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Hays County group and environmentalists want Austin to supply Sunset Canyon water

Tuesday, May 23, 2000 by

Commissioner Molenaar opposes City of Austin presence in Hays County

Members of the Hays County Water Planning Partnership (HCWPP) offered a solution to emergency water needs of residents of Sunset Canyon Monday, but Precinct 4 Hays County Commissioner Russ Molenaar forcefully rejected any plan that includes the City of Austin. HCWPP Chair Erin Foster and members of several environmental organizations held a press conference at the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to voice their concerns and to explain an alternative to building a water line from the intersection of Southwest Parkway and U.S. Highway 71, where the LCRA already has a water reservoir, down U.S. Highway 290 to near Dripping Springs.

Foster said the Hill Country Water Supply Corp., which is a wholesale water customer of the City of Austin, has a line only 1.4 miles from Sunset Canyon. (See In Fact Daily, May 22, 2000.) Roger Kew, another member of the HCWPP, said, "There is a scheme to mislead the LCRA board into voting" for an expensive plan when there is a less costly alternative. Kew accused Hays County Judge Jim Powers and State Representative Rick Green of pushing the LCRA to build the line to assist developers. He said he did not know which developers might benefit from such a scheme. Powers denied that there was any such scheme. Green could not be reached for comment.

LCRA General Manager Joe Beal held an impromptu press conference after the HCWPP press conference and said, "We identified that (plan using Austin water) as a potential solution for Sunset Canyon. I went to the City of Austin and was told 'no.'"

Foster told Beal that she had spoken to City Council Members Gus Garcia and Beverly Griffith, who said they would be willing to put consideration of such a plan on next week's City Council agenda. Later, Foster told In Fact Daily she had talked to Council Member Daryl Slusher and he too had indicated support for her plan. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who attended a meeting of the Save Barton Creek Association Monday night, said she would be happy for the city to assist drought-stricken homeowners in Hays County.

Molenaar, a Republican whose precinct includes Sunset Canyon, told In Fact Daily he does not want water from the city. "We don't want the City of Austin in Hays County. We don't want them to control our destiny." He said Hays County has the most stringent subdivision rules of any county in the state. He said those rules are "stricter than SOS," referring to the city's Save Our Springs Ordinance. Such subdivision rules only control density when there is no public water and wastewater service, however.

Molenaar said he serves with Powers on a county committee that is writing regulations governing water permits and that the group would be finished with those rules in the near future. Hays County is the first in the state to set up its own water and sewer authority. The LCRA expects to contract with that authority to provide water in the future.

Mary Arnold, chair of the Save Our Springs Alliance, told reporters her organization is opposed to any action that would allow construction of the water line before the environmental impact statement (EIS) is completed. Under the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the LCRA has agreed not to serve any new development until after the EIS is completed or January 2002, whichever is sooner. However, Beal told those gathered for the press conference that the LCRA will "not serve any new development until the EIS is complete." That would make a difference because environmentalists have asked what enforcement mechanism would be in place to ensure compliance with the MOU. The MOU lays out very complex rules, similar to but not the same as the SOS Ordinance, for limiting impervious cover and assuring water quality in new development areas.

Beal said any solution to the area's water problems without an EIS, including Austin providing water, could result in urban sprawl for Hays County. He said, "The LCRA intends to fulfill its mission," including water service and environmental protection, even in the face of threatened lawsuits.

Austin Police Political Action Committee promising lawsuit to attack $100 limits

Author of $100 limits says recent Supreme Court decision will prevent overturning

Despite the fact that three of the candidates it endorsed won election May 6 and the other one is in a runoff to be decided June 3, the Austin Police Political Action Committee (AP PAC) plans to file a federal lawsuit in an attempt to overturn the $100 limit on campaign contributions to City Council and mayoral candidates. The intention was signaled by a front-page article in the May issue of The Police Line, a monthly newsletter published by the Austin Police Association. The article, "A losing campaign tattles on the APA," led with a report about the misdemeanor complaint filed against the AP PAC over its failure to properly report independent expenditures on behalf of endorsed candidates. Criminal complaints were filed by Council Member Willie Lewis' campaign manager, David Terrell, not only against AP PAC but against Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, whose independent expenditures on behalf of Senior Police Officer Danny Thomas helped give him a huge victory in unseating Lewis after one term ( In Fact Daily April 28).

The Police Line quoted Detective Sean Mannix, president of AP PAC: "We believe that the charter amendment, which limits how much money a group or individual can contribute to a candidate, is unconstitutional," said Mannix. "After all this has happened, we plan to file suit against the city in federal court to challenge this."

