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Proposition 1 more complicated than 1997 amendment

Tuesday, April 23, 2002 by

Signs are sprouting all over downtown and South Austin for the Clean Campaign’s Prop. 1. The green-and-white signs for the Charter amendment, which provides for public financing of candidates who meet minimal requirements, abound in right-of-way areas and a few yards.

The basic premise of the Clean Campaigns organization is that large donations by individuals and lobby groups corrupt politicians and should be banned, but taxpayer money does not have the same effect. Currently, contributions to City of Austin elections are governed by a Charter amendment enacted by vote in 1997. That “Little Less Corruption” campaign brought Austin the $100 limit per person. However, Clean Campaigns and other committees backing amendments or issues do not operate under that rule. Although the Charter section governing contributions prohibits donations of more than $100 per person to both candidates and committees, only the section relating to candidates is enforced. That’s because Federal Judge Sam Sparks ruled in 1998 that the $100 cap on political contributions to independent committees is unconstitutional. The judge was not asked to rule on the candidate contribution limit.

Fred Lewis, the author of the Clean Campaigns ordinance, personally contributed $5,000 to the campaign fund. Texans for Public Justice (TPJ) also contributed $5,000, according to the most recent Contribution & Expenditure Report filed with the City Clerk. The Clean Campaigns amendment prohibits “non-candidate political committees” from accepting in excess of $200 per year per contributor. That prohibition would also prevent Place 1 candidate Kirk Mitchell from contributing $350, which is what he gave the organization. Mitchell has made no secret of his support of the ordinance. Mitchell’s friend and political consultant, Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions, is also the consultant for the Prop 1 campaign.

Texans for Public Justice describes itself as a “non-partisan, non-profit policy and research organization which tracks the influence of money in politics.” The organization is best known for tracking money contributed to judges, but recently has asked lawyer-legislators to disclose the continuances they were granted because they were attending a session of the Legislature. Rep. Rick Green of Hays County declined to give the group that information and TPJ sued him. Last week, Green gave in and turned over the information. TPJ Executive Director Craig McDonald said the organization is likely to make a second request to the other 47 attorney-legislators who failed to respond to the first request.

McDonald said Texans for Public Justice is a 501 (c) (4) organization because the IRS considers it to be a lobby group. “We’re believers in clean campaigns,” said McDonald.

In fact, McDonald authored the current campaign finance amendment, and realizes that the $100 contribution cap is too low. (See In Fact Daily May 23, 2000 )

One goal is to limit the role of personal wealth

The new amendment, McDonald believes, would eliminate some of the problems caused by the old amendment. Although raising the contribution limit from $100 to $200 is not a big jump, he noted that the ordinance would help “real grassroots candidates . . . You don’t have to rely on the $200. You get a two for one match—so you get $400 from the city. The same donor . . . now limited to $100, is a $600 donor to your campaign.”

McDonald added, “Here’s another thing . . . in the current system, the $100 limit does nothing to try to deter independent expenditures and it doesn’t do anything to counteract a wealthy candidate.” Candidates who participate in the new Fair Elections system must jump through a number of hoops in order to qualify. First, they must collect 500 signatures and $5 from each of those signing their petitions, and turn that $2500 over to the city. That money will be placed in the Fair Elections Fund. Candidates must also agree to limit expenditures to $100,000 for City Council races and $200,000 for mayoral races. Candidates must also agree not to give themselves more than five percent of the “voluntary expenditure ceiling.”

The ceiling and the system are all voluntary—except for the $200 contribution limit. A wealthy candidate may choose to ignore the whole thing if he wants to fund his own campaign. However, McDonald’s point is that once a candidate receives contributions or spends more than the ceiling allows, all the candidates in that race who qualified for public funds will be eligible for more public funds, at a ratio of $2 in public funds for every $1 they raise, up to $150,000 for City Council and $300,000 for mayoral races.

Likewise, independent expenditures “shall be matched $1 in public funds for each $1 in independent expenditures, when those independent expenditures amount to 25 percent or more of the candidate’s original spending ceiling.” This might be called the Hollywood Henderson rule.

