Richard's Blog

Boiling Water and Human Error

Austin’s latest boil-water notice resulted in resident inconvenience, closed businesses, and bars/restaurants forced to provide bottled water to customers.  The problem giving rise to the notice has been generically described as “human error” at the Ullrich water plant, the sole source of water in south Austin. 

The most pertinent information provided by Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros (resigned), during his recent appearance before City Council, was the underlying culture and workforce issues that have plagued the Ullrich plant in recent years.  These continuing issues include attrition of experienced employees and vacancies at Austin Water exceeding 10%.  Twenty employees left in January, the most ever in one month.  According to Meszaros, the persistent turnover is diluting experience at Austin Water.

Human error does not occur in a vacuum, and a focus on individual employee(s) is usually misplaced.  More often than not, human error is a result of a culture or environment created, or allowed to exist, by higher ups.  Here, that is Austin City Council.  

Councilmember Paige Ellis has variously been the Chair or member of the Water Oversight Committee for several years.  She has defensively stated that the current issue at Ullrich is not a result of crumbling infrastructure or underfunding.  Perhaps.  

The issue is apparently more insidious than funding or infrastructure.  Namely, the failure of City Council in general and the Water Oversight Committee in particular, to appreciate or address the people issues at Austin Water.  What was the Water Oversight Committee doing (or not doing) in recent years about employee attrition at Austin Water?  Demoralization or dissatisfaction of employees at Austin Water lies at the feet of City Council.  Human error?  There you have it.  

Ellis has recently stated that city departments will be held to a high standard and should be held accountable.  But deflecting blame is not what leaders do.  When will City Council be held accountable?

There was a time when people followed the adage “failure is not an option.”  Not so much anymore.  Austin deserves better.

A Dangerous Anniversary

This June marks the one-year anniversary of the decision by Austin City Council to “defund” the police.  What has been the result of that decision?

Violent crime is and has been on the rise in Austin, with homicides approaching the total for 2020 at the midway point of 2021.  Some have argued that, when one also considers nonviolent crimes, the overall crime rate in Austin is down from 2020.  Personally, I am much more concerned about being murdered than having an Amazon delivery stolen from my porch.  

What are others saying about the “defund” movement?  Scott Wolfe, Ph.D., a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, believes that the efforts to defund or abolish the police have “emboldened criminals.”  Dr. Wolfe defines emboldened criminals as those that consider the police as illegitimate and therefore “go against their authority,” and those that do not believe the law applies to them because it “only serves those in power.”

What about other cities that defunded the police?  New York City, Oakland, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles are now planning to “refund” their police departments with tens of millions of dollars to support more efforts to confront the uptick in crime.  No, Austin, is not on that list.  Meanwhile, Mayor De Blasio will return $92 million to NYPD and Baltimore is reversing its efforts to cut its police budget by $22 million by proposing a $27 million increase. 

And where is Austin now?  Numerous APD departments have been eliminated or downsized.  At least 130 officers have retired or resigned from APD since October 1, 2020.  Even with the new cadet class starting this June, APD is losing more officers than it is bringing on.  Austin is also spending millions of dollars to train APD officers in critical race theory.  That is, taking the color of one’s skin into consideration when enforcing the law.  Even more officers will undoubtably resign if they are forced to discriminate in law enforcement.

 (See, Criminal justice professor says calls to defund the police “emboldened criminals,” July 18, 2021).

June 2021 is indeed a dangerous anniversary.  But the citizens of Austin are fighting back with a petition to increase the number of police officers to safe levels and, among other things, increases the training officers receive for addressing critical situations that may result in the use of deadly force.  This is a nonpartisan effort to make Austin safe again.  See to sign the petition.

AISD and the Foolish Hike Leader

Austin Independent School District (AISD) recently decided to block financial support from PTAs for student enrichment resources, including extra staff positions such as reading and math specialists.  Those PTAs supported more affluent schools whereas PTAs at other schools could not afford such student enrichment resources. 

So, in the name of “equity,” AISD blocked the more affluent PTAs from providing those educational resources to students.  If all students did not have access to those resources, none of them would.

AISD’s decision reminded me of an experience I had as a boy scout growing up.  Let me explain.

An adult hike leader took a group of about eight boys on a hike through some rugged Texas terrain on a sunny and hot summer day.  About the time we should have completed the hike, the leader announced that he was lost.  None of us knew the way either, although we all had ideas about which way was “out.”  

