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Increase proposed for campaign contributions

Friday, February 24, 2006 by

McCracken, Leffingwell back raising limit to $300

Council Members Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell said Thursday they plan to sponsor a charter amendment to raise the limits on individual City Council contributions from $100 to $300 and to impose the same restrictions on political action committees as candidates.

The change would close a loophole built into the 1997 charter amendment that has given extraordinary power to PACs, which are allowed to run independent campaigns in favor of, or opposing, City Council candidates.

Representatives of Public Citizen and Texans for Public Justice worked with the two Council Members to come up with the proposal.

McCracken outlined the following changes:

• Tom ‘Smitty’ Smith of Public Citizen said, “We think that the current limits (on individual contributions) are a little bit too tight and it’s making it difficult to run an election that is able to get the message out to voters. By lifting the limit to $300 we’ll still have it tight enough to prevent large donors from dominating the election.”

He stressed the importance of preventing PACs from raising more money from non-Austin residents than from local citizens to support Council candidates. “That’s the most important part of these reforms,” he said.

“It’s our belief that much of the PAC money comes from outside the city limits whether it be firemen or policemen,” or others, Smith said. While the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters takes money only from city firefighters, the Association Police Association PAC is not so limited. Three years ago, RECA PAC contributed money directly to the APA PAC to help McCracken beat Margot Clarke. PAC money is currently counted as a non-City of Austin donation when given directly to a candidate. But there is no limit on how much money a PAC can raise from individuals outside the city.

Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice said he expects to support the changes although he needs to see the final proposal in writing first. Asked whether there might be a constitutional problem with limiting the amount an individual can give to PACs, McDonald said, “There might be a challenge but we can make a pretty good case that it would be constitutionally acceptable. . . if the standard is you’re trying to eliminate the appearance of corruption.”

Raising the contribution limit to $300 should be good for everyone who wants to run for Council, McDonald said. “There is a threshold of money that’s necessary to run a healthy campaign in a city as large and diverse as Austin and I think the hundred dollar limit was just too restrictive for a healthy electoral system.”

As far as changing the rules to allow candidates to consider anyone within the Austin city ZIP codes to be a resident for contribution and expenditure purposes, McDonald said, “I think the ZIP code solution is a compromise solution for those who want to remove that restriction altogether.” He said supporters do not want to alter the concept that money should come mostly from Austinites.

Travis County Libertarian Party Chair Wes Benedict, who has filed numerous complaints against errant candidates and PACs, said the change “sure would make it a lot easier” to determine whether a candidate had violated that provision of the charter.

McCracken said he, Leffingwell and Council Member Betty Dunkerley would also be sponsoring a charter amendment to eliminate restrictions on insurance for domestic partners. He said the cost estimate for allowing gay employees to add their partners to health insurance plans would be $200,000, plus $50,000 a year for partners of retirees.

Leffingwell said he was not sure of those figures. He wants to allow the addition of more relatives and unmarried partners of heterosexual employees. There will also likely be an item to allow the city to change the terms of municipal court judges from two to four years.The Council will be considering items for the May 13 election at next Thursday’s meeting.

Clerk likely to certify SOS amendment today

SOS, ACLU submit 'Open Government' petitions

City Clerk Shirley Gentry said yesterday she would likely certify today that the SOS Alliance has collected enough signatures on its first petition, known as Save Our Springs, to earn a place on the ballot. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 14, 2006) Also on Thursday, a coalition of public interest groups, led by the SOS Alliance and the ACLU, submitted signatures at Austin City Hall to put an “Open Government Online” charter amendment on the May 13 ballot.

The Open Government Online amendment would force Austin city officials and the City Council to handle business “online and in real time” although those terms are not defined. It would require the city to put basic information about city policy and most information about major development permitting, contracting, and tax abatement deals online in the next year.

It would also require the city manager, her staff, all assistant city managers and their staff, all department heads, all Council Members and their staffs to: maintain calendars of all meetings and logs of all telephone calls “for all matters involving City business”

The amendment would require that the calendars and logs contain the time, date, subject matter, and persons involved in all meetings and telephone calls involving city business; that calendars and logs be posted online in real time and be accessible to the public. According to the amendment, the term meetings ”includes all informal and formal meetings including but not limited to telephone conferences, videoconferences, happy hours, and luncheons.” The provision must be implemented within six months of approval of the amendment.

City officials say the measure would cost at least $36 million to implement in the first year and $11 million in the second year. They also say it would be place undue burden on city staff in doing their jobs.

However, its backers say it will bring city government out in the open.

“This charter amendment will bring Austin to the forefront of a national movement for accessible, online government and participatory democracy,” said Kathy Mitchell, President of the Central Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Information that is critical to your every day life-—whether you want to build a garage apartment or protest the next big tax giveaway-—will go online in the next year. This will save you time and the city money.”

