An opportunity in a new era of urban governance defined by global consciousness and deeper democracy

Black Lives Matter Protest in Austin, June 2020
Photo: Charles Fair

2020 may well prove the year when the Austin Paradox became paramount.

Dually sparked by the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the concurrent uprising after yet another spate of Black people killed by police and/or White supremacy – Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and locally, Mike Ramos — Austin faced a summer of protest that led into the 2020 election season.

Long ignored and festering, core issues of racial and economic inequity were laid bare by the pandemic as Austin and other cities came face to face with deep disparities in health care, a chasm in public education, acute issues of shelter and housing affordability and a police force riven by racial bias. The question lingering into 2021 will be, can the city council solve these deep-seated problems?

Things change, things stay the same. Anti-police brutality protest,
October 13, 1974

Photo: Austin History Center. Courtesy of ATX Barrio Archive

The mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic was a trickle-down phenomenon. President Donald Trump decided against mask mandates or expanded testing, along with much else that would have been helpful in abating the pandemic. Austin Mayor Steve Adler was one of the first public officials to act, cancelling the South by Southwest music festival, known as SXSW, on March 6 and issuing the first city stay at home order shortly thereafter. But his authority was quickly usurped from above.

Unsurprisingly given his alliance with Trump, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was slow and reluctant to respond. The first two of thirteen total executive orders were issued on April 17, and called for the reopening of small businesses under a to-go policy for customer pickup and delivery, and for healthcare facilities to open for elective surgeries and procedures. Many of the subsequent orders targeted public gatherings and mask mandates in counties with more than 20 COVID-19 cases. Statewide policies help circumvent spread between communities with differing levels of regulation. For what falls within local jurisdiction is essentially only what’s left after state lawmakers have decided their own scope of authority.

A governance tug-of-war atop ‘marble cake’ federalism

Which, despite an outpouring of resources, energy and innovation from local NGOs and armies of volunteers, became less and less as the tug-of-war between levels of government raged on.

At root is the fact that the United States’ brand of federalism is known as cooperative, or “marble cake” federalism. Unlike “layer cake” federalism, in which the jurisdiction of levels of government – national, state, and local, are distinct and clear, marble cake federalism blurs the distinction between what each level of government does and what each level is responsible for. Simply put, with legal marble cake, sometimes it’s hard for citizens to know which level of government to be mad at when something goes wrong.

In the Texas case, the state adheres to the so-called “Dillon Rule,” a 19th Century court finding which considers municipalities “mere tenants at the will of the legislature.” Named for Iowa Judge John Dillon, his ruling more than a century ago means that home rule is optional for Texas cities who can self-govern, for the most part, only within designated limits set by the state government. The spirit of that Iowa judge has stalked Austin for much of 2020.

The city council makes policies on myriad issues concerning the city. The largest policy areas are land use and housing policy, transportation, and utilities such as water and energy. It is not uncommon however, for Austin’s government to traverse outside of its policy jurisdiction. Or try to do so. Many will remember the continuing threats from the president and governor concerning Austin’s sanctuary cities declaration to protect undocumented migrants, and the council’s recent stance on public safety and police reform. The senior levels of government can threaten and bluster with actual force.

Against this backdrop that included escalating tensions amid closed businesses and schools, and the economic repercussions from the mishandling of the pandemic, the government tried to help. Policies like the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in Washington attempted to remedy the recession and its toll with one-time $1,200 relief payments to individuals, an extra $600 in weekly unemployment coverage, forgiveness for small businesses loans made to avoid layoffs, $153.5 billion for public health, $339.8 billion for state and local governments, and $500 billion in aid for big corporations and temporary student loan relief for students and graduates. The CARES Act did a lot, but it also ran out quickly and at this writing, the second round of relief is held up in tense congressional negotiations as food lines grow and millions of evictions are set to begin in January without help from Washington.

As for Texas, the state received $11.2 billion in CARES Act funding. So far, according to the state comptroller, cities and counties with more than half a million people received $3.2 billion, including about $170 million for Austin. It is not clear, however, what the other $8 billion is going to, and it has to be used by the end of the year.

Austin, “the live music capital of the world,” has been hit hard by COVID-19’s economic fallout. A growing list of music venues, bars, and other spaces have announced their closures in the face of uncertainty as to when the stages will be lit again. Barracuda, a Red River mainstay for fans of loud guitars, announced their permanent closure in June 2020.

A “one-two punch” was the apt description of the SXSW cancellation followed by the shutdown’s devastation to musicians by Austin Chronicle article writer Kevin Curtain.

Barracuda, a Red River Street mainstay, announced its permanent closure due to COVID 19 in June 2020
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

To help the city’s large population of musicians and artists, the City Council passed a resolution harkening back to the Civilian Conservation Corps jobs program created by President FDR in 1933 to combat the ravages of the Great Depression. The local program works to provide socially distant work. Council Member Alison Alter wrote the resolution with pandemic limitations in mind. The jobs are outside and publicly-minded: trail creation and watershed protection, to name a few.

They say all politics is local. Wild aspersions abound in today’s national political discourse. From the right, there are fears about encroaching socialism or antifa bandits shrouded in black ready to defund the police. And on the left, the fears are of a right-wing coup dismantling the results of the recent election. The acrimonious bifurcation of politics doesn’t stop with Trump and his tweets. The issues that roil politics nationally also framed the local election.

Can the city council solve the city’s biggest problems? The underlying causes may have always been present. Austin police have faced decades of protest and charges of brutality many times over, and economic inequity framed local political discourse long before COVID-19. Arguments about density and land use are meaningless unless coupled with redress of affordability and the displacement of Austin’s low-income natives by rampaging gentrification. Discussion about policing is illogical without racial justice and implicit bias atop the agenda.

