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Slusher seeks return to paper ballot

Tuesday, November 2, 2004 by

Council member says electronic system causes error, mistrust

“As far as I am concerned we have given electronic voting a try and it has proven unsatisfactory,” says Council Member Daryl Slusher, who is proposing that the city withdraw from its agreement with Travis County to hold electronic elections. The former journalist wrote, "If our goal is to make every vote count, a return to paper ballots is the safest way to do so," in a document released late yesterday.

A three-term Council member who has all but announced his intention to step down next spring, Slusher said he hopes that the city can return to paper ballots in time for municipal elections in May 2005. He said that he waited until now to state his position because he did not want the voting method to become a subject of controversy during the current election.

Slusher noted that there has been confusion locally and widespread anxiety among registered voters nationwide over the possibility that the legitimate winner of the presidential election will not be the one who takes office in January. He praised employees of the County Clerk's office who “did a tremendous job in conducting the early vote,” but said electronic voting, especially without a paper trail, leaves too much room for doubt and suspicion. “If citizens don't trust the ballot, then our democracy is fundamentally damaged,” he said.

One of the problems, Slusher notes, is the fact that some early voters who wanted to vote for Senator John Kerry apparently ended up voting instead for President Bush. Another problem surfaced when voters overlooked the Capital Metro commuter rail proposal. As a member of the Capital Metro board of directors, Slusher was disheartened when people told him that they would have voted for the proposal but they could not find it on the electronic ballot.

Although county employees said the problems experienced by voters locally was due to “human error, too many voters experienced problems with the commuter rail referendum, for example, for me to think that this was entirely due to citizens not knowing how to operate a voting machine,” Slusher wrote. “Voting should not be so complex that special instructions and demonstrations are necessary.”

If Slusher has his way, the city would withdraw from its agreement with Travis County and look for other jurisdictions that want to combine elections to save money. Even if a return to the paper ballot costs more initially, Slusher said, that argument is without merit when weighed against loss of “the most fundamental part of our democracy—voting.”

Strama/Stick race may boil down to Pflugerville

Lots of money poured into race in final days

US Rep. Lloyd Doggett gave Mark Strama a piece of advice when he entered the race for House District 50: The candidate who wins Pflugerville, wins House District 50.

Strama has come to think of Pflugerville as his swing vote. The northern part of Travis County is heavily Republican, although Strama has seen some Democratic leanings in the Wells Branch area. Manor and Elgin, in the Southeastern part of Travis County, lean Republican but also voted for John Sharp and Kirk Watson two years ago.

But it's that small community in the middle – Pflugerville – that is most open to hearing what a candidate has to say, rather than what his party affiliation is. It's also an area that is beginning to see a large number of central city Austinites looking for homes.

"Doggett said the race could be won or lost in Pflugerville, and I think he's right," Strama said. "That's the part of the district that's the most persuadable. They have high voter turnout. They're very civically engaged. They don't care much about political parties."

And this time around, many of those same Pflugerville residents are angry about the fact that Doggett no longer represents them. Strama hopes that frustration will translate into votes for him at the polls today, although he still isn't comfortable enough to predict victory.

"I don't know," Strama admitted this past weekend at his campaign headquarters as his young volunteers began to leave the office for the evening. "I know we were ahead a week ago, but it really is a problem when you're outspent in the last four days of a campaign, and we estimate he's spent about $100,000 more than us. I know we have the right message, but I don't know if we're going to overcome that spending deficit."

Stick answered the phone at his campaign office on Saturday, but had little to say. “Things are fine,” he said, when asked for an assessment of how the campaign was going. “We’re working hard.” He declined In Fact Daily’s request to visit, saying, “We don’t entertain reporters at the campaign office.”

Major contributors to the Stick campaign have been local Republican groups, as well as a $25,000 contribution from well-known conservative San Antonio James Leininger, $10,000 for a mail piece from the Republican Party of Texas and $20,000 from the SBC Employee PAC. US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s Stars over Texas PAC contributed $127,500 to Stick's campaign.

