The Prop B results have rightly gotten almost all the post election attention and analysis since the May 1 election. (Prop B was the reversal of the Council’s June 2019 repeal of the public camping ban.) That has been the case here at the Austin Independent as well as in a number of other local media outlets; although we have also covered the police cadet class and drawn some parallels between the two issues.
That type of coverage will continue. It seems, however, that we should not let this period pass without more comment on the results of the proposed switch to a strong mayor form of government. That proposal got walloped by an 86% to 14% margin; a truly incredible margin.
The two lead spokespeople for the group opposing the measure, Jesus Garza and Nico Ramsey (photo at top), were relative neophytes in Austin elections. Their group was called Austin for All People. As a former City Manager, Garza is certainly familiar with Austin politics, but as City Manager, and as a City employee before that, Garza by definition had to stay out of City elections.
In his recent role as campaign spokesperson, Garza also pulled off a classy tightrope act. A former City Manager campaigning to save the City Manager system could be interpreted as simply trying to preserve his profession. In my observation, he instead came off as involved because he truly loves the City — as in both the City government and Austin as his home — and sincerely believes it would be damaged by a switch to strong mayor. Evidently many voters saw his role in a similar way, or else just did not see any problem with it.
Garza’s partner on the virtual hustings, Nico Ramsey, was by contrast a relative newcomer to Austin politics. Despite being something of a rookie, Ramsey was well informed and brought a fresh perspective and approach. The only time I saw an obvious indication that Ramsey was a rookie came after the early vote came in with his side pulling 87%. Ramsey, appearing on a KXAN livestream, did not claim victory, but instead said something along the lines of he hoped the margin would hold up.
The early vote comes from all over the City. Thus, it is an indication of the overall vote, as opposed to results from a precinct in one part of town that might be counteracted with results from another part of town. Still, a candidate or proposition can sometimes make up as much as 10 percentage points on election day compared to the early vote. But, if a proposition is behind 87% to 13% in the early vote there is no way it is going to make an election day comeback and win. (The margin against strong mayor dropped by a single percentage point once all the votes were counted.) Ramsey may have been showing a lack of election night experience, but he could just as well have been being modest or just reluctant to claim victory on TV before consulting with others on the campaign. Regardless, it was his first leading role in a campaign and his side got 86%. So Ramsey might want to consider staying involved.
Two Political Action Committees — Restore Leadership ATX and Austin Equity PAC — also opposed the strong mayor measure and raised money to oppose it. Together the three groups managed to form an almost unimaginable coalition against the proposal. Not only were business and labor on the same side, but also long time advocates for both adding more officers to Austin’s police force and supporters of defunding the police.
This coalition trounced a team of seasoned political consultants and operatives — most associated with Mayor Steve Adler. The pro-strong mayor team boasted a fairly long string of victories coming into the election. This time they reached too far.
Members of the winning coalition are already back to debating and disagreeing. In fact they never really stopped, with many disagreeing on Prop B. Nonetheless, they came together to preserve the form of government within which they debate; and to preserve a system where power is shared among many, rather than concentrated in one person. Current City Manager Spencer Cronk — who has a very, very difficult job — can also take some heart from the results. The strong mayor campaign charged that the City Manager exercises an “unaccountable administrative veto,” and their examples fell heavily on him. Voters obviously rejected this framing. In fact Garza, Ramsey and their not quite as visible spokesperson, Rev. Joseph Parker, repeatedly made the assertion that the City Manager system has served Austin well. With an 86% percent victory there had to be at least some agreement with that. So the City Manager and those who labor in the often thankless system can take a victory lap, and then get back to work.
Another person who can take a victory lap is Terrell Blodgett, Professor Emeritus, at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs. The 97 year old Blodgett is also widely considered the City Manager Emeritus of Texas. Blodgett served as City Manager of both Garland and Waco, and also as Assistant City Manager in Austin from 1955 to 1960. He taught students about that subject and more at the LBJ School for many years. From the moment the strong mayor proposal reared its head, Blodgett campaigned against it through emails, phone calls, and an op-ed in the Austin Business Journal. For example Blodgett wrote in his op-ed: “Many of the arguments for switching to strong mayor make some sense on first reading, but Austinites should beware: This is a Trojan Horse and would bring numerous unintended and destructive consequences to our city if it passes.”
Proposal for Major Upzoning at former Gasoline Tank Farms in East Austin
Meanwhile in East Austin, the site of the old gasoline tank farms is up for rezoning. For those not here or alive at the time, a large property at Springdale Road and Airport Blvd. in East Austin was once the site of gasoline storage tanks. These tanks leaked toxic materials onto nearby properties, mostly the homes of African American and Mexican American residents. Community groups exposed this. It was a huge issue at the time and became a breakthrough issue for the then fledgling group PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources) led by Susana Almanza. Another leader in the fight was long time East Austin community advocate Ron Davis who went on to serve as Travis County Commissioner Precinct 1. Davis passed away in February.
