City Hall Hustle: What the Scan Revealed

Spelman's anti-airport scanner resolution can't quite achieve liftoff

The chit hit the fan last week.

The issue at City Council's Wednesday work session was a proposal from Council Members Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison that would ask City Manager Marc Ott to communicate with Austin's congressional delegation to determine whether anticipated Advanced Imaging Technology body scanners at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport might create health risks for travelers. Part of the question concerned whether the issue would be raised via Austin's federal lobbyists – and whether this was an effective use of their time and the taxpayers' money. When Council Member Randi Shade queried how much the lobbyists earn per hour, Governmental Relations Officer John Hrncir responded, "They get a lot per hour."

Or as Ott put it, "You only get so many chits."

But while money – and not just lobbyists' salaries – became a big to-do at that meeting and at council's full Thursday session, as with the so-called "porno-scanners," debate over the item closely examined the limits of local-level intervention in federal issues on the part of both council and those libertarian-aligned citizens who did the item's sponsors no favors.

The scanner issue was clouded from the start with Spelman inserting Texans for Account­able Government's anti-scanner screed into the debate. Shade called on Spelman to speak about the resolution at the work session – which he did, confusingly enough, by offering TAG's markup of his resolution. His language originally called for working with the congressional delegation to ascertain potential health risks to the population from exposure to the relatively new scanners. That language didn't go far enough for TAG, which (in an addendum to his resolution that Spelman shared with council) called for the city to oppose installation of the scanners at ABIA – a position Spelman himself didn't advocate. He described TAG's call as "primarily a symbolic gesture ... a resolution saying 'we're agin it.'" Apparently Spelman inserted the TAG materials because of a few additions he did support – explanatory language in the "whereas" clauses. But that also meant he spent lots of time walking back other language – like that calling to oppose use of security measures "effective or not ... that violate civil liberties."

Ultimately, Spelman appeared unprepared, caught between those (e.g., TAG) who felt his resolution didn't go far enough and others who worried it went too far. "I've just been itching to weigh in on this," declared Mayor Lee Leffingwell, citing "very serious concerns" he had. "If you parse it out, it seems pretty innocuous," he said, but on the whole he worried the feds could "come away with the sense that the City Council does oppose these particular measures," with consequences, he worried, that could impact the federal dollars on which the airport is so dependent.

Conceding it was "probably a tactical error" to even introduce TAG's version of the resolution, Spelman forcefully disagreed with Leffingwell's reading. "If the [Federal Aviation Administration] decides that we will not somehow get a grant as a result of asking a reasonable question, I think that's just wrong." Leffingwell stuck to his opinion: "It's not the specific wording and parsing ... it's the impression that it leaves – the sound bite that comes out of it." Unsurprisingly, at council's full meeting the next day, and despite protest from TAG, Spelman's resolution failed by a 3-4 vote. (Sheryl Cole joined Spelman and Morrison in voting yes.)

In Fact Daily's Mike Kanin noted an interesting aspect of the new council process, if that's what this is. With the parameters of the vote pretty plainly laid out in council's Wednesday work session, "in the past," prior to institution of the Wednesday sessions, "a negative head count might have been discovered long before meeting day, and the proposing Council member likely would have pulled a similar, doomed-to-failure resolution from the agenda" – an interesting interpretation that, intended or not, wades directly into the debate over whether small-group members' meetings included vote counting.

It's also worth noting the growing impact of TAG and what it says about the state of citizen engagement at City Hall when a political fringe group can impact policy, even for a member as harried as job-juggling Spelman. While TAG has focused attention on council, it has been largely of the heated and symbolic variety, in realms in which council has limited jurisdiction – like FAA policy. And while TAG founder John Bush is a charismatic and effective speaker, he opposes local conservation and sustainability measures, construing them as a supposed tentacle of the United Nations' nefarious Agenda 21 – a conspiracy whereby the forthcoming One World Government can more easily control the world's dwindling resources. "If the links I'm about to present allude to thoughts of international conspiracies, that's OK. They're supposed to," he told City Council in 2008, testifying against an energy conservation initiative. That video is on TAG's YouTube channel, along with videos of TAG member appearances on The Alex Jones Show, Bush and Co. questioning our chief sustainability officer about global population control, and more.

Unless the general citizenry speaks out about real issues the council can actually do something about, those who make the most noise will get the most attention, and the rest of us will be left to endure the circus – and pick up the tab.

Because, after all, chit happens.

Unravel the conspiracy at

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body scanners, Bill Spelman, Texans for Accountable Government, Lee Leffingwell

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