All of us were extremely thirsty at this point, including the hike leader, but only one boy had a canteen with water.  His entrepreneurial mind decided to sell swigs of water for a nickel apiece.  But . . . some boys had money and others did not.  The hike leader decided this situation was not fair, took the boy’s canteen, and poured all of the water out.  In the name of “equity,” all would be lost and needing water.  

There we were, hot, tired, thirsty, lost, and . . . out of any water for anyone in the group. Of course, the wise thing the hike leader should have done was to figure out a way that all the boys could have water even though some could not pay for it.  

What AISD should have done was to thank the parents financially supporting the affluent schools and make sure that the less affluent schools could also benefit from the same types of resources.  But it seems like the drive for equity too often makes equity at the level of the “have nots” rather than the “haves.”   

Lifting up students should be the work of all school districts and PTAs, as well as parents and the State of Texas.  And here is a suggestion how: use some of the $5.5 billion of federal pandemic aid Texas is distributing to schools to make sure that all students have the necessary resources available to succeed.

The Future of Public Safety in Austin

Austin City Council decided a year ago to pause police cadet classes and began a process of defunding the police. As a driver of that decision, Mayor Adler prefers the word “reallocating” to “defunding.” I suggest a couple of other words: decimating and demoralizing the individuals sworn to protect and serve our city. Those words reflect the result of the decision by City Council.

Austin’s current number of sworn police officers is below the staffing levels in 2004. To put that in context, the population of Austin in 2004 was 1,075,00. The population in the Austin metro area in 2020 was 2,053,000. That means that Austin’s population has essentially doubled since 2004 but with a smaller size police force than in 2004. No wonder crime has increased in our city.

City Council recently voted to restart police cadet classes on June 7th. This previously cancelled cadet class will start with fewer cadets than the group that had committed to starting in June 2020. This cadet class will be run as a pilot with oversight to determine whether changes to police training are implemented. The City Council vote to resume police classes was conditional, with the right to pause classes if Council’s desired changes have not been made. The class is officially called the Pilot Reimagined Cadet Training Academy.

With the passage of Proposition C on May 1st, the Austin City Council (rather than the City Manager) is authorized to determine how the director of the Office of Police Oversight is appointed or removed through a city ordinance.

All organizations should make changes that improve the purpose of the organization. This includes police departments and city governments. What all of this means for Austin’s public safety is yet to be seen, but I am not optimistic given the reckless decisions made by City Council in the past. One need only look to cities like New York, Baltimore, and Portland to see how local efforts resulting in the decimation of their police force have worked out.

Our Neighbors in the Tents: A Few Thoughts on Proposition B

For several years, I have had the incredible privilege of serving our homeless neighbors in Austin. During that time, I have learned that it is community that will solve homelessness, not merely providing housing or other forms of shelter.

Proposition B was a bipartisan response to the decision by Austin’s city council to lift the “camping ban” that had been in place in Austin for twenty-three years. The given reason for lifting the ban was that prior policies addressing homelessness had failed to work.

Two years later, homelessness in our city has worsened and become more dangerous to our homeless neighbors and other residents of our city. Meanwhile, our city council has floundered in trying to provide hotel rooms for the homeless. That approach will not solve homelessness. In fact, many of the homeless already have a roof over their head or other forms of shelter—they are called tents. Clearly the policies of the past two years have failed. 

Austin is a community. We share public spaces. Public spaces, like parks and sidewalks, are meant to be used by members of the community on a temporary basis, with individuals having the responsibly of maintaining those public spaces for use by the next individual. That is the reason Austin’s rules (even before Proposition B) ban camping in parks and on sidewalks.

Passing Proposition B was a reasonable response by the citizens of Austin. But it is not a solution to homelessness or the end of our shared responsibility to our homeless neighbors.

Austin is at an inflection point in reducing homelessness in our community. There are several organizations in the Austin area that provide paths to help the homeless move off the streets. These paths are paved with dignity and humanity for the people that wind up on the streets as “homeless.” Remember, these neighbors are not “house” less, they are “home” less. Home means an environment where people are safe, welcome, and part of a community.

Austin, we can do much better. But looking to our city council to solve homelessness is not the answer. Best to look in the mirror instead.