Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Austin's open government charter amendment would give public the password

The Austin American Statesman has been highly critical of the proposed open government charter amendment in Austin, parroting phony cost estimates by the city manager without giving proponents a voice. (Editorial no longer publicly available.) The amendment would open new records and put most city business online. Signatures were filed last week and the public will vote on the proposal in May.

The city manager and council oppose the amendment, so they put out an outrageous $36 million cost estimate larded with obviously silly excesses that simply aren't required by the proposal. The Statesman promoted the estimate uncritically, even though much in it was ridiculous on its face. I delayed blogging about this because a response to their negative editorial was submitted to the Statesman editorial page by Kathy Mitchell, who is president of the Central Texas chapter of ACLU, treasurer of the PAC supporting the amendment, and in the interest of full disclosure, also my spouse. (You have to be careful; you can get into trouble, folks, scooping your spouse.)

But the Statesman decided her column was not fit to print. They apparently figure that if nobody gets to read information contradicting their slanted, misleading attack, the public might reject the proposal which makes information about corporate giveaways and tax breaks public, as well as police misconduct.
As big local supporters of corporate tax breaks and giveaways, the Statesman editors obviously see opening up that information as threatening their pet projects.

Thanks to the blogosphere, though, the ability to communicate with the public is no longer limited to folks who buy ink by the barrel, so I'm reprinting the op ed here. If you think the Statesman should have published this piece, I'd encourage you to write a letter to the editor and say so.

Here's what Kathy wrote. She called it, "Give the Public the Password."

he Open Government Online charter amendment—supported by a range of groups from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the Gray Panthers—gives you, the public, direct access to the city’s most important information. That’s why the city hopes to scare you into voting no in May.

City officials released trumped-up figures last week proclaiming that the initiative will cost too much. The Statesman editorial board quickly lined up behind them. Apparently, the editors haven’t looked closely at the city’s math because it doesn’t add up

The initiative envisions a future in which all the city’s public information is online and readily available to you. Last summer, Rich Oppel, editor of the Statesman, wrote: “My approach: put everything except that which is specifically restricted by law on the Internet, and let citizens pick it off at will.” While the charter measure sets this standard as a goal, it only mandates certain narrow classes of information be placed online in the coming year and allows the city to continue the program “to the greatest extent practical.” The vision must be strong but the implementation is realistic.

Although the mandatory portions of the measure apply primarily to large development deals, tax abatements, and other decisions of high public interest, the city claims it will need to replace 1,500 computers and buy thousands of new software licenses. This is simply not true.

The city claims that it would have to integrate all its information systems. While this would be nice, the charter amendment doesn’t require that at all.

The city doesn’t want you to know that a substantial new information management system is already budgeted and in the works—but they didn’t plan to give the public a password. Giving you access costs very little and can prevent the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars by exposing insider deals and boondoggles.

The city’s development permitting and economic incentive processes shouldn’t be closed conversations between developers and city staff, but that’s the system they were creating. They say that it will cost a million dollars just to give you a password to see what they already automating for online exchange of information with developer applicants, vendors, and companies seeking tax breaks and other giveaways. That’s silly. Instead, more public information about the deals they cut with big corporations—like the recent $58.5 million dollar Samsung giveaway—could quickly save us all a great deal of money.

Finally, the city says it would have to hire lots of people, including consultants, and pay them very well. Since the initiative only requires a few key systems to be in place for the public in the next year (many of which are already scheduled for 2006 launch), this new staffing is wholly overstated. The city refused to estimate any reduced costs due to reduced requests for information from the public and the press.

The simple truth is that the Open Government Online initiative will make city government both more open and more efficient, saving us millions of dollars. While the city’s cost estimate is not credible on its face, those who fear public scrutiny will continue to promote it in hopes that you will decide that their price tag for government accountability is too high. If you care about multi-million dollar tax abatements, or which lobbyists are camped out at City Hall, this initiative will give you access to what’s really going on with our government. That’s why a wide range of good government organizations have endorsed the measure.

Consider one example close to my own organization’s mission. Just a few years ago, in secret negotiations with the Austin Police Association, the city encumbered general revenue for the following five years with high dollar raises for officers and no workable accountability for their misdeeds. The following budget cycle, city staff announced that since public safety now takes up nearly all of the city’s budget, there would be cuts in many other programs. Under this initiative, that negotiation process will be completely open the next time around—and the citizens of Austin without question will get a better result.

The Open Government Online initiative will cost a fraction of the city manager’s overblown estimate, and will very quickly start to save taxpayers money. Even better, it will give you the password to see information the city wants to restrict to big-shots and insiders so you can protect your own rights, your tax dollars and the city we all care about.

Kathy Mitchell is the President of the Central Texas Chapter of the ACLU of Texas.


Anonymous said...

Sounds just like the Tyler Morning Telegraph in Tyler, Texas who refuses to print anything against building a new jail there. I tried many times to get them to print my opinion or even a letter to the editor--no go.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, sure, the Tyler paper!! They're aptly named, actually - like the telegraph, the Tyler paper is more or less a quaint anachronism. If it weren't for high school sports coverage there'd be little reason for anyone to read it.

You'd expect a little better from a big-city daily like the Statesman, especially since the editor has such robust delusions of grandeur.

Tim said...

"You'd expect a little better from a big-city daily like the Statesman, especially since the editor has such robust delusions of grandeur."

If there's anything I learned through blogging, it's that the Statesman is biased. Determining which way is the problem since they jump around from issue to issue on a whim, boostering things like the police one day and the next criticizing them for use of force.

They'd much rather castigate Jennifer Kim for the "dogs on patios" issue than Brewster McCracken for any one of his pet projects with far larger ramifications for the future of the city.