Point Austin: Expiation Day

If apologies are in order, the line forms here

Point Austin
The mountain labored, and brought forth a mouse. – Horace

Where were we?

Ah, yes, the Great City Council Open Meetings Act Scandal has magically morphed into the Great City Council Rude Remarks in E-mails Scandal. We're not done, of course – County Attorney David Escamilla has expanded his OMA inquiries to the Capital Metro board, where members are already afraid of their own shadows. As I've written before, if a quorum is now to be defined as "any two members," let's say so plainly, and direct public officials to show up at public meetings as ill-informed and unprepared as possible (as it's apparent a couple of current county commissioners already do). That should do wonders for good public policy.

But the order of the day is now public apologies, remorse, and expiation. Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez have spent much of the last two weeks apologizing for a couple of year-old, private e-mail insults to the city manager and other officials (see "City Council E-Mails Prompt Ethics Complaint, Lawsuit"), and Council Mem­ber Randi Shade has apologized for a similar (although off-dais) e-mail remark about Robin Rather, who has responded with a condescending Statesman op-ed ("At City Hall, leadership involves throwing others under the fire truck," March 4) calling for all three officials to resign, as they don't sufficiently correspond to Rather's definition of evolutionary "change" agents.

Why stop when we're on a roll? I haven't heard Sheryl Cole apologize yet for giving e-mail fashion advice to Laura Morrison.* And poor Bill Spelman is being sued because he didn't generate enough e-mails to satisfy the plaintiffs – why isn't he wearing the sackcloth and ashes of omission? Chris Riley, of course, is the designated poster boy for public shaming – he posts too many meetings on his online calendar. I thought perhaps Morrison had escaped public obloquy – she nobly eschewed instant messaging rather than conspire to secretly document council bathroom breaks – but then I realized she voted the wrong way on the fateful Fire Department consultant contract that got Leffingwell and Martinez in trouble.

In the immortal words of Stephen Dedalus: "Pull out their eyes! Apologise!"

The Etiquette Academy

What's most entertaining about all this public breast-beating are the folks now pretending to be authorities on how council members should behave. We could start with the NAACP's Nelson Linder, who was mad enough about the Leffingwell/Martinez e-mails to file a formal ethics complaint (see "City Council E-Mails Prompt Ethics Complaint, Lawsuit"). Linder did acknowledge that he has not always used the "best language" to criticize public officials when he's disagreed with them. Let's politely call that an understatement.

Then there's former County Judge Bill Ale­shire, who over the weekend was telling TV reporters that some council members may not have the "right attitude." Excuse me? At the county, Aleshire retains his well-earned reputation as a scorched-earth, backroom politician. In a recent campaign, he tried not only to destroy Glen Maxey's reputation but to prevent him from making a living – and when called on it, only regretted bringing discredit on his own candidate. (I'd rather not repeat Aleshire's incendiary and shameless rhetoric launched at the city's animal shelter officials.) Apologies pending?

Or consider the ACLU's+ Debbie Russell, who makes it her self-righteous avocation to denounce everybody else's supposed racism in myriad public meetings or lately at the Austin Post. There she recently posted this scurrilous imaginary portrait of the working relationship between Leffingwell and Mar­tin­ez: "The Mayor simply sits back behind his elevated desk, comforted and likely amused with the antics of his own personal pit bull." By Russell's own hair-trigger standards for outrage, she should certainly be reporting herself to the League of United Latin American Citizens.

And then there's Rather, who sanctimoniously informs us: "In our country, and in this town, character assassination is the weapon of choice. And in the digital age, that is easier to do and sometimes just as effective." Rather should certainly know; she's notorious for regularly broadcasting her own efforts at digital assassination. It was just such a missive – a post-meeting, behind-hand denunciation of the mayor and council for supposed spinelessness – that provoked Shade's angry note to the city manager for which she's still apologizing.

Rather Knows Best

There's history, of course, between Shade and Rather, who campaigned against Shade in 2008 (on behalf of Jennifer Kim) in part by collaborating to invent disdain-for-SOS sentiments Shade was falsely alleged to have expressed to Brian Rodgers (see "Point Austin: The Way We Were," May 2, 2008). That was the first time Rodgers tried to skew an offhand remark into a hysterical political scandal, as he's done this time from a conversation with Riley; practice makes perfect, I guess.

Rather should certainly check her own e-mails before she gets on her rhetorical high horse. In 2009, after council effectively killed by postponement the (still-dead) Wildflower Commons PUD – but not in the absolutist and grandiose way favored by the project's opponents, Rather among them – Rather wrote (and broadcast) a blisteringly condescending e-mail to Shade, attacking Shade's intelligence, her knowledge, her credentials – even her fitness to be a mother, in the bargain accusing her of in effect being a warmonger and of starving children ... and, oh yes, of wasting Rather's precious time.

You can read Rather's whole e-mail posted herewith online; there is certainly nothing in what Rather now calls the "outrageous" council member e-mails that remotely approaches what she wrote to Shade. But perhaps that's what she meant as "respectful" politics last week, when she declared in the Statesman, "Great leaders use the power of words to motivate and inspire – not to throw other great people under the bus."

Folks, you want to fight about WTP4 or Formula One, Barton Springs or Oak Hill, PUDs or population growth, even about random City Hall gossip – by all means have at it. But unless you're willing even to attempt to abide by your own sanctimonious rhetorical standards, kindly spare us all the lectures on proper political behavior and etiquette. You've got no higher ground to stand on.

*Due to my faulty memory, this sentence originally and mistakenly attributed a different e-mail to Council Member Cole. +Dotty Griffith, public education director of the ACLU of Texas, asks to note that Debbie Russell "does not speak for the ACLU or the ACLU of Texas," and that "Her words and actions relating to this issue are hers and hers alone."

Read Robin Rather's Feb. 13, 2009, e-mail to Council Member Randi Shade.

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City Council, Randi Shade, Robin Rather

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