INTERVIEWEE: Brigid Shea (BS)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: November 17, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
MEDIA: HD video
[Please note that the numbers below refer to time codes for the interview recording.]
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It is November 17, 2018. We’re in Austin and we are in Brigid Shea’s home. And we have the good fortune to be visiting with her. And, for those who aren’t familiar, she has a—a long and illustrious career that stretches from days as an NPR journalist to work as an activist with Clean Water Action, the SANE/Freeze Program, Save Our Springs, and other groups that she’s volunteered with. And she’s also been involved in politics, serving in Austin City Council and currently as—as the Travis County Commissioner. So many aspects to her conservation work, but I just wanted to thank you for taking time to—to talk to us about some of them.
BS: Oh, you’re so welcome. I’m—I’m happy to—and honored, actually, to be part of this.
DT: Great. Well, thank you so much. We usually start these interviews by asking about your childhood and if there might have been some influences from your family or early friends or neighbors that—that might have inspired an interest in the out of doors and conservation or—or civic work, in general?
BS: I think I actually come by a lot of it from my parents. My dad was a huge outdoorsman. When he was younger, he’d go on big adventures. And he and his brother, they grew up first in Buffalo and then moved to Florida, partly because he had allergies and the doctors said that Florida would be better. And I think—I think my grandma probably like tilted the—the scales a little in that direction too. But they traveled from Florida to—to Canada and just had a grand old adventure. And he kept a big journal on it, but he would do things like that.
And so when we were kids, we’d go on these great adventures in the summer. One summer, we followed the Lewis and Clark Trail. And he’d read to us from their—their journals, their diaries, and talk to us about the places that we were at or where we were going and, you know, how it was part of—of their journey. So he really had a—a big influence on me in that regard, and my—and my mother too. She was very independent. They were both—they both came from kind of a medical and a helping profession.
My father was a ear, nose, and throat specialist and my mother was a psychiatric social worker. And she would say at times that her patients were better behaved than we kids were. But, anyway, my dad would—he would take care of people whether they could pay or not. And because there weren’t a lot of specialists in North Dakota, he would ride the train and go from town to town taking care of people. And I’ve—I’ve met people who—who he—who he cared for. But if they couldn’t pay, he’d take payment in chickens or beef or whatever they had, they—that they could pay with.
So I think I came by both my—I’d say I came by my—my interest, both in the outdoors and—and the environment from my parents and also my—my sense of that you have a duty to—to the community. I—I really—I think they set that example really powerfully. And the other thing that I think influenced me growing up was just the brutality of the natural environment in North Dakota, which was where I was born and raised. People routinely froze to death, and still do, in the winters there because they’re so brutal.
And you really develop a respect for the environment when you live in a place that can kill you, I mean, where the environment literally can—can kill you and did kill people. So I’d say probably those combination of forces had a big influence on me.
DT: Okay. So, as you grew up, eventually I believe you worked for the local newspaper. Is that correct?
BS: I did. I did. I—I had a big justice streak. Part of it was my dad died young and I felt like, you know, I had to prove a lot to the community. I’m also the youngest of four so I think there was a lot of, you know, that’s not fair growing up with three older siblings. But I worked for the newspaper I think a couple of summers when I was in college, and was the editor of the college newspaper and—and knew that—that I—I wanted to be a journalist, actually was the—it was the whole Watergate scandal that had a huge impact on me.
It was happening when I was finishing up high school. And I remember seeing All the President’s Men and thinking, “That’s what I want to do.” These people are righting wrongs. They’re unmasking corruption. You know, they’re—they’re resetting the—the—the table and putting things right and that’s what I want to do. And they didn’t offer a journalism degree at my college. It was a Catholic women’s college, but I got a liberal studies degree. So I got a good background in a lot of different subjects.
And then I pieced together a sort of a—a minor, if you will, in journalism and began working at the local commercial radio station and also the campus radio station, which was connected with Minnesota Public Radio. And that was my real goal. I really—I wanted to work for Minnesota Public Radio because I felt like they were the gold standard for—for journalism. They just did outstanding work. And I eventually ended up there and worked there for three years with a remarkable guy, Bill Siemering, who was really one of the creators of the National Public Radio News Program, All Things Considered.
He was one of the architects of that. And—and then I followed him to Philadelphia. He left Minnesota Public Radio and went to work for the NPR Station in Philly, and I eventually got my way there to—to work with him again.
DT: Well, can you tell us a little bit about what it was that appealed to you about journalism? I think you sort of touched on it, that there was a aspect of—of covering stories that maybe weren’t well understood or maybe were concealed and—and that Watergate was maybe the kind of example that you were working towards. Is that what you’re saying?
BS: I think journalism was a way to bring about justice and also to educate people and help people understand, you know, what was really happening or, you know, what was the right way to understand a complicated issue. And I really—I really believed that if you educated people, if you brought them the facts, that you could change their thinking, that you could change, you know, their view of the world and maybe the choices they made or the way they behaved. I’m a little less convinced of that after many years of experience, but I believed it then and that was part of what motivated me to be a journalist.
DT: Well and—and could you tell us more about—about NPR where you—you spent a number of years both in Minnesota and then later in Pennsylvania?
BS: You know, I did—I did a lot of stories that were sort of, again, justice related. I covered the public schools in Philadelphia, which was extremely eye-opening and it was a—it was sort of a warning for any large urban area about what can happen when you let your public schools just fall apart. And I also covered religion. That was one of the beats that I kind of created when I was working in Philadelphia. There really wasn’t any—I would say there weren’t any journalists, at that time, that were covering religion specifically.
But Bill Siemering was very creative and very open to ideas and he liked the idea. So I was able to sort of specialize in—in that area as well.
DT: So you were covering sort of the day-to-day life for kids—for their Monday through Friday and then their families I guess, whether they went to synagogue on Saturdays or—or church maybe on Sundays.
BS: Yeah, and I—I did a—it was a little soup to nuts. I covered some of the local politics as well, which were always semi-crazy in Philadelphia. I mean, every day there was, you know, another wild news story. It wa—I—when I was there, the mob was fighting for control over Atlantic City because they were building up the casinos there. And virtually every other day, there was another body that would show up in somebody’s trunk.
And it was, you know, you know, m—m—mook, you know, the mouser, or whatever the names were of these mobsters that were going after each other for New York and New Jersey mobs and the Philadelphia mobs. Oh, it was a colorful experience. There was always a lot going on.
DT: Well, were—were your stories mostly about, you know, what, when, where, or were some of the stories about why and sort of getting to the policy roots behind why the schools were failing or, you know, why the mob was active or, you know, why churches weren’t addressing their congregations [inaudible]?
BS: Yeah, that really—that really is the hallmark of I think any of the National Public Radio news coverage that you hear is really trying to get behind, you know, the basic headlines or the—the—the initial facts of a story to—to ask the question, “Why is this happening and, you know, what can be done about it, and how should we understand it?”
