For Arthur Turner, it began with a ridiculously high water bill. For Hoover Alexander, it was the imposition of paid sick leave on his restaurant.
Turner and Alexander have gotten active in their support for Proposition K, an initiative on the ballot Nov. 6 calling for the City of Austin to hire an independent auditor to review every city department, including the utilities.
In what quickly has become a very political issue on both sides, Turner and Alexander are relative amateurs, citizen advocates for what they believe is a common-sense, good government idea. Both have provided video testimony on a supporter website, Vote Yes on Prop K.
They are part of what has this year become a movement to redress grievances by petitioning city government to give citizens a direct vote on issues Mayor Steve Adler and the city council have been struggling with.
Most recently, the political action committee IndyAUSTIN has begun circulating a petition calling for citizen authority over the final terms of a controversial contract for a $200 million soccer stadium, agreed to in principle by a divided city council. The group is asking for a citywide vote on the issue next May.
On the Nov. 6 ballot along with the audit question is Proposition J, seeking final voter approval of whatever replaces the city’s outmoded 35-year-old land development code.
Proposition J was born of exasperation with CodeNext, the city-dubbed revision, which burned up six years and $8 million, most of it in cost overruns, and produced a thick document that pleased almost no one.
What particularly angered CodeNext and MLS soccer skeptics was what they say was the short shrift given to public objections by the mayor and the city council. When the council refused to give CodeNext opponents a public vote on the code, they sued and the city lost.
IndyAUSTIN is hoping to roll back what opponents have for months called a “massive giveaway” of a 24-acre city-owned property, while at the same time the council is asking voters on Nov. 6 to approve a $250 million affordable housing package, $28 million of it to buy land.
The seeming indifference of the council and the water utility to Turner and hundreds of other homeowners whose water bills inexplicably spiked in October 2017 infuriated Turner.
He tried to get a correction for a bill that was several times the usual monthly charge for service at an East Austin property owned by a family member in California.
Over the course of 18 months, Turner said he went back and forth with the utility “eight or nine times,” each time being asked to deal with the relative in California.
Neither Ora Houston, the council member for the district where the property is located, nor Greg Casar, Turner’s council member, were able to help, even though by January it became clear that more than 7,400 customers had been billed for readings made up out of thin air by two outgoing water meter reading contractors.
It was through Ellen Troxclair, the lone conservative member of the city council and the member who consistently called for a utility investigation and refunds for those overbilled, that Turner met Michael Searle.
Searle, Troxclair’s former chief of staff, asked for Turner’s signature on a petition calling for an audit not only of the water utility but of all city departments.
“From the very beginning, to me it was just basic common sense,” Turner said. “Is there an ombudsman in this city where a common person like me can bring a concern? The answer is no. As a citizen, I have no recourse.”
Turner, who now serves as a volunteer on the contact team for the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association, said he supported the city’s decision in 2014 to change its council from at-large representation to 10 districts. But he doesn’t think that opened the council to greater citizen input.
Instead, it has sharpened the targeting of the mayor and city council members by political insiders, which is why so many people left out of the conversation have turned to petitioning, Turner said.
Turner said the current example is the emergence of David Butts, a paid lobbyist and political consultant, in the efficiency audit debate. Butts, whose clients include Mayor Adler and more than half of the city council, has called Searle’s effort a conservative conspiracy to undermine city programs, funded with “dark money” from unidentified donors.
“The question I wish someone was asking David Butts is, ‘Who’s paying you?’ ” Turner said. “David Butts is not elected. He represents one vote. I think there is a major uprising coming, a commentary going on where the mayor and the council are not even involved.”
Hoover’s Cooking has been a Texas soul food institution in Austin for 20 years. Namesake Hoover Alexander said he’s watched as other venerable dining institutions like Hill’s Cafe and, most recently, Threadgill’s went out of business.
At a time of rapidly increasing rents and other costs, Alexander said he and other small-business people were blindsided by an ordinance shepherded through the city council in less than a month by council member Greg Casar to require businesses to pay employees for up to eight days of sick leave.
Alexander said he was “completely blown away,” at how little time the council allowed for small businesses to express their concerns about the burden the ordinance places on them. Council members and supporters in the audience the night the ordinance passed veered from indifference to hostility toward what business owners had to say, he said.
“It bothers me what a disconnect we have between our government and we, the people,” Alexander said. “It seems to me that there is not enough listening to what we’re saying.”
What Searle’s petition said to Alexander was, here is an opportunity for voters to ask that their government be transparent about how it spends their tax money. “This was a no-brainer for people like me who don’t spend a lot of time on political issues.”
Like Turner, Alexander said critics have mostly disparaged the motives of Searle and the more than 30,000 people who signed his petition, rather than explaining what they see wrong with the effort itself.
“As a tax-paying citizen, it’s my desire to know, it’s my right to know, how my money is being spent,” he said. “It bothers me how divisive it is — you’re playing for the wrong team, you’re wearing the wrong jersey — all the people in the middle don’t have time for that. Let the audit stand on its own merit. I think it’s worth a shot.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].