In Fact Daily reported on May 4, 2000, “ . . . (T)he $20,000 in television ads that were supposed to begin airing on every local station starting yesterday—courtesy of lottery winner Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson's independent expenditures—may tarnish the perception that ( Council Member Willie) Lewis’ reelection is a given. Henderson already rang Lewis’ bell by publishing a full-page ad in this week’s Austin Chronicle . . . and a quarter-page ad in May 2 Austin American-Statesman (page A9). Henderson’s print ads posture Henderson as a Save Our Springs supporter and then rip into Lewis’ record of service to East Austin as “poor and divisive.” This message, especially published in the Chronicle, must be read as an appeal for liberals and environmentalists to abandon the endorsements garnered by Lewis, and as an appeal to conscience to vote instead for Danny Thomas . . . Thomas also benefited from nearly $10,000 in campaign signs that seem to have popped up everywhere in the central city—courtesy of the Austin Police Political Action Committee (APA PAC). But these TV ads sponsored by Henderson are going to hurt like hell, and a flat-busted Willie Lewis—who is still carrying $17,000 in campaign debt from his first election—isn’t going to be able to get on TV and tout his record. He’s standing in the ring, Henderson’s beating him up, and he’s defenseless as far as mass media goes.” (April 28, 2000)

Former Council Member Lewis has still allegedly not paid $6,000 he owed to his campaign manager, David Terrell. Terrell, who is now working for Kirk Mitchell, said he expects a court hearing on that matter in the near future.Terrell also once worked for Council Member Daryl Slusher, Mitchell's opponent.

Commissioners blame former ACM Roger Chan

The Convention Center’s garage brought the Downtown Commission and the Design Commission together last week, but it wasn’t a happy occasion.

The two commissions agreed in joint meeting to present their frustrations over the project to the City Council. It’s not likely to make a difference in the outcome of the project, however, as city officials maintain that the Council will play no role in the design of the five-story $9.3 million garage—winner of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association’s Urban Blight Award.

After a lengthy discussion of what kind of streetscape the building would present and just who approved the addition of Austin Energy’ s $27 million chilling plant, commissioners got down to the real heart of the matter: Neither commission was consulted in the design of a project that will take up a full city block. And it’s taken well over a year to get a presentation on the project scheduled before the commissions.

The parking garage is needed, Commissioner Stan Haas admitted. And his gut feeling was that the chilling plant would be a good idea for downtown. But commissioners were seeing the design of a project that was, for all intents and purposes, a “fait accompli,” Haas said.

“We are upset that we were never consulted in a project that has such a dramatic impact on an entire block of downtown,” said Haas. “It’s not that we don’t think we need a parking garage.”

Haas put the blame for the delayed presentation squarely on former Assistant City Manager Roger Chan, who now serves as special assistant to the City Manager for government relations in Washington, D.C. Haas said Chan always assured the commissions they had nothing to worry about. Downtown Commission Chair Chris Riley went one step further and said the two commissions had been firmly rebuffed in their efforts to get a presentation.

The City Council approved a total of $14.6 million for the Convention Center parking garage as part of the 2001-2002 Capital Budget. In May last year Chan wrote to the Downtown Commission, promising a presentation once the block for the parking garage was secured, but not before then.

“We do not have a site yet,” Chan wrote. “Block 38 is our first choice, however we are evaluating alternatives. Therefore it is totally inappropriate and presumptuous to make any assumptions on specific plans. Thus far, we have developed a project concept only. As such, the project concept would have to be adjusted to fit whatever site we eventually close on.”

A month later, the Downtown Commission fired off a letter to the City Council, saying the Chan missive “only heightens our concerns.” The letter went on to say it was important to encourage pedestrian activity downtown, especially along the Waller Creek Greenway. The commission was still waiting for its presentation in March, after the City Council released $7.65 million to take possession of the block on which the garage will sit.

Problems with the convention garage were bigger than the process to approve it, Riley told his colleagues. Riley, a downtown resident, said he was depressed the two commissions would have to agree to throw away a vital city block after years of fighting for a more walkable, livable downtown.

“This area was an opportunity to create what we’ve been aspiring for in our design guidelines, a chance to aspire to something greater in our urban environment,” Riley said. “This project is a resignation to the failures of the past. It says, ‘we’re never going to do any better.’ This is throwing in the towel.”

Carl Gromatzky of Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects presented the design plans on the garage, bordered by Red River, Sabine, Fifth and Sixth Streets. The garage will add 719 parking spaces downtown. Commissioners were concerned about the screening for the garage and that the limited retail on the first floor “would only face the loading dock of the convention hotel,” Riley said.