DT: How do—how do you do that when—I guess even—I mean, things are quite partisan now, but then you—you—you’ve got to I guess give both sides of a story, but sometimes one side has the preponderance of the truth, yet you’re trying to juggle the two.
BS: That was always difficult. I mean, the rule was that you tried to give, you know, both sides or if there were more than two sides to the story, to try and include them. But, yeah, there were times when I felt like one side was right and the other side was not and it was a—it was a hard line to walk to try and be fair and be open-minded and to include other points of view.
DT: And—and I imagine that when you were telling these stories, a lot of them are technical, you know, whether it’s I guess the stories of—of politics or education or—or crime, that you need somebody who’s an expert. And I—I was wondering if you got to have sort of a insight about how to find experts and—and get their—their advice on how to cover a story and maybe their testimony and, you know, their—their story as well. Is—is that right? I mean, you weren’t just doing the narration. You were actually trying to im—import people’s views of things.
BS: Well that—that was a really important part of my work was to try and identify people who were—who really were experts and who were thoughtful and who could explain things well. Or if I felt like somebody was being evasive and not telling the truth, I would, you know, I’d learn to sort of fish with little bits of information or suggestions to try and pull things out of people who I thought weren’t—weren’t being—weren’t being honest. So, yeah, you develop those—I guess those skills when you’re a journalist.
DT: So you were working with NPR from, if—if I understood, 1977 to about ’86 or ’87?
BS: I worked as a journalist. I started out with a commercial radio station in—in St. Cloud, Minnesota. But, yeah, I was working as a journalist from ’77 till—it was heading into ’87, yeah, around that time.
DT: Okay. Well about that—the end of that period, you decide to move into, I guess more policy related stuff and start working for SANE [National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy]. Is that correct?
BS: Yeah, and that was part of my journalism work. They had a national radio program called Consider the Alternatives, which looked a lot at nuclear disarmament. We did a massive series on Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, which was ridiculed as “Star Wars” and did a hu—a huge series, which won some national awards. Ed Asner ended up as the narrator and I did all the research and the writing and the interviewing and—and put it all together. But—so I was doing that while I was working for SANE/Freeze.
I was producing their national radio program. And then for a time, I was their National Press Secretary.
DT: So can—can you talk a little bit about that move from NPR to being the I guess sort of the—the Press Secretary for SANE/Freeze, where you moved from covering the news to trying to maybe make the news.
BS: That was actually a different transition. I didn’t—I didn’t fully understand and—and I think things have changed since then, but in the mid ‘80s, it was really frowned upon to leave the journalism profession and go to work essentially for an advocacy organization. And I was actually in—in the Soviet Union as part of the—the SALT Treaty Summit that Ronald Reagan and—and Mikhail Gorbachev held. And I was working—both working in the press area and I was the Press Secretary for the SANE/Freeze Organization.
So I was—I was passing out press releases in—to the press about activities that we were participating in, because we had a whole delegation that was there representing the peace movement and the anti-nuclear movement in the U.S. And I actually had journalists yell at me for being an advocate and—and being in the press area, that—that—that I shouldn’t be there and that I shouldn’t be essentially straddling those two worlds.
And I—and I, you know, had conversations with people afterwards and they were—they were unhappy that I had left journalism and was doing advocacy work but was keeping my foot in the journalism world because I had—I was gathering m—m—m—m—radio material for the national radio program that we were producing. I wasn’t producing it but I was gathering interviews and—and audiotape for the radio program.
DT: And—and can you explain a little bit about what—what drew you to SANE/Freeze and—and being involved in these negotiations about intercontinental ballistic missiles, you know, maybe you could take us back to that period.
BS: Yeah, part of it was the—the importance of the work. It’s hard I think for people to fully appreciate how terrified the nation was that Ronald Reagan might get us into a nuclear war. And that was the genesis of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. There were literally city by city, county by county, you know, borough by borough, all across the U.S., communities passing laws or resolutions or ordinances that would declare their communities as nuclear weapons free zones. And part of that was a pushback at the grassroots level to a national direction that they so profoundly disagreed with and there was so much fear about.
I mean, it—it really is hard for people to appreciate these days how—how deep the fear was that Reagan might get us into a nuclear war. And—and so I was drawn to that as a movement. And they needed a—a Press Secretary because they were—they were merging. It was the old SANE Organization that started as a Ban the Bomb Movement when we thought it was a good idea to do nuclear testing in the open air. And Norman Cousins and Albert Schweitzer and no—other scientists and—and national leaders formed SANE to oppose that.
And then the next new generation was the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. So those organizations merged and they chose as their national president the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, who had been a really heroic leader in the Civil Rights Movement. And he’s worth a whole story all by himself. But I—I—I—I looked for people I admired to work with. And when that opportunity came available, I—I knew I wanted to work with him and learn as much from him as I could. So I—I went to Washington to be their National Press Secretary.
DT: And in part to learn from Minister Coffin. I mean, there…
DT: …was there currently a curiosity about justice and Civil Rights that drew you to him?
BS: Oh absolutely. I mean, I—I felt like he was a kindred spirit. I was al—I already had a big justice streak and was pursuing it at—at a number of levels, first as a journalist and—and then as an advocate. But I also just thought he is a remarkable person and clearly a—a great leader. And since he’s, you know, going to be the head of this newly merged organization and they needed a Press Secretary, I signed up and I was ready to go.
DT: Well, and—and I guess not too long after you got involved in this, there—there was the passage of SALT II. Is that right and…?
BS: Well that was the treaty that Reagan and—and Gorbachev negotiated. And it—it was remarkable. I think it’s the—the greatest Nuclear Disarmament Treaty in the history of the world practically and one that Trump has recently now withdrawn from. And I think Gorbachev said something like, “This is clearly not the work of great minds.”
DT: Well with that, you know, important treaty passed, it sounds like you were open to new challenges. Is that correct?
BS: That is exactly right. I felt like the—the peace movement, the anti-nuclear movement, was—was well on its way toward a good resolution. And the summer of—of ’88—because it was the winter of ’87 I think when the—when the treaty negotiations happened—and the summer of ’88, I was literally moved to—to life changing decision by the testimony of a scientist. I was working as the Press Secretary and I every day would read the New York Times to understand what was going on at the national level.
And there was a front page story about the testimony by a scientist who, at the time, was the head of NASA’s Goddard Space Inst—Space Institute, which studied wh—what was happening at planetary—at a planetary level. And they’d been studying a phenomenon for a while and had recently sort of connected the dots and figured out what was causing it. And that was the nature of his testimony in the summer of 1988, Dr. James Hansen. And it was that the burning of fossil fuels was creating a—a blanket of pollution around the planet and it was trapping the heat from the sun.
