Point Austin: Burning Questions

And we wonder why nobody votes

Point Austin
Hoo, boy. It's not a great moment for representative government.

Closest to home, our new city manager has egg all over his face for his response to the June 8 fire at the Governor's Mansion, of which he apparently wasn't aware until sometime the next afternoon. City Manager Marc Ott was reportedly sequestered with visiting family that Sunday, and if he managed to keep all the relatives from turning on the TV during that reunion, he's a better man than I am. I happened to be on the East Coast that weekend, and news of the mansion fire was virtually unavoidable, broadcast or online. But Ott didn't learn of it until sometime Monday – with the result that Gene Acuña, the city's public information director, got burned by the end of the week, when Ott asked him to resign for this and other reported failings.

I don't know Acuña well (one of the first principles of reporting is to dodge the flacks and go directly to the sources as often as possible), but he's always been prompt and professional in our infrequent interactions. One surmises that Ott's decision reflects a broader dissatisfaction with the city's public information practices – and certainly signals his determination to take direct control of his administration. But even if that's the case, calling headline attention to his own inattention to the most basic Austin daily news was the least sensible way of going about it. He's taking a deserved (if not exactly measured) beating in the Statesman and in the online postings devoted to all things second-guessing. The moment certainly marks the formal end of his newcomer honeymoon.

Welcome to Austin, Mr. Ott. Strike One.

As for Acuña, we can only wish him well, with the expectation that he should land on his feet in a similar position before too long. He can take some unlikely comfort in knowing that, thus far, he's the only official to lose his job in the ritual finger-pointing over the lack of security at the mansion – although he had absolutely nothing to do with it, and it's abundantly clear that those who were responsible have made his mistakes look like flyspecks. In addition, acting Fire Chief Jim Evans also took some heat from Ott for not notifying him of the blaze, although Evans was a trifle busy at the time, and by all accounts the Fire Department performed admirably in saving what it could.

The Fire This Time

That brings us to the next level of responsibility: the Texas Department of Public Safety and, more generally, state government. To its credit, after an initial fear that the post-fire re-examination would take place behind closed doors, the Public Safety Commission has begun airing the department's dirty laundry and acknowledging that, yes, there were major lapses in security – broken or unused alarms and cameras, inadequate staffing and training, slow response time – that made the arson much easier to accomplish, if not actually more likely. And thus far, the dubious high point of the "investigation" has been an invitation to the cargo-pants arsonist to turn himself in, in order to deliver whatever his anti-government "message" might be directly to the authorities.

Good luck with that.

While they're poking around, the investigators might ask just who was responsible for ignoring troopers' requests for additional overtime guards while faulty cameras were being repaired or replaced. The initial reports say DPS administrators clucked that additional guards would cost too much, with a ballpark estimate of $100,000 for overtime (also acknowledging that the troopers' overall numbers are roughly 250 short of full force). That may be true – but it's also likely that the DPS honchos were looking over their shoulders to the Capitol, where the legislative interim directives from Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dew­hurst, and Speaker Tom Craddick routinely mandate that state agencies arbitrarily cut their proposed budgets by 5 to 10%, regardless of the needs of a growing state.

Let's consider that basic math. The state was engaged in a $10 million renovation of the uninhabited mansion, also a state and national historic landmark, and could afford only one distracted guard for nighttime duty. For lack of $100,000, the city and state have now spent millions in dousing a catastrophic fire and anticipate spending at least $100 million more to rebuild and restore the burned ruins. Will anybody take the lesson that arbitrary, ideologically driven budget-cutting of state resources – public safety, public health, public schools, higher education, etc., etc. – is penny-wise and pound-foolish?

Don't hold your breath.

Constitutional Conflagration

Moving another step higher, last week saw the capitulation of the "Democrat-controlled" Congress in delivering to the White House yet another victory in its determination to rewrite the Constitution and expand presidential power to what it calls "unitary" authority (aka the Nixon Doctrine): If the president does it, it can't be against the law. In what the Democratic leadership insists is a "compromise," the House adopted amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that both expand the authority of the president to order the warrantless wiretapping and e-mail monitoring of American citizens and effectively give retroactive immunity to those telecom corporations who previously broke surveillance laws because the government asked them to do so. As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out at exhaustive length in Salon, while the Dem leadership insists it fought the good fight and won important "concessions," the White House and the entire GOP are unanimously (and accurately) crowing over their "victory."

Although a majority of House Dems (128) voted against the measure (House Resolution 6304), 105 of their colleagues joined 188 Republicans to mutilate the Constitution in fear of being called "soft on terrorism" in an election year. (As Greenwald tartly put it: "Surrendering and fearful: that's the face of the Democratic Party. It's how they show they're not weak.") As we went to press this week, the Senate is expected – after a ritual bloviation – to follow suit.

Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who voted against the measure, succinctly described the results: "It is more concession than compromise. ... I voted against the repeated leveraging of fear by an administration that has desecrated our Constitution, debased our values, and undermined our freedoms. ... Fear of being portrayed as weak on terrorism has again and again blocked our efforts to provide a congressional majority to check excessive presidential power."

As I said, not a great moment for representative government. This week, bad news is pretty much all I've got.

For more on Ott, Acuña, and other public embarrassments, see "Beside the Point." If you have burning questions or comments, e-mail mking@austinchronicle.com.

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