Ultimately the tank farms were shut down completely. A leader in that at the state level was the head of the Texas Air Control Board at the time, Kirk Watson, later Mayor of Austin and state Senator. A number of East Austin community groups have long supported major redevelopment of the tracts, as long as they were cleaned up and the development was something that helped or was harmonious with nearby neighborhoods.
There is a zoning case for the property on this Thursday’s Council agenda and the proposed development is just a little too major for some long time advocates, including some of those involved in shutting down the tank farm in the first place.
The Jay Paul Company, who the Austin Business Journal dubbed “a big-time California developer” proposes to build two ninety feet office towers on the site.
As an appeal from the citywide coalition group Community Not Commodity (CNC) puts it, “While reasonable development of this brownfield site is acceptable to many area residents, there is a real fear that the towers’ 93-foot height (combined with waiver of compatibility standards) will set a bad precedent for massive, inappropriate development on two-lane Springdale Road. This road travels through the highest minority census tracts in the city, and likely will trigger a domino effect of displacement, threatening vulnerable communities along the corridor.”
CNC and others are asking Council to postpone the item this week so that all parties involved can have a chance for further discussion and consideration.
Meanwhile in the Barton Springs Zone
Now, let’s switch to a bit of good news on the environmental front, yes I really said that. One of the biggest threats to Barton Springs is developers who want to discharge treated sewage into the creeks and streams that contribute to Barton Springs. One of the worst was a recent discharge permit application to the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for a proposed development at the intersection of US 290 and Sawyer Ranch Road, between between Oak Hill and Dripping Spring. The discharge was proposed to go into Long Branch Creek which flows into Barton Creek.
The land owner/developer, Stephen Cleveland of Houston, had already received a draft permit from TCEQ when the agency held a public hearing on April 20. Knowing they were up against almost impossible odds, a number of local citizens attended the hearing anyway and explained their love for the creek, the springs and the Hill Country, and the damage that could be done by the sewage discharge. The next day Cleveland wrote to the TCEQ: “After hearing all the impassioned people in the meeting last night, our family has decided to ask that our application be withdrawn.”
Thank you sir to you and your entire family.
Pete Van Metre and Barbara Mahler
Austin’s environmental community was also rocked with some devastating news last week. Husband and wife geologist team Barbara Mahler and Pete Van Metre were tragically involved in a vehicle pile-up east of Dallas on IH 30. Pete was killed and Barbara was badly injured. Their dog Bella also died in the wreck. They reportedly had to slow down for a wreck and were rear ended by a semi. They were on the way to see family in Tennessee.
Barbara was medevaced to a hospital in Tyler. According to family reports on Caring Bridge, she has had two surgeries to repair bone fractures and was on a ventilator until yesterday. The latest posting said, “Barb is working hard to show us how strong and determined she is. When we arrived at the hospital this afternoon (Tuesday) for visiting hours she was off the ventilator and breathing on her own with only some supplemental oxygen.
She is still not actually conscious, but she opened her eyes for us several times today and is squeezing our hand on request. AND she was able to faintly whisper her name to us, which means she is self aware within the fog of semi-consciousness. This is all really really really good news. The trauma ICU staff are very pleased with how well she is doing, which given the patients they see, is encouraging.”
Both Barbara and Pete worked for the US Geological Service and both are highly respected in the field. Van Metre just retired last year. Among numerous other accomplishments, Mahler’s work has benefitted Barton Springs in a myriad of ways. That dates back to at least the era when the SOS Ordinance was created and passed. She did her PHD dissertation on Pollutant Transport Through the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer. She also co-authored the ultimately successful application for listing the Barton Springs Salamander as an endangered species. She and Van Metre were also pioneering researchers on coal tar sealants, which are used to coat parking lots. In the early 2000s it was determined that coal tar sealants were leaking serious pollutants, containing carcinogens, into Barton Creek. Their work resulted in the City of Austin banning coal tar sealants along with increased focus on the substances nationwide. Since Austin’s ban several other cities and counties around the country have banned coal tar sealants, as have the states of Washington, Minnesota and Maine.
Many friends and colleagues paid tribute to Van Metre on the Austin Natural Funerals website. They describe “his insatiable curiosity, his kindness,” and that he “always felt really lucky to go to work every day doing something he loved that also helped the world.” A funeral service for Pete was held Friday May 14. Tributes and a video of the service can be accessed here.
Barbara is well known as a very kind and caring person as well as a skilled and dedicated geologist. We wish her the best on what promises to be a lengthy recovery.
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