Statesman reporters need to unionize

Over 400 newspapers, including the Austin American-Statesman, wrote editorials today speaking out against President Trump’s attempts to undermine the press.

I admire the statement of solidarity, but there is an even greater threat to journalism than Donald Trump’s disdain for facts. The Statesman knows it better than anyone:

Ahora Sí, the American-Statesman’s weekly Spanish-language newspaper, will cease publication Oct. 11, the company said Thursday.

The announcement came at the same time the Statesman announced all its 200-plus employees would be eligible to take a voluntary severance package.

The Statesman suffered cutbacks under its previous ownership, but there’s a good chance that things are going to get much, much worse now that they’ve been taken over by GateHouse Media, whose MO when it buys papers is cuts, cuts, cuts.

A few months ago I said that Statesman reporters need to consider unionizing. I pointed out that the best outlets in the country –– the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press –– have been unionized for decades and that there has been a recent unionization wave that has hit other legacy publications and new media outlets, such as the LA Times, the New Yorker, Salon, Vice and Gawker Media.

What I didn’t realize is that I had examples to give Statesman reporters that would hit even closer to home: the 15 GateHouse media outlets that are unionized. A number of them unionized only after getting acquired by GateHouse in response to the staff cuts

In fact, five GateHouse-owned newsrooms have unionized in recent years to fight back against the cuts. Two of them were in union-friendly Illinois: The Pekin Daily Times and The State Journal-Register of Springfield. But three were in union-hostile Florida: The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), the Herald-Tribune (Sarasota) and The Ledger (Lakeland).

Here was the statement put out by the Florida Times-Union’s union shortly before they won the vote to represent their coworkers.

Our union is under no illusion that revenues associated with the news business will magically improve, and that is precisely why we have decided to unite our voices. We fear that GateHouse’s short-term strategies will lead to more and more cuts in the future. As of today, there are fewer than 40 full-time employees working across the Times-Union newsroom in metro, opinion, life, sports, photo and the copy desk – a third of the staff we had just five years ago. Once-filled desks now sit empty.

There will be tough times ahead. A union won’t necessarily stop that. But a strong contract will help to protect the work of the men and women who report, edit, photograph and put together the stories of the newspaper. In this way, a strong contract will help to preserve good jobs and impactful journalism in Jacksonville. 

To my Statesman brothers and sisters, does that sound familiar? If so, get in touch with the NewsGuild. Just make sure to use a private email.

How does free ride-sharing work?

Back when Cap Metro was redesigning its bus routes, it got some pushback over the elimination of bus service on Exposition Blvd. The rich residents of Tarrytown probably couldn’t care less about losing a bus stop, but the people baby-sitting their kids might. Also, there are apparently a bunch of tech workers who work in the area. I don’t know for who(m).

Anyway, Cap Metro came up with a solution: Mobility Innovation Zones. Those were areas on the outskirts of town that probably didn’t have enough riders to justify regular bus service but that could be ripe for some kind of other public transportation. Ride-sharing was one of the vague ideas floated.

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The patches of green on the outskirts are the innovation zones.

Tarrytown is one of six Innovation Zones currently included on the Connections 2025 map, but I think it’s the only place where they’re actually going to roll out this ride-sharing scheme. Syeda Hasan from KUT explains:

In the Austin area, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority has partnered with the nonprofit RideAustin to launch a pilot program that provides service in what’s called the Exposition Area Innovation Zone.

Capital Metro says the area, which covers only about eight city blocks near Central Austin, is home to a large number of tech workers. When RideAustin users hail a ride from within the service area, they can go to and from two particular bus stops for free.

Neither RideAustin nor Capital Metro made anyone available for an interview, but Schwieterman said the program could encourage more people to take public transit.

“Offering free trips in the Exposition area, a very tightly defined area where there’s a lot of tech jobs … is a nice little pilot,” Schwieterman said. “The city can see how we can improve mobility in that area while putting some boundaries on this so it doesn’t become too expensive.”

This will be interesting. It’s addressing the “last mile” conundrum that keeps so many in Austin from using public transit, particularly when a half-mile or one-mile walk can mean a heat stroke. A bike makes that mile much quicker but no less sweaty.

I live in a similar situation. I live 0.6 miles from the bus stop (the 803) that takes me downtown. Assuming that I was feeling a little lazier or cared a little more about being presentable when I show up to cover our distinguished elected leaders, would I take a free ride to the bus stop? Sure, why not? That’d probably be pretty sweet.

Looking at the boundaries of the innovation zone, it looks like the furthest ride somebody could get would be about 1.3 miles. I don’t know much about this neighborhood to understand what kind of a constituency this service could have, whether from residents or employees. You’ve got to wonder how many people will request two-block rides just to be assholes.