Strama's most recent campaign contribution report shows contributions from various labor political action committees, as well as contributions from a number of Austin law firms. According to the report, the Texas Democratic Party provided about $7,000 in support.

Strama, the former chief of staff for Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), has bristled at incumbent Stick's charge that he is a carpetbagger, saying he's no stranger to Austin and has both lived and worked in Austin. Strama calls Stick's accusation a "weird tactic," since Stick's own residency in the district is significantly shorter than Strama's.

Strama's own mailers have been strongly worded, calling Stick shameless for taking PAC money and cutting health care for children. Hundreds of tiny signs, set out by local Democrats, also point to the CHIP cuts and urge people to go to the polls to vote.

Strama said the fact that Republicans have pumped a total of $500,000 into the Baxter and Strama campaigns shows that the party is nervous. "The Republicans don't just need a majority. They need a super majority to shut Democrats out of the debate, to make sure they don't have to compromise," Strama said. "Republicans had such a lock-grip on the process during the last session that they didn't have to compromise. They didn't have to bring the moderates into the process. They know that it's only going to take a few seats to break that death grip on the process."

Whether Strama can sway voters back to the other party is still in question. While voters in Travis County may be more moderate than Stick or Strama, they may not be willing to return to the Democratic Party either, pegging local Democrats as being more liberal than many of the more conservative members of the Democratic Party.

Neither side ready to declare victory in rail bout

Capital Metro’s Commuter Rail referendum may be at the bottom of the local ballot, but it’s been on top of the agenda for a number of individuals and groups over the past few weeks. Backing the proposed rail system has made strange bedfellows of business interests and environmentalists, while its opponents continue to warn of future financial disaster.

The proposal is to operate a commuter rail service along 32 miles of railroad track already owned by Capital Metro. Service would originate in Leander and run southeast, winding through eight stops before terminating at the Austin Convention Center. Capital Metro planners say when operated at full capacity in a few years, the $60 million system could take up to 16,000 drivers off the road each day.

Voters narrowly defeated a much more ambitious light rail proposal in 2000. That system would have cost several billion dollars, and was the start of activism on the part of many current anti-rail crusaders.

Among the most vocal opponent of today’s ballot initiative is Jim Skaggs, who in concert with Precinct 3 County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, has steadfastly maintained that such a system is nothing more than a very expensive boondoggle.

In Fact Daily contacted Skaggs on the eve of the vote, and asked for his assessment of the outcome.

"It's very difficult to predict,” said Skaggs. “Capital Metro has spent millions of dollars of our tax money to promote commuter rail, and there's no doubt that will have an impact on people. But I think that — for very little cost — we have run a very effective campaign and I think an awful lot of people have understood the true tradeoff. “

Despite feeling that his efforts have educated the electorate, he seemed resigned that one way or another, the battle will continue,

“I don't know, really, how it's going to turn out,” he said. “I'm just hopeful that in the final analysis we have raised the awareness to the level if it is passed, that there will be increased scrutiny of Capital Metro. And as we go forward, if this commuter rail fails to live up to those predictions, that we will, in fact, take some actions to alter or to stop it.”

He accuses Capital Metro of using deception and scare tactics in its campaign to get voters to approve the plan.

"I think that the message from Capital Metro has been quite deceptive,” Skaggs said. ”I think that they were almost irresponsible in making the public comment that they are not going to improve the bus system if the rail doesn't pass. I think that's pure political scare tactics.”

Meanwhile, the coalition backing the referendum—which ranges from GOP State Rep. Mike Krusee to Democratic State Rep. Dawna Dukes, from the Save Our Springs Alliance to the Austin Real Estate Council—remains convinced that the majority of voters are on their side

Denise Frasier is a spokeswoman for the pro-rail coalition. “We are very confident that we have made our case that commuter rail is right for Austin,” she said. “There are an impressive number of community leaders and groups that have endorsed the plan, and we believe we have made a strong case with the voters. We are confident that a well-educated public will approve a commuter rail system as a part of a growing mass transit system.”

