City Hall Hustle: Eastside Discordance

The El Concilio players strut the stage

It's a theme the Hustle has returned to often, but allow me to flog this dead horse one more time: You never exactly know what's going to prove the most controversial issue at any given City Council meeting.

With measures regarding crisis pregnancy centers (see "Pregnant? Scared? Misinformed?") and an expensive contract for minority recruiting at the Austin Fire Department (see "Naked City"), you'd think arts funding for concerts fostering Latino community on the Eastside wouldn't be that divisive.

But you'd be wrong.

The Eastside power dynamic is too convoluted to tackle in one column, but its divisions were inherent last week in Item 29, which transferred $90,000 from the Austin Energy-sponsored Holly Good Neighbor Cultural Arts Program to assist events at Fiesta Gardens: Fiestas Patrias, which puts on an annual Cinco de Mayo party and is expanding this year to throw a Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebration, and the upstart Pachanga festival, mixing old-school performers with indie Latino artists.

Several spoke in support of the transfer – Latino politicos like Paul Saldaña and musicians including Alejandro Vallejo, drummer for the eponymous band and Pachanga supporter, who has given music composition workshops and a full-band performance for children at Sanchez Elementary. Several others spoke in support of Fiestas Patrias' good works, which, according to agenda backup, include assistance for area youth activities, a scholarship program, and more.

But all these harmonious notes abruptly soured, spectacularly, when Gavino Fernandez, a self-styled Eastside power broker, tore into the council with a 12-minute filibuster. Fer­nan­dez, the driving force behind the El Concilio neighborhood group, and, as of late, the East Town Lake Neighbor­hood Association, was there to oppose the transfer, testifying "there is no process, there's no accountability, there's no transparency, and my God, it's a far cry from democracy."

Saying the cultural spending should instead be used to finance home repairs in the neighborhood – for which Austin Energy already sets aside separate funds – Fernandez said, "This is not democracy. This is a dictatorship," before taking some potshots at his primary target, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez. "This council, when you go to other neighborhoods, you deliver democracy governance. But when it comes to us, it goes to one individual, and that's a Place 2 individual. If he says the sky is green and it's yellow, you are going to agree that it's green." While Martinez does indeed occupy the at-large Place 2 – the traditionally Latino seat under Austin's antiquated "gentlemen's agreement" – Fernandez and his crew amplify the very scenario they lament, directing their entreaties and rebukes to Martinez alone. Refusing to recognize the entire council is elected to serve all of Austin, all too often Fernandez's identity politics wallow in a self-perpetuating declaration of victimhood. Martinez has thus far characteristically declined to take the bait to respond directly to Fernandez's rants.

Ironically, Fernandez waved a copy of the Holly Neighbor­hood Plan, which contains recommendations to limit the number and size of events at Fiesta Gardens. However, that plan has not been implemented, and the parties most responsible for that are Fernandez and his crew. As we reported last year (see "Holly Street Hoopla," June 5, 2009), during the fourth attempt in several years to appoint a neighborhood planning contact team for Holly – the only group developers are required by code to meet with – Fernandez and El Concilio members harangued and shouted down city speakers with cries of "No bylaws!" apparently because the contact team wasn't to their liking. A vote to create the team failed, and with it, so has implementation of several aspects of the neighborhood plan.

Following Fernandez at the podium was Paul Hernandez, the storied activist and Brown Beret leader who decades ago helped push the noise-polluting Aqua Fest from the shores of the Eastside. Hernandez implored the council not to use "money that was supposed to go to the poor people, the low-income people that suffered for over 30 years" from "electromagnetic fields, particles from the smoke­stacks, and pollution" from the power plant. When council moved to allocate the arts funds, noting that funds are allocated yearly for Holly home repairs, Hernan­dez shouted, "You have more! You've got more!" from the back of the chambers, leading to his removal.

It's not surprising emotions run so hot in the Holly Street neighborhood. Residents indisputably suffered from their close proximity to the Holly electric plant – finally closed in 2007 after several fires and accidents – so the city established the so-called "Good Neighbor" fund as amends in 1995. They allocated this year's funding in January, directing $550,000 for home rehabilitation, $125,000 for cultural arts, and $325,000 for other programs, supplementing ongoing funds. Home repair funds currently total about $1.5 million.

The funding expires in 2012, and Martinez cautioned the concert promoters that "hopefully you have a strategic plan in place to become self-sustainable, because these funds won't be available." But Eastside grievances, real and exaggerated, are their own renewable resource in Austin politics. The plant may be closed and the power boats gone, but the anger – whether self-serving, genuine, or both – is still there.

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Holly Good Neighbor Cultural Arts Program, Fiesta Gardens, Paul Saldaña, Gavino Fernandez, El Concilio, Mike Martinez, Holly Neighborhood Plan, Paul Hernandez

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