Austin at Large: Take It From a Ninja ...
The governor takes to the Twitters again to politicize a tragedy
I don't do resolutions very well, so my intention for 2020 – a state of mind to seek, not a project to complete – is to "be more ninja." You know, move quicker and lighter, with less baggage, more flexibly and less visibly, roll better with life's punches, and the like. (Not all ninja are warriors.) It also means knowing when to do less, rather than too much, and staying clear of paths one can't retrace or teetering limbs one can't reattach.
With just 2% of 2020 under our belt, I already see some folks who should have been more ninja, now trapped in embarrassing public poses instead of quietly achieving their goals. That's not counting President Apesh*t, for whom "not being ninja" has been his go-to design for living since the mid-Eighties. How's that working out for him?
Our Fine Governor, Doing Too Much
Look at the big wet rotten tomato in the Governor's Mansion. Before the blood had dried at the tragic murder/suicide scene on South Congress (see "Austin Police Open Internal Investigation Into South Congress Stabbing"), Greg Abbott was making noise about how the perpetrator was surely homeless, which meant that blood was on Mayor Steve Adler's hands, or something. Once this rather easy guess proved correct, Abbott brayed further to reporters about Austin's lawlessness, without telling us how these two lives could have been saved if only the people living on Austin's streets were in his care rather than Adler's. There's no real upside for Abbott to getting his hands dirty doing something useful to end homelessness in Texas, but you know, doing nothing and minding his business is always an option, as is simply leaving people without housing alone. Nothing is forcing him to not be ninja here, and popping off like a talk-radio caller during the afternoon drive ("Greg from Pemberton, you're on the air!") not only annoys and appalls most Austinites but makes his own path to victory here more tenuous.
Let's posit that what Abbott wants is a return to the conventional GOP consensus on homelessness: heavy on maintaining public order and cleaning the streets, treating social services as charity rather than policy, and branding those without housing as sinners in need of redemption, rather than accepting them as the poor among us. The South Congress case, even this early in the story, highlights how that approach has not worked, and Abbott is bringing more attention to its failings. As this story has developed, it's become worryingly evident that an inadequate and perhaps even inept police response, rather than any policy decisions at City Hall, allowed what could have been a routine central-city encounter to end with two lives lost. Abbott has since last summer tried to play Austin's commendable cops against its crazy liberal lawmakers, but the South Congress case may instead show us quite clearly why homelessness is not and should not be a crime.
They Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks
An initial clamor to recall Adler et al. arose from the anger being crudely, dumbly stoked by Abbott. Since then, a political action committee called Our Town Austin emerged to mount a recall drive in earnest; its stated mission has, like a dirty snowball, picked up more of the usual grievances to justify a recall, including the new Land Development Code, because that train is never late.
But wait, you may ask, didn't LDC opponents already fight and badly lose this battle at the ballot box in 2018? Yes, they did, and the Our Town Austin (the possessive pronoun says so much) squad of active Nextdoor commenters likely does not appreciate how much more difficult a challenge it faces here – a three-step process (first the petition drive, then the recall election, then the special elections to replace those recalled) that, even if everything breaks their way, will last well into 2021.
That's a long time to maintain a bad attitude, let alone to act out in the streets and at public hearings to produce enough spite to power a recall drive that, as it now stands, would sweep out Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen as well, despite their opposition to the holistic Adler agenda. It's just not very ninja. Neither is the brilliant idea that these cranky people should simply protest their rezoning under the new LDC. That'll show 'em! No means no!
Let's say the courts rule that individual property owners will have the same rights under Texas law to protest the LDC rewrites as they do now to challenge changes to their own zoning, or – if they and their like-minded neighbors own a sufficient amount of property – to the zoning of nearby parcels. That would raise the threshold for approval by City Council to nine votes (three-fourths of 11, rounded up); the LDC rewrite garnered seven on first reading.
Much has been made of the thousands of people who have pretended to file protests under this fantasy scenario. But it would take many times that number – at least as many people, probably more, as needed to force a recall election – to use this mechanism to create the across-the-board walkbacks of LDC density that Our Townies desire. Otherwise, we'll end up with piecemeal patchworks of zoning in sensitive areas – fertile ground for many worse outcomes, from the Our Town perspective, than what we have now. Especially if they recall their own Council allies! And create a whole new set of land-use strategies that developers and landowners can wield against neighborhoods! (Remember, the threshold to trigger protest rights is an amount of land, not a number of people.) Ain't nothing very ninja about that.