And if it went unchecked, we’d heat up the planet to the point where human life and most other life wasn’t viable anymore. And it—I was so alarmed by the story I made a decision right then and there that I needed to work on that issue. Peace Movement was taking care of itself. That was good. Now this was a new threat to the existence of the world and I needed to work on that. And I literally put the newspaper down, I picked up the phone, and I called friends in Washington and said, “Did you see this story? We all need to work on this or we should measure our coffins and get in because, you know, it’s over.”
And—and I wanted to know who was working on these kinds of things, who was helping to elect people who would make a difference and who would, you know, be con—concerned about the environment. And a number of people told me about an organization that was starting a chapter in Texas called Clean Water Action. And they were going to help Jim Hightower if he decided to run for the U. S. Senate against Phil Graham. And I was a huge fan of Hightower. I’d read about him in national publications and seen him speak and was really a big—a fan.
And I really didn’t like Phil Graham and I just thought, “Sign me up. I can’t think of a—a better place to be.” And so I came to Texas sight unseen that September—September of 1988.
DT: And—and you’ve—you were the cofounder then of Texas Clean Water Action?
BS: Yeah, I was the State Program Director and I—I really helped create the program in the state.
DT: Well can you maybe just as a place to start, tell us a little bit about the fellow who hired you?
BS: Yes, because he was someone who was also a mentor for me and someone who—who really taught me a great deal about grassroots organizing and power dynamics. His name was David Zwick. And he was the founder of Clean Water Action. He was one of Ralph Nader’s original Raiders and had actually worked on—he’d done a study on the Houston Ship Channel when it would catch on fire because it was so polluted and had written about it.
I’ve forgotten the name of the—of the book but he went on to found Clean Water Action and push for the passage of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act and really landmark national legislation that is responsible I think for us having relatively clean drinking water and recreational water in this country.
DT: And I—and I—I gather that—that Clean Water Action was not only a policy and advocacy group but that it was also sort of an educational group through a canvas. Is that right?
BS: Yeah, it was unique in that it employed a canvas and it trained young people mostly, but anybody who—who applied and worked out—to go door-to-door to educate people about issues and to encourage people to join. And it—I—I would—I would describe it to people as continuing education on the doorstep because there’s lots of people that care about issues, but they don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to go or maybe they have kids—young kids at home and they’re busy and they can’t leave the house very easily.
So the canvassers would go door-to-door and literally talk to people who were willing to talk with them about environmental issues and encourage them to join and encourage them to write letters, encourage them to make phone calls, to come to meetings. And so they were able to—to marshal community concern and support for issues where it might otherwise be a little bit more difficult because they were—they were this army of—of people going door-to-door.
DT: And how—when you say didn’t create somebody to come work on a canvass, how would you sort of orient them and introduce them to what can be a pretty intimidating thing to knock on a stranger’s door?
BS: I actually was not part of the canvas operation. That’s a pretty specialized skill. And there are separate organizations, if you will, that train canvassers, train the canvas directors, and run that whole operation. It’s—it’s almost a separate operation within Clean Water Action. I did the policy and the program work. So I would help research what issues we should be working on, I would help build coalitions around those issues and then I would brief the canvassers and make sure they had the training that they needed on the issue, the documents that they needed, the, you know, literature that they could reference and cite.
And I also worked with the news media to help educate them on the issues and connect them up with the work that we were doing in the field.
DT: Well, could you recall some of the issues that were important in the day and that y’all were trying to organize around and—and see policy changes?
BS: Yeah. A big one was around the time I got here in the fall of 1988; Texas was being targeted for hazardous waste disposal locations. They—I—I think—actually we—we did—we found some documents that we—that later got into news stories because we made them available to the news media. But there were criteria that the hazardous waste disposal companies used to—to target communities. And they were rural, Hispanic, Catholic, lower income, and involved or already experienced with extractive industries like mining and oil and gas, you know, that—that kind of thing.
But they were particularly targeting poor minority communities because—and the Catholic part of it was interesting and—and I had a chance to talk with some of the people working at these hazardous waste disposal companies because we were always together at regulatory meetings on opposite sides, but we got to know each other. And they—I asked them, at one point, about why Catholic? And they said they’re more likely to follow an authority figure and—and more likely to be obedient if community leaders decide to locate a hazardous waste facility.
So we were working with a lot of communities that weren’t having any of it and it was—it was a—it was a wonderful experience because so many—I met so many great salt of the earth people who—who really got educated about how some of these things worked in the government and who got much more engaged in advocacy with their local elected officials and with their state representatives because they saw, you know, the people working for these big companies with lots of money and lots of lobbyists had more of the ear of their representatives and they realized they had to show up, they had to get there in numbers and get the attention of these—of these local elected officials.
And I—it was a—it was always such a—a gratifying experience to see these communities sort of awaken and realize we’re going to have to show up in Austin. We’re going to have to stand in front of their offices and demand that they do right by our community. And we—we were—we were successful in many cases. We were able to—to—to change a bad decision or to—to get legislation passed. And it was a really—it—it was very gratifying to—to see that happen. Another thing that I worked on in Austin grew out of a really interesting movement called Municipal Foreign Policy and it was—it was national progressive policy leaders that were really advocating for this.
And one of the chief campaigns that they’d started re—really began in Orange County in California which was, you know, home to a lot of tech—high technology companies. And they got the—the—the—the Orange County—County government, I guess, to pass a law banning or limiting the use of ozone depleting chemicals—CFCs and things like that which were commonly used as solvents in a microchip and the, you know, production of—of chips for—for the computer industry.
And we—I—I remember reading about that story in the—in the national news and thinking this is something where we can use our canvases and our offices around the country to pass similar laws in cities around the U.S. and force a change at the federal level because that was the whole context of municipal foreign policy is using the power of local communities in enough places around the country that it would just require a change at the national level because it was too hard to have all these different policies—one for California, one for Minnesota, one for Colorado, one for Texas.
And so I coordinated a—a campaign among the Clean Water Action offices in Minnesota and Colorado and Texas and elsewhere, to pass laws limiting the use of ozone depleting chemicals. And we were pretty successful. In fact, we were successful enough that there was an effort by—and this was kind of a surprising twist—Dave Doniger at NRDC was working with a coalition at the national level and he had essentially negotiated some terms which included a local preemption, which would prohibit local communities from having laws that were stronger or different from the national laws.
And, at the time, I’d been working with representatives from Oakland—I think Oakland passed it as well—and one of them was in Washington for I think a National League of Cities meeting and I learned about it and I called her. And we spread the word to all the delegates at the National League of Cities meetings and they went nuts. They called their members of congress and we gave them the phone number for Dave Doniger at NRDC.
And I heard later he got so many angry voicemails from people that it spilled over—the old voicemail systems would like spill over once your in box filled up and people all over NRDC apparently got angry phone calls from, you know, mayors and council members from around the U.S. saying how dare you negotiate away our ability to control our environment. So it was a—there were opportunities to work on a number of really important policy changes. And I—I think we did a lot of good.
