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Several candidates say they would sponsor referendum to change law

Tuesday, March 18, 2003 by

Mayoral candidate Marc Katz yesterday lost his battle to overturn the City of Austin’s $100 limit on campaign contributions, dashing the hopes of a number of candidates who were already planning how to spend the extra money they would be able to collect if the law were overturned. Federal Judge Harry Hudspeth ruled that the well-known restaurateur was not entitled to a preliminary injunction to prevent the city from enforcing the law, having failed to prove that he would likely win the case at a full-blown trial and failed to show irreparable injury.

Hudspeth, a senior judge from El Paso, wrote, “In common with other efforts all over the country to reform campaign financing, the Austin City Charter Provision seeks to limit the appearance, as well as the reality, of corruption. The Supreme Court has said that it is not up to the courts to ‘fine tune’ limits on campaign contributions so long as the limits imposed are constitutional.” Katz had argued that his First Amendment rights would be diminished by the provision since he would not be able to raise the $500,000 he believes necessary to win a mayoral race if the limit is allowed to stand.

It is unlikely that Katz will appeal the ruling. His primary attorney, Mike McKetta of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody, was out of town Monday. However, James Cardona, Katz’ campaign manager, said the campaign had discussed the matter with attorneys and decided to “move on from there.” McKetta represented successful plaintiffs in a 1998 lawsuit that struck down contribution limits for bond propositions. Many political observers expected him to have equal luck with this case. However, Katz’ position as a wealthy and well-known Austinite and a three-year-old Supreme Court ruling were essential ingredients in a different outcome for this case.

Katz said, “I’m very disappointed. However, when a federal judge rules it’s the law . . . I’m going to abide by the law. This tells us that our campaign has to be far more aggressive. We’re going to be knocking on doors, we’re going to e-mail, we’re going do direct mail. We’re going to take very aggressive steps to get the voters’ attention.”

Katz noted that the judge wrote, “‘There is no restriction on the candidate contributing to his own cause, nor on independent non-coordinated expenditures by supporters.’ So that leaves a lot open (for consideration).” He will hold a press conference at 10am today at Katz’ Deli on 6th Street.

Council Member Will Wynn funded much of his own campaign three years ago. He told In Fact Daily, “I started the campaign under these sets of rules, and I’m going to continue to play by them. I ran successfully three years ago under these same rules. I do think that they constrain the democratic process in this town, but I do continue to have to remind myself and associates and friends that they are themselves a result of our democratic process. Last year I was successful in getting their repeal on the ballot, and last May I voted as a voter to repeal them. But the majority of Austinites still want them, and as long as that’s the case I'm going to play by them. I think the litigious position isn’t the one to take, particularly given the fact that less than a year ago the voters had spoken. Frankly, I’m prepared to continue to ask the voters to re-consider this at appropriate times in the future. But I think it’s the voters’ issue, not the federal judge’s.”

One man who would like to take over Wynn’s Place 5 seat, Brewster McCracken, said he has raised “a little bit shy of $90,000.” He noted that his campaign has about 900 individual contributors and that raising that amount had been very time-consuming. “I believe we need to have limits, but I believe the limits need to be higher…I think we have a good system, but the limits are too low.” McCracken said if he were elected he would be willing to sponsor a ballot initiative to raise the limits to “somewhere in the $500 to $1000 range.”

McCracken, who has a leg up on this year’s race, lost his bid to unseat Beverly Griffith last year to Betty Dunkerley. Dunkerley spent money from her retirement funds to make the race against the wealthy Griffith. McCracken said he spent $30,000 on TV spots last year, having raised $77,000 and putting $15,000 of his own money into the race.

“As a candidate, the system would totally not work if we had higher voter turnout. You tailor your stuff to likely city voters as demonstrated by prior voting history,” he said. The likely voters number somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000—about 10 percent of the city’s registered voters, he said. But if turnout were expected to reach 20 percent, he said, “You couldn’t hit 80,000 households with the $100 limit.”

Former Council member and mayoral candidate Max Nofziger said he was pleased with the judge’s ruling, “because as I have said…(Katz) is rushing to court for a temporary political advantage…to get on the front page. The hazard is it will cause a long-term damage to democracy . . People will say why should I bother to vote? Here this rich guy went to the court to overturn me and 40,000 other Austinites who voted for this. This is a real danger…doing damage long-term.” However, he added, “Democracy is on its deathbed with so few people going to vote. This is supposed to be a government of, by and for the people.” Nofziger promised he, “absolutely…would go to work on that right away,” if elected to put a measure on the ballot to raise the limit to $500.

