The Austin Chronicle

City Hall Hustle: Strayhorn the Populist

Ex-mayor visits City Hall, blazing another nuclear trail

By Wells Dunbar, April 30, 2010, News

To paraphrase experimental poet Donald Rumsfeld, you gotta go with the democracy you have, instead of the democracy you want.

A Civics 101 lesson might have been instructive to the group gathered in City Council chambers last week to oppose adoption of Austin Energy's Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plan, the renewables-boosting road map designed to get the utility to 35% eco-friendly forms of energy by 2020. Despite being vetted for nigh on two years – with not just environmentalists but business interests at the table – the Earth Day adoption of the plan inspired an eleventh hour oppo-onslaught from the newly formed Austinites for Action, incrementally looking less like an ad hoc organization against the plan and more like the newest vehicle for Carole Keeton Strayhorn, last seen losing handily to the plan's biggest proponent, Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

AFA's bloc of speakers kicked off with Dominic Chavez, who instantly surrendered his cred by saying the States­man editorial board "always have a great way of capturing an issue and helping people understand it." An op-ed from the daily contained a tortured little construction erroneously complaining that the plan – which has always allowed for cost to help determine the right renewables mix – once "was akin to buying a house without knowing its price or the ability of a potential buyer to afford it." To Chavez, it was more "akin to my wife negotiating a home purchase with a broker I've never met, using metrics I've never seen, pledging my paycheck and good credit without having the common courtesy of asking me if it's okay. A lot of marriages under those circumstances don't last too long." (Take my wife – please!)

"We're here to ask you to honor a long tradition in this community ... which is participatory democracy," he continued, citing votes on environmental measures like the Save Our Springs Ordinance and the granting of collective bargaining rights to firefighters. But in those instances, both groups pounded the pavement procuring thousands of signatures, instead of assembling an Instant Astroturf front group to complain to council.

As is often the case, participatory democracy is the last refuge for those who've tried their hand at representative democracy – and lost. It was a point Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, who led the push for firefighter bargaining prior to joining council, explicitly spelled out once Chavez finished. "This is the cry that we hear every time we make difficult decisions as a council," Martinez said. Referring to the business interests assembled in opposition, he continued: "Many of the folks who are opposed to this generation plan are some of the same folks who are fully in favor of us [the council] voting on Water Treatment Plant Four and moving forward without a [public] vote. ... You can't have it both ways. When the decision is in your favor, you're all down here wanting us to move forward and lead because 'that's what we elected you to do,' but when you're against a decision pending before us, you want it on a ballot. You can't have it both ways."

Despite the theatrics, adoption of the plan was never in doubt – it passed, with a Statesman-placating amendment by the mayor that it wouldn't go fully into effect until an "affordability matrix" charting AE rates in relation to other utilities was completed. But the talk of participatory democracy got the Hustle wondering what Paul Robbins, publisher of the recently released 2010 Austin Environmental Directory, might have to say on the subject. Robbins regularly reminds the council of the city's history of allowing votes on utility bond debt, a practice that seems to have petered out in the Eight­ies. "I did see that Carole wanted a vote," Robbins writes. "Ever since then, I have been thinking that in the 32 years that I have known her, it might be one of the only times I have ever agreed with her on anything – to a point anyway." He feels that while "the plan per se should not be voted on ... the money to fund it, via bonds, certificates of obligation, and power contract purchases [all in the future] should be voted on." While there's no mechanism allowing for referendums, the plan requires that any energy purchase greater than 10 megawatts come to council for approval.

"I think that, for the most part, Austinites will choose the path to clean energy, as long as it is done with fiscal discipline," Robbins continues. "If they think clean energy is expensive, wait until they see the cost of a new nuclear plant."

Which brings us full circle back to Strayhorn, the former mayor who, as champion of the cost-overrun-plagued South Texas nuke plant in the 1980s, should probably be the city's last possible source for energy advice. The Hustle asked, with passage of the plan, whether AFA would start collecting signatures to put it to a vote. Her elusive response: "We'll continue to take it to the people and make decisions at the ballot box."

Council meets today, Thursday, April 29, 10am, at City Hall, 301 W. Second. For more on this week's agenda, see the Daily Hustle at

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