My Final Community Development Commission Meeting

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 marked my final meeting as a member of Austin’s Community Development Commission. The Montopolis community will elect a replacement at its March 25, 2019 meeting. My service on this commission first began after the 2014 city council election, in which I strongly supported Steve Adler for mayor over his primary opponent, former city councillor Mike Martinez. I served as mayor Adler’s appointee to the commission between August 2015 and November 2017. In August of 2018 I was elected back to the commission, this time as the Montopolis representative. My reappointment was controversial, as there were staffers inside the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development department who for one reason or another did not want me back on the commission. A former interim director of the department found an opportunity to accuse me of harboring nefarious sexist inclinations for my use of the words “warm and moist” to describe what I (and my constituents) considered to be fake concern for community engagement in the wake of the displacement and dispersion of the low income residents residing at the Cactus Rose trailer park in Montopolis. It was a bizarre spectacle to be accused of all manner of ill intentioned malfeasance by members of the city council, none of whom bothered to contact me (other than the mayor), and who if accused of an impropriety of their own, would be insisting upon their right of due process, and a public inquiry at their first opportunity.

In our present era of trigger words and safe spaces, it is poor people or their representatives who must learn to accept the routine infliction of emotional flesh wounds. Institutional power or its representatives, on the other hand, get to act like snowflakes or stiletto wearing mopsies if they feel themselves under verbal assault, especially if the person doing the “assaulting” is a large Black man with a military pedigree and a Ph.D.

In any case, for your reading pleasure, I here reproduce my final words before the commission. They furnish, I believe, decent illustration of how I saw my board service, and the challenges inherent in serving inside a system designed to maintain or even perpetuate poverty while claiming to do the opposite. Video of my remarks can be found below as well.

“As you, Mr. chairman, and some of our distinguished colleagues know, this will be my last meeting on this commission.  It has been an interesting three year ride, and pressing obligations compel me to direct my attention elsewhere.

What I would like to do is to lay out, sum up what I’ve seen during my tenure on this body, issue a complaint, and to offer words of advice to the new members of this commission.  Because time is short and opportunity fleeting, I seldom take the time to completely explain how I see the role of community development commissioner, especially some of the deeper motivations animating my actions.   

Allow me to begin with item #2 first:  Mr. Chairman, there are two resolutions which I furnished you last week that were only belatedly placed on tonight’s agenda, and only after I raised objections about their initial omission.  The resolutions were emailed to every commissioner within the 5-day notice period required by our bylaws.  When I saw that my resolutions had not been placed on the agenda, I emailed you the provision of our bylaws governing the placement of agenda items, and reached out to you further to inform you that tonight’s meeting would be my last and to inquire as to your thinking on this matter.  You chose to ignore me until noon today, when you decided to respond to an email I sent you about this on the morning of March 9th.  

Mr. Chairman, I wish you to know that in my opinion, these decisions were at best ill-advised, and at worst discourteous, even disrespectful.  In my military career such treatment of a senior by a junior member of the wardroom would have invoked contempt. I have known you since your arrival in Austin.  At the time, your residence in our city was brought to my attention by your desire to participate in Democratic party political affairs, and I am a former president of the Black Austin Democrats.  I know your father — we marched alongside one another in the 2012 Juneteenth Parade, and posed for a photograph at Rosewood Courts.

I have never had cause to seriously doubt your competence and commitment, but this is an exception.  I am compelled to say these things publicly, because you would not properly speak with me privately.  Appropriate attention to a tight agenda that is promulgated as early as possible is necessary because it is often difficult for citizens to make arrangements to appear at public hearings.  That is especially true of poor and minority populations.  That you were not sufficiently sensitive or attuned to these needs speaks volumes about who you are and whose interests you actually represent on this commission.  It is my fervent hope is that you will receive the heartfelt criticism of your chairmanship in the spirit of the warmth in which they are intended, in I what I hope will be a long and fruitful career in public affairs.

To my colleagues, old and new, I say this:  some of us on this body are appointed and some of us are elected.  As an elected official, I have a responsibility to represent my constituency.  In my case, that’s a neighborhood whose very nickname is “Poverty Island.”  But I also have personal reasons.  I grew up in poverty, and my parents also experienced some of the most severe deprivation the 20th century could offer.  Whatever I have said or done in my time on this commission has sprung forth from my belief that the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.  In short, it is my conviction that poor people ought to be given the tools to lift themselves up and to improve their station, as I did.  To the extent that non-profits, agencies, bureaucrats, or politicians interfere with this, I direct my energies toward the dismantlement of such obstacles.  I know, because I have lived that experience, not because I am Professor McGhee, man about town.

Finally, for the new members of this commission, I ask you to always bear in mind this:  the best guide for how you should politically discharge your responsibilities on this body is history, especially the history of anti-poverty efforts in our country and in our city.  There are reasons why we haven’t fixed poverty, despite a range of attempts to do so.  Use basic critical thinking skills to question the claims of the staff, especially on distinctions between matters of fact, and matters of policy values.  Reach out to people who can furnish you with a more grounded point of view; you can start by listening to the people who were elected to this commission, but don’t stop there.  Remember, it’s not about you, the politician who appointed you, or the staff, or non-profits, it’s about the people in our city struggling against the odds, on the downside of advantage.  The rich and powerful in our city already have ample and vigorous representation; your job is to represent those that are too often victimized by them.

Farewell, good luck, and may your political compass always point towards true north.

I now willingly submit myself to fearsome questioning, should you so desire.”

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