Another backer, Cap Metro Board Member Daryl Slusher, said….”Capital Metro spent funds to take this issue before the public. They responded to what the citizens said. This is a scaled-down proposal that is entirely on existing tracks and I’m hopeful the citizens will approve it. “

Given the positions held on both sides of the issue, the debate over the value of the system is likely to continue no matter what the outcome.

West UT area owner loses zoning case

City housing office requests postponement

One of the final outstanding zoning cases associated with the West University Neighborhood Plan has been resolved. The City Council voted unanimously last week to downzone the lot at 2307 Longview Street from MF-3 to SF-3-CO-NP over the objections of the owner, who wanted to keep some form of multi-family zoning.

Preserving MF zoning on the 8,500 square foot lot would have allowed the addition of a garage apartment. The site is currently occupied by a duplex, and the addition of a third living unit is only allowed under multi-family zoning. While the West University Neighborhood Plan and the larger Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan both call for major increases in density near the UT campus, neighbors had expressed a desire for this particular property to remain single-family.

"This is the last little enclave where you do have some single family structures," agreed Council Member Raul Alvarez, "and I think the intent behind trying to preserve as many of those as possible is to try to maintain the remains of the neighborhood." While there is MF zoning nearby, Mayor Will Wynn said the nearest multi-family tract was not appropriate for comparison since it was a much larger lot and was located next to a bed-and-breakfast. "Obviously, this is a delicate case for us," the Mayor said. "We try to balance the needs of property owners with, frankly, the larger need of a neighborhood…which has been in the whole process of these numerous plans for a couple of years now."

The case had originally been postponed at the request of Council Member Danny Thomas, who had hoped the homeowner and neighborhood could work out an agreement. The owner said he had proposed a compromise of MF-2 with some SF-3 development restrictions, but neighbors rejected that offer.

The Council vote for SF-3-CO-NP was 7-0, overcoming the valid petition against the zoning change filed by the property owner. Alvarez noted that the existing duplex would be allowed to remain as a legal conforming use. There is still one more unresolved zoning case in the West University area tentatively scheduled for Council discussion in early December.

Tonight’s parties . . . Supporters of commuter rail will be at Nuevo Leon Restaurant (near Plaza Saltillo), 1501 E. 6th Street, on election night after the polls close. New Ways to Connect steering committee members and representatives from organizations supporting commuter rail will be available for comment . . . Democrats will celebrate at the Driskill Hotel and Republicans will be toasting winners nearby at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel . . . Worker bees . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will trudge through its lengthy agenda beginning at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. They will probably be amenable to requests for postponement, since they are interested in politics, too . . . The MBE/WBE Advisory Committee will meet at 6pm also at the Department of Small and Minority Business Resources, 4100 Ed Bluestein Blvd., Training Room 1 . . . A message to anyone who hasn’t voted . . . Texas Republican Party Chair Tina Benkiser sent out the following email message yesterday: “In 1996, Republicans lost a state house race by 12 votes. Let’s not wake up on November 3rd wishing we would have done more by calling one extra person or getting a few extra people to the polls . . .” Good advice for either side, we figure . . . $500 still up for grabs . . . Last week, Democratic political consultants Mark Nathan and Christian Archer—both reportedly suffering from sleep depravation—offered $500 to whoever most closely predicts the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election. Only 100 guesses have been logged since at, meaning you could still have a chance to win. Those guessing include local pols like Garry Mauro, Dawnna Dukes, Eddie Rodriguez and Lorenzo Sadun, and consultants like Mike Blizzard, Jason Stanford, Ed Martin, Harold Cook, Dave Gold and others.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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