Can’t a reporter even take a few weeks off during the Texas summer? It’s always been my opinion that Texans shouldn’t be making big public policy decisions during the summer because it’s just too mind numbingly hot. On the other hand it hasn’t really been that hot this summer. Instead unprecedented heat waves have scorched the Northwest and some of the Rocky Mountain states and Texas has gotten off easy. And that’s not to mention the fires in California and Oregon, and the related drought in California. There’s really no doubt anymore that this is climate change, hasn’t been for a long time — except of course among Republicans. Oops, I got off topic there for a minute.
Anyway back to August in Texas, I guess some of these things just can’t wait past August and we’ll look at a few of those in a minute. First, I’m going to suggest something that I know has absolutely no chance of happening, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway.
I think Texas needs to be more like France, at least when it comes to going on vacation in August.
The Austin City Council is the closest we have to that. They took six weeks off from Council meetings in June and July. Some people got mad that they went on vacation, but did the Council being gone really hurt anything? The City Manager proposed his draft budget in July while the Council was gone and now the Council is back and will spend August working through it, and then approve a budget in September. One big aspect of this year’s budget is that the City is now required by state law to restore the funding cuts it made to the Austin Police Department (APD).
The Save Austin Now Petition
The City of Austin budget process will probably be smooth and quiet compared to the other raging public safety issues right now. As many readers know Save Austin Now, the group that successfully guided Prop B (restore the camping ban) to voter approval, now has a petition that would require Austin to have two police officers per every 1,000 residents. The City Clerk certified this week that the group had gathered enough petition signatures to force the item onto a November ballot.
Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Greg Casar have been the lead spokespeople against this so far, at least they’re the ones getting quoted in the media. That’s going to have to change, or at least expand, if this thing is going to be defeated. They are two of the leading folks who created a situation where something like this has a chance of passing, through their Defund the Police vote, amongst other things. Whether or not it does pass will depend on persuading people in the middle of Austin’s public safety disputes to vote no. It will depend on persuading people that it is not sound governance to require a set number of police officers, even at a time when:
- the number of murders and other violent crime is soaring;
- property crime is on the rise;
- traffic fatalities are rising rapidly; and
- when the City Council has slashed the number of officers through budget cuts and went a year without cadet classes to train new officers.
Plus, a wave of demoralized officers have retired early or found jobs elsewhere.
Defeating the proposition will be an uphill battle. It will definitely depend on criminal justice activists (the ones who persuaded the Council to slash the APD budget in the first place) to turn out to vote. That won’t be enough, however. The Prop B results are a good example of what I mean by that.
If this proposition is to be defeated, it will take a lot of Austinites who study issues thoroughly and think them through to determine that it is just not good governance. Whether that is the result will be up to those Austinites I just mentioned. They are an independent lot and will make their own choices.
I’m going to weigh in here with some thoughts myself. On election issues so far, in the year and a half of the Independent’s existence, I have tried my best to lay out all sides and to be tough in examining all candidates and all ballot initiatives, without taking an editorial position or endorsing in elections — on candidates or causes. On this one I am going to make an exception. That’s because I think the new Save Austin Now proposition could be really crippling for City governance.
I’ll start with a review and disclosure about myself for those readers who may not know or who have forgotten. I began my time in Austin politics as a community organizer in the first half of the 1980s. I then covered local governance from 1985 to 1995 as an opinionated, but very thorough journalist. Then I was on the City Council from 1996 to 2005. From 2007 to 2019 I worked as an Assistant Director for Environmental Affairs and Conservation at Austin Water — the City’s municipally owned water utility. Before that I did a temporary stint at Austin Energy helping run a national campaign aimed at persuading automakers to manufacture plug-in hybrid vehicles. That’s all just for disclosure and to show that I have a little experience with local government.
As to the Save Austin Now petition, it should be clear to anyone who reads the Austin Independent, even sparingly, that I am somewhat critical of the current Council — especially the super woke wing led by Casar and Natasha Harper Madison and formerly featuring the defeated Jimmy Flannigan and now County Attorney Delia Garza. Although sometimes he seems to know better, Mayor Steve Adler just can’t seem to resist the siren call of this group and almost always goes along with them. For years he has played a sort of Sancho Panza to Casar’s Don Quixote. Council Member Pio Renteria almost always votes with this group as well.
In particular I have been critical of the entire Council’s Defund the Police vote. The Save Austin Now petition is a direct reaction to that overreach. Nonetheless, I hope voters will dig deeper into this issue. First of all, pouring more money into the APD budget to hire that many more officers will take away Council and Managerial flexibility on much of the remaining budget. That will mean other important parts of the General Fund budget will suffer considerably. That could include parks, street maintenance, environmental protection, libraries, and even other public safety functions like EMS and Fire. Most, or all, of these areas will either face major budget cuts, or budget freezes. or the City will have to raise property taxes to even more dramatic heights.
The state has already restricted how much cities can raise property taxes without having an election. So budget cuts and budget freezes, to pretty much all General Fund functions except police are almost certain if this proposition passes.
