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Travis County voters approve bond package

Wednesday, November 9, 2005 by

County plans announcement on Reimers Ranch today

A proposal to issue $62.2 million bonds to pay for parks and open space drew more than 126,000 Travis County to the polls in an election with one of the highest off-year turnouts in recent years. And a significant majority of those voters liked what they saw.

The election-night watch party at Nuevo Leon restaurant organized by supporters of the three bond proposals quickly turned into a victory celebration Tuesday night. Travis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner described herself as “absolutely giddy” as it became clear that voters had overwhelmingly approved bonds for open space and parks. Proposition 2 was easily the most popular of the three bond proposals, with 66 percent of those casting ballots in favor of spending $62.5 million on purchase of open space, much of it in Southwest Travis County.

“We will have a major announcement tomorrow afternoon on acreage,” location, timing and the price tag, Sonleitner said. “It’s huge.” She said the county had been working on the deal for the past four to six weeks, “with the unbelievable help of the Nature Conservancy” among others, for property in the Reimers Ranch area. It isn't often that the voters can approve bonds one day and have action the next day, she noted.

Preserving the pristine land in southwest Travis County emerged as a major goal of both neighborhood and environmental groups as the bond package was taking shape. "Reimers Ranch and Pogue Hollow together will make a park of a little over 1,100 acres that will be an absolute jewel," said Valarie Bristol with the Nature Conservancy of Texas. "It's a microcosm of the Hill Country. It's going to be a great park." Bristol is a former Travis County Commissioner.

Parks supporters made up most of the election-night crowd at Nuevo Leon. Former Austin City Council Members Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher both attended. Slusher had recorded a phone message in support of the parks bond package that went out to Travis County residents on Tuesday.

The other two propositions also won solid support. "It's been a wonderful community-wide effort. Business, environmental, and pro-mobility folks all across the county have supported this whole package," said Ted Siff, chair of the Citizens Building Travis County Together PAC.

Fifty-seven percent of voters approved money for roads and 55 percent supported money for jail expansion. The Del Valle jail had previously received permission to operate over capacity, using hundreds of 'variance beds' approved by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The money approved by voters will be used to reduce that overcrowding and to build new, permanent facilities to replace temporary buildings installed more than a decade ago.

“I'm glad that people were able to focus on the huge public safety issues involved here," said Sonleitner. "It was never about comfort issues; it was about getting right with jail standards and making sure we have a very safe environment for the men and women who are corrections officers."

Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis also attended Tuesday night's election watch party, and was thrilled with the support of voters for the road bond propositions. The money will be used to expand or extend existing roads to connect to the new SH 130. "This will take a lot of pressure off the Edwards Aquifer and really open up Northeast Travis County to the economic boom and prosperity that it really does need," said Davis. "In my opinion it's a great victory for the people of Travis County."

There was little organized opposition to the three bond packages. The Travis County Libertarian Party opposed all three proposals, and Scott Henson of the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the jail bond proposition. But those groups did not have either the financial backing or organization of the Citizens Building Travis County Together PAC or the Travis County Parks PAC, which organized both a grass-roots and professional media campaign in support of the propositions.

The Citizens Building Travis County Together PAC raised nearly $60,000, while the parks PAC raised between $80,000 and $90,000. The parks PAC focused its efforts on voter identification and grass roots efforts, while the PAC supporting all three propositions devoted its funds to paid media, including a radio advertising campaign with a message from Sheriff Greg Hamilton imploring voters to support the jail bond package.

"The combination of those two efforts was the reason why those bonds passed and the parks bonds passed at a higher level," said Citizens Building Travis County Together PAC Chair Ted Siff.

Voter turnout in Travis County was exceptionally strong for an election with no actual candidates on the ballot, with 25.68 percent of registered voters going to the polls. "It's not a record-breaker, but it is darn high for a constitutional amendment election and I think we can thank people's interest in Proposition Two for the turnout," said Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. "A lot of the polling places still had people voting an hour after the polls closed, and in some places it was even two hours."