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Here’s my question: What’s the next step if it proves extraordinarily popular? I have an inkling that it’s not going to be Cap Metro offering free rides to anybody who lives more than a half-mile from a bus stop.

At the very least, there’s the data.

Data from ride-sharing companies could be especially valuable in helping transit agencies better understand how people get around, he said. But for private companies, this information is often proprietary, and ride-sharing customers are not always open to having their data shared.

I think a safer and cheaper bet would be to strike a deal with a scooter provider to deploy a bunch of scooters in one of these innovation zones and set up some way for people to get free or discounted rides when going to or from the bus stop.

Did billboards kill CodeNEXT?

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Half way through Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s autobiographical account of a year in the life of an over-the-hill major league pitcher, the protagonist gets traded from the Seattle Pilots to the Houston Astros. Trying to make sense of the trade, Bouton realizes that he was never refunded by the Seattle ownership for the $100 of a new sport drink, Gatorade, that he’d bought for his teammates. He wonders if the stated reasons for his trade were just cover for the fact that the team owner didn’t want to pay for the Gatorade.

Similarly, while the stated reasons for opposing CodeNEXT were neighborhood character and affordability, the money spent opposing the code re-write came from a handful of people (if that many) who would be delighted to see every single-family home in this city replaced with a high-rise as long as they could put a digital billboard on the façade.

The main group that organized the petition-drive, IndyAustin (run by petition-gatherer extraordinaire Linda Curtis) raised $31,607. The contribution list was pretty short. There was $5,000 from Lamar Outdoor Advertising. There was $5,000 from Reagan Advertising. And then there was $12,000 from Texas Solutions Group, the lobbying firm that represents Reagan Advertising. So two-thirds of the money that Curtis raised came from the billboard lobby.

TSG also provided $5,000 of the $12,000 that IndyAustin was loaned (the rest came from Curtis and attorney Fred Lewis).

Now, I want to be clear. Not all of the money came from the billboard lobby. For instance, IndyAustin also got $1,500 from anti-public transit activist Jim Skaggs. Highways and billboards usually find a way to get along.

There was a separate group, Let Us Vote Austin, that was started by Lewis and raised about $9,300. From what I can tell, most of its funds were provided by sincere neighborhood preservationists, not special interests with ulterior motives. Let Us Vote Austin ended up transferring about half of its money to IndyAustin.

The two groups combined to raise $36,313. Of that, $22,000, or 60%, came from billboard interests. If we also take into account the loans, then $27,000 of the $50,000, or 54%, came from billboard interests. It’s only if we count the estimated $12,000 in “in-kind” political contributions that IndyAustin received, mostly in terms of donated labor from political consultant Eric Wetzel and Curtis herself, that we can get to a place where the billboard lobby does not account for the majority of the anti-CodeNEXT groups’ contributions.

Granted, I have no idea where Community Not Commodity, one of the main groups opposing CodeNEXT (and another Lewis group) gets its money. Presumably because CNC only engaged in “issue advocacy” (while the electioneering activities were taken over by the other two groups), CnC did not have to disclose its spending or its donors to the city.

So what was this all about? What do the billboard companies want? Whatever it is, I doubt it will enhance neighborhood character.

Should we care about Columbus soccer fans?

In all of the debate over the prospect of Major League Soccer in Austin, there’s been very little talk about the soccer fans in Columbus, Ohio, who Anthony Precourt, the club owner, is trying to abandon.

Opponents of the proposed soccer stadium have cited Precourt’s willingness to ditch Columbus as evidence that he can’t be trusted and might similarly leave Austin fans in the lurch somewhere down the line, but I haven’t heard anybody argue that it’s unethical for Austin to take the team away from Columbus.

That was until today. From the Columbus Dispatch:

Austin council member Leslie Pool, whose district includes the potential stadium site and who has been skeptical of PSV’s stadium proposal, traveled to Columbus and spent her Monday trying to get a better sense in person of who and what might be impacted by Crew SC’s potential move.

….

“Any time you put a face to an opinion or concern, then you have a better sense of what you’re working for or against,” Pool said. “The pitting city against city piece has been bothering me, the fact that Columbus wasn’t aware that there was a high likelihood that (Crew investor-operator Anthony) Precourt would try to take the team to Austin and the secret rider that was in the (2013 purchase agreement with Hunt Sports Group) strikes me as bad dealing.

“I wanted to think about that and see what the actual impacts are on the families who have built their lives around soccer in this town.”

It’s unusual to see this sentiment expressed. I’ve never seen a governor or mayor reject an offer from an employer to come to town out of guilt for the city or state the company is leaving behind.

However, there does appear to be increasing concern over whether cities and states are engaged in a “race to the bottom” in trying to attract employers. The best example is Amazon, whose search for a second headquarters has already been rebuked by a number of political leaders who say that they don’t want to be complicit in what they describe as a shakedown scheme. Pool and CM Greg Casar have both voiced this opinion.

