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Watson attacked by group looking for a candidate to run against him

Thursday, January 27, 2000 by

Reformers Appalled at Kirk's Ethical Transgressions (RAKET)

One of Austin's chief hell-raisers is at it again. Linda Curtis has founded a new political action committee (PAC) aimed at drumming up someone to run against Mayor Kirk Watson, who is seeking a second term and has only two homeless opponents at present. The PAC is called Reformers Appalled at Kirk's Ethical Transgressions (RAKET). Curtis says three other members of the Reform Party of Texas are involved in the PAC: Martha Byram, Chad Kuepker and Debra Reyes.

Curtis and the other members of the Reform Party will hold a press conference at 11 a.m. today at the Austin History Center and will allege impropriety in several actions. All the allegations involve the city's water deal with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) that was approved by the City Council Oct. 7, concluding with Mark Rose, then LCRA general manager, walking away with two checks in his pocket totaling $100 million. (See In Fact Daily Oct. 8, 1999.) Curtis tells In Fact Daily that she will raise questions about possible violations of the Open Meetings Act and the Austin City Charter.

She claims the City Council may have improperly decided in an executive session in October 1998 to go forward with the water deal without properly posting the item on the agenda. She says she bases that on an open records request made by Bill Bunch, general counsel of the Save Our Springs Alliance. However she says Bunch is not part of RAKET and is not expected at the press conference. "He says the council made the decision in executive session to pursue the LCRA deal," Curtis says. She says that if a decision was made in an executive session without proper notice then it could be a violation. Bunch did not return a call last night to comment on this matter.

Mayor Watson responded to this allegation, telling In Fact Daily, "I feel there was never a violation of the open meetings law."

The alleged charter violation is that the debt incurred in the water deal should have been approved by Austin voters. The city paid $27.3 million in cash borrowed from capital improvement projects and was to finance the remaining $73.7 million by reimbursing with commercial paper for two years and then re-funding with subordinate lien bonds for a period of 40 years. Council Member Daryl Slusher questioned City Attorney Andy Martin in open session at the Oct. 7 council meeting about the City Charter requirement for an election and Martin said that past revenue bonds issued without voter approval had been challenged and the court upheld they were not in violation because they complied with state law. On the subject of how the debt was handled, Watson says, "The public has elected me to make decisions in accordance with state law and in an expeditious fashion. State law allows us to do what we did."

Curtis' final allegation of impropriety involves the fact that the outside law firm that helped negotiate the water deal with the LCRA– Akin Gump Hauer Strauss and Feld–had been hired under a $39,000 authorization issued by the city attorney's office in the summer of 1998. The firm submitted one bill in November 1998 for $38,611 for services between Aug. 28 and Oct. 6, 1998. The firm did not bill the city again until after the deal was approved by the City Council Oct. 7, 1999. Because the expenses never went before the City Council to authorize an increase in legal fees, there was no public notice that the water deal was being negotiated. The non-billing for legal services kept the deal secret until the city issued a press release June 8, 1999. As reported by In Fact Daily Oct. 6, 1999, City Attorney Martin's excuse for not seeking council authorization for the legal services was, "we goofed up."

At the next council meeting on Oct. 28, 1999, the council voted 5-0 (with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Willie Lewis absent) to authorize payment of legal fees to Akin Gump in connection with the water deal in the amount of $227,000.

As to Curtis' allegation that the mayor was responsible for the hidden legal fees, Watson says, "The fees have been explained as a mistake of the city attorney–it's city management."

Curtis says of the LCRA water deal, "It's water under the bridge but it's election time. Does Kirk Watson get to be reelected like Mr. Wonderful? Or should we have someone to run against him?"

Watson scoffs at the attacks by Curtis. "I think the name's right," Watson says. "Racket–spelled right–is all this is. Curtis has made racket before. That's what she does well."

The mayor notes that Curtis pushed for the City Charter amendment that voters approved in November 1997 to reform campaign finance rules under which the mayor and council members are elected. Curtis later conceded the reforms pushed for by Austinites for a Little Less Corruption were not well founded, but were part of an evolution of changes that would improve the electoral system. A portion of those reforms, dealing with contributions in measure elections, were overturned in a federal lawsuit brought by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Texas Society of Association Executives. ( In Fact No. 163, September 1998) This cleared the way for huge donations that ensured the victory of $712.3 million in bonds approved by voters Nov. 3, 1998.

"Once again we're facing improper racket," Watson says of Curtis' attacks. "It's sound and fury signifying nothing."

This is not the first time Curtis has gone after Watson. She was campaign manager for former Council Member Max Nofziger's 1997 mayoral campaign. One of Nofziger's campaign tactics was to print fake paper money with Watson's photo on it under the heading, "United Special Interests of Austin," and "Dirty Money" on it as well. Nofziger, who had previously enjoyed the support of environmental groups during his winning races for City Council, was trying to win their support again, but they were already lined up behind Watson and staunchly defended him against Nofziger's allegations. Ultimately Nofziger placed a distant third to Watson and former Council Member Ronney Reynolds in the general election. Reynolds soon bowed out, letting Watson become Austin's first mayor to get into office without winning a majority.