While some voters complained of long lines or unusual polling locations, DeBeauvoir said her office had only consolidated or moved polling locations for significant reasons. Those included selecting locations with better compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, working around a church that was housing hurricane evacuees, and undoing some changes that were brought about as a result of Congressional redistricting.

"We had a new law go into effect that allowed us to undo some of the damage that was done in redistricting by putting some of our neighborhoods back together. That was a good thing, but there was a problem with getting the information to people," she said. "We anticipated the newspaper would publish the polling places, and it just wasn't in there and it caught us by surprise. The number one question we get asked on election day is 'where do I go vote', and one of the good friends we rely on as partner in this did something a little different this time."

Voters reject six-year terms for RMA boards

After Sal Costello's anti-toll road group, People for Efficient Transportation, filed suit against the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) earlier this year over the six-year terms of its appointed board members, lawmakers decided to stop any legal challenges by cementing the term length with a constitutional amendment.

Costello group's prevailed in its court case in September, which forced the CTRMA to return to state mandated two-year terms for its directors pending yesterday's vote on Proposition 9. However, the Legislature's faith in the people appears to have failed them, since a relatively large number of voters who cast ballots Tuesday rejected the proposition.

Texans turned down the extended terms by a 53 to 47 percent margin, with slightly more the 16 percent of the state's registered voters showing up at the polls. Costello said the outcome, when viewed historically, is nothing short of miraculous.

"No matter what they put on the ballot for amendments, in the history of Texas only one percent of them have been stopped," he said. "It looks like Prop 9 is going to be stopped, and that's a good thing for all Texans who stand for accountability."

Costello said his group spent no money in its opposition to Proposition 9, mainly sending their message out to media across the state.

"We actually started the dialogue on Prop 9 about a month ago," he said. "We've been fortunate enough to get in most of the Metro papers and a lot of the smaller papers. So, I think we were able to pass the message along."

RMAs had argued that two-year terms would mean constant turnover on their boards and a significant loss of institutional memory. RMAs, such as the CTRMA, are the primary agencies that build and maintain roads–including toll roads–in the state's urban areas.

Costello's other group, the Texas Toll Party, has waged a two-year campaign against the apparent autonomy of RMAs to set toll road policies and sell bonds without any direct accountability to taxpayers.

Another measure on Tuesday's ballot, Proposition One, stands to have a more direct affect on transportation in Central Texas and around the state. Voters approved the measure by a 53 to 47 percent margin. It will create a fund to pay for moving freight rail lines–such as the Union Pacific line running though Central Austin–out of urban areas in order to accommodate commuter rail.

Supporters of the San Antonio-Austin Commuter Rail District hope that funds from Proposition One can be used to move the Union Pacific lines that currently run from San Antonio to Austin and points north to the east of the city, allowing the current track to carry passenger traffic. The district has plans to run commuter trains from the south side of San Antonio to the Georgetown area by 2009.

“By the passage of Proposition One, we now have the means to help the freight railroads relocate and improve their original lines throughout the state and that makes it possible to plan for faster freight and passenger trains,” said Paul Mangelsdorf, executive director of Texas Rail Advocates, a Dallas-based pro-rail organization.

Texas Rail Advocates urges TxDOT to lay out a priority list of the most important rail relocation and improvement projects in the state and to engage the three largest freight rail carriers, Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway and Kansas City Southern Railroad in serious talks on the issues.

Mangelsdorf notes that passage of the Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund means that many rail grade crossings can be eliminated or improved in the future and that will mean fewer vehicle-train accidents. “Importantly, in addition to safety, taking some of the heavy truck traffic off our beaten-down over burdened highways will also help improve air quality,” Mangelsdorf said.