Businessman Brad Meltzer, a mayoral candidate who appears to be spending a considerable amount of money, released a statement indicating that Judge Hudspeth’s ruling is “appropriate for this election. However, I do believe Austin voters should be given the opportunity to reconsider the $100 cap. The cap makes it difficult for worthy candidates with limited personal finances to run a competitive campaign against candidates with personal wealth.” Meltzer has said he would have supported Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman if she had chosen to run. Goodman did not run because she did not have enough money to do so. She testified for Katz at the hearing.

Yesterday Goodman was clearly disappointed in the ruling. She said the lower-cost methods of campaigning cited in the judge’s decision—door-to-door canvassing and targeted mail pieces—are not realistic in a city the size of Austin. She said the Mayor’s race is more expensive than Council campaigns and voters want more information from mayoral candidates. “Targeted mail-outs cost money,” too, she noted, adding that “without TV, you cannot reach all the voters as well as in community and group forums . . . and there is absolutely NO free media.”Both Goodman and former Mayor Bruce Todd testified in favor of the injunction.

Todd said last year’s vote to retain the $100 limit “was pretty close, so I think over time, people are becoming more familiar with the unintended consequences of this ordinance. Whenever you have a system that protects incumbents or those with great personal wealth to the detriment of regular candidates, it’s unjust…It deprives the public of the kind of exposure they need to make more informed decisions.” Todd said he favors a ballot measure to raise the limit to $1000 or $2000.

Fred Lewis, executive director of Campaigns for People, which supported the limitation as well as public financing of campaigns, said he was not surprised by the ruling. “It was pretty clear from the caselaw and the US Supreme Court decision in the Nixon case that their limits were going to be upheld . . . No limits have been overturned since 2000. Asked whether he would support an increase in the contribution limit, Lewis said he would like to see “the people in the community . . . come together and discuss what changes they want going further in the future.” Lewis applauded the city for defending the law vigorously, but criticized city officials for failing to enact other legal changes that would provide an enforcement mechanism. Currently the Charter does not give any guidance and there are no ordinances to indicate who would prosecute an alleged violator. There apparently has not been a need to prosecute a candidate, but if such a need were to arise, the city would be treading entirely new ground. Lewis added that the city should also address “how it’s going to address issue ads,” and should allow a check-off for utility customers who want to donate to the city’s Fair Campaign Fund.

Growing Christian church needs space for 2000 families

The Zoning and Platting Commission gave the Agape Christian Fellowship the zoning recommendations church members were seeking last week, over the objections of neighbors on Peaceful Lane who were concerned about traffic.

Chair Betty Baker focused the discussion on the zoning change rather than the traffic concerns, pointing out that such concerns should be addressed during the site plan phase. The Agape Christian Fellowship’s plans for a complex on the 7-acre tract in South Austin may be dead in the water at that time, but until then, she said the ZAP needed to stick to the issues at hand.

“There is an appropriate time for the issues that are choking all of us to be addressed, but that time is not now,” Baker told the commission. “I think there are solutions, and I think the church can probably find them at the appropriate time. Given the name of the street, I would hope the church is successful in addressing the transportation issues.”

Bishop Lawrence Wilkerson told the commission Agape’s 2,000 families need a place to worship. The church, with a daycare center, college-bound program and secondary school, is designed to meet the needs of struggling parents. The congregation includes more than 25 different nationalities.

Neighbors on Peaceful Hill view the proposed 1,000-seat sanctuary of the Agape Fellowship as destroying a rolling hill and beautiful cedars in South Austin. They presented a valid petition to oppose the zoning change, signed by 20 percent of the adjacent property owners in the Beaconridge subdivision.

More than 120 Agape church members, many with children in tow, attended last Tuesday night’s ZAP meeting. Neighbor John Gronbach said he once watched cattle graze in his backyard. Now he was facing the possibility of a large church with a daycare center, secondary school and requisite parking lot. Traffic counts on the two-lane Peaceful Hill are already at their peak, Gronbach said.

“The increase in the traffic the petitioner will generate in the use of their facilities is very troubling to me,” Gronbach said. “A recent traffic count by the county on Peaceful Hill showed that traffic is running at the maximum for a street of this size.”

Not every neighbor was opposed to the church. Allen White said a smaller church would be perfect for the neighborhood. He would even support a big church if it could work out access to the site from Dittmar, rather than Peaceful Hill.

Consultant Sarah Crocker of Crocker Consultants said the church had agreed to avoid using Peaceful Hill as its access point. Architects, after a review of the site, had chosen to try to extend a bridge over South Boggy Creek to Dittmar Lane. A second option was the one-lane Hubach Lane, but Crocker said the church could not make the roadway work, despite a willingness to purchase right-of-way. Hubach Lane, if extended, would have connected the church site to South Congress.

