The Austin Chronicle

City Hall Hustle: Everybody Join In!

We're the city that participates ... except in some quarters

By Wells Dunbar, October 16, 2009, News

As we like to constantly remind ourselves here in the People's Republic, we're big on public participation.

Earlier this week, the Hustle headed to the Convention Center to check out the Comprehensive Plan/Strategic Mobility Plan open house. There was much to admire: chances to chat up Comp Plan drafters from consultant firm Wallace Roberts & Todd, input opportunities at each of the stations detailing the planning process, and lemonade, brownies, and popcorn for those of us needing a quick sugar buzz. But the Hustle's personal highlight was a round of the Austin Trivia Contest, a makeshift game show of local factoids. Squaring off against a local community leader of some esteem, we faced trivia questions of varying difficulty – and if you answered incorrectly, you were docked points. The Hustle ultimately prevailed – albeit with a score of -2. (If I didn't know then that LBJ and Lady Bird's first date was at the Driskill, I certainly do now.)

The point of all this boosterism is that, for all the self-congratulatory backslapping about Austin's political involvement, we do pretty well. A decent crowd of about 40 milled around the proceedings at 4pm, before most could pry themselves away from work, although a glance at the self-reported crowd data – lots of college-educated, Anglo Central Austinites earning a comfortable salary – revealed that what's true there is the same at City Council meetings: Those who can spare the time for such civic interactions are those who can afford to.

Still, if Monday's open house didn't allow sufficient opportunity to stitch yourself into Austin's civic fabric, well, there were plenty of other chances. At the risk of turning into the Chronicle Calendar section, let the Hustle enumerate other meet-and-greets afforded to the citizenry this week: Yet another Austin Water Utility-sponsored meeting on Water Treatment Plant No. 4 occurred Tuesday, Oct. 13, at Concordia Univer­sity. The following day, the three finalists for Austin's city auditor position – an important, albeit not terribly high-profile gig conducive to glad-handing – were introduced at One Texas Center. (City Coun­cil's slated to name a winner Oct. 22.) And if you missed these, or somehow your civic jones isn't yet satisfied, on Oct. 27 you can attend the first of four public meetings gathering public input on designing the new Central Library, at the Manchaca Road Branch Library. October's shaping into a month of veritable mob rule at the city – or as angered enviros, open government advocates, and library hard-liners might grouse, at least the appearance of such.

How About Cap Metro?

The irony inherent in all this is that one of the most important decisions steering the city's future – the selection of Capital Metro's next president and chief executive officer – might not receive half as much public scrutiny, if the past is any precedent. We know how bad things are over there: abject failure on rail, perpetual labor trouble, and a rudderless, floundering leadership, for starters. With all the speculation over whether CEO Fred Gilliam jumped before he was pushed out, his is the first instance in the Hustle's memory where admitting you did it for the money (Gilliam has said a lucrative early retirement offer was about to expire, hence his decision) was the most face-saving explanation possible.

The Cap Metro board of directors named an interim head on Monday, Vice President Doug Allen. It looks like a temporary measure, as Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez has been making encouraging overtures to a national search to find the next leader. The influx of change about to hit the board makeup should hopefully improve matters more: Reorganization legislation carried by Sen. Kirk Watson means new members with financial and executive experience should soon be on board. And early organized-labor support for former City Coun­cil Member Raul Alvarez's 2010 challenge to Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez – the status-quo-championing chair of the Cap Metro board – demonstrates deep dissatisfaction with her sleepy tenure. (On Tuesday, Gómez said she would be leaving the board, noting it was time "to share this fun with somebody else.")

Maybe Cap Metro's famed lack of transparency will change for the better with these measures. It probably won't change as much as we like, as long as other institutional afflictions plague it – beginning with the in-name-only disconnect between the organization and "independent" contractors such as StarTran. But more than Cap Metro's rail and reputation hang in the balance: Every day it dilly-dallies erodes trust in the city's own rail plans, and a progressive Central Texas transportation policy in general.

Unless we have a strong, swift public commitment to community involvement in the selection of Capital Metro's next leader – and get citizens of all stripes involved – so many other of our best-laid plans will inevitably go awry.

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