Besides going after Watson, Curtis will be involved in a petition drive to get the Reform Party on the ballot in Texas again this year and if successful she will seek the District 48 seat in the Texas House of Representatives being vacated by Sherri Greenberg, D-Austin.

RAKET's allegations are posted to the World Wide Web at http://raket.jumppolitics.com

This could be the year that Butler's record falls for most mayoral votes

Record of 43,753 votes for Roy Butler has stood since 1973

This may be the year that Roy Butler's record falls. He is the all-time vote-getter in Austin's mayoral elections since Austin citizens began electing mayors directly in 1971. Before that, the citizens elected only council members, and then the council members elected the mayor from among the council ranks. Butler emerged on top of a field of nine candidates to garner 34,099 votes in 1971 for better than 65 percent without a runoff. But his high-water mark was set in 1973, when he garnered 43,753 votes, better than 72 percent of those cast, to win a second term. (See chart, below.)

It's been all down hill ever since–despite the fact that the number of registered voters has more than doubled since 1973. There were 151,368 registered voters when Butler set the record in 1973, and nearly 42 percent of them cast ballots. While the numbers of registered voters continue to climb, voter participation has plummeted. Barely more than 17 percent of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot in 1997, when current Mayor Kirk Watson came into power. Even that wasn't the worst, however, Mayor Bruce Todd's narrow reelection victory of 1994 was squeaked out with barely 16 percent of registered voters participating. Todd netted just 26,577 votes–the fewest ever in the mayor's contest.

Butler tells In Fact Daily he thinks Watson ought to eclipse the record this year. "I told Watson, 'You're going to beat me,'" Butler says. Though Butler's made his record the subject of numerous friendly discussions over the years, he says the record's not worth much, really. "With this I can take $2.50 a get a cup of Starbuck's coffee," he says.

Watson goes out of his way to say that Butler "has been very good to me." But he also notes that Butler sent him a chart that happens to be arranged by the number of votes received (see below). Watson ranks 10th on a list of 12 elections, edging out Todd, who drags up the rear though he won two terms. "I'm convinced he did that to rub my nose in it," Watson says of the chart. "He mentioned it to me at a Christmas party. 'You'll do it this time,'" Watson says Butler told him.

"I'm not out to break any record," Watson adds, "other than I'd like to break my percentage from last time." Watson has the dubious distinction of being the only mayor to serve without having won a majority, this due to Ronney Reynolds throwing in the towel after he placed well behind Watson in the general election, foregoing the runoff election berth he had earned.

One thing in Watson's favor is that voter registration is at an all-time high. There were 419,641 people registered to vote in the mayoral and city council elections at present, according to the Travis County Voter Registration Office, although the number fluctuates daily. That's almost 52,000 more than when Watson was elected in 1997.

Political consultant Dean Rindy says the slide in participation in elections by Austin voters is in a sense an indication the city is growing larger, into the realm of low participation in larger cities like Dallas and Houston. "You tend to have higher turnouts in smaller communities," he says. "This was a smaller community, and politics were more closely connected to people's lives. As the town has grown politics are less and less important to people's lives. Aristotle said the ideal size of a city was one you could all of from the top of a hill," Rindy says. "Modest size breeds familiarity and a sense of community."

Political consultant David Butts, who worked on Watson's campaign in 1997 and is perhaps the foremost statistician in local elections, theorizes that unless new challengers jump in who are stronger than the two homeless people vying now ( Albert Leslie Cochran and Jennifer Gale), Watson will probably pull 88-92 percent of the vote. At 90 percent Watson would need more than 48,000 ballots to be cast. That equates to a turnout of less than 12 percent. If a strong challenger jumps in, of course, that would eat into Watson's percentage and he would need a far higher turnout. All three mayoral elections in the 1990s had higher turnouts than that, ranging from 52,414 in 1994 to 62,840 in 1997.

A huge wild card is that both light rail and Watson's proposed $75 million bond election (In Fact Daily Jan. 24 and Jan. 26) could wind up on the May 6 ballot with the mayor and council races. Presumably those issues would generate a far higher interest in the election than has been demonstrated recently. "All bets are off if we have light rail," Butts says. "Then turnout would be significantly higher than 1997 if light rail is on the ballot, or some composition of transportation issues. You might see 70,000 to 75,000 votes if we had a light rail election."

The mayor and Council Member Daryl Slusher, along with Capital Metro Chair Lee Walker and General Manager Karen Rae, are going to Washington Friday to meet with White House officials and Federal Transit Administration officials on transportation and air quality issues. Information from that trip may swing the decision on when the Capital Metro and any bond election go before voters.

The reason for the lower vote totals by mayoral winners in recent years is a direct result of the hard fought races when strong candidates with different power bases were going against each other, Butts said. "It reflects how divided the city was all those years."

