Point Austin: What You Say, and How You Say It
Ballot language argument is a snapshot of polarized Austin politics
Last Thursday morning, City Council agreed to adjourn by midnight – and eventually did so Friday morning, at 12:44am. That provides some flavor of the proceedings, and portends some of the 113 agenda Items that didn't quite get addressed on Thursday night. Although it might seem so, city business is not all soccer and CodeNEVER.
Most of the meeting's late-night conversation concerned November ballot language, specifically of the proposed language for an "efficiency audit" of all city operations, directed to the ballot by petition. Petition campaigners prefer that language be as simple as possible, e.g., require "a comprehensive, independent, third-party audit of all city operations and budget," while City Hall wants more explanation: that there is already a city auditor and auditing department, that outside audits cost real money, and even that the city's financial information is voluminously available online.
The final language will land somewhere on that spectrum, although it will take a state Supreme Court ruling to get there. Council adopted language that includes reference to the existing audit system and the potential cost ($1 million-$5 million), and the campaigners denounced it as "political advertising" and have already followed through on threats to sue. Attorney Bill Aleshire (on behalf of "relator" Ed English), seeking speed, went directly to the Supremes, and they've accepted an expedited review.
Aleshire called the ballot language "prejudicial and misleading," though he's not above attempting to mislead the court himself, citing the city attorney's "no fiscal note" as evidence the Council is fudging the cost of an audit. Aleshire knows (or should know) that the fiscal note refers to the cost of listing "Proposition K" on an already existing ballot, not to any eventual audit itself.
The Deeper Debate
City lawyers must respond to the filing this week, so perhaps by the time you read this, the court will have issued a ruling and sent Council back for a rewrite. As I wrote last week ("Strange Bedfellows, Stranger Politics," Aug. 10), the curious political aspect of this "audit" campaign is the alliance of convenience between hard-right Republicans (some unidentified) and a handful of Austin "progressives" – Fred Lewis, Bill Bunch, Nelson Linder – who have long since decided that since they can't effectively fight our state GOP overseers, they'll do what they can to transfer incendiary state politics to City Hall. Some of that polarizing argument was evident at Council Thursday night, when Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak denounced Council's language as "absurd," while Democratic consultant Dave Butts described the petition campaign as a "spear aimed at the city of Austin by a group of extreme conservatives who are out to undermine this city."
I've written periodically about my distrust of government by petition, because it sidesteps the necessary public policy vetting and relies on street-corner publicity campaigns at least as misleading as the language now under dispute. In the present instance, I was approached like many others by earnest petitioners asking, "Do you want to save the taxpayers' money?," a question that presumably even the GOP's Supreme Court would consider leading.
Buried in Aleshire's exhibits is a standard Republican list of "efficiencies": e.g., "private/public partnership initiatives, and monetization of unused or underutilized city assets." Should the voters be hoodwinked into approving the audit, we'll then be treated to a menu of undemocratic shell games: privatize our publicly owned utilities, undermine employee benefits, run the government "like a business" – i.e., prioritize tax cuts over representative government.
A defiant Butts told Council that whatever the final ballot language – and however much "dark money" is poured into the campaign – "We'll defeat it either way."
The audit argument is not the only one that might be decided in court – the anti-CodeNEXT folks didn't like that proposed ballot language either, and Lewis said he'll likely sue for a different version. That's also a mug's game, since it's almost impossible to tell from their actual petition exactly how long they would prefer to wait before a public vote on a comprehensive land use code revision (in the works now since 2012). If being honest about their elastic "waiting period," they would probably choose something along the lines of, "Do not revise the land use code until we elect a mayor and Council that does only what we want them to do."
Although nobody was saying this out loud, one subtext of these arguments is the mayoral campaign, with Laura Morrison's more vocal supporters – prominent among the anti-CodeNEXT crowd – strategizing various ways of wounding incumbent Steve Adler before the campaign gets fully up to speed over the next couple of months. Officially, CodeNEXT is dead until City Manager Spencer Cronk proposes another revision process, but that impasse, now accompanied by the audit issue – and likely the soccer vote – will take their places as contentious matters to fuel November politics.
And while you ponder this electoral kindling – plan to vote for the affordable housing bonds, which could actually help make Austin a more livable city.