DT: Well and it—it sounds Texas Clean Water Actions’ strategy was sort of a grassroots, bottom up approach. And I was curious which towns you were active in—if you could give some examples of different initiatives you might have worked on to—to reflect concerns in those different towns?
BS: There was a—a—a group of folks from Del Rio and I think they had been n—n—there—there was a proposal for either a radioactive waste disposal site or a hazardous waste disposal site and—and there was a little bit of blurring of some of those categories back then as well. But we worked with folks from Del Rio who were just amazing people. We worked with folks from—oh it’s a little Czech community east of San Antonio.
DT: Panna Maria?
BS: Not—well it was near Panna Maria. There was another one nearby and they were a great—yeah, Panna Maria was part of it. There were a great group of people there that were similarly fighting uranium waste disposal and other hazardous waste disposal. There was another—Ida Lou Richardson, from—near—oh I’ve forgotten the name of the community but they—they had the Sinkhole Inn in the community because there were—there were so many sinkholes in the terrain that there was literally a bar or restaurant or pub or something called the Sinkhole Inn, which apparently had a sinkhole right near it.
And that was one of the sites that one of the—the company’s had identified for hazardous waste disposal site and people were like, “Are you kidding me, you know, the ground is caving in all over the place because it’s unstable and you want to inject hazardous waste into the, you know, underground caverns here?” So it was all over—all over the state.
DT: So big cities and very small communities as well.
BS: Mostly smaller towns because those were the communities that were being targeted—these rural areas were—were literally being targeted for these disposal sites.
DT: So it goes back to the strategy that you said some of these disposal companies were seeking is poor Hispanic…
BS: Poor Hispanic, exactly. Rural, yeah.
DT: And I guess there’s some reasons for why those communities were—were targeted. What do—what do you think was going on?
BS: I think it was that list of criteria. They knew that they’d have an easier time if the community was poor. They’d—they’d—they’d take jobs no matter what they were. If they were Hispanic and Catholic, they were less likely to fight a big company coming in. If their local leaders said this is a good thing, they were more likely to follow the authority figures in the community. That was part of their assessment, but they were wrong. It was really interesting how wrong they were.
DT: So you—you managed to persuade some of these neighbors to—to challenge the—the status quo and the authorities in their areas?
BS: Well, interestingly, many of them found us. And I—I—I don’t know the full story about how they fo—found us but they did and so many of the communities would reach out to us and then we would meet with them and put together a strategy for how to fight—fight whatever was—was proposed for their areas.
DT: And I think that—that when you first came to Clean Water Action, your inspiration was really about climate change, but—but you worked on a number of—it sounds like the hazardous waste is maybe groundwater related and or—are there any other themes that—that came through in—in Clean Water Action’s work?
BS: Well the work on the banning of the ozone depleting chemicals, the CFCs, was also related to atmospheric impacts. At the time, there was a lot of fear about the destruction of the ozone layer around the earth. And CFCs, chloroflorinated—I’ve forgotten what CFCs stand for, but they were one of the big culprits and they were in all the aerosols. They were—they were used unnecessarily for—for many processes and were particularly used heavily in—in solvents for the—the chip manufacturers. And so that obviously had impacts on the—on the—on the planetary climate and atmosphere.
But there were other themes. I mean, obviously, justice was a—was a big part of it, better government. You know, we pursued legislation. We worked in coalitions with [inaudible 00:35:40] public citizen, Tom Smith, Smitty, was a really big mentor, a big influence on me. He taught me a lot of what I learned about the Texas legislature and Texas politics. And I felt like a little puppy following him around at the legislature trying to figure out well who are these people and how does this work and what do we do now?
DT: What were some of the lessons that Smitty Smith might have taught you and his role at Public Citizen is—I guess also is a organizer for other organizations.
BS: You know, part of it was a reinforcement of the—the—the enormous importance of—of the grassroots. I mean, when people at a community level get together to fight something, it’s—it’s—it’s really powerful and really important. And Smitty had similar relationships with a lot of people around the state. So sometimes they would reach out to us after they’d reached out to Public Citizen.
And we all worked very cooperatively. Ken Kramer at Sierra Club was another one who we worked very closely with. Public—not Public Citizen—there was another one—what was then Citizen Action and that mmm—then Texans United and—and a new version of—of one of the organizations now is called Texas Campaign for the Environment. I don’t think they were as act—they weren’t—they weren’t around then. But we worked in coalition with—with lots of different groups and would kind of pool our resources on—on basic reform legislation.
So we knew there was a—a really serious problem with people working in government and passing bad policies and then turning around and going to work for the companies that benefitted from the policies that they’d passed. And so we pushed for state changes in a provision known as Revolving Door and we got the law changed so that people were prevented from going to work for an entity or a—a business that they regulated when they were in government for a period of one to two years.
And that and public finance reform, things like that that were sort of in the good government category.
DT: So Brigid, you were talking earlier about how Clean Water Action was active in canvassing and organizing communities to work on local issues, but it sounds like through your work with Smitty and—and with folks at other statewide nonprofits that you were also at the Capitol and—and trying to push policies there. And I—and I was hoping that you might be able to mention some others besides the Revolving Door re—le—legislation that you mentioned?
BS: You know, there was one involving—I think either—it was either a company or a pesticide, but the—but it was called El Faro or maybe it was known as the El Faro Case—but I think it involved one of the pesticide manufacturers based in Texas. And they had—they were being sued because the pesticide that they had used in, I think it was Costa Rica, had sterilized an entire community. And the—the—the poor and obviously brokenhearted people from that community had sued the company.
And the company was trying to change the—the law so that the poor people from this now destitute community would be required to come to Texas, that the—the legal proceeding would have to take place in Texas and they would all have to come to Texas in order to pursue their legal claim. And we—we all fought. We all joined forces and fought against that one. And we beat the chemical—the Texas Chemical Council, which is pretty powerful—in one session, only to lose in a subsequent session. But, yeah, there were a lot of bills.
Do you want me to talk about specific kinds of legislation we worked on or issues or—I’m trying to remember what other big ones we were…
DT: Just some examples is always—that’s always helpful.
BS: You know, a big thing that we did was a—a—both an education initiative and an opportunity for people from around Texas to come to the legislature and—and lobby their legislators. So we organized a huge “Don’t Mess Up Texas” day and it was after the very successful “Don’t Mess With Texas” advertising campaign. And we—we literally had a very creative graphics person who took that—that graphic and replicated it exactly on a giant banner ex—except changed it “Don’t Mess Up Texas”.
And then we had displays in the Capitol corridors themselves that showed where all these waste sites either were or were proposed to go all around Texas. And we—we had a giant board in the Capitol called Toxic Texas: Where do you live? And then we had these, you know, little strings of fa—of yarn going from a—a particular site to a box that described what was the hazardous waste disposal site or the radioactive waste disposal site and we had photos from some of these areas. And there was a young woman, whose name I’ve forgotten, but she either had family or an interest or had worked with Smitty traveling around the state taking photos of some of these places.