Maxey looks to future generations for change

His cause may have lost the election, but it was hard to tell listening to Glen Maxey last night. "This has been a good first step in educating people about who we are,” declared the old warhorse, who might have lost the Proposition 2 election, but is pinning his hopes for the future on the younger generation.

The former state representative says he is convinced that he and others will eventually change what about three-quarters of Texas voters put into the state’s constitution Tuesday.

Statewide, 76 percent of voters favored the constitutional amendment prohibiting same sex marriage. In Travis County, 60 percent opposed it. The amendment found favor among 70 percent of voters in Williamson County and 58 percent in Hays County.

According to unofficial figures from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, Proposition 2 won approval by 69 percent in Bexar County; 71 percent in Bastrop County, 75 percent in Caldwell County; 66 percent in Dallas County; 68 percent in El Paso County; 72 percent in Harris County; and 77 percent in Tarrant County.

Based on voting patterns at the University of Texas, however, Maxey said he has reason to be hopeful, even though those patterns were the reverse of what happened on a statewide basis.

“I'm very hopeful, because as generations change, attitudes change,” he said. Maxey was the first openly gay legislator in the state’s history. He believes in the same causes he championed as a state representative and continues to work for those causes.

In West Texas, Maxey said, voters approved Proposition 2 by as much as 90 percent. “I think most of those people never met a gay or lesbian person or don’t believe that they have. But you go to western Travis County and you have people who are conservative Republican in their voting behavior. Those people are overwhelmingly saying no to this too,” he said. “No civil rights movement has ever been easy or short or quick,” he said. Changes can only occur “heart by heart, mind by mind.”

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Behind the scenes . . . Voters make decisions based on what they are presented—not so much on the ballot as in the media and in their mailboxes. After the successful bond election last night, Ted Siff, treasurer of Citizens Building Travis County Together PAC, noted that his group had expert help. Political consultants Mark Littlefield, Peck Young and Bill Emory worked on the overall bond campaign, spending about $60,000, mostly for polling and radio ads. Mike Blizzard directed the campaign for the Travis County Parks PAC. Siff said the latter group, which spent $80- 90,000, identified pro-bonds voters, did field operations, yard signs, road signs and get-out-the-vote efforts. Siff said, “The combination of those two efforts was the reason why the parks passed at a higher level.” Commissioner Karen Sonleitner noted that while there are always advocates for parks and roads, jails “don’t have a natural constituency” . . . Condolences . . . Condolences to Council Member Betty Dunkerley, whose mother, Helen Buzbee, 91, passed away this week. Services will be at 2pm Thursday, Keever Mortuary, 408 North Dallas in Ennis . . . Congratulations . . . Young Nathan Vaden Nagy finally made his entry into the world over the weekend, Commissioner Karen Sonleitner reported at Tuesday morning’s Commissioners Court meeting. Sonleitner reported that Nathan’s mom, her aide Gretchen Vaden, was actually at home watching Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning. Sonleitner urged Vaden to go ahead and turn off the television. Nathan joins older sister Natalie. Dad is Paul Nagy . . . Meetings . . . The Telecommunications Commission meets at 6:30pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . . The Capital Metro Board of Directors meets at 4pm at Cap Metro headquarters, 2910 E. Fifth St. . . . Union plans pickets . . . Members of ATU Local 1091 plan to hold a “public information demonstration” in front of Capital Metro headquarters starting at 3:30pm. Union members at Capital Metro/Star Tran met in a negotiating session late last week, but did not reach an agreement. The bus drivers and mechanics’ contract expired in April, but was renewed through August 19. They have been working without a contract since then . . . Balcones Canyonlands Plan . . . A meeting is scheduled for 6:30pm Thursday to review the land management plan for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) as part of the BCP federal permit. The Citizens’ Advisory Committee for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve is hosting the public meeting and will collect and organize all comments from the meeting and throughout the 120-day period for possible incorporation into an updated land management plan. The meeting will be held in Room 325 of One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Road. The plan is available for review and feedback at http://www.bcpcac.org.

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