Contacted by In Fact Daily, Mannix confirmed the intention to file suit. "The last election was different for us," Mannix said. "The charter amendment (approved by voters in November 1997 to–among other things–limit contributions to candidates to $100 in the general election) forced us to change the way we do business. Instead of contributing larger amounts to candidates, who would decide on how best to run their campaigns, we had to do independent expenditures without strategic communications. Then, when that was called into question (by the criminal complaint) we thought, 'We're jumping through a lot of hoops we may not have to.'"

In the future," Mannix continued, "we may want to do independent expenditures or we may want to contribute to a candidate. We, as a general purpose PAC, don't want to be limited to only independent expenditures in future elections."

Mannix said AP PAC has been discussing the possibility of litigation with attorneys who might take the case. "I think we'll see something happen pretty quick," he said.

The man who wrote the City Charter provisions that would be targeted by the lawsuit is Craig McDonald, now executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a group that has generated coverage by state and national media over campaign finance in judicial elections. The charter amendment was approved by voters in November 1997 after a petition drive conducted by Austinites for a Little Less Corruption–and a federal lawsuit over the validity of that petition–got the matter on the ballot. McDonald rewrote the original petition when he was still with the Center for New Democracy, a now-defunct nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, that had already led campaign finance reforms approved by voters in several states.

McDonald says he is no longer in doubt about the constitutionality of the $100 campaign contribution limit, in view of a U.S. Supreme Court decision of Jan. 24 in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC. "That decision is so strong I could argue it would be impossible to overturn $100 limits," McDonald says. "This Supreme Court decision locks in the $100 limits in my opinion." He says the decision would require a plaintiff to show the problem of raising money when contribution limits are in effect is not unique to a given candidate but is systemic.

McDonald goes on to say, "That doesn't mean (the campaign finance system in Austin) doesn't need to be changed, but the courtroom is probably not the best place to get it changed."

McDonald and others have been quietly discussing a private-public system of financing mayoral and council elections (see accompanying story, below). "This has to be done through the political process and not the judicial process," he says, adding that the police are welcome to help make appropriate changes through the political process.

Of the Supreme Court decision, McDonald says, "I think this helps move reform along because (campaign finance) limits are here to stay. Unless consensus is built through the political process, the limits would not change." He added, "If the AP PAC files a lawsuit and it doesn't get anywhere, it would bring people together to support a change in the political system."

"Now that this election is over, we can talk about shortcomings in the current law and focus on changing it," McDonald says. "And the Supreme Court decision saying that $100 limits are here to stay till we decide to change them would get people around the table."

Of course, the election is not quite over, as Place 2 City Council candidates Raul Alvarez and Rafael Quintanilla are still struggling to attract support for the early voting through May 30 and the runoff election on June 3. Their fortunes were raised evenhandedly when they each got $29,000 from the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund, a reward for having signed and complied with the Fair Campaign Contract.

Quintanilla is still benefiting from independent expenditures, as AP PAC's mail pieces are flooding area mailboxes. The latest piece is headlined, "Rafael Quintanilla, Real Leadership for Austin," and touts Quintanilla as a visionary leader who agrees with police that public safety should be the top priority of city government.

Of the $100 contribution limits, Quintanilla tells In Fact Daily, "Where it really hurts is when we run citywide, it takes quite a bit to raise money and it takes time away from getting our message out. If we're going to run at-large, the limits should be raised to say $250–not to the good old days (when unlimited contributions were allowed) but more than what it is now. If we do go to single-member districts, I think we can live with the $100 limits."

Alvarez' position on the campaign contribution limits is remarkably similar to Quintanilla's. "I do feel that $100 limits are too restrictive but I don't support removing the limits altogether. If you do, you give significant advantage to candidates with big-money supporters behind them," he says. "I believe the limitation on contributions does serve to level the playing field to a great degree. I believe the limits should be raised from $100 to $250. Raising it to $250 would allow candidates to more effectively get their messages out."

Another candidate who ran for City Council this year has a different take on the $100 limits. Clare Barry just missed getting into a runoff with Will Wynn in the Place 5 contest. Wynn, who spent $45,000 of his own money on TV ads, got 50.53 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Barry says, "The people who wrote me $100 checks, that was a big check for them. Not many could have afforded more than $100, so I don't see the $100 limits as a big deal.

"I don't want to see $100 vs. $200 vs. $1,000 (limits) as the overriding issue," Barry continues. "I was running against someone who had plenty of his own money…"I'm not saying there should be a limit on contributions out of his own pocket. What I would like in a situation like mine, where a candidate didn't have a lot of money to throw in, I would have liked to have been able to draw from a public pot of money, if not to match his amount at least to give me a percentage. The bigger issue was there was no public money available until the runoff for someone who had enough standing in the community."

Of course, a lawsuit that overturns contribution limits would simply revert to the unlimited campaign contributions allowed before the limits were approved by voters in November 1997. Only an amendment to the City Charter approved by voters could raise the limits. Alvarez says that a measure to raise the contribution limits to $250 could be included on the ballot to amend the City Charter at the same time as single-member districts.