As never before the pandemic has thrust these issues and their underlying truths onto the political stage. The Austin City Council may not be able to fix institutional racism with a single ordinance, but combating institutionalized racism must be met with an institutional policy response that is multifaceted – demanding not just accountability, but creation of a new ethos of cultural awareness. That’s why the city council needs activism and pragmatism, and could use more voices from across the entire spectrum of citizenry.

New roles for Austin and other global cities in the new era

The city can make policy to address local issues, but at the bottom of the governance pecking order it is constrained by an often-opposing state government, which makes wide-sweeping reform difficult. Which leads back to the question? Can the city council solve the city’s biggest problems? The answer is as familiar as it is frustrating: yes and no.

City council is a local legislature. And the new era of reform is coming at a time when local governments are on the rise, assuming new roles to confront global challenges – from climate change to migration to water quality. Austin can be among the leaders as the center of political gravity is moving from national and state capitals to city halls around the world.

A council may be one chamber instead of two as in the national and state government, and with far fewer people But it is designed with similar goals in mind. The districted council was intended to expand representation for the entire city, the residents of each district form the base of each councilor’s constituency. As evidenced by Alter’s new Civilian Conservation Corps program, each representative has distinct approaches for solving problems that affect the whole city, which ideally make better, more effective policy that helps people of every district, income level, and race.

The 10-1 reform increased diversity of council in many ways – race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and religious belief. The lasting effects of institutional reform are really found though, in the policy output. The short-term effects were on deliberation in council, and we know that unanimity of votes decreased for many policy areas, like education, immigration, and civil rights. More disagreement signals more debate, which is good for diversifying perspectives.

Anti-Strong Mayor campaign signs this year in Sacramento, Calif.

This may not be enough. Lasting effects mean changes in policy between the old at-large and new districted council. With the ongoing challenges of constraints from above, is it realistic to expect big changes in policy in this moment so demanding of reform? Maybe not, but the 10-1 does not need to be the end of reform to Austin’s government. One suggestion that has emerged to ensure real change can happen is to install a strong mayor system to work with city council.

Austin’s has a “weak mayor” system, as opposed to having a strong mayor. Strong mayors have more influence over city policy as the directly elected executive. In contrast, the mayor is the “1” in the “10-1” council. The head of city administration is the city manager, appointed by council. A strong mayor, working in coordination with council, could be a potential route to complete a new progressive rehabilitation. This separation of powers is another vestige of the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, in which good governance was sought to oppose patronage and collusion flaunted by mayor bosses. Weak mayors may have less institutional incentive for corruption, but a weak mayor is less directly accountable to the city’s voters. In a new Progressive Era of broader and more equitable representation, the council would continue to provide an effective check on the at-large position and powers of the mayor.

Inevitably, it’s a debate on organization fraught with devilish details. But had Austin had a strong mayor this summer, Police Chief Brian Manley would likely have been fired for mismanagement of Black Lives Matter protests following local and national killings of unarmed Black people by the police. The power to fire city employees rests with City Manager Spencer Cronk. For the most part, the weak mayor/manager relationship is uncontroversial. At a council meeting in June, covered by the Austin-American Statesman at the height of Black Lives Matter, Council Members Alter, Garza, Flannigan, and Casar called for Manley to be fired by City Manager Cronk. During the meeting, Alter told Cronk she was disappointed in his response, saying, “Your silence is deafening to me as the leader of 13,000 employees.” In times of social unrest when there is a clear call for strong leadership, the city manager is more likely than the mayor to fall flat. And he did.

Which is not to suggest the century-old concerns about executive corruption and patronage have somehow been resolved in the intervening years. Corruption is not some relic of the past that cannot become a contemporary problem. A single policymaker at the top of a hierarchy has more creative license to enact progressive smart urban policies, expand public transportation, and right historical wrongs. The flip side of course, is that a strong mayor also has more license to enact regressive policies. There is no easy answer to reforming any entrenched political system. In the absence of a city manager, a strong mayor would have to act in coordination with a strong council. Both branches could provide checks on the other’s power with a shared goal of expanded representation for all of Austin’s communities.

As attractive as it sounds to have a more definitive policy direction, a strong mayor may not be the answer. The first Progressive Era certainly fell short on issues such as racism and equity,  but the animating idea to expand representation, not restrict it, remains a worthy goal today. Centralizing power in any one individual’s hand, even if they are themselves progressive, is myopic. Pushing reforms to a new 21st century Progressive Era should continue the movement to expand representation by increasing voices in the policy process.

The success of a 21st century progressive movement will  be measured by both the policy output and the results on the ground in this new era – just as the measures of good governance from the first Progressive Era continue to be judged that way. In most ways, the first Progressive Era achieved its aims, instituting nonpartisan government officials and city managers to take party politics out of government and remove the impulse for patronage used by party bosses. It did so in Austin. The aspirations of today’s progressives working under the same banner are different, of course. They include adherence to the rules and reforms of old, but are now equally motivated towards equity and justice for communities of color that were underserved during the first Progressive Era.

The challenges faced by the progressives of a century ago remain. Backroom deals, public business conducted in the shadows, undue influence of interest groups may be constrained by the tenets of good governance, but they have hardly been eliminated. But now, the two spirits of reform need to be yoked together. Policymaking in broader service to Austin can be enriched and strengthened by district representation. The goal of good governance through equity should persist in more, not less, local democracy.

Tomorrow: Progressive era 2.0 – The global context and conclusion – Part VI of VI. How can Austin overcome its paradox and embrace its opportunity? Inspired by major cities like Paris and New York, the series concludes with a proposal to expand city council to better represent the city. In a post-Trump, post-Covid, post-2020 world, Austin is capable of mustering the spirit of equitable representation.


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