A news release says the groups presented Gentry with some 20,000 signatures to put the amendment on the May ballot, although city officials have determined that only 18,908—5 percent of the city’s registered voters—are required.

One group said Thursday it opposes the Open Government amendment.

“There is a fine line between open government and recklessly invasive government,” explained Paul Silver, founding member of the Small Business Group. “As written, this charter amendment would expose everyday communication between average citizens and their city government, to include revealing confidential sources that report such things as code violations to appropriate enforcement entities. We value the basic rights of whistle-blowers—this amendment would have a chilling effect on such communication.”

Silver said the cost of implementation could threaten city investment in critical infrastructure and other community needs that might be included in the proposed bond package slated for November.

In addition to the SOS and ACLU, other supporters of the amendment include Gray Panthers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation Austin, South River City Citizens, Texans for Public Justice, the Texas Public Interest Research Group, ACORN, Consumers Union, and the Austin Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Anti-toll group lectures Transportation Commission

The Texas Transportation Commission heard a stern message Thursday from the San Antonio Toll Party, as leader Terri Hall told the commissioners that citizens were ready to step forward to fix what was wrong with Texas toll policy.

Yesterday was the San Antonio delegation’s turn to present its annual regional mobility plan to the Transportation Commission, made even more interesting by a dispute between the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation over the construction of US 281 and the anti-toll movement spreading to San Antonio.

While the San Antonio delegation presented a united front on the need and support for toll roads, Hall made a presentation that chastised the local authority for giving local taxpayers no voice while having no real jurisdiction over transportation. She also criticized the lack of transparency in the negotiation of comprehensive development agreements and its inability to put limits on activities such as raising the prices of tolls over the life of the toll roads.

A family of four already pays $1,320 in taxes every year, Hall said. Add toll roads and the money going to toll roads and that more than doubles, Hall told the commission. TxDOT sees it as funding. Local drivers see it as taxes, Hall said. Hall quoted others who had said San Antonio didn’t need more roads; it needed better road planning.

Hall used statistics to deny a funding crisis, called usage figures on a potential toll road inflated, insisted that roads should not be for-profit arrangements with private contractors and noted that bonds could as easily fund US 281 as tolls.

“What’s happened is deception, lies, half-truths and highway robbery,” Hall told the commission. “The public isn’t buying it, and it’s a disgrace. This commission has a lot of repair work to do to restore the public’s trust. Since bureaucracies usually don’t like to fix themselves, our grassroots citizens are building a coalition to see to it that it does get fixed.”

Commissioner Ric Williamson carefully danced around Hall’s comments, noting that the two sides were in litigation right now and that he could not address all of Hall’s comments directly..

“Even if we don’t do anything, it doesn’t mean we didn’t listen,” Williamson said. “It wouldn’t be unusual for us to change the direction of the department. But we don’t always agree with the opposition automatically. Maybe you couldn’t convince me to change my mind, but I was listening very carefully.”

“The difference between this and a board room meeting, though, is that I have to pay for your decisions, and all of Texas has to pay for your decisions,” Hall said. “Ultimately, it’s the taxpayers who are footing the bill.”

In its presentation, the San Antonio delegation spoke of the heavy growth expected with both Toyota and the military base realignment process. That’s led to a number of initiatives: the sales tax election that provided an advanced transportation district with an additional $34 million a year for local highway projects; the push to move freight rail out of the urban corridor and replace it with commuter rail; and the Alamo RMA’s creation of a proposed 70-mile toll road system.

Williamson said he was pleased to see the progress in San Antonio, nothing that it was Gov. Rick Perry’s vision to support local and regional planning and execution of transportation plans. The Texas Transportation Commission’s role is to transfer the authority and the tools to give regions the ability to take action and to empower local leaders to be in control of their destiny.

“We are not afraid of the governor’s vision of handing control to the regions, to the local and regional constituencies,” Williamson said. “We believe in local control.”

Group supports bond money for open space

Environment Texas backs spending $75 million to buy acreage over the aquifer

The environmental arm of the Texas Public Interest Research Group yesterday added its voice to those supporting money in the November bond package for acquiring open space over the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer. The group has announced plans to mobilize public support to convince the City Council to include $75 million in the bond package to purchase key acreage in environmentally-sensitive areas.

“It’s estimated that about 30,000 acres of land over the aquifer need to be acquired to save Barton Springs forever. In the short term, city staff has identified 7,500 acres that are immediately threatened with development,” said Luke Metzger with Environment Texas. “Thankfully, the City Council is currently pursuing a bond package for November. We’re encouraging them to include $75 million in the bond package to protect these immediately-threatened areas from development.”

