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Recall organizers tout effort to oust Council members

Thursday, August 5, 2004 by

Wynn, McCracken insist traffic crisis demands toll roads

Toll road opponents officially launched an ambitious project on Thursday to gather more than 40,000 signatures to trigger a recall election aimed at forcing Austin Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken out of office. The recall drive is part of a five-point plan which organizer Sal Costello says is part of an effort to "take our city back from the special interests." The group is only targeting McCracken and Wynn because state law does not contain provisions for recalling county or state elected officials. The organizers said they were not trying to recall Council Member Danny Thomas because his term is up next year and they think he won't try to run for a third term. The other Council member who serves on the CAMPO board, Daryl Slusher, voted against the toll road plan.

Costello is optimistic about the possibility of finding 10 percent of the city's registered voters willing to sign the petition. "Yes, I know we can do it," he said." It's going to take hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. People can download a PDF (at http://austintollparty.com); they've already started. They can take this sheet to work and have their co-workers sign it." In addition to that effort by volunteers, toll road opponents will be gathering signatures at this month's First Thursday festivities on South Congress and have retained the services of Linda Curtis to help in their efforts. "I actually think we're going to get done ahead of time. There's an anger in this city about our elected officials ignoring 93 percent of the comments," Costello said, referring to the 5,700 emails sent by toll road opponents to CAMPO board members. "People want to act on it now."

The two city officials who are targets of the recall effort say it won't change their minds about the toll road plan. "People have a right to solicit for a recall," said Wynn. "That's part of our citizen government. I'll use this opportunity to continue to explain why I voted for the toll roads as part of an effort to improve our transportation system." Wynn said the plan gave local officials an unprecedented degree of control over how and when the roads are built and stressed that the revenue from the toll roads would be kept within Central Texas. He also noted that more people die in traffic accidents in Austin each year than from house fires or homicides. "It is not acceptable to do nothing," he said.

McCracken agreed. While email to CAMPO members had run 10-1 against the plan, he said the community was clearly calling for some type of action to remedy the city's traffic problems. "We have a traffic crisis in Austin. Voters have repeatedly said the city's top priority should be to build more roads. Austin politicians' response to this has been to talk too much and do too little. We've finally done something; we've taken action to fix our traffic crisis," he said. "We have responded to the voters will that we build more roads. The community has been consistent and clear for a generation that it needed to happen. We have some people who are not happy with the way that we did it, but there were no other options."

The five-point plan outlined by People for Efficient Transportation also includes other steps beyond the recall designed to block the toll road plan. Organizer Sal Costello is hopeful that other elected officials will change their minds as a result of the political fallout and take steps to drastically change the plan when CAMPO votes on its next long-range transportation plan in the spring of 2005. He also predicts that financing for the project could be torpedoed by the recall drive. "The bond investors take a close look at the news, and it will maybe cause them to think twice about investing," he said. Similar comments are posted on the group's web site at http://austintollparty.com/Step_2.php.

The City of Austin has worked hard to protect its bond rating during the economic downturn of the past few years, maintaining ratings of AA+ and Aa2 with the major ratings firms while other cities across the country faced downgrades. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 03, 2003 .) Should the recall campaign affect the city's bond rating, it could result in increasing the cost of financing the toll roads but not in scrapping the project entirely. The lowered bond rating would also have a ripple effect on other parts of the city's financial picture, since bonds are used to finance a variety of projects.

Costello predicts some benefits for the group's cause even if the recall drive is not successful. "We need to educate everybody and set the environment for a possible legal step," he said. "When there might be a lawsuit, people will understand what it's all about."

Hospital district takes steps toward audit

Budget, personnel committees appointed

The Travis County Hospital District Board of Managers did yesterday what Travis County suggested it do on Tuesday: quietly starting an audit of current district assets.

The county and city have disagreed over whether $30 million previously designated as a hospital enterprise fund should be turned over to the newly created district. The county argues that the city still owes money to the fund. The city, which retrieved money owed to the General Fund by Brackenridge Hospital two years ago, argues it has spent that much money on the hospital district over the last 25 years, many times over.

Two actions of the Travis County Hospital District's board of managers will put a possible audit in motion. First, the city has agreed to turn over all records associated with the hospital district, providing all the evidence needed to be reviewed by an outside auditor. The hospital district board also appointed a budget committee that will likely make further recommendations on an audit two weeks from now.

The board also appointed a personnel committee to create a timeline for hiring an executive manager. Next week will be devoted to meetings of those committees. The hospital district will meet as a whole on August 16, followed by possible meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, if necessary. The hospital district's first departmental budget meeting before the Commissioners Court is scheduled for August 19, followed by a second meeting August 23. Budget mark-up begins the first week of September.

Much of yesterday's work involved routine housekeeping decisions, such as choosing a depository for the hospital district, discussing accounting procedures and outlining options for employee benefits. Vice Chair Carl Richie has recommended a more stringent ethics policy, which he promised during his interview with the Commissioners Court and intends to deliver to the full board of managers by August 16.

Assistant County Attorney Jim Collins recommended the board maintain many of its existing contracts. The easiest route will likely be to authorize the city to continue to run the community health centers and Seton to continue in its role as purchasing agent. County commissioners could authorize Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes also to act as purchasing agent for the administrative arm of the hospital district, as needed.

The board's discussion on Wednesday also included the federal guidelines for what "shall" and what "may" be done under a hospital district. Before a budget is presented to the County commissioners, the board must decide whether it will follow city or county guidelines for enrollment in the Medical Assistance Program, which will dictate much of the latitude in the hospital district's budget. (See In Fact Daily, August 4, 2004 .)

Under the statute, the board must also commission an independent study to project the health care and mental health needs of the district over the next 30 years. Rep. Jack Stick (R-Austin) inserted that addition when Chapter 281 in state code was bracketed to include a potential hospital district for Travis County. The study was not given a deadline.

SOS, Save Barton Creek suing to stop toll road . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance and the Save Barton Creek Association announced last night that they had sued TxDOT to stop a proposed toll road in South Austin. The environmental groups say that TxDOT failed to consider alternative routes for SH 45 Southeast as required by federal law. SOS and SBCA representatives will hold a new conference at noon today in front of the Texas Department of Transportation building at 125 East 11th Street . . . Clean air workshops . . . The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) plans to hold workshops throughout the state to teach people how to apply for the upcoming round of Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) grants. The grants allow government bodies and companies to upgrade, replace or retrofit older engines in order to reduce air pollution. The workshop in Austin will be on August 20 at the TCEQ. For more information visit the website http://www.terpgrants.org. The program will offer more than $100 million to reduce air pollution in FY05 . . . Today’s Council meeting . . . This week’s agenda features a vote on the transfer of the final funding for the Austin Music Network to ACTV, three neighborhood plans for the University of Texas area and a report from the City Manager on her proposed budget for the police, fire and EMS departments and Municipal Court. The neighborhood plans include rezoning of numerous properties in the West University area, with about 20 property owners filing valid petitions against a reclassification of their properties. Several Council members had hoped to attend a reception for new Democratic Party star Barack Obama, at the home of Garry and Cristina Mauro. However, the zoning cases could thwart those plans. There are also five public hearings planned for 6pm, including one on the city’s comprehensive transportation plan, three annexations and an opportunity for public comment on the budgets for public safety departments.

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