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Airport scanner resolution hits snag

Thursday, February 17, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Council members Bill Spelman and Laura Morrison have decided to wade into the debate over airport body scanners. The pair is set to introduce a resolution at tomorrow’s Council meeting that would direct City Manager Marc Ott to ask the members of Austin’s congressional delegation a series of questions about the controversial devices.


Their efforts may, however, have gotten more complicated than originally planned. At Wednesday’s Council work session, Spelman handed his colleagues a version of the resolution that had been marked up by the civil libertarians at Texans for Accountable Government. That version of the document contained language calling for the city to oppose the installation of the units.


Spelman did his best to assure his fellow Council members that he would strike any such language from the final version of the resolution – and that any action would come in the form of simple questions.


“All I’m suggesting is that we ask a few questions of our delegation to be sure that somebody out there someplace is doing the inquiry on the health risks necessary so that we can go back to our citizens and say, ‘Your health will not be risked if you go through one of these machines,’” he said.


An early draft of the resolution also called for Ott to ask about “greater privacy controls,” “the conclusive security benefits” provided by the machines, and if other systems might provide “enhanced security benefits without the potential risks to … passengers’ public health or privacy rights.”


Still, four Council members – Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, and Council members Randi Shade and Sheryl Cole – raised concerns about the idea.


Leffingwell, a former airline pilot, said that he’d seen airline security evolve over time and that it is a “pain in the neck.” But he added that “there are significant threats” and that the Council has to “be in a position to take whatever measures are suggested by the authority in that – that would be the (Transportation Security Administration) – to accomplish their mission.”


He also worried about the implications the resolution would have on federal grants that the city receives. “The airport depends heavily on grants from the (Federal Aviation Administration),” he said. “I believe that this will throw a cloud and possibly impair our ability to secure these grants.”


Spelman was blunt with his response. “I understand that some people may be concerned that this is going to put us on a black list for grants, but I think this is a reasonable question which reasonable people ought to be able to ask,” he said.


After the hearing, Spelman emphasized the basic nature of the resolution. “This is a federal issue … the city doesn’t have control over whether Transportation Security puts these scanners or some other scanners in our airport,” he told In Fact Daily. “But we do have access to federal officials and we are represented by four congressman … so what I was asking is (for) the city manager through our lobbying team ask the congress people to help us out in getting answers to questions our constituents are asking.”


Spelman restated his response to what seemed to be the hot issue. “It is not putting us on record as opposing or endorsing any particular (security) measure,” he said.


He may face a few challenges tomorrow: Texans for Accountable Government has issued a call for its supporters to come to City Hall. “While Texans for Accountable Government commends Council members Spelman and Morrison for taking action on this important issue, the resolution in it’s current form does NOT meet the expectations of the community,” reads a statement on the group’s Web site.

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