Environment Texas has declared Barton Springs one of “Texas Natural Areas at Risk” in a new report ( http://www.environmenttexas.org/reports ), and plans to work over the next few months to mobilize community support for buying up more environmentally-sensitive land.

“ SOS Alliance is thrilled that Environment Texas is going to be advocating for natural areas across the state and locally,” said Colin Clark with the SOS Alliance. “It’s far cheaper to protect Barton Springs and the Hill Country through conservation than to pay for the infrastructure to support urbanization over the Edwards Aquifer. We are calling on the city to put up enough money so that we can save the springs before land is forever developed.”

Metzger said he had high hopes the Council would respond to the group’s request. “Everyone we’ve talked to so far has agreed that aquifer protection is a top priority for this community,” he said “Of course, they’re going to have to decide over the next few months just how much a priority it is while juggling other issues. We just need to remind them that with land prices escalating, we need to take immediate action to protect these areas. Water is something that can’t wait.”

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

A wake for a departed precinct . . . Democrats in Precinct 438 will gather at 9pm on Tuesday at Red's Scoot Inn to mourn the loss of one of the highest voting Mexican-American precincts in Travis County. Party leaders say Precinct 438 has been a stronghold for the Democrats and was a training ground for some of Austin's best grass-roots organizers. Travis County killed off the precinct in September 2005 and consolidated Precinct 438 with Precinct 439, notifying precinct chairs that the change would not take place until 2006. But in November, long-time Eastside activists were furious when Precinct 438 voters found the doors locked on election day for the Constitutional Amendment election. Without notice or posting a sign outside Sanchez Elementary School, voters had to figure out for themselves to go to Precinct 439, which votes at the AB Cantu/Pan Am Recreation Center. One purpose of the wake is to inform Precinct 438 voters that they need to go to the Pan Am Recreation Center to vote in the March 7 Primary. Precinct 438 encompasses voters east of I-35 to Comal Street and from Town Lake to East Sixth Street. . . . Early voting . . . Early voting for the March 7 Texas Primary continued at a steady pace in Travis County on Thursday, with an additional 925 ballots cast to bring the total to date up to 2,790. The largest vote totals came in at the Travis County Courthouse, with 161 so far, and Northcross Mall, with 148. In Williamson County, 918 voters cast ballots in the first two days of early voting. No surprise that Republicans led Democrats 774 to 144 in that very red county. Early voting continues through March 3 . . . Holly Street block walk . . . City Council Place 2 candidate Mike Martinez is planning a Potluck Picnic and Neighborhood Walk tomorrow. The block walk begins at 11am in front of the Martinez house at 1810 Haskell St., where volunteers will knock on doors in the Holly Street neighborhood. The picnic will be at 2pm back at the Martinez home. . . Night at the Galleries . . . The Austin Fine Arts Festival Alliance is sponsoring a “Night at the Galleries” Saturday night. Several Austin art galleries and museums along Congress Avenue and the West End open their doors for an evening of art buying, while Austin's most notable chefs serve guests their own delicious works of art. Participants will enjoy cuisine from top local restaurants and libations from Grape Vine Market as they are chauffeured door to door in style during the gallery hop. The evening will continue with an after-party at an Austin night spot. The event begins at 6:30pm. For tickets, call 458-6073, or go to http://austinfineartsfestival.org. . . . Green Garden Fest . . . The City of Austin is sponsoring a Green Garden Festival this Sunday at the Zilker Botanical Gardens featuring an earth-wise approach to gardening. The free event will help residents learn how to have a beautiful yard while conserving and protecting water, and recycling waste and natural materials. Three well-known speakers will be featured, along with a popular Kids Corner, rainwater harvesting demonstrations, composting, fertilizer/pest control tips, Austin-friendly plants, vegetable gardening and pruning tips, plus displays by 18 other area gardening and environmental groups. More than 2,000 Austinites attended last year's festival. The event is sponsored by several city departments, including Water Quality Protection, Water Conservation, Green Building, Solid Waste Services, Zilker Botanical Garden, and the Austin Water Utility's Dillo Dirt program. It begins at 1:30pm at the Zilker Botanical Gardens, 2200 Barton Springs Road. . . . Austin Energy Science Festival . . . More than 3,600 students from 157 Central Texas schools competed in the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival yesterday at the Palmer Events Center. Junior and senior high school science projects from students who had won at their local school were on display to compete for an opportunity move on to the Texas Science and Engineering Fair in San Antonio next month. Murchison Middle School of Austin and Vista Ridge High School in Leander were the Sweepstakes winners with the largest number of team points. The Regional Science Festival for elementary schools is set for Saturday at the Palmer Events Center.

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