And the photos from the Panna Maria Radioactive Waste Disposal area were terrifying. There were these 65 gallon drums floating in this toxic soup and you could see the metal was eaten away and it was really a pretty frightening photo. And there were oth—there were other really pretty stark photos as well. And we had it displayed at the—at the Capitol and we’d see people walking by and looking at it and looking at where they lived and what, you know, hor—horrible waste site was near them.
And it was very powerful and actually the Chemical Council tried to shut it down, but we were able—partly with Smitty’s help and with my husband’s help—to figure out who wa—who was on which committee which controlled the funding for the Capitol itself, for the structure. And when they tried to tell us you’re going to have to take your display down, we incorrectly gave you a permit for this—we were able to go to that legislator and her staff called the Historical—not commission, but whichever body at the legis—at the—at the state controlled access to the Capitol and people putting displays in the Capitol and to basically say to them, “Would you like to be funded again this session?”
And they turned around like within a few hours and called us back and said, “I’m so sorry. That was a mistake. We—you—you can keep your displays up.” And so that was—I mean, part of what I learned from Smitty was—and—and my husband was—was a—was really important part of this as well because he worked for Smitty. That was part of how we met. But they knew—they knew where the levers of power were and they knew—they knew how to use them.
And so, for instance, you know, if somebody was attempting to abuse citizens and try and get them kicked out of the Capitol because they didn’t like what was on their display material, you know, we learned figure out who controls the funding for the Capitol operations group and have that legislator be clear with them that that wouldn’t be tolerated.
DT: Now, while you’re working at Texas Clean Water Action, you’re living in Austin.
DT: And—and was that sort of your introduction into some environmental issues that were starting to bubble up here in your home town?
BS: Oh absolutely. I—I was among the crowd of people who went down to the City Council chambers in June of 1990 to urge the council to protect Barton Springs. It was the all-night hearing. And I was—I think I spoke around 12:30 in the morning or something like that, but I hung around for a long time and I was there for a big chunk of the day. And it was actually another epiphany moment for me because I’d been here for two years and, you know, I’d been thinking so what do I want to do next?
Do I want to move somewhere else, you know, what’s—what’s my next, you know, what’s my next move? And I literally was standing out in front of the—the old City Council Chambers just surveying the scene because the street—they literally had to sh—shut down Second Street because the street was just mobbed with people and it was young and old and rich and poor and, you know, everybody from every walk of life—business people in their three-piece suits with their briefcases.
And—and I just looked around and I thought any place that cares this passionately about protecting a spring is a place I want to make my home. And so, for me, it was literally a watershed moment, no pun intended, where I decided I was going to make Austin my home. And I stayed and—and testified that—that evening and—and that was another gr—powerful demonstration of—of the impact of the grassroots. The council was prepared before that all night hearing to pass revisions and exemptions to a development proposed in the Barton Springs Watershed.
And after the all-night hearing, they voted I think unanimously against it and—and kind of set in motion a series of events that led to the creation of the Save Our Springs Alliance and the passage of the SOS law, which I think is the reason we can still swim in Barton Springs today.
DT: Can—can you maybe flesh out what was going on there about the—the PUD and—and the development that was proposed and some of the arguments that were made against it?
BS: It’s actually Austin’s great David and Goliath story. I mean, I—I—I love describing it to people because A, many people who are new here have no idea about the effort that it took the community to protect Barton Springs, and the fact that it’s an ongoing fight. It’s not, you know, over and done with and we can move on now. There’s—there are continuing threats to the Springs all the time. But the company that owned the world’s largest gold mine, Freeport-McMoRan, had purchased property through the Resolution Trust Corporation.
After the savings and loan bust of the mid-80s, all this development land went for pennies on the dollar. And these guys bought this prime property on Barton Creek and proposed to build a development that was about the size of Waco in the watershed. I mean, it would have—it would have, I believe, ruined Barton Springs if they had been able to build all of what they wanted to build out there. And so we—we formed a coalition among all the different environmental groups in Austin and realized that we—we really had to all work together or it would be too easy to sort of pick up apart and—and—and divide and conquer.
And in the summer of 1991, there’d been a number of efforts to try and get the council to pass a strong water quality ordinance. And, in the summer of 1991, it was—it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. Things fell apart. And that was when we decided to form the SOS Alliance. And it was made up of representatives from each of the major environmental groups and we literally pooled—pooled our resources. We pooled our mailing lists.
We pooled our ability to communicate with our members and came up with the strategy to push for a—a citizen initiated law to protect Barton Springs because we’d—we’d gone the route of trying to convince the council to do it and they failed. And so w—it was clear we had to do it ourselves. In fact, the first t-shirt that we had said, “Memo to Council. Please protect Barton Springs. If you don’t, we will.” And that was really what ended up happening. And so, from the summer of 1991 until August of 1992, we waged all-out war.
I mean, the other side literally ha—money was no object. They literally owned the world’s largest gold mine. And they threw vast amounts of money at the effort. And, on our side, I mean, I tell people it was what I imagined the French Resistance must have been like because you had like the quisling, you know, leadership that was allied with the Nazis. And then you had all of the ordinary people who were opposed to it who were doing whatever they could. And all throughout that year, we had a campaign headquarters, we—we—we worked through a whole series of issues.
We—the first challenge was to get the—the—the ordinance drafted because that had to be part of the ballot language that we took around getting people to sign the petition to allow it to be voted on. And—and it took the better part of half a year—we started in the fall of ’91 and it wasn’t until really the spring of ’92 that we got enough signatures and there—there were all kinds of skirmishes leading up to that. We should have had the election in May, but the opponents managed to delay it till August.
And that allowed them to file a number of development proposals that they could later claim were grandfathered because they were filed before SOS passed, which was part of their strategy in delaying it. But we—we got I think over 42,000 signatures and had an election in August of 1992 and it passed by almost a 65 percent majority against the company that owns the world’s largest gold mine. I mean, they literally poured vast amounts of money into the campaign.
But all throughout, we would get calls at our campaign headquarters from people and they’d say things like you don’t know who I am and I don’t know who you are, but you need to know that they’re printing fliers at my print shop right now and here’s what they say. And they’re going to mail them to 40,000 people. And—and people would walk into the office—somebody came in and said, “Hey, I found this on the copy machine at work and I thought you’d be interested in it. Gotta go, bye.” And it was their—it was their entire plan with who they were going to raise money from and what they were going to spend it on.
