Sunday, March 19, 2006

If only the amendments were written in iambic pentameter ...

This has made the rounds all over town via email, but it's a worthy read. A local literary icon tells why she backs both citizen intiatives amending Austin's city charter:

What I Like About the Clean Water and Open Government Charter Amendments

By Susan Bright

Daryl Slusher's complaint that it was silly to put the phrase "happy hour" in the city charter led me to want to read our founding document, something I've never done, though Max Nofziger once asked me to help rewrite it, which may be an indication that it's outdated. I suggested iambic pentameter or rhyming couplets which caused Max to look at me oddly, so if a committee met to revise the Charter in the 90s, I wasn't invited. Looking for it this morning, I found zip on the city website. [editor's note: You can find the charter from the City website under "Code compliance," then all the way at the bottom "City codes," then to the American Legal Publishing site and there is the charter.]

I live in Austin because of Barton Springs, so it is important to me to be on the right side of work to protect the Springs and our aquifer. The damage to everything I care about done behind closed doors and in response to corporate pressure at every level of government has never been more horrific. The Open Government amendment gives us an historic opportunity to change business as usual, here and now, at city hall by making transparency the law. The Clean Water Amendment will make it the law that the City work relentlessly to save Barton Springs and our aquifer.

Several features of the Clean Water Amendment are brilliant. The City will have to direct development away from the Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones, stop undermining the SOS Ordinance, and stand up to Grandfathering claims. And it gives us tools with which to fight Grandfathering by writing it into law that any bankruptcy on the land (remember Gary Bradley) negates the grandfather claim and the "new" project has to comply with current regulations. (Cool!) It further says no incentives, cash or otherwise can be awarded to a corporation or any of it's subsidiaries or spin-offs (remember how Freeport McMoRan morphed into Stratus) to develop property in Austin. It means we can't pay polluters. And they can't change their name, move someplace else, and get paid either.

I'm not one of those who thinks we need tax paid incentives to reward rogue corporations with changed names and new suspenders for going into the preferred development zone. I think we need tough restrictions that say, go there or be prepared for endless legal battles, fines, and huge project delays. And corporations that took subsidies in the past even though they built in violation to SOS will have to pay those subsidies back. And if there has ever been a change in the building plan for a grandfathered tract, the grandfather claim will be null and void, and the new plan will have to comply with SOS. I like this. Why do we allow some people (read "Corporations") think they're above the law?

I am amused by people who tell us some features of the Clean Water Amendment won't stand up in court. How many times have we stood before the City Council and listened to Council members and City legal employees tell us that? How many times have we been told this or that is a "done deal," was a done deal before public input. The city staff's job is to keep the City out of court, not aggressively fight for our right to clean water. This amendment will change that. Cool.

Toll roads? The city won't be allowed to spend money on toll roads that lead to or cross the aquifer or contributing zone. The same thing goes for infrastructure or utilities and support services that help development on the Barton Springs Aquifer. How anyone who claims to be an environmentalist can object to this is beyond me. Are we going to have a bit of work to do to enforce it?
It's good work. Bring it on. We had to fight long and hard for the SOS Ordinance, against many of the same arguments and corporate entities we're facing now. (See the SOS rebuttal to what they are calling a "Political Insiders PAC" to defeat the Amendments.)

There's been a lot of talk from opponents of these amendments about conflicting levels of laws - state law trumps local law, federal law trumps state and local, but no one is admitting that international contracts can and do trump all of the above. If ever there was time for a huge home rule movement, this is it. Here, now -- in our town, we have the opportunity to stand up for local rule, in the context of protecting something Austin deeply loves, Barton Springs. Dubai backed down in response to a huge popular movement against their take over of American ports. We must all be activists, all the time.

If I could get hold of the City Charter I bet I'd find old passages which by today's law are illegal, or obsolete, which have fallen away -- like the deed restrictions on old properties all over town that say no person of color can engage in the purchase or sale of this property or gain from it in any way except for work as servant or groundskeeper. That language is still on the books, but it's inoperative, thanks to a huge popular movement called the Civil Rights Movement. We must work together. It drive me nuts when environmentalists can't work together because we need everyone's talents, energy, wisdom.

The provisions in these SOS Charter Amendments which won't stand up in court will fall away until higher law changes to reflect populist convictions that government be transparent and that water resources, like our beloved Barton Springs, be preserved. The intent will remain in the charter where it can be cited to strengthen the SOS Ordinance and other environmental initiatives in the future.

But until and unless developers whose projects are in violation of SOS take the City to court, the Amendments will be law. The city can't permit in violation of its Charter. Moratorium anyone?

About transparency in local government:

The back room deals flying around these amendments have given me a wake up call re. the necessity of an Open Government Amendment.

Surprise! The City is opposed to both amendments. There was movement back channel to draft an alternative Clean Water Amendment to go on the ballot at the same time the SOS Amendments appear, to confuse voters, to gut the SOS Amendments. Maybe it won't happen, maybe it will.

Let's see: amendments signed by more than 40,000 people, drafted by SOS in collaboration with several dozen leading environmentalists and attorneys v. amendment drafted by about 5 people back channeled and slipped onto the ballot at the last minute. Which is more democratic? How do you want your City government to work?

The Council approved extremely negative ballot language to describe the Amendments thinking to define them away. The 40 plus thousand people who signed petitions to get these amendments on the ballot deserve better treatment. At public meetings and in back rooms paid developer "lobbyists" are picking apart the wording line by and they're not all disclosing who they work for. I find this incredibly depressing.

Ever wonder how we got CSC, one of the largest military contractors in the world next door to the new City Hall, down the street from the TX Capitol? Did you and I provided cash and tax incentives to lure them here? Was it a done deal? Can you lookup information about how it happened?

Until an in-depth study has been done to prove costs estimates for putting Austin Government on line, the imaginary price tags are just that.

So, in addition to the probability that one could actually find a copy of the City Charter were the Open Government Amendment to pass, what else do I like about it?

In the first place, it guarantees individual privacy at the same time it ensures open, on line government.

"Section 2: Privacy Protected. Nothing within this amendment should be interpreted in a manner that would violate an individual's existing constitutional or common law rights to privacy."

This is an amendment the city will have to settle into. Only Council members, their staff, City Manager, her/his staff, and Heads of Departments are required to post their calendars and work emails. [editor's note: Actually emails must only be archived, not automatically published online.] Everyone will be required to do their city work on the job, in the open, and not in private. What a concept.

I can't find where it says police investigations and secret security work set about by first responders will be on line for terrorists to read, or that crime tips will have to be posted in real time, presumably giving violent offenders on route to a crime of passion the opportunity to log on to the city website to see if anyone is watching them. I have to agree (respectfully) with the SOS answer to Daryl Slusher's piece that some of those claims are "bizarre." You can read the SOS rebuttal for yourself and the charter amendments here.

Susan Bright, poet and publisher
Plain View Press


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