Chan said chiller would add to streetscape

Some of those limitations are due to the inclusion of the chilling plant that will generate electricity. In one letter to the Downtown Commission, dated May 15, 2001, Chan wrote that the first floor of the chiller “is windowed, does have human activity and does contribute to a vivid streetscape.”

“Watching water chill is not something that will draw me down there. It’s not going to draw people from around the country,” Riley said. “You may think it sounds unrealistic and utopian to want something other than this very functional project, but I consider this a disaster on a colossal scale from an economic as well as a design point-of-view. We are going to miss out on an incredible opportunity.”

Riley, like other commissioners, agreed the architects had made the best of the situation, given their marching orders. Interim Assistant City Manager John Stephens admitted the process had failed.

“I understand what you are saying,” Stephens told the group. “If we had to do it all over again, we wouldn’t have done it this way. We might have ended up in the same place we are with the site and with the facility design, but hopefully we would not have ended up in the same place with the way you all felt about it.” Last week was Stephens' third as an acting ACM.

Stephens said all he could do now was work with Bob Hodge of the city’s convention bureau to try to keep all the stakeholders better informed about the project. He believed it was too late to try to make any significant changes to the project, slated to open in 2004.

The Downtown Commission is drafting a letter Riley will present to the Council on the project. The Design Commission likely will join the Downtown Commission’s efforts, once a 3-commissioner panel reviews the project. Chair Juan Cotera said he hoped it was not too late to have an impact on the plan.

Commissioner Bruce Willenzik asked Gromatzsky to return with a presentation on how his firm would attend to downtown retailers during construction. Willenzik said he wanted to make sure the contractor took every reasonable effort to avoid obstructing neighboring businesses.

Friday.

Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson has announced his support for Betty Dunkerley in the Place 4 City Council race. He’s taken out an ad in the Nokoa newspaper describing her as “another advocate for East Austin.” Henderson supported Council Member Danny Thomas in the last election. (See above) Thomas has also been a consistent ally of incumbent Place 4 Council Member Beverly Griffith. Henderson says in his ad that “when it comes to equal treatment for East Austin, I am underwhelmed by the open actions taken by the present Council to push us aside” . . . APA president disputes Abbott’s claims about Watson . . . Republican candidate for Attorney General Greg Abbott is taking whatever swipes he can at former Mayor and Democratic opponent Kirk Watson. But his claim that the police department budget declined under Watson is just not true, says Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield. Sheffield said he thought the budget had increased about 60 percent during Watson’s tenure. According to the Watson campaign, the budget increased an average of 12 percent per year from FY ’97-98 to FY ’01-02. Overall, the budget increased from about $80,000 to more than $141,000. Sheffield said Watson deserves “the lion’s share of the credit” for that increase . . . Capital Metro has a new Chief Financial Officer . . . Cynthia Hernandez spent 13 years working for VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio before moving to Austin . . . Good news on traffic . . . The wrecker rotation policy adopted last year by the Austin City Council (see In Fact Daily, Feb. 15, 2001 ) is having an impact on wrecker response times. As part of an overhaul of the city’s ordinance governing tow trucks, wrecker companies agreed to stage tow trucks in key locations across the city so they could respond more quickly to accidents on IH-35, Mo Pac and US 183. Since then, the average time to clear a wreck during rush hour from one of those freeways has dropped from more than 45 minutes to less than 30 minutes . . . Signs of the season in your mailbox . . . The Austin Police Association PAC has sent out a hard-hitting piece that says “Some of the radical politicians running for City Council want to tie the hands of police and turn our city into a wasteland where lawbreakers and violent criminals have little to fear.” The mailer, which went to more than 12,000 of the city’s most likely voters, is referring to “people that are trying to disenfranchise the voters,” by trying to win elections through the courthouse rather than doing the hard work of campaigning, says APA President Mike Sheffield . The reverse side of the mailer reminds recipients that the PAC has endorsed incumbent Council Members Jackie Goodman and Daryl Slusher, as well as Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken, who are opposing Beverly Griffith in Place 4 . . . Mobile voting locations today . . . Manor City Hall, 201 E. Parsons St., Seton Medical Center, 1201 W. 38th St., The Summit, 1034 Liberty Park Drive, and Services for the Deaf, 2201 Post Road.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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