And they—they were so paranoid that they actually produced their TV commercials in Dallas because they thought they couldn’t trust anybody in Austin, which was accurate. But we got their TV commercials mailed to us from Dallas. So there—there were all these, you know, efforts by ordinary citizens to, you know, try and—and—and even the playing field because the other side had so much money. And, in the end, we won by an overwhelming majority of votes in one of the highest turnout elections up till that point in time for an off—an off-cycle election.
An August election is very unusual, but we had an extremely high voter turnout and—and won by an overwhelming margin. So the—the whole story of the—the SOS movement and the passage of the SOS law I think is—is really heroic in so many ways. And it’s the reason I think from 1992 till the present—I’m convinced it’s the reason we can still swim at Barton Springs.
DT: And [inaudible] couple questions come to mind. One is who—I think you—you mentioned that this was a coalition of—of a number of local environmental groups that—that glommed together to—to fight this proposal. Can you talk a little bit about how that network was post—put together and which groups were involved?
BS: You know, it was really interesting. Mark Yznaga and David Butts had been longtime I guess operatives in the campaign world. And they—they really understood how to have a successful campaign. They helped elect a number of—of folks at the local level and the—the regional and the state level. And when they saw the turnout for the all-night hearing in June of 1990, I think they realized there is a potential here to really create a powerful movement in the community and a progressive movement. And I had gotten to know them just from my work at the Capitol and also Clean Water Action worked on campaigns.
We—we helped elec an—elect a number of newcomers in the fall of 1988 when I first got here because the canvas did campaign outreach and education to its members. And so we knew where people were. Were they likely to vote for the candidate that we had endorsed? You know, are they kind of sitting on the fence or were they opposed? And so we were able to really marshal people on election day. If people we already knew were going to vote for the candidate, we’d call and make sure they got out vote. We’d give them rides to the polls if they needed it.
People who were sitting on the fence, we’d give them additional information and see if we could get them to support our—our candidate. People who were opposed, you know, we didn’t—we didn’t do the outreach on. So we di—we had had a lot of experience and very successful experience with campaigns. So I’d gotten to know Mark Yznaga and—and David Butts in the course of that. And Mark, in particular, I think had a real skill at—at kind of bringing people together. He was a very good cook for starters.
And—and his—his MO was to bring people together around good meals. And so we would have these big feasts at the—at the house. I lived in a—a large house in—in Travis House at the ti—Travis Heights at the time. And—and we literally did that and—and then had a very intentional discussion with the leaders of all these different en—environmental organizations. And Bill Bunch was also really crucial to the whole thing.
I mean, he—he—if—if—if Mark Yznaga and David knew the mechanics of the political world, Bill really understood the—the—the power and the importance of passing a law to limit development in the watershed for the Springs. And he worked closely with a number of people, but he was really an important historical figure in the development of the SOS ordinance and the—the big, you know, kind of concept of passing it through citizen initiative.
So the combination of his understanding on the policy and the legal side and Mark and David’s understanding on the—on the political side was really, really powerful and then all of the different environmental and—and good government groups. So I think Smitty was part of it. Ken Kramer from Sierra Club was part of it. Obviously Clean Water Action. At the time, it wasn’t—yeah, it was Citizen Action, Audubon Society, We Care Austin, which grew out of I think some of the fights over preserving the Muni Golf Course and that was Mary Arnold, Save Barton Creek Association was huge.
They had long been the—kind of the keepers of the—of the flame on protecting Barton Creek and trying to ward off harmful development in the watershed. So it was a—it was a broad and deep coalition that—that represented a lot of different facets of the community. And then we pulled together people who had really important skills. Dean Rindy, who was brilliant at messaging and—and developing campaign commercials basically, created some really brilliant material. Jeff Smith, who was brilliant at polling and understanding voting patterns.
I know I’m leaving some people out but we had great—great and skillful technical people and then a—a great coalition of neighborhood and environmental groups that represent a big cross-section of the community. And so it was a very powerful coalition.
DT: Then, as you said, you were—you were working against Freeport-McMoRan that owned this land and trying to develop it. Can you describe some of the folks that were working for them as lobbyists and strategists to try to push their agenda?
BS: Well, probably the mo—most important one was Gary Bradley. I mean, he—I have variously described him as an evil genius and exceptionally skillful person. I—he and I had terrible public fights. And it was—it was really awful and very visible and very vicious fights. And I have—I’ve come to forgive him and, in the process, liberated myself and that’s part of why I was willing to get back into public office again. But he really was a—a—a chief architect of—of what Freeport-McMoRan did.
The head of Freeport-McMoRan was this—I mean, it—it was sort of like if—if—if—if Hollywood were to create a—a—a villain in this scenario, they probably couldn’t have done better than what Jim Bob Moffett did all on his own. He was—he was sort of the Trump of his era. He—he’d been literally the big man on campus and made sure everybody knew it. He played football for UT. And when he gave testimony at the City Council at the start of the all-night hearing in June of 1990, it’s classic.
It is—it’s classic footage because he literally said—and he’d paid people to sit in the City Council Chambers. He filled up all the seats with his paid people. And he literally said to the assemblage as part of his establishing his bona fides that he had the best grades of anyone at UT on the football team. And when he said on the football team, everyone—all his paid people fell out of their chairs laughing at him. And so he—that was sort of a turning point for him as well I think. That was a part of him deciding he was not going to let these Lilliputians push him around and tell him what to do.
And he’d have this—had a similar arrangement with people in—in New Orleans. I think he called them a Banana Republic because that was where the headquarters is for Freeport-McMoRan. So he’s—he’s just this kind of larger than life character who had a habit of—of saying things that were really inappropriate and that came back to haunt him. And we’d heard from people, again, part of this like French Resistance thing where we were constantly hearing stuff from the other side—that his—his advisors and handlers had literally said, “Get him out of town.
Get him as far away from Austin for as long as you can. He just can’t be here because he—he can’t help himself and he’s constantly putting his foot in his mouth or enraging people and making it even worse.” So he was—he was a great villain. He was the Halloween mask that year for the Austin Chronicle.
DT: My understanding was that—that Jim Bob Moffett would—would bring Darrell Royal to some of these events. Is that right?
BS: Oh yeah. And there were lots of questions about how Darrell got his house, you know, nice house—either at Barton Creek or Circle—see we were constantly hearing rumors like this. They—Willie Nelson was going to play a benefit concert for us and he was also having trouble with the IRS at the time. And they came in and helped him out and he withdrew from the benefit concert. So they were very, you know, they tried to pull all the kind of cultural levers they could. And—and it was really interesting.
There was not—I think there—there wasn’t as great an influence in those days of the university kind of football scene. I remember—I’m forgetting his name but he spoke at the all-night hearing and he talked about the jock-ocracy of, you know, UT and—and Jim Bob Moffett and, you know, all this—this—this fight and how different forces were aligning on various sides. And I always thought that was such an interesting description.
DT: Well, so not only was this a fight that was playing out at City Hall, but my understanding is that this went up to the next level to—to the state legislature and that there was, you know, laws that were passed in order to try to give grandfather status to some of these early filings. Can you talk about how the—the state stepped in?
