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PACs waged million-dollar battle over amendments

Monday, July 24, 2006 by

Charter Amendment proposals on the May 13 Ballot – particularly the controversial Propositions 1 and 2 – pitted environmental groups against businesses, but also caused a major split among environmentalists—who could not agree on the value of the amendments. Regardless, the campaign caused political heavyweights on both sides to open up their wallets.

Political action committees forked over big bucks in the battle over Props 1 and 2, spending a total of more than $1 million to plead their cases before the voting public. Despite the hot-button issues, only 11 percent of registered voters bothered to show up.

And though Props 1 and 2 were soundly defeated at the polls, many of the ideas contained in them live on in the form of ordinances now working their way through the city process.

According to reports filed by the July 17 deadline, two PACs and a corporation—the Committee for Austin’s Future, Educate PAC and Advanced Micro Devices—spent a total of $620,578 to defeat the propositions designed to protect the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer and to force the city to post public information on the internet in real time.

The PAC backed primarily by the SOS Alliance and its benefactor, Kirk Mitchell, Clean Water Clean Government (CWCG), also spent heavily in support of the propositions. CWCG spent $159,785 in the final 10 days of the campaign, and the PAC received a total of $499.924.

Long-time SOS supporter Mitchell had the deepest pockets, spending more than $209,000 backing the CWCG PAC. Only one other contributor, former Council Member Beverly Griffith, donated more than $1,000. Griffith gave $4,000. SOS’s Bill Bunch donated $2,000.

Last week’s CWCG PAC filing was apparently postmarked by the Monday deadline, but because of the city’s mail screening process, it was not received and posted online until last Friday. Earlier filings – or lack of filings – by CWCG caused controversy because of missed deadlines, but by its May 8 filing, CWCG PAC was drawing supporters and money. (See In Fact Daily, May 9, 2006)

Among the opposition the biggest spending PAC was the Committee for Austin’s Future. In its most recent filing, which covered the last 10 days before the May 13 election, it took in $101,308 in contributions and $100,000 in loans, and listed $282,787 in expenditures.

The largest contributor was Michael Levy, who donated more than $26,500. Other large contributors included the Seton Healthcare Network, $10,000; Stratus Properties, $7,500; Bank of America, $7,500; Sage Land Company, $5,000; Wells Fargo Bank, $5,000; Riverside Resources, $3,500; Applied Materials, $2,500; Post Apartment Homes,, $2,500; and several $1,000 contributors.

The $100,000 in loans was guaranteed by the Real Estate Council of Austin. The bulk of its expenditure was to media consultant Message, Audience & Presentation at $138,000,

The bulk of Educate PAC’s money was spent of print and TV advertising, with some to direct mail. (See In Fact Daily. June 29, 2006).

Despite the loss at the polls, Council Member Lee Leffingwell has put the spirit of Props 2—stronger protection for the Barton Springs Zone—in the form of an ordinance in recent weeks. Leffingwell has an advisory group discussing the ordinance and a subcommittee of the Environmental Board is also looking to make recommendations. But the process could prove to be lengthy.

Another ordinance putting more of the city’s public information on the Internet is still being written.

Passage of those two measures may satisfy some of the concerns of those who backed the amendments but is unlikely to please either the SOS Alliance or members of the American Civil Liberties Union, who wanted more access to police disciplinary files.

A few other single-interest PACs filed financial statements as well last Monday, including the Texas Freedom Network, which spent $400 to support Proposition 6, granting city health care benefits to domestic partners. Healthcare for Austin PAC also listed donations of $17,249 in support of Proposition 6, which passed.

Housing Works Austin, a PAC backing the Affordable Housing portion of the City Bond Package on the November ballot, listed $6,115 in expenditures.

Subdivision question postponed again

Neighborhood stresses fears of flooding

The developers of the proposed Bouldin Meadows subdivision will have to wait at least one more month before receiving a decision on whether the preliminary plan will be approved. The Zoning and Platting Commission postponed the case for a fifth time Tuesday night at the request of the neighborhood and over the objections of the applicant.

Neighbors are afraid the new development will result in flooding on their land, although city engineers and an independent firm dispute that claim. The city retained the firm of DR Engineering to review the plans and drainage information about the area, and that firm reported that the plans did comply with accepted engineering practices. Neighbors, however, are not reassured by the latest flood plain maps or HDR’s findings.

"There’s been some new information that’s been presented to us less than a week ago," said Katherine Kawazoe. "We’re having some engineers look at that." That information was discussed at a meeting last week between city staff, outside engineers, and neighborhood representatives. The outside engineers, Kawazoe said, had used the same faulty data and same formulas as the city engineers and had come up with the same faulty conclusions.

"I didn’t think that I had heard anything new, simply confirmation of the city’s findings. I made sure of that by discussing it with our engineer, who also believes there was nothing new or monumental that came out of that meeting," said Bill McLane, who represents the applicant, G & G Venture. "There’s nothing different than what we’ve been looking at for the past four months. This is the fifth time that this matter has been before you. I see absolutely no reason for a postponement of this case."