A wild card in all this action is Linda Curtis, who sparkplugged the petition drive for Austinites for A Little Less Corruption to get the measure on the ballot. Although she has previously gone on record to say the system that voters approved has not worked, she witnessed the results it up close and personal as a candidate in the Place 5 City Council race settled May 6 with the election of Will Wynn. Of AP PAC's intended lawsuit, Curtis says, "I'm glad they're doing it. I will testify for them." She says she is also willing to be a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, based on her experience as a candidate.

Although Curtis notes that she is not a lawyer, she believes that the Supreme Court's decision in Nixon is not an absolute bar to overturning the $100 limit on contributions. "It just makes the burden of proof higher," she says.

Curtis says she supports the private-public method of financing and hopes to see it on the ballot along with single-member districts in November. It is too late, however, to run a petition drive to make that happen, she says. Getting a private-public financing measure on the ballot will thus depend on action by the City Council. "We're about to kickoff a lobbying effort," Curtis says.

Proposal circulating for private-public financing of mayoral, council campaigns

Basic idea is matching public funds for qualifying candidates

Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, along with Fred Lewis, executive director of Campaigns for People, another nonprofit organization involved in reforming campaign finance laws, has been quietly floating the idea of a voluntary private-public system of financing mayoral and City Council elections.

In concept, the system would require that a candidate who wanted to qualify for matching campaign funds would start by getting signatures of a certain number of registered voters, perhaps 500, and a nominal contribution of say $5 from each signer. The petition would state that the signer supported the candidate and no other in the race, and that the signer knows that the signature and contribution would be used to gain matching public funds.

The hope is that people who are not bona fide candidates would not be able to qualify," Lewis says. "Perennial candidates who have no significant support are unlikely to qualify for public matching funds, and even if they did they would not raise substantial private contributions so there would be no significant public funds."

Lewis says the private-public system of campaign financing "is the only system that can deal with the problems of independent expenditures of unlimited amounts of funds and wealthy candidates spending unlimited amounts of their own money." It would do so by providing public funds to offset such expenditures. In the May 6 council election, for example, the $45,000 of his own money spent by Place 5 candidate Will Wynn would have been matched with public funds for opposing candidates who qualified. Thus, there would have been little incentive for Wynn to spend the money in the first place, and if he did then qualified opposing candidates would have been given money to level the playing field.

Expenditure limits under the private-public system for council elections might be raised to as much as $200,000 for City Council candidates who opted into the private-public system, Lewis says.

Although the current system of $100 campaign contributions is set forth in the City Charter, implementing a private-public system of financing could probably be done without modifying the City Charter because the proposal would build on the $100 limits, not supplant them, Lewis says. "If we want to change the limits…we would need a Charter amendment, but if you have a matching system you could keep the $100 limits. They're not necessarily incompatible," Lewis says.

McDonald agrees, saying, "You can keep the charter amendment in place and through an ordinance pass a change that would solve the problems."

Even if the Austin Police Political Action Committee files suit to overturn the $100 limit on campaign contributions (see separate story above) and the lawsuit were successful, the system would still be flawed, Lewis contends. "If we have no limits or have high limits we have not addressed the problem of unlimited expenditures by wealthy candidates, unlimited independent expenditures by third parties, or the problem of funding grass-roots candidates. But we will have the problem of people giving very large contributions so they will have special influence. That was a serious problem in this town before there were limits."

South Austin and culture?…Not necessarily mutually exclusive terms, says the South Austin Culture Club. The group holds its premiere lunch meeting Thursday, May 25, at 11:30 a.m. at the Mercury Club, South 1st Street at Cardinal Lane, with featured speaker State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos. "The Texas senator will speak his mind on South Austin neighborhood character, diversity, and preservation in the face of mushrooming city growth and development." Key organizer Jack Speer says the "club" is by no means limited to South Austin residents. The only rule, he says, is "you'll have to check your cell phone, Palm Pilot, notebook computer, and attitude at the door." The cost is a covered dish or $7. For more info, call Speer at 498-9780 or send e-mail to jspeer@delta-associates.com… New light rail backers…A new group has formed to start a coordinated grass-roots campaign is support of light-rail service for Austin. Light Rail Now claims support from Texas Citizen Action, Austin Sierra Clu b and the Save Our Springs Alliance. Glenn Gadbois will put anyone interested on an e-mail list. Call him at 451-5396 or send e-mail to gadbois@mindspring.com… ALGPC meets…The Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus has scheduled a Tuesday, May 30, meeting at 7 p.m. at the Carver Branch Library, 1161 Angelina St. to discuss, among other things, the June 3 City Council runoff election and how to get out the vote for ALGPC's endorsed candidate, Raul Alvarez. For more info, call 474-0750 or send e-mail to arbaustx@aol.com or visit the web site at www.outaustin.org.

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