BS: Well this was—this was really part of what I describe as Gary Bradley’s evil genius. And—and since I’ve made peace with him, I’m—I’m—I’m emphasizing less the evil part. He did what he did. But he was really the architect of the moves that they took to delay the SOS election. And the reason for that was so that they could basically get all these development applications filed before the August election and be able to come back and claim that they were grandfathered.
And—and, at that point, they—they knew that they were going to go to the legislature and seek grandfathering legislation that would pre—allow them to avoid having to comply with SOS. And that was—that was part of their play. And, unfortunately, the legislature has always had this hostile relationship with Austin. I think because so many of them come from rural communities, I think they come here and someone said they view Austin as sort of Sodom and Gomorra. And—and so they’re not inclined to feel a kinship with Austin anyway.
And when lobbyists walk up and buy them expensive meals and drinks and help their family members with getting into college or whatever, they’re much more inclined to find common cause with the lobby. And that’s been the problem with the legislature on virtually every issue involving Austin. The other side just has far more influence, which goes back to why the good government, the campaign finance reform, the revolving door stuff, was so important but it—it can’t—it can’t completely outweigh the—the influence of—of money and—and special interest lobbyists.
DT: Well, speaking of lobbyists, I—I guess they’re a big player in this whole play. And I’m curious if you could talk about some of the lobbyists that were working at the state legislature trying to promote the Freeport-McMoRan proposals for Barton Springs?
BS: Gary Bradley was one of the most skillful. He, at the time, he had an ownership in the—the—the Rockets, the Houston Rockets. And he had—he—he’s—he’s—he’s—he’s really a fascinating character in so many ways, but he had borrowed money from I think Gibraltar Savings and Loan, which I think he had a—an ownership in at the time, so that they could hire Hakeem Olajuwon for the Rockets. And that was part of how they won the NBA championships. I mean, the guy—the guy—you’ve got to give him credit for playing a 3D level chess game and being many steps ahead of people.
But he—he was giving out tickets to the, you know, sky boxes at the Rockets games to everybody. And we—we just simply couldn’t, you know, he—he had more money. He had more stroke. He had more, you know, shiny objects that the legislators were interested in than we could ever have. And—and so he—he gets a lot of the—the credit, if you will, for influencing a lot of people at the legislature.
DT: And he had been a landowner and developer in the Austin area?
BS: Yeah. I mean, he developed—he developed…
DT: …[inaudible] and the S&L crisis.
BS: Yeah. He developed Rob Roy. He developed Circle C. I mean, he—he was a large scale developer and—and a lot of his stuff got caught up in a whole savings and loan collapse. And he still has a massive judgment over his head when many other people’s have been, you know, written off or, you know, forgiven or whatever.
DT: So Brigid, when we were talking earlier, you were explaining some of the—the factors and players in—in the SOS controversy here in Austin. And—and a lot of the action was happening at the state level and—and a number of the initiatives that were being pressed by the proponents for the PUD and—were lobbyists—paid lobbyists—working for Freeport-McMoRan and other developers. And I was hoping that you might be able to talk about Dick Brown, David Armbrust, maybe others, who—who were active in the area.
BS: You know, there—and th—and this is I think probably st—a little bit peculiar to Texas because we have a part-time legislature. They meet once every two years for about six months. They’re not paid very much. All of them have other jobs because you can’t support yourself as—as a legislator. And so I—I think they’re overly dependent on the lobby because of that. The lobby buys them food. Lobbyists, you know, help, wink-wink, cover some of their expenses.
I mean, they—you know, there’s a lot of grey area with regard to—to what lobbyists pay for, but they are able to, you know, have food and drink legally with the lobby. And so there’s—there’s a—ex—extensive use of that. And there’s a heavy reliance on them for, you know, information. They—and for a lot of these companies, it’s—it’s a—it’s a relatively good bargain. I mean, you can hire a lobbyist. You can spend money on food and drink and get legislation passed that benefits you enormously and—and helps your company make a whole lot more money.
And so that was definitely a factor. And a lot of these people have, you know, long time relationships. Dick Brown, for instance, who I think he must have been hired by Freeport-McMoRan—I’m not—I’m not positive about the—the financial arrangements, but he was definitely advising Jim Bob and he was working for Jim Bob during the legislative sessions to try and—and undo SOS or pass grandfathering legislation which would have rendered it largely moot. And they weren’t—they—they were never completely successful, but it seems like every two years, there’s another run at it.
But Dick Brown was particularly I think hateful and angt—antagonast—antagonistic toward Austin and I don’t know all the reasons why, but, you know, I’ve seen interviews with him where he talks about crushing Austin and he’s clearly, you know, clearly takes joy in—in attacking the city and undoing things that—that we, as a community, think are important. Another one was David Armbrust. He worked directly for Jim Bob Moffett for a number of years.
But, interestingly, he has said, in recent years, that it was the biggest mistake of his career and that if he had to do it over again, he would not work for Jim Bob Moffett, which I find interesting. And David and I have found ways to work together. That’s another person where I just simply forgave. I mean, it doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements but I’m not carrying around a big load of resentment. I—I’ve stopped taking poison hoping that they would die is—is how that part works. But another one is Cal Varner and he worked for Gary Bradley.
He’s African-American. And I’ve heard many, many stories from people across the community of him basically just, by hook or by crook, trying to influence people. During the SOS campaign, he approached one person who’s a friend of mine and—and I—and I’ve heard this from a couple sources now—and basically said, you know, I’ll make it—it worth your while to join our side. And the friend said, “No, that’s not—that’s not how I roll.” And—and Cal said, “Then we will crush you.”
And so there was a—there was a lot of that kind of thing happening and it was really—it was really awful. I mean, the only engineer who we were able to find to get to stand with SOS and say yes, they’re—the basis of the SOS ordinance is engineering and—and scientific studies that prove that if you limit the amount of impervious cover, you can protect water quality. That was Lauren Ross. And they went after her at UT and tried to get her—the—the people overseeing her doctoral dissertation to basically give her bad marks, kick her out of the program, hurt her—hurt her career, hurt her ability to—to finish her degree.
And they, you know, they used their connections at UT to try and do that. They got one of the UT engineering professors to put his name on a phony study that said that SOS would cause greater pollution in the watershed. And, again, it was like the French Resistance. We knew the study was coming because one of the graduate students who had worked with that professor on a study that made the exact opposite finding just a few months before heard the—the—the professor was putting his name on this thing and so we were prepared.
As soon as that study came out, we were able to say, “Well, you know, which professor is telling the truth here, the one who did it because they got paid by Freeport-McMoRan, or the one who was part of this study just three months earlier that made the exact opposite finding?” And so there was a lot of pressure exerted through a whole variety of means because of Jim Bob Moffett’s connections with UT and others, they—they—they tried to use that UT infrastructure. It was—it was particularly odious when they came after Lauren Ross.
