By Bill Oakey – June 27, 2014
Early in the week, several citizen transit organizations were given a promise from the City Council. They were told that no limit would be placed on the number of speakers at the Thursday meeting, and that they could count on the urban rail discussion commencing at 4:00 PM.
For two days, these groups coordinated with their members to line up speakers and prepare their presentations. It seems very odd that the City would not have a standard policy to hold a public hearing on any major project slated to be placed on the bond ballot. Especially one that includes both rail and roads and carries a price tag of a billion dollars.
Sadly, citizens were relegated to contacting various Council offices and asking for an answer to the haphazard guessing game of agenda item timing and whether the number of speakers could be unrestricted. Once the promise was granted, it was taken in good faith.
Then at the Council meeting, a bait and switch tactic was pulled. A last minute decision was made to limit the number of speakers to 30 minutes for “each side.” They took a vote on the matter and it passed 5-2, with Council Members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley opposed.
The overflow crowd of citizens was understandably upset about the broken promise. They did not even like being divided into “for” and “against.” Many of them have years of experience as transit advocates. They wanted to have an honest discussion on the pros and cons of various aspects of Project Connect’s plan. Some of these folks have worked in leadership positions or served on boards and commissions, earning them valuable expertise. On Thursday they were summarily given a slap in the face.
What Austin witnessed on Thursday was an example of government at its worst. We are left with an expensive urban rail plan that ended up being contentious and controversial. Instead of inviting the stakeholders to the table early in the process, and seriously attempting to craft a community consensus plan, the mayor let politics rule the process. This is a “my way or the highway” plan promoted by Mr. Leffingwell. It passed on Thursday, but voters will have the last word.
Austin is a community that places high value on citizen involvement. By casting that aside on one of our most pressing challenges, the supporters of the rail plan have sewn the seeds of its defeat in November.
This isn’t a matter of “Rail or Fail.” It’s more like “Rail for Sale to No Avail.” Let’s do the process better with the new City Council and get it right.
That new Council that we elect in November can take a lesson from this experience. Voters will be crossing their fingers and clinging to some hope for a refreshing spirit of respect, transparency and inclusiveness. I say please bring it on!