Crocker said she was confident the deal to complete the bridge out to Dittmar Lane would be done by the time the zoning change reaches the City Council. She pointed out that city code says the commission could deny a zoning case on traffic issues, but only if the developer failed to try to mitigate those issues.

Crocker argued that the Agape land, off South Congress at Dittmar Lane, has remained undeveloped for a number of years and sits behind an auto salvage yard. She said the land would probably never be developed as single-family housing, given that it was surrounded on three sides by commercial uses. She added that the church had agreed with the community to limit access on Peaceful Lane, but she did not want to tie the church’s hands if the church could not the build the bridge at the last minute.

The neighbors did not win a lot of sympathy from Baker, the most vocal commissioner during the discussion. The commission chair pointed out that a church is far better than what they might otherwise expect from a property that adjoins a junkyard. Neighborhood Office zoning, Baker said, was a logical classification for the land as the lots step down from the commercial designation on Congress Avenue to residential on Peaceful Lane. She also argued that the church was willing to share such facilities as its park and playground equipment with the local community.

The change in zoning for Agape would move it from Development Reserve, or DR, to Neighborhood Office-Conditional Overlay. Conditions on one of two lots would include limiting the development to a narrow band of services that included education, religious assembly, day care and recreation; establishing the impervious development standard at 60 percent; and limiting the number of vehicle trips a day to 579 if access is taken on Peaceful Hill Lane. That number could be increased to 2,000 trips a day if the church agrees to widen the roadway to four lanes along the property line. The motion also included a 25-foot vegetative buffer between the church and its neighbors.

Vice Chair Joseph Martinez offered the motion for the zoning change and Jay Gohil seconded it. Commission members voted unanimously to support the zoning change on both lots. Commissioner Melissa Whaley abstained from the discussion and the motion, and Clarke Hammond and Keith Jackson were absent from the meeting.

The commission also recommended NO zoning for a lot next door, with an exception made for an area of land in the Critical Water Quality Zone. Development on that portion of the lot will be limited to no structures, with the exception of access to the property from Dittmar and some development of trail amenities. Commissioners also unanimously approved the zoning change for the second lot.

Commissioner John-Michael Cortez offered a substitute motion to restrict all access off Peaceful Lane Road. That motion failed for lack of a second.

On the home front . . . Mayor Gus Garcia will give a “State of Downtown Address,” sponsored by the Downtown Austin Alliance. The group will host a special edition of its Issues & Eggs forum on Thursday at 8am in the Citadel Room of the Driskill Hotel . Call 469-1766 to RSVP . . . Duplex discussions continue . . . The Planning Commission’ s Codes and Ordinances Committee met this morning to discuss proposed new rules for duplex development. The full commission heard from developers and homeowners about the proposed rules last week. Developers were concerned that proposals designed to prevent “super duplexes” would actually hamper efforts to develop traditional two-family duplex structures. The commission will review the proposed rules at its meeting on March 26 with the goal of presenting a recommendation to the City Council at its March 27 meeting . . . Alvarez rally, McCracken kickoff . . . Council Member Raul Alvarez is having a rally to celebrate the passing of the deadline from 5:30 to 7:30pm Wednesday at Jalisco Bar and Grill, 414 Barton Springs Road. For more information, call 474-RAUL. Brewster McCracken will be celebrating his campaign kickoff at noon Wednesday at Nuevo Leon, 1501 E. 6th Street . . . More campaign news . . . Mayoral candidate Max Nofziger will have a press conference at 10am Wednesday at Barton Springs Pool to discuss his views on the environment. On Thursday, Nofziger’s birthday, he will celebrate his 55th year at Hill’s Café on S. Congress from 5 to 10pm . . . Forums galore . . . The Building Owners & Managers Association (BOMA) and the Construction Industry Alliance (CIA) will host a City Council candidate forum at 6pm today at the Red Lion Hotel, 6121 N. IH-35. The American Federation of State County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is hosting a candidate screening for members only Wednesday, 6pm at the AFL-CIO, 1106 Lavaca. The Austin Association of Professional Firefighters PAC will hold a candidate forum Friday, from 9-10:30am at the union office, 55 N. IH-35, Suite 240. It’s open to all firefighters. The AFL-CIO will host its own candidate forum this Saturday at 10am at union headquarters, 1106 Lavaca . . . Former Democratic State Rep. Ann Kitchen, who lost a hard-fought campaign to Republican Todd Baxter in November, is hoping to get help in retiring her campaign debt. Her friends, Stephen Yelenosky and Jill McRae are having a party in their home, 709 Bouldin, from 6 to 7:30pm Wednesday night. For more information, call 422-9539.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc.

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