Point Austin: Buying a Better Austin

Mayor's foundation raises questions of self-governance

Point Austin

"Council needs greater bandwidth." Mayor Steve Adler was defending to me his proposal to expand the role of the Mayor's Better Austin Foundation, a fundraising nonprofit originally created under the Kirk Watson administration to handle special projects – most recently, under Lee Lef­fing­well, using one additional staffer to promote volunteer civic action. In Adler's proposed version – discussed at City Council last week, and returning there Feb. 26 – the BAF would expand its fundraising, hire a staff, and begin working on the big-picture city issues debated during last year's campaigns: affordability, traffic, inequality, etc.

Adler has said he believes that under the new 10-1 system, the mayor – as the only officeholder still elected citywide – needs a larger staff for constituent services, and to address issues not confined to single districts. More recently, he's defended the proposal as also aimed at assisting the new Council in its efforts to reshape city government, especially the move into a committee structure intended to enable broader citizen input earlier in the policy process. I asked him if the expansion to 11 Council members (and their staffs) instead of seven doesn't already alleviate some of the pressure on constituent services, and he responded, "They're my constituents, too."

Fair enough. But the proposal has received plenty of backlash – including from the Statesman editorial board (to whom the mayor tried to sell it, in vain, in advance of last week's meeting), some Council members, and from citizens who waited late to testify. Most of the objections have focused on the private money (and influence) that would underwrite the foundation; Adler has responded by noting the exhaustive transparency built into the design, and the ban on fundraising from anyone with lobbying connections or pending business before the city. (Good luck with that – rightly or wrongly, there is simply no way that those folks with sufficient philanthropic resources to underwrite such an effort also have no business with the city, although perhaps not always "pending.")

Just Can't Wait

On the funding question, Adler told Coun­cil last week that he "doesn't care" whether the foundation is funded privately or directly out of the city budget, estimating the cost through October at $260,000 (I'm betting that's salaries only, not benefits or support services). He bristled at the suggestion that the other cities cited in his resolution (e.g., New York and Los Angeles) have strong-mayor systems, and told me that he sees this effort as only "enhancing" Austin's council-manager system. (Asked if he thinks we should be moving toward strong-mayor, he said flatly, "No.")

Adler also balked when District 3 CM Pio Renteria suggested the proposal first be vetted by the newly created committee system – supposedly to be one of the BAF's important beneficiaries. "I don't have the patience," he told Council. "I don't have the constituents that want me to wait, that want us to wait." That sounded a little odd coming from a mayor who had advised waiting 100 days before taking any major actions, and who most specifically advocated a committee structure that would submit all substantial proposals to earlier and more intensive public input. "I think we were sent here to do a job, and we were asked to start that job right away," said the mayor, "and I am ready to work with you to start getting things done now – now."

Hats in Hand

So there you have it. Last week the resolution hit the dais (near midnight), and next week (Feb. 26), Council will be asked to act on it, with the mayor phrasing the question as one of private money (fully transparent) vs. public money. Most Coun­cil members seem willing to give the idea a chance in some form (project-oriented and term-limited to two years), but most also expressed serious misgivings on where it might lead. They're understandably concerned about power shifting more strongly to the mayor's office, and concerned as well about the influence of private money on public policy.

The financial disclosures and open meeting guarantees built into the measure are reassuring, but the real question is about public sovereignty. As Council members and many others have pointed out, if we indeed believe we need expanded public services – whether that means more street lights, more parks, or more mayoral staff members – we ought to be willing to pay for them, rather than rely on the generosity (or tax exemptions) of the wealthy, however well-intentioned. Beyond that simple self-reliance, defining the "affordability" problem as largely confined to taxation – which is not simply an expense, but an investment – increasingly concedes the public space to private money, and to the hope that our betters will be sufficiently enlightened (through good times and bad) to attend to all those community needs that we've decided by default we can't afford.

In that context, every step towards more reliance on philanthropy for common public needs is also a concession of the failure of representative government, and of a public failure to accept our common responsibility to the general welfare. Asking the rich to take care of us amounts to a confession that we can't take care of ourselves.

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City Council 2015, Better Austin Foundation, Steve Adler

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