Of course, it’s hard to tell, both with soccer and Amazon, if the objection is based on a solid political/ethical principle or if that reasoning is simply cover for a straight-up distaste for the proposed project.

I’m not too worried about the efficiency audit

The strange saga of the efficiency audit continues.

Last week, Council reluctantly voted to put the measure on the ballot. The language that it approved to describe the initiative is not what the initaitive supporters wanted, but it was nowhere near as biased as the language that was originally floated, which basically told voters that if they voted in favor of it, they should expect a tax hike or service cuts.  Here’s what was approved:

“Without using the existing internal City Auditor or existing independent external auditor, shall the City Code be amended to require an efficiency study of the City’s operational and fiscal performance performed by a third-party audit consultant, at an estimated cost of $1 million-$5 million?”

Nevertheless, supporters of the audit say they’re going to sue to get the language changed. They think it’s unfair to mention the potential cost or to mention the “existing internal City Auditor,” because they argue that makes it sound like what they’re proposing is redundant.

As I’ve said before, I can see nothing inherently wrong with hiring a third-party consultant to do a comprehensive assessment of of city programs. It makes sense to do that every once in a while. But I’m also far from convinced that such an audit will yield significant savings.

What’s interesting are the political dynamics surrounding the initiative. The effort was entirely financed by some dark money conservative group but was immediately embraced by the same contingent of Old Austin “watchdog” liberals who led the anti-CodeNEXT effort, including Mr. Campaign Finance Reform himself, Fred Lewis.

Indeed, the guy running the operation, former Troxclair aide Michael Searle, tried to milk the support of Lewis, Bill Bunch and NAACP President Nelson Linder for all that it was worth. In all of the press releases in support of the policy, the only conservative quoted was Searle himself. He made sure to spotlight the local libs as much as possible.

Sometimes a policy that is born to a Republican can be adopted and raised by Democrats. Have you heard of Obamacare? But in the case of the efficiency audit, the original sin is probably a bit too fresh. No number of liberal hands could cleanse the initiative of its right-wing odor.

So while Ora Houston and Alison Alter were sold on the idea and Leslie Pool was briefly sold on the idea, many other Council members most definitely did not want to be accomplices in some Koch scheme.

It was very entertaining to see veteran Democratic strategist David Butts show up at Council and promise to defeat the measure. It was particularly entertaining because he was speaking right before Bill Bunch, who was then forced to speak in support of a measure that Butts had described as a sinister effort by people who “don’t like Austin.”

Butts, speaking like a pure-blood campaigner, said that the effort was intended to embarrass Austin. His theory was that the consultant would present a bunch of unpalatable cuts that Council would refuse, such as gutting employee pensions or privatizing Austin Energy. Then conservatives would either use it as a campaign issue or get the legislature to force such policies on the city.

Maybe. But City Council doesn’t usually follow the advice provided by consultants anyway. And most voters don’t pay attention.

As for the legislature, that is definitely a concern. But whatever schemes Greg Abbott et al have cooked up to screw over city budgets, they don’t need a year-long efficiency audit of the city of Austin to do it.

Electric buses? Meh

From Ryan Young’s last article for the Austin Monitor:

At (Cap Metro’s) July 30 board meeting, Dottie Watkins, vice president of bus operations, discussed some of the first steps the agency is taking on the road to a zero-emissions fleet.

“This really is the most exciting technology that us bus geeks have faced in a long time,” she said. “The industry as a whole has looked at battery-electric buses. We’ve been monitoring the technology for about 10 years, and folks are saying, okay, I think the technology is about ready.”

Watkins said Capital Metro is planning to purchase 40 electric buses between 2022 and 2024, as part of phase one of the fleet’s electrification. Still unknown: which models of buses, and what their capabilities will be.

In an ideal world, we will have electric buses. In fact, New York City has committed to making all of its buses electric by the time I’m 52. The economic case for electric buses actually makes a lot more sense than for personal cars.

If the bus business in Austin were booming like the car business, I’d say we should electrify the shit out of those suckers. Alas, it’s not. Despite some very encouraging figures in the first month of Cap Metro’s new routes, we’re still far, far away from the type of ridership that a city of this size should command.

Why do so few people take the bus? It’s not because they’re not electric. It’s because for most people, taking the bus takes a lot more time than driving. In many parts of the city (although far fewer parts as of June 7), the buses don’t come that often. And if you have to transfer, that means getting off one bus and then waiting for another bus that doesn’t come that often. Basically, it’s something only a poor person would endure.

Cap Metro took an important step on June 7 towards making the system much better for a lot of people. There are now 14 “frequent” routes (that come every 15 minutes), up from six. And the ridership figures in June suggest that that was the right call.

