An Open Letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton

Dear General Paxton:

We get it. You don’t like the way we do things in Austin and, because you live here as Attorney General, you have every constituent’s right to complain. Many Austinites write the local paper and that’s okay, too, but what you wrote in your op-ed several days ago was wrong.

I don’t want to get into a back-and-forth with you. Suffice it to say that Austin follows the law and does not thwart its enforcement, and we point out racial disparities only where they exist – and they do.  Besides, if I refute your every single claim, point by point, it would come off like an indictment, and that wouldn’t do anything for our relationship.

The issue is not Austin breaking existing laws, it’s the State passing and threatening new laws to preempt and abridge our city’s otherwise legal conduct.  After Austin acts of, by and for its people, the State swoops in to endanger our environment, make our community less safe, take away affordable housing tools and earned sick leave, all of which are attempts at interfering with the culture of Austin that, importantly, drives our economy and quality of life.

Recently, you filed a lawsuit against 8 community volunteers on one of Austin’s many boards and commissions alleging that the Austin Council’s acceptance of their volunteer service violates our city charter. This is a local issue involving our interpretation of our city charter and your suit typifies state-level overreach and the assault on local control. You allege that a charter limitation on the number of land developers that can serve on our planning commission would apply to a retired real estate agent, a Travis County government attorney, and an executive director of an affordable housing non-profit.  Really? There have got to be more important issues for the Texas Attorney General.  It is no justification for suing us that a couple of Austinites petitioned to have you interfere with the local steps already initiated to deal with this issue. Our community should work together to resolve differences without having or inviting the Attorney General’s intervention.

I must apologize to you.  You became a full-time Austin resident the same time I got elected Mayor, and I never welcomed you. This is my fault and maybe why you constantly target Austin. Please let me make it up to you by telling you some things about this great city that I hope you come to think of fondly as home.

First, we are prosperous. We all love to brag about how Texas creates jobs, but Austin’s unemployment rate is lower than the state’s and the country’s. And while some say we do things a little differently, the last thing we are is anti-innovation. In fact, Austin leads Texas in venture capital, startups, and patents. This isn’t your area, but we’re ready to share advice about how to expand the Austin economic miracle to the rest of Texas.

Second, we’re safe. We’re the safest big city area in Texas and one of the safest in the country. We look out for each other. Remember the serial bombings last March? Except for when a state-wide politician spread ill-informed rumors on national TV, everybody worked in unison to quickly stop the terror. Because Austin’s immigrant communities trust our police officers, witnesses and victims step forward and we get bad actors off our streets.  Our police make decisions based not on seeking political advantage, but on how to keep our community safe.

Third, we understand something about America that’s too often forgotten. Our differences make us stronger. E pluribus unum! One reason Austin is so successful and safe is that we’re an extraordinarily welcoming city. We don’t care who you are or how you got here. We just want people in Austin to feel welcome and safe. That’s why we don’t freak out about which toilets people choose to use. That’s true personal liberty!

Your Sam Houston quote is a good one: “Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may.”  You and I differ, however, on the source of oppression. You see it in a ban on plastic bags or distracted driving. I don’t.  Why does preventing litter or making traffic safer feel oppressive?

Austin will do things our way for as long as we can in as many ways as we can because that is the will of our community. So far, it has resulted in Austin being named the best city in the U.S. to live in – multiple times. We could do things like they do everywhere else, but then we’d be like everywhere else.

Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are all great cities.  Each has different strengths, values, and local economies.  Each attracts different residents and businesses that contribute differently to the State in different cycles. Texas is stronger because she has a diversified portfolio of cities.

No city is perfect – like most, Austin grapples earnestly with managing growth, and balancing personal freedoms, property rights, economic opportunity, environmental preservation, and affordability. Yet, cities are our best hope for trying new things and actually getting things done. Our nation’s greatest challenges are playing out in cities. And it will be cities that incubate innovation, provide economic engines, and lead in solving our greatest challenges, provided cities are given the necessary freedom and local control.  We in Austin continue to believe, as did our founding fathers, that the government closest to the people governs best.

I’m sorry for going on like this. We all can get stuck on our soapboxes from time to time. Ours are local decisions we recognize are made differently in different parts of Texas and that’s okay. I hope this gives you a better perspective on why we do things the way we do in Austin, and why we know doing so makes both Austin and Texas better.

Steve Adler

Austin Mayor