Now, let’s return to the part about Managerial and Council flexibility on the budget. According to the City Charter the City Manager proposes a budget based on policies set by the Council. The Council then examines the budget, makes changes of varying degrees, and then approves a budget. The Save Austin Now petition would change this to where the Manager proposes a budget, except for most of the Police budget, which will be largely controlled by this proposition. This will not only diminish the governing ability of the current Council, but future Councils as well. Once again, this would come on top of property tax limits and the state anti-defunding law that sets a floor for the Police budget.
So if the Save Austin Now proposal passes Austin will further lose control of its budget. In fact the withering of local control through state reaction to the Austin Council’s policies and approach is shaping up as the real legacy of Casar, Delia Garza, Jimmy Flannigan and tag along Steve Adler.
It didn’t have to be that way. They had massive public support to push through reforms at APD without framing it as defunding the police and painting a target on the City for the Governor and Legislature. So, on the current Save Austin Now proposal, it’s going to take a lot of Austinites stepping up to maintain some semblance of local governance authority – regardless of what they think of this Council.
The DA and County Attorney vs APD
The other scorchingly hot local public safety issue is the ongoing feud where the Austin Police Association (police union) and some rank and file cops are faced off against new District Attorney Jose Garza and new County Attorney Delia Garza. The two Garzas, no relation, went on the offensive this week. They sent letters to City Manager Spencer Cronk charging that some APD officers are refusing to investigate crimes, particularly property crimes, because they say the District Attorney and the County Attorney will refuse to file charges in low level crimes. Both the DA and the County Attorney deny this is the case. With this move, the two rookie officials showed they are willing to play tough.
For its part the City responded in a statement, “We are reviewing the information and will be in contact with both of their offices to gather more specifics on the concerns outlined in their letters. Following that, the City Manager and his executive team will work with APD leadership to determine what action may be necessary after fully reviewing the information.” The view here is that the longer it takes the City to respond the worse this looks. It seems a more confidence inspiring response would be for Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon to say that any such actions are not consistent with APD policies, and that he will look into it, and if anyone is doing that, will take appropriate action.
Unfortunately it may not be that simple. Here are a few places to learn more background on this issue. KXAN reported July 2 on a business near a homeless encampment at IH 35 and Ben White where someone was repeatedly smashing windows and slashing tires on the company’s trucks, and sometimes stealing equipment inside. Finally, an employee caught someone on video throwing a rock through a truck window and running back to the nearby, visible on the video, homeless encampment. KXAN reported that the business owners said APD came out for a look, but didn’t even get out of their cars. KXAN talked with an APD Lieutenant, summarizing his response as follows, “unless officers witness a crime occurring with their own eyes, they can’t make an arrest.”
In a somewhat contradictory statement to KXAN for the same July 2 report, APD said, “We are looking into this matter to determine the details involved in the incident. The Austin Police Department does not have an existing policy that prohibits an officer’s ability to enforce laws. There are no policies the TCDA’s Office has that prohibit enforcement by APD officers. There has been no change to the APD’s response to criminal activity, regardless of who is committing the crime.”
The July KXAN story, both a video report and a written article, can be found here. The more recent story, which includes links to the letters from the District Attorney and County Attorney can be found here.
Also, recommended reading is a very thorough, solid piece of journalism in the Austin Bulldog by Daniel Oudenaren, titled “Do Austin police investigate property crimes?” It goes through the property crime issue in great detail, talks to multiple players with various roles in and views on the issue, resulting in a disturbing overall portrait.
Although not mentioned in either Garza’s letter, Oudenaren’s story and KXAN’s reporting certainly played a part in bringing these issues to light and in the DA and County Attorney writing this week’s letters.
And, COVID Bounces Back
Amidst all this, Austin has slipped back into Stage 5, the most severe of COVID-19 phases. That’s thanks largely to those who refuse to get vaccinated. The City’s hands are tied from much of anything in the way of response except persuasion and providing information. That’s because of executive orders from Governor Greg Abbott that ban mask orders, including at schools. Abbott also prohibited local governments and state agencies from requiring employees to get vaccinated. These orders, which are going to cost lives, are blatantly obvious pandering to the most unreasonable elements of the Texas Republican far right — and probably beyond Texas since Abbott’s posturing hints at presidential ambitions. Abbott’s executive orders have everything to do with an extreme personal rights ideology, even when that ideology goes directly against broader public health.
The saddest thing about this is that it will probably work. Abbott has already out maneuvered his primary opponents Don Huffines and Allen West by winning the endorsement of deranged former president Donald Trump. It also helps Abbott that he’s not Allen West. So he likely has the Republican nomination wrapped up. Then he will face a Democrat in the fall and the Democrat will put up a good fight, and maybe a Democrat can — against all odds — figure out a way to put together a winning coalition. But, millions of Texans will like Abbott’s policies and millions more will not care enough — or understand enough — for such cruel and deadly policies to cost him in the fall election. Unfortunately the same probably applies to millions of Texans who were freezing in the dark earlier this year. Remember that?
Well, that’s all for this week. Going back to what I said at the top of this column, even though I don’t think much of Texas is going to take my advice about France and August vacations, I’m going to follow it myself. Consequently, the Independent will next week publish a deep dive look at Austin’s tragic homicide numbers this year — an article I’ve been working on for a while — plus another True Stories column. Then we’re going to make like the French and take a break for the rest of August.
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