Fallout from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal continues to rain down on an already damaged Republican majority in Washington. Yet Congress has done little to end government secrecy and restrict the power of lobbyists. Unfortunately, this is an area in which representative government falls short—we ask our politicians to create better oversight of politicians and lobbyists. Not surprisingly, they are slow to come up with more than platitudes.
But a local citizen initiative in Austin may provide a model for government that is more open to the public. A coalition of environmental, neighborhood, and civil liberties groups have launched a ballot initiative to amend the city charter to open up key government records, and to require local politicians and senior city officials to keep a log of their meetings and calls with lobbyists. Austinites will vote on the precedent-setting measures on May 13.
City government faces the same ethical dilemmas as federal and state officials: Big money interests pay lobbyists to ensure that their deal gets done. As a result, public officials spend most of their time with the people paid to meet with them—largely outside the public eye. By the time the public learns what’s at stake, it’s often too late.
Even in Texas’ most liberal city, the dynamics are the same. City staff recently proposed more than $2 million in parkland fee waivers and other subsidies, hammered out in secret negotiations, for a development near Town Lake Park. The lengthy “development agreement,” including the subsidies, was made available to the public only a few days before consideration by the city council.
Secret negotiations with the local police association resulted in huge raises for officers and in the elimination of key features of the city’s civilian oversight system. (Austin officers are now the highest paid in the nation, and public safety consumes nearly all of the city’s general revenue.) Secret negotiations with Home Depot Inc. resulted in a $7.2 million incentive deal from the city ($25 million in total incentives from all taxing districts). After months of closed-door meetings, city staff put a $58.5 million incentive package for Samsung Electronics Co. on the council’s agenda with little public notice.
Local groups—tired of being blindsided—drafted the charter amendment and collected 20,000 local voter signatures to help put it on the ballot. The amendment requires the city to put documents related to development and tax-abatement deals online, and requires the city to negotiate such deals in public. It also requires that future negotiations with the police association be conducted in public and makes police misconduct records public to the same extent they are at most other law enforcement agencies (Austin is significantly more secretive than most cities).
Documents related to development are already public information under state law, and Austin city officials had already launched a plan to put them online, but they intended to create a closed system primarily for staff and developer use. The amendment would require that this online system be used for permitting of larger developments, that it be accessible to the public, and that it include a place for neighbors and citizens to post their comments. That would assure that neighbors of proposed developments are informed at the outset and that their interests are considered on equal footing with the developer. The amendment will result in a more collaborative process that produces development more compatible with community values.
The amendment simply mandates that no company can receive tax abatements unless it agrees to this public process. Companies must reveal to the public the kinds of jobs they will bring, the kind of development they plan, and the promises they make to the city.
These are big and important changes, but city officials largely have avoided a debate about tax abatements, police misconduct, and development agreements. Instead, the city council attempted to undermine the ballot initiative by adopting misleading ballot language. The council’s language claimed that the amendment would raise taxes, violate everyone’s privacy, and put private e-mails online. Then opponents promptly printed the ballot language on a large, direct-mail card and mailed it to voters with a call to vote “No.”
None of the claims made in the city council’s controversial ballot language was actually true. The amendment requires only that e-mails be archived and not deleted, and that city officials not circumvent the Public Information Act by using outside e-mail accounts for communication about city business. Nowhere does it require e-mails to be placed online. The amendment affirms a commitment to privacy protection, and all privacy laws will continue to protect information, just as they do now.
Amendment proponents took the city to court. In the first such decision in Texas, a Travis County district judge ruled that the city council’s ballot language didn’t fairly represent the intent of the proposed amendment and threw out the city’s language. The city had to drop the tax-increase assertion altogether, and also significantly modify claims about privacy violations, though council members still pushed many misleading claims into the new description. The city had a short two days to draft and approve new language before the time to make changes ran out, and disgruntled proponents will have to live with the final language.
As Austin moves toward election day, the most interesting debates may revolve around the movement to open up the economic development process. Today, Texas cities routinely negotiate away millions in tax dollars and then bring the finished agreement to their local officials for a final public vote. By the time the public understands the agreement, it’s largely too late to change it. Taxpayer and neighborhood groups must decipher a complex agreement, identify what it really does (compared to the usual flurry of press statements touting great benefits for everyone), get the word out to their membership, bring people downtown, and promote alternatives that are probably not acceptable to a company that is happy with the millions it has in hand.
Opening government records and meetings will not make Texas cities more or less attractive to business, and will not eliminate tax incentives or change the rules for development. It will, however, make public officials and senior staff more accountable and allow interested, committed, and smart taxpayers to contribute to final decisions. Citizen input is an important part of the process, and should be welcomed, not feared. In the end, improved public participation on federal, state, and local levels will make government decision-making better.
Kathy Mitchell is the local ACLU chapter president, a longtime policy advocate for open government with Consumers Union, and former member of the state’s Open Records Advisory Committee.