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Spelman applauds Council achievements, bemoans open meetings fallout

Thursday, January 5, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

This week, In Fact Daily is running its annual Year in Review, examining the issues and events that shaped Austin politics in 2011. Through Friday, we present a series of articles examining those issues through the eyes of the people who shaped policy in 2011.

Ask Council Member Bill Spelman and he’ll tell you that in 2011 Austin got knocked around by economic uncertainty and political scandal but that it was also able to turn many of its highest social ideals into legislative realities.

Take the economy, for example. Austin was not only able to weather the tail end of the 2008 recession, which nearly crippled great portions of the country; its City Council voted to enact numerous pieces of legislation designed to provide support for the city’s more disadvantaged.

“When the economy comes out of the recession, it’s going to come out by helping people who are doing okay first,” Spelman told In Fact Daily. “But there is a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and we’ve been trying to help out folks who are on the short end of that stick.”

Two Council actions in particular stick out for Spelman. The first, passed in August, limits the operations of payday lenders, which many see as predatory institutions that make money by manipulating and gouging the poorest members of the community. According to studies, the average customer rolls over his/her loan seven times, resulting in interest rates of up to 400 percent or more.

“Payday lending is a huge sap on people’s income,” said Spelman. “Nobody wants to eliminate an emergency source of loans for folks, but we are trying to knock the roughest of the rough edges off the lending practices of local lenders.”

The law puts a cap on loan amounts based on consumers’ monthly income, bars consumers from refinancing loans more than three times, and places geographical restrictions on the placement of payday lenders.

The second action Spelman feels will have a significant impact on improving the economic conditions of the city’s lower income group is the economic development deal Council struck with auto parts manufacturer Farathane US last month.

Despite controversy over the company’s paying less than $11/hour for some of the jobs they’ll be bringing to the city the agreement passed 5-2, with supporters arguing that it will provide much-needed manufacturing jobs for unskilled and hard-to-employ workers.

“If you’ve got somebody who has very limited skills, has a very limited work record, is really willing to work and learn, it’s going to be difficult for them to be able to command a salary over $10 or $11 an hour,” said Spelman. “So for us to dictate that they have to get $16 an hour is basically us dictating that they won’t get a job.”

What made the agreement particularly significant, Spelman believes, is that the jobs Farathane will be providing are potential career-track positions. That, he said, is the key to moving people out of poverty.

“If those jobs have a career path – they can actually learn stuff, build a resume, put themselves in a position to get a better job – getting them started on that work path is an important thing we ought to be doing,” said Spelman.

2011 is also the year wind power came of age in Austin, said Spelman. In September, the Council approved three new wind power agreements with coastal energy providers. The contracts will provide nearly 500 megawatts of power to the city at approximately 4 cents/kilowatt hour, bringing Austin Energy’s renewable energy portfolio to 30 percent of its generation needs by the end of 2012.  

“We’re always talking about this balance between cheap power – meaning coal, nuclear, gas – and expensive but renewable power in the wind world, and if wind gets down to 4 cents a kilowatt hour, it is way competitive with our fossil fuel sources,” said Spelman. “The agreements really set us up nicely to be hitting that 30 percent renewable energy goal in the next 10 years.”

When the history books get written, however, 2011 may well be remembered most for the open meetings/Council email scandal, which broke in February and resulted in an investigation, open-records requests, and Council having to adopt new procedures to ensure transparency and limit private debate.

As a result, Spelman continued, Council members no longer have the opportunity to hash out differences before meetings, so it’s harder to come up with legislation that takes into account the desires of all involved.

“It’s useful to have seven independent folks have the opportunity to discuss things in advance of a meeting,” said Spelman. “Before you could come up with a solution that basically worked for most people. Now there’s very little educating each other, very little compromise.”

As a result, the city is getting more split Council votes, which, said Spelman, is in nobody’s interest.

“Before, when we could talk to each other about it, most of the time we concluded that what was best for the city was not a 4-3 split; it was something where everybody could agree on a solution to a problem by figuring what we all had in common and what we can all live with.

“You don’t run a great city on a 4-3 vote.”

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