Point Austin: A Community Obligation
A vote for the county courthouse is a vote for justice
One of the persistent myths of Austin politics is that we're an engaged, participatory community. I like to pat myself on the back, too, but considering that through midweek the early vote count for the November 3 election was straining to reach 3% of registered Travis County voters, the mythology is increasingly hard to sustain. I get it that few Texans can manage to get excited about state constitutional propositions, since as a group they are a long-honored way for legislators to avoid making actual decisions, while simultaneously stacking the deck against progressive change. Moreover, the ballot language is consistently so confusing that even policy wonks have trouble parsing it into English – another good reason for voting "no" on all of them (while knowing they will mostly pass). (See "Chronicle Endorsements.")
Nevertheless, it remains mystifying that nearly 645,000 county residents can manage to get themselves registered to vote, but only a few thousand can be bothered to do so, except in presidential elections. It's a given that most Chronicle readers (indeed, most Austinites) will be voting for a Democrat in next spring's presidential primaries, and judging from social media, many are all het up about those campaigns already – but they take place next spring, people, and the election we have in front of us is right now. (Not to mention the knowledge that in blood-red Texas, Travis County presidential voters are currently pissing up a rope.)
Like it or not, our best chance of actually affecting public policy is in local elections, and by far the most important item on the current ballot is the bond proposition for the Travis County Civil & Family Courthouse Complex. For those few of you who will vote: I strongly urge you to vote in favor of that necessary, well-considered, sensible proposition.
I'm no prognosticator, but until just a few weeks ago I thought the courthouse bond would pass easily. That was before this dismal turnout, and before a handful of right-wing, anti-government activists, led by District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman, decided to do what they could to muddy the waters and oppose the bond – ostensibly because they would prefer "a better plan" – a discussion they ignored during years of actual county outreach and public preparation. In fact, they reflexively oppose any and all taxation, or public investment, all the time. Zimmerman and friends have even cynically proposed the economic development of Northeast Austin (another issue in which they have shown no previous interest) as a reason for relocating the courthouse, ignoring the fact that moving the courthouse to one corner of the county immediately disadvantages the rest.
More recently, Zimmerman's "Taxpayers' Union" (yet another cynical locution) was joined by the Real Estate Council of Austin in recommending the bond be rejected and then the county look around for unspecified "alternative locations." The members of AURA, the nonprofit land-use group, who actually spend time and energy thinking helpfully about such matters, said succinctly this week: "Travis County's Courthouse needs to be downtown. In Texas, County Courthouses are downtown, and Travis County should be no different. Being downtown allows visitors to be part of a vibrant downtown – with all the benefits of a compact and connected space. It allows nearby access for County workers, and eliminates a significantly underutilized parking lot. In addition, a dense [neighboring] private development on the parcel [under county leasehold] will benefit the project and the future of Austin."
Take the Time to Vote
A rejection of this bond – for a courthouse already long-delayed by planning issues and other intervening priorities – would mean (by state law) at least three more years of delay in fulfilling Travis County's primary constitutional obligation (that is, our common obligation) of providing an adequate and fair civil justice system. The current courthouse is overcrowded, dangerous, disgracefully obsolete – and sprung yet a few more leaks in last week's rains. A new courthouse is long overdue, absolutely necessary, and affordable under these well-considered plans – and is supported by a broad swath of progressive local organizations and residents, opposed by a few who reflexively abhor public investment.
Some time ago, I gave up lecturing non-voters on reasons to vote – if a century of the disenfranchised, women and minorities, fighting valiantly for that right, have not persuaded them of the necessity and obligation of voting, an occasional newspaper column is hardly going to make a convincing impression. But for those of you who do vote – and for whatever reason just haven't gotten around to it this week – this bond election presents a singular opportunity to have an outsize effect on public policy and the provision of simple justice in Travis County. Citizens, families, and local businesses rely on a centrally located county courthouse, where disputes can be civilly adjudicated, families can be appeased or made whole, children can be defended against the sometimes violent social winds.
I urge you to vote, this week or on Nov. 3, and to vote for our new Travis County courthouse.