Something extraordinary in Austin politics is unfolding before our eyes this week. What began as a slow simmer years ago and heated up in this spring's Place 3 election between Randi Shade and Kathie Tovo, has now reached a critical boiling point.
“Proponents of moving the election to November say putting the council on the general election ballot will be a guaranteed turnout booster. By implication, they say the council will better reflect the views of the community at large. Yeah, reply some of those who advocate the status quo, you'll get a bigger turnout – of uninformed voters.
“It's an elitist argument that betrays the entitlement mentality of the cadre of insiders who benefit politically from the city's notoriously low turnout. The argument neither needs subtitle nor translation, but here's one: “We know what's good for you.”
“If that reasoning puts you off, let the council know about it.”~ Editorial Board, Austin American-Statesman, 10/3/11
Last week, in a 4-3 decision, Councilmembers Sheryl Cole, Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison, and Kathie Tovo voted (in the first of three readings) to hold the 2012 Austin municipal election in May, against the advice of the city's election administrator, the State of Texas, and a diverse array of community leaders. A number of rationales have been offered by these members defending their positions- from upholding their oath to the city charter, to not arbitrarily extending their terms by six months, to concern for uninformed November voters.
As someone who has been involved in the elections of a supermajority of this current city council, I am admittedly part of the Austin Political Machine as described by Phillip Martin over two years ago. I don't deny it; it is true that this city's politics has been guided for many years by small group of insiders with occasional, minimal, variation. But because of my position and my role in helping to elect members on each side last week's vote, I feel obligated to break my silence.
It's time to put the truth on the table. This debate is about the balance of power between different factions of Austin's political establishment and it is driven by political self interest.
The defeat of Randi Shade by Kathie Tovo this spring saw the rise of a new coalition on the Austin City Council who were ostensibly united by their opposition to Water Treatment Plant 4, F1 subsidies, downtown parking hours, and long term development in urban neighborhoods. Surprisingly, on all of these issues considered by the council since the election, this 4-vote coalition has yet to materialize as an effective block of votes on any of these issues. In particular, support for halting construction of Water Treatment Plant 4, widely seen as “the” defining issue this past election, evaporated in a 7-0 vote to continue the project not weeks after Tovo's election. While Tovo, Morrison, and Spelman ideologically operate within the same spectrum, many saw the alliance with Cole as somewhat surprising. After all, she had historically been supported financially by the same business and development interests as Randi Shade.
So why is it on this issue of all issues- when to hold the 2012 election- that these four have finally come together to vote as a block? Political self-interest of the most disappointing kind.
It has been an open secret among city hall insiders that Sheryl Cole, Bill Spelman, and Laura Morrison have each expressed interest in becoming the next Mayor of Austin. It was expected that Mayor Leffingwell would retire after serving one term, having served his intended purpose in blocking former councilman Brewster McCracken's mayoral ambitions. But after seeing Austin successfully navigate the economic downturn, Leffingwell has decided to run for re-election. Additionally, Austin is set to vote in November of 2012 on a wide-ranging package of changes, including fundamental changes to how and when the council is elected. This package, pushed by Leffingwell, and ostensibly still supported by most councilmembers, is perceived as severely disrupting the influence of the traditional low-turnout electorate and the existing political machine.
Simply put, Cole, Spelman, Morrison, and Tovo advocate keeping next year's city election in May because they believe that it remains their last and best chance to defeat Mayor Leffingwell and his key ally Mike Martinez before the opportunity is lost forever. For all the rhetoric about the oaths to the charter (which both Cole and Spelman in particular have voted to break previously without issue) and concern for uninformed voters (who are regularly depended on to pass the council's preferred bond measures in high turnout November elections), this all boils down to defending a broken system for personal political gain.
How sad for Austin. How sad it is that liberal councilmembers are using their power to pick the smallest, most distorted electorate for themselves. How sad it is that we have to suffer through layers of rationalization and excuses to mask the naked political truth before us.
Today, the council will hold the 2nd reading on this issue in an nearly unprecedented rushing of the measure through the process to minimize public input or attention. This is because last Friday, at 5:37PM, well after city offices normally close, Councilmembers Spelman and Morrison placed this item on the agenda for this morning's Council Work Session, which is usually reserved for council discussion of items to be considered at their Thursday council meetings. There is no contemporary precedent for taking action on a contested, divisive issue at a work session; usually they are 7-0 votes involving last minute time sensitive permits for road races, like the October 8th NAMI Walk which is on today's agenda. (The last time a controversial item saw a 4-3 vote on reading in a work session was in the 1990's when a vote was held to issue RFPs seeking to privatize Austin Energy.) Work sessions are traditionally NOT for public input — they are for council to work out agenda items before Thursday's vote. In fact, the top of the agenda even states as much.
In addition, an item has been added to authorize the city to spend up to $1.3 million (not including another half a million if there is a run-off) to purchase more voting machines in order to hold a single low-turnout May election on top of an already scheduled November election for the city. The council's own documents admit that “The County acknowledges that machines purchased under this Addendum will likely be sold or otherwise exchanged or returned to the current or other future voting equipment vendor” after the election. The city will have to cover most all of that cost because last night the ACC Board of Trustees voted to move their elections to November, a move which AISD is expected to follow. This leaves the City of Austin alone in paying for a special election in May against the provisions of SB 100, against the expert recommendations of the election administrator, in contradiction of our values, and wedged in between and overlapping with the party primaries and runoffs- all for the perceived political benefit to four people.
I urge the council to reconsider the path they are leading us down- it is not too late. I recognize, as do many others that are a part of it, that the current political establishment's influence must, and is, coming to an end. We must trust the people of Austin, as many as possible, in determining our city's future.
We must recognize that fighting over where and when to have one final battle in a war over the past is a victory for no one.
“A city that loves to think of itself as forever in blue jeans has grown up. The Comprehensive Plan is far from the final answer, but it is worth a good, hard look by a circle larger than the City Hall hangers-on this type of conversation tends to attract. It begs a serious conversation about how to manage the city's future.”~ Editorial Board, Austin American-Statesman, 10/2/11
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Previously On Burnt Orange Report:
- Austin Hispanic Leaders Hold Press Conference Supporting November Elections
- Austin Municipal Elections and the “Uninformed Voter” Canard
- Clarifying Three Points on the Austin Municipal Elections Debate
- A Vote Against Democracy in Austin
Elsewhere On the Web:
- Moving City Elections from May to November, Mayor Leffingwell's Blog
- Point Austin: Voter Suppression Made Easy, Austin Chronicle
- City Hall Hustle: Rock The Vote … Not, Austin Chronicle
- Austin will keep May elections for now, Off The Kuff
- Austin council keeps next city election in May, Austin American-Statesman
- The Daily Hustle 9/23/11, Austin Chronicle