no candidate or adviser BTP has spoken with remembers a similar torrent of meetings last round of elections. By now, candidates have had ample chances to inveigh on all things neighborhood-related, as well as on the finer points of public safety and environmental measures – pretty much the holy trinity of River City politics. But they've also expounded (or will shortly) on the arts, architecture, bicycling, the zero-waste plan, hotelier concerns, and the Liber­tar­ian Party of Texas.

This exercise in narrowcasting has resulted in some markedly meta-moments, like former Austin Neighborhoods Council President Laura Morrison getting grilled by the organization she once led or Responsible Growth for Northcross inviting intrinsic member Jason Meeker to their candidate forum. (Hmm, wonder who'll pick up the nod?) To their credit, neither organization pulled any punches or let their former functionaries off the hook, although Lee Leffingwell was afforded a rather frosty reception at the latter. One question from the audience, presupposed on the city's burning desire to destroy Webberville's "pristine forest" for a landfill, had him respond, "That's kind of a 'When did you stop beating your wife?' question." In his closing remarks, he cracked, "Thank you for inviting me, I guess." While the cottage industry of forums and endorsements has been a welcome thing, with it come potential gray areas.

Along with the forums boom has come an avalanche of questionnaires, with (again) the ANC, RG4N, and other various and sundry groups putting questions to the candidates for the whole world (or 78704, at least) to see. The unquestioned champ of this tactic has been the Better Austin Today Political Action Committee. BATPAC vamped 30 questions over nine pages, although the real question often seems to be: Just how in love with its own voice is the group? (One "question" begins: "Over and over, City decisions appear to be made behind closed doors, with little or no public input, with public involvement only coming in after-the-fact. The result is that the ideas, wisdom and intelligence of the community is relegated to a purely cosmetic or backseat role. Recent examples of this include ..." before going on for 70 more words.) And here I thought bats were deaf.

I won't revisit the controversy over Meeker's involvement in the BATPAC except to say that this season's influx of forums, questionnaires, and endorsements has been an unquestionably good thing – yet with much of the swelling miasma appealing to more and more individual, distinct groups, it's good to take each with a grain of salt. Or as my colleague Michael King said in this space some weeks back, don't take any endorsing group's word for it (except your trusty Austin Chronicle's, coming next week!); get out there, see the candidates in action, and decide for yourself. You honestly have no excuse.


That's Entertainment!

If you don't make it out, you're also missing out on some valuable entertainment. It's been remarked that ourseemingly irredeemable national political discourse is so painfully debasing and obfuscating of substance –witness the current, witless debate on "elitism" led by buff-shined media figures earning salaries in the seven digits – that there's seemingly something masochistically wrong with those souls willing to put themselves through the process. While it's a huge leap to apply the same rubric to local elections, the whipped frenzy of these elections – anger and worry at Austin's growth and growing expense, exemplified most negatively in the internecine Place 1 imbroglio –has led to some truly dramatic, cringe-inducing – and yes, hilarious –moments on the campaign trail. It possibly reached its nadir (or apex) in late March, the night of the ANC meeting –but also the night of an omnibus Democratic clubs endorsement meeting. With the candidates pressed for time, as Leffingwell and Meeker stared daggers at each other in front of me, I asked myself: You think they carpooled tonight?

Probably not.


Michael King will be back with "Point Austin" next week. E-mail BTP at wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.


Even Further Beside the Point

With City Council canceled this Thursday, April 17, candidates are taking part in a forum in council chambers today. Don't worry, however, as this is as close as most of them will ever come to sitting on the dais.

But that's not to say its current occupants are resting on their laurels. At their meeting last week, council approved the request for redevelopment proposals of the Seaholm Power Plant Downtown. They also, amid some incendiary protests from neighbors, approved the long-term lease of land for the Park Place Village housing development for the homeless. Meanwhile, the circuitous path of the billboard signage ordinance grows longer, now having been pushed back to April 24 amid the Planning Commission's complaints. Until then, this is BTP, signing off!

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council election, Forums, Neighborhoods, Responsible Growth for Northcross

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