Austin at Large: The Pigs Inside Our Python

Recent headlines confirm: Austin takes a looooong time to digest what it swallows

Austin at Large: The Pigs Inside Our Python

I held this column last week so Nick Barbaro could have more space to lay out the Zilker Park visions that have emerged from the city's planning process for renewing, or "rewilding," its marquee public park. As literal graybeards, both he and I have long memories for such things; the current Zilker Vision effort follows lengthy public deliberation in past years of various elements within Zilker, including the Zilker Botanical Garden, the greenbelt entrance that will become the front gate of the Violet Crown Trail, the Barton Springs Bathhouse, the Zilker Clubhouse, the cafe outside the swimming hole (and whether it can sell beer), even the little train. And, of course, the main events that bring the most people to the park, ACL Fest and the holiday Trail of Lights. I would have to imagine that it's been a minute since there wasn't some such effort happening at Zilker, which is just one park; over that same period, the city has also updated its overall Parks Master Plan, delivered a highly ambitious vision for Lake Walter E. Long that is very far from becoming real, pursued the deal with Oracle approved by voters in November, and worked out the details of its relationships with the support groups and conservancies who are taking over management of some of the city's most used and most expensive pieces of parkland along the creeks and lakes.

This is all basically happening under a cone of silence as far as local media is concerned. We've gotten used to being a rare newsroom that really pays attention to these endless decision-making processes in real time, rather than just at the end when the sparks fly and blood flows in last-ditch conflicts. Back when Nick and I were both less graybearded, we were the only outlet in town that attempted this depth of coverage on these stories; now we have KUT and the Austin Monitor and (at times) Community Impact and even the daily when it doesn't backslide into its worst impulses to be ostentatiously hard-shelled and Joe Rogan-esque and gotcha-driven. But the dynamic remains: Austin continues to grow faster than most anywhere else, thousands of residents who vote and care about civic issues both arrive and depart from our city every year, people have lots of ideas and want to participate in shaping the city on the fly, and our public engagement processes plod slowly, slowly forward, trying every trick in the book to avoid being captured by the usual interest groups and generally failing.

We've Seen All This Before

The reason the Chronicle has this row to hoe is not that we are so much more savvy than our journalistic comrades about what's really important to our readers. It's mostly that we have less turnover than other news outlets, and so we remember things. Like I remembered the history of the South Central Waterfront just as the usual interest groups latched onto it as another boondoggle that they could publicly whack and get praised and funded for doing so. I had a similar feeling as we weighed endorsements in this primary cycle in the two Travis County commissioners races, both of whose incumbents have been in public office for most of our existence.

Which means I can recall whether, as a member of City Coun­cil, Brigid Shea opposed or supported tax incentive programs for major employers back in the 1990s. She supported them, but with caveats, which is much the same as her position now – a position which has helped fuel challenger Bob Libal's campaign to oust her, with the county's Tesla deal as an example.

For her part, Margaret Gómez is taking her second challenge from Del Valle ISD Trustee Susanna Ledesma-Woody seriously enough to roll out some incredibly aggressive and shady campaign moves this week (falsely telling supporters Ledesma-Woody had dropped out; the challenger used the wrong form to file her last finance report, and has now corrected it). Gómez is all for the Tesla deal and wants her opponent to suffer for being the only vote against DVISD's rolling out a similar package. Those deals from school districts in particular have been controversial statewide and the subject of harsh articles in the big dailies, and the Lege is trying to kill them off, with groups like Central Texas Interfaith demanding that school districts just say no. This same debate was happening in Austin in 1995, the year Elon Musk began his Ph.D. program at Stanford (he dropped out after two days). It was complicated and nuanced even then. People have tried to make corporate welfare a wedge issue that galvanizes progressives and divides conservatives as long as I've been a Texan (since 1998). We still haven't yet arrived at a satisfactory stopping point, either for Austin or for Texas.

And We Solved It Before!

Another example of a pig that has still yet to be digested by the python that is Austin's public life became newly newsy last week, when the overstretched and understaffed Austin Water crew that runs the city's largest treatment plant snafu-ed its way into yet another boil water notice, this one completely prompted by human error and foretelling the resignation of Greg Meszaros, the AW director who is one of the few people I've met in a top public sector job who I believe really would tender his resignation unasked in such a situation, as the right thing to do. He conceded to Council that the Ullrich plant in West Lake Hills is "wobbly" right now, which should not come as a surprise, since it was the advanced age and nebulous condition of the Ullrich and Davis plants that led the utility to push forward with plans for the Handcox plant on Lake Travis, the erstwhile Water Treatment Plant 4. That plant will eventually be built out to its full design capacity and replace Ullrich's output with plenty of room to spare, drawing water directly from where the city paid the Lower Colorado River Authority $100 million (I saw the check!) back in 1999, when Kirk Watson was mayor, for rights to Lake Travis water for 100 years. That supposedly solved all our water problems.

Since literally hundreds of thousands of people have moved to Central Texas since these things made news, let me inform you that they were very, very, very controversial throughout the decades it took to get from the planned WTP4 to the built Handcox, which right now is only putting out a third of what Ullrich does. That's almost entirely due to the efforts of the Save Our Springs Alliance, which was once led by Shea, to force the city to implement water conservation that, it said as late as 2011, would eliminate the need for a new plant. Kathie Tovo, who's running for mayor, first got her job on the old council a decade ago by unseating the deciding vote to build Handcox, only to find she couldn't actually stop its construction. That history doesn't have to repeat itself ad infinitum whenever these things come up, but when today's press corps covered the BWN earlier this month, most of them didn't know any of this recent history, and so it never got mentioned, and had we all instead placed the story in context, Greg Meszaros might not have had to fire himself.

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Zilker Vision, Brigid Shea, Bob Libal, Margaret Gómez, Susanna Ledesma-Woody, Tesla, Greg Meszaros, Kirk Watson, Save Our Springs Alliance, Kathie Tovo, Community Impact, Austin Monitor, KUT, Zilker Park

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