So I don’t really want to see Cap Metro invest significant funds trying to become a leader in electric buses. Instead, I  want to see the agency focus on building on the success of Cap ReMap by continuing to make service as frequent as possible in as many parts of the city as possible.

Cap Metro has already learned the hard way that bells and whistles don’t count for much when it comes to ridership. The much-hyped MetroRapid routes (801 & 803) attracted disastrously low ridership in their first two years of operation despite featuring sexy new buses, bus shelters with electric schedules and WiFi. None of those things could make up for the fact that Cap Metro inexplicably decided to charge passengers 50¢ more for those routes and the stops on the route were much farther apart than on other routes. The good news is that Cap Metro has righted some of those wrongs and as a result ridership on those two routes has been steadily climbing over the last 18 months.

There are countless factors that influence whether a person takes public transit, so arguably a sleek electric bus whose engine purrs instead of growls could convince a few more people to ditch their cars. But providing a cheap, reliable means of transportation would convince even more people.

Council’s sly move to kill efficiency audit

I didn’t really know what to think about the “efficiency audit” supported by a curious coalition of Republicans and Old Austin anti-growth liberals. My instinct was that mandating a third-party audit of city programs –– as proposed by a petition that has garnered over 30k signatures –– sounded kind of gimmicky but was not inherently offensive.

It seems like at least some Council members don’t know what to think of it either. CM Leslie Pool initially signed on as a co-sponsor but then withdrew her support. Both moves make sense: Pool has strong ties to a few of the key backers of the petition (Fred Lewis, Bill Bunch) but she also has strong ties to AFSCME, the city employees’ union that has come out in strong opposition. Other CMs, whiffing Koch, have voiced skepticism and raised concerns about who is funding the mysterious group that funded the petition drive.

While Council declined the opportunity to approve the proposed ordinance themselves, they are legally required to put the referendum on the ballot since the group got the necessary number of signatures.

However, there is some leeway in how Council can phrase the question that voters see on the ballot. The language proposed by the petition-gatherers is the following: “Shall a city ordinance be adopted requiring a comprehensive, independent, third-party audit of all city operations and budget.”

And this is the language that city staff, on the advice of Council, has proposed: “In addition to having an internal City Auditor and independent external auditor, shall the City Code be amended to require an efficiency study of the City’s operational and fiscal performance, performed by a third-party consultant, at an estimated cost of $4 million, the funding of which will require a reduction in services or an increase in the tax rate?”

Well-played! This is some straight-up Lyndon Johnson Master of the Senate shit.

Just a while ago I got a furious press release in my inbox from the folks backing the petition. Bill Bunch calls the ballot language “bogus and illegal.” And Bill Aleshire, another anti-CodeNEXTer, says that he plans to sue over it.

There are so many levels of irony to unravel here. For starters, it might be a little awkward for Pool and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, assuming they support the language staff has put forward. They only got a few moments to relish being on the winning side of a Fred Lewis/Bill Bunch lawsuit that accused the city of subverting democracy before becoming targets of such a suit themselves.

Second, it’s funny to see those pushing for more transparency in government spending object to language that gives voters more information about the potential costs of the program they’re being asked to approve.

Of course, those who will support appending the stern warning about tax hikes or budget cuts to the efficiency audit referendum would not like to see similar language next to things they want to see passed on this year’s ballot, notably the $250 million affordable housing bond. While the bond language does effectively tell voters that the program they’re approving may raise their taxes, the language is not quite as blunt. Here’s what it says:

“The issuance of $250,000,000 in tax supported general obligation bonds … and the levy of  bonds and notes for constructing, renovating, improving, and equipping affordable housing facilities for low income and moderate income persons and families, and acquiring land and interests in land and property necessary to do so, funding loans and grants for affordable housing, and funding affordable housing programs, as may be permitted by law; and the levy of a tax sufficient to pay for the bonds and notes.”

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how it plays out. I predict the mayor and Ann Kitchen will say they aren’t against the efficiency audit but they just want to make sure the language is as “transparent” as possible.

Oh, one more thing: There will also be a debate about what the CodeNEXT referendum language should look like. One of the options floated by staff was short and sweet, and specifically referenced CodeNEXT: “Shall a city ordinance be adopted to require a waiting period and voter approval before CodeNEXT or subsequent comprehensive land development revisions become effective?”

The other was much more convoluted and didn’t include the polarizing term: “Shall the City Code be amended to include a requirement that there shall be both a waiting period, for up to three years, and subsequent voter approval by election before any future comprehensive revisions of the City’s land development laws, which include
environmental, transportation, utility, zoning, subdivision, site plan, and other city ordinances, may go into effect?”

It’s not the question you ask. It’s how you ask it.