Watson jokes that maybe Linda Curtis (see lead story, above) has another motive for trying to scare up a candidate to oppose him. "I guess I could suggest Butler's behind Curtis, to diminish the vote," Watson says with a hearty laugh.

Austin Mayoral Election Winners *

Listed in Order of Highest Number of Votes Received

Winner

Year

No. in Race

Votes Received

Share

Votes Cast

Eligible Voters

Turnout

Roy Butler-G

1973

6

43,753

72.11 %

63,478

151,368

41.93 %

Carole McClellan-G

1979

2

41,191

78.88 %

55,415

161,803

34.25 %

Jeffrey Friedman-G

1975

5

39,319

54.57 %

72,623

161,524

44.96 %

Frank Cooksey-R

1985

2

38,307

54.23 %

72,285

244,610

29.55 %

Lee Cooke-R

1988

2

36,985

58.43 %

63,879

274,842

23.24 %

Carole McClellan-R

1981

2

36,451

54.19 %

67,728

188,000

36.03 %

Roy Butler-G **

1971

9

34,099

65.29 %

55,140

93,597

56.78 %

Ron Mullen-R

1983

2

33,677

52.61 %

65,209

195,044

33.43 %

Carole McClellan-R

1977

2

32,418

50.85 %

64,497

185,033

34.86 %

Kirk Watson-G ***

1997

8

30,278

48.47 %

62,840

367,709

17.08 %

Bruce Todd-R

1991

2

28,090

50.96 %

55,781

249,238

22.38 %

Bruce Todd-R *** *

1994

2

26,557

51.29 %

52,414

326,996

16.02 %

Notes:

* The chart reflects the specific election in which the mayor was elected, G for General Election, R for Runoff Election.

** Roy Butler's election in 1971 was the first in which voters directly elected the mayor.

***Kirk Watson gained the mayor's office without winning a majority because his opponent in the runoff, Ronney Reynolds, withdrew before the runoff election and ceded victory to Watson.

****Bruce Todd got 36,914 votes in the 1994 General Election but did not win with that number, as he was forced into a runoff with Daryl Slusher.

Source: City of Austin, Austin City Election Information

Three more blocks to go under the wrecking ball in downtown Renaissance

Contract today would clear block for City Hall, CSC, and art museum

More demolition to make way for the massive downtown construction projects will be considered by the Austin City Council today during the morning session that begins at 9 a.m. in Room 304 of City Hall, 124 W. 8th St. On the agenda is a resolution to authorize a $596,000 contract with A&R Demolition of Del Valle to deconstruct and demolish existing structures on Blocks 3, 21 and 22. Deconstruction entails salvaging recyclable materials and disposing of hazardous materials.

Block 3 is the site of the current City Hall Annex on the south side of 2nd Street between Guadalupe and Lavaca. That block will become the site of the new City Hall. Ron Davis, project manager in the Department of Public Works and Transportation, says the target is to have all functions moved out of the City Hall Annex by the end of February and be able to issue a notice to proceed on deconstruction and demolition by March 6. "It will take about a month to abate the asbestos before they can start to tear it down," Davis says.

Block 21 is adjacent to and north of Block 3. This is the site for the third and largest building to be constructed by Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) for its headquarters complex.

Block 22 is immediately west of Block 21, and is bounded by 2nd, Guadalupe, San Antonio and 3rd streets. Block 22 is the original site for the new Austin Museum of Art (AMOA). However work is underway to obtain the block immediately north of Block 22 (which is Block 26) from the state for the museum site. That would put the new AMOA immediately south of Republic Square. "The city has an ongoing contract with AMOA to have the museum on Block 22," Davis says. He said it's possible the AMOA would take over that portion of the contract for Block 22, because the city cannot do demolition on property that it doesn't own. The AMOA could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A&R is the same firm that did the deconstruction and demolition on Blocks 2 and 4–site of CSC's first two office buildings–under a separate contract for $350,000 approved by the City Council July 15. The city recently got approval from the state to fill in the holes on the site that resulted from archeological work, Davis says.

Clarification…In response to a story in yesterday's In Fact Daily ("Planning Commission recommends more money to add CSC retail space"), Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell says she did not apologize to the Planning Commission Tuesday night for the previous week's presentation made by architect Nathan Schneider, the city's project manager for CSC and City Hall construction. Rather, Futrell says she was apologizing for the request itself being confusing. "I was trying to say, I thought I had said, that I was apologizing for bringing an item forward that confused them," Futrell says. "We brought a retail item forward at the same time we brought a waiver from retail."… Narrowing digital divide…The Austin Technology Coalition, a local collaborative effort of nonprofit, educational, governmental and industry groups, will be listening closely to President Bill Clinton's State of the Union Address tonight. He is expected to propose federal subsidies to help millions of low-income families go on-line. A draft proposal calls for $100 million to provide computers and Internet access for up to 9 million households. For more information, call Rondella Pugh in the city's Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs Office at 499-2422.

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