Commissioners supported the requested postponement not based on the neighborhood’s claim of new information, but because of the absence of Chair Betty Baker. "I’m inclined to grant the postponement, just because we’re only six people sitting here," said Commissioner Janis Pinelli. "Two votes will sink this."

Commissioners also wanted to stand by their rule of granting the first postponement request from each side, although several members seemed surprised that it was in fact the neighborhood’s first postponement request. Staff confirmed that the first three postponements had actually come at the direction of the Commission, with the fourth delay being requested by the staff. McLane countered that at least one of the commission-initiated postponements had been at the behest of the neighborhood, but his argument did not sway the commission from their 6-0 vote to postpone. "I do believe the neighborhood has a right in this situation to be able to put forth their request," said Stephanie Hale. "The neighborhood has the right to do as much as they can to understand the situation."

Acting Chair Keith Jackson urged both sides to use the time before the August 15 commission meeting to attempt to reach an agreement. He also urged neighborhood representatives to carefully consider the arguments they planned to make regarding the flood plain when the case is finally heard. "I am exceedingly frustrated by the neighborhood continually saying they have new information, yet there’s not any new information….the answers just are not the answers they want," he said. "Yes, the engineers are using the same models and same input, because that’s what that profession does. Those are the models that have been developed by the federal government and they are generally accepted standards and practices. That’s how you do this work." Jackson is a professional engineer.

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

Clements admits taking papers . . . Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association (DANA) Board President Andrew Clements admitted to Austin American-Statesman reporters that he did steal copies of the Downtown Planet's July 13 edition, which featured a story about the theft of DANA funds from Clements' home. Clements also told the Statesman he will replace the papers he stole from five residential locations. But according to Downtown Planet Publisher Will Atkins, Clements hasn't said a word to him about replacing the papers. Atkins added he believes Clements stole newspapers from more than residential locations, based on eyewitness accounts that placed Clements in Whole Foods taking the newspaper . . . Better late than never . . . Last Monday was the deadline for candidates and PACs to file their campaign finance reports to the City Clerk’s office. Most walked their materials in, but the Clean Water Clean Government PAC put its report in the mail before the deadline, but it didn’t get posted until Friday. The reason? According to a source in the City Clerk’s office, post 9/11 changes in the mail handling by the city means almost all material sent to the city is delayed while it is run through equipment designed to detect explosives or harmful substances before it is distributed to staff . . . Meetings . . . The Design Commission meets at 5:45pm in the Boards and Commissions room at City Hall . . . The Library Commission meets at 7pm at the Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe St. . . . The Urban Renewal Board meets at 6pm in the Street-Jones Building, 1000 E. 11th St. . . . MetroRail plans . . . Capital Metro will continue its series of open houses Tuesday to give the community an update on the All Systems Go Long-Range Transit Plan. The events will feature previews of Capital MetroRail, which begins service in 2008. Citizens also will have the opportunity to provide feedback on train station design concepts in their neighborhoods. The last two meetings in the series are a look at the Highland Mall and North Lamar Transit stations, 6:30pm Tuesday at the Norris Conference Center at Northcross Mall; and the Leander Transit Station design at 6:30pm Wednesday at Pat Bryson Municipal Hall, 201 N. Brushy St. in Leander. Visit http://allsystemsgo.capmetro.org for more information about the All Systems Go Long-Range Transit Plan. . . . Steering Committee reports . . . The Steering Committee for the Mobility Alternative Finance Study (the Phase 2 toll road study) received an interim presentation from Charles Rivers Associates International last week. The committee consists of members from jurisdictions in the Central Texas area, including the cities of Austin and Round Rock; Travis, Hays and Williamson counties; and representatives of the Texas House of Representatives, the Texas Department of Transportation, and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. A representative of Charles Rivers Associates International presented general information on toll roads, information on how Austin compares to other cities in terms of expected growth and traffic congestion, and information on how other cities or other areas of the country are dealing with increased traffic congestion and decreased highway funding. A final draft report will be presented to the committee on November 15. . . . We’re No. 2! . . . We never seem to get tired of seeing how Austin ranks in subjective polls of how we rank against other cities, but this one seems to be pretty big. Money Magazine, which stated the "rate-a-city" craze with an article about the best place to live back in the early 1980s has come out with its latest list of great places to hang your hat. In the Best Big Cities category, Austin is ranked no. 2, just behind Fort Collins, Colo. Also in the top 5 is Mesa, Ariz., Raleigh, NC, and San Diego, Calif. Money’s editors said: "It claims to have more music venues and restaurants per capita than any other U.S. city and is nicknamed Silicon Hills due to its large number of tech employers. The city's unofficial motto: "Keep Austin Weird."" It’s unofficial?

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