And, fortunately, her professor said no. She’s a great student. We’re going to get her through the doctoral program. You know, we’re not going to penalize her because she’s telling the truth about the—the science. So there were—there were—there were lobbyists and then there were people who were using their influence through lots of different institutions to try and—and—and affect the outcome.
DT: So it sounds like the—the SOS ordinance and then the—all the strategies that came after that really had a—a big political couching. And—and I think it’s intriguing that instead of retreating from that, you jumped into the fray and actually ran for political office in what—1993—to join City Council. And I was hoping that you could talk about that experience.
BS: You know, it was really interesting. I—we would sit in the council chambers during the lead-up to realizing that the council wasn’t going to take the action we needed them to and we were going to have to start a new coalition and pass the law ourselves. I had—I—it was at least four or five times, maybe more, that I’d been sitting in the back of the council chambers watching them and thinking to myself, “Oh thank God it’s not me up there, what a miserable job.”
Seriously. So when people started asking me to—to run for the council after SOS passed, I said, “I’ll run all right. I’ll run as far as I can in the opposite direction. I don’t want anything to do with it.” And I spent a lot of time talking to people. And another person who was a real mentor and a real hero during SOS was the former president of Dell, Lee Walker. He was the guy who had had all this, you know, corporate experience—brilliant guy—literally sat next to Michael Dell on a plane wh—wh—on so—on a flight when Dell was just getting his company started.
And, by the end of the flight, Dell had convinced him to come to work for him. And he took it to—really to the very successful corporation it became. But he—he was our—he was one of our spokespersons for SOS because he felt so strongly about the importance of protecting Barton Springs and of passing a law to do that. So he went on TV and spoke and had a huge impact on the—on the outcome.
But he—he is someone who I admire greatly and seek the advice of from time to time and—and, at that time, he—he just said, you know, it’s the other shoe dropping you going—you running for the council because if you’re not there, they’ll repeal SOS. And it was true. That absolutely would have happened. And so I—I—I felt like I really had to do it, but it wasn’t—it wasn’t my first choice and it wasn’t something that I had aspired to do. And it was a difficult three years.
I mean, I tell people I—I understand what the battle for Stalingrad must have felt like because it seemed like a three-year long knife fight just house to house, street to street. It was brutal. It was very difficult.
DT: And most of it was about development in the Barton Watershed or were there other issues that you got involved in?
BS: You know, the biggest—the biggest underlying issue was the limits on development in the Barton Springs Watershed. There were a lot of people who owned land and who felt like they had a right to develop really large scale developments on their land, except that SOS limited how much they could develop their land. And they—they took it to the—to the Texas Supreme Court and we got a unanimous decision from the Texas Supreme Court upholding SOS, which blew everybody away. We were all astonished by that. But, I mean, that was pretty much the definitive ruling on it.
But you—there were a lot of people who were just livid and who really thought that I—that I was evil incarnate and they, you know, they—they made that clear. And—and Jim Bob I think tried very hard to try and—and get back the—the council because, prior to the election of the—the council in 1993, they sort of felt like they owned the joint. I mean, during the all-night hearing in 1990, they literally parked an RV in the back parking lot at the council chambers that was their rolling bar car and they were out there having drinks and sort of celebrating what they were sure was going to be their victory at council at that all-night hearing.
And there’s so many great stories about this. I mean, we—we heard both from David Armbrust who was sitting in the bar car of the RV at the time and from people who were outside that the—the—the advocates figured out who was back there and they surrounded the RV and started rocking it back and forth and everybody fled thinking the whole thing was going to be rolled over. And they left Armbrust in there by himself.
Anyway, but that was sort of a—it gave you a flavor of their view of things that, you know, sure they had the rolling bar out behind the council chambers because they were going to get what they wanted and they were going to celebrate with their—their lackeys on the council. So the election in 1993 was the first time that there was a really solid pro—strong pro-environment majority in the court. It was Max Nofziger, Jackie Goodman, who got elected when I did in 1993, myself, and Gus Garcia. And Mark Yznaga went to work for Gus Garcia.
So he had a big impact on—on city policies as well through his—his work in Gus’ office.
DT: Can you tell us a little bit about the campaign for office?
BS: Oh when I ran in 1993?
BS: You know, part of it is it gave me a chance to tell my story about my parents’ influence on my view of the world, teaching me both to appreciate the environment and also that we all had a duty to do what we could to improve our community and that that was part of my—my world view and why I was running for office. But there was also a really strong sense in the community that development interests had way too much influence on the council. And so that was a big part of my focus was the need to reform city government, to limit the influence of special interest money.
And we did—we passed a—a pretty strong campaign finance reform ordinance, but the laws are such that it—it can’t be mandatory. I guess the laws in Texas prevent it from being mandatory so it was voluntary. And the way we sweetened the pot to try and get candidates to comply with the campaign finance limits was with matching funds that came from lobby registration fees. So it wasn’t money from taxpayers. We increased the—the registration fee for lobbyists and that was the pot of money that would be used for matching funds for people complying with the—the Fair Campaign Ordinance.
And some people have and have done very well in their—in their campaigns by complying with it. But that was just—that was a big part of the campaign. We had a commercial where Dean Rindy did my TV that included—I think Sam Hurt did the cartoon of—of lobbyists in three piece suits with cigars and briefcases marching into City Hall with briefcases bulging with money. And the message was literally lobbyists have had too much influence for too long at City Hall. We need to clean up city government.
And that was a big part of what I—what I ran on, as well as obviously protecting the environment and protecting Barton Springs.
DT: And once you arrive on—on the dice, what was the—the learning curve like? How did—how did you come up to speed?
BS: That was huge. I—I feel like I never really grasped all the zoning issues. I mean, the zoning is so complicated and—and nuanced, and they were just awful. I mean, almost every zoning case is a mini civil war where, you know, one neighbor wants to do something with their land and then the other neighbors don’t want that to happen and you end up with this just, frankly, horrible fight on your doorstep. And it was every week, multiple zoning cases, which were largely like this where you had, you know, parties pitted against each other and there were—they were often very—very ugly fights.
But do—pa—one of the things that was—that was difficult during the time I was on council was—and I heard this directly from people involved—Jim Bob Moffett was paying the talk radio hosts at the time to essentially attack the environmentalists on the council. Ray Benson told me that Sammy Allred, who’s passed away, who was part of the Sam and—Sammy and Bob Show on—on KASE and KVET—Ray told me that he’d said to him, “Sammy, why are you—why are you on the developer’s side now? You always used to stick up for Barton Springs.”
And he said Sammy looked at him and said, “I’m going where the money is.” And—and we heard directly from people involved that his sidekick—his PR firm had been hired by Jim Bob to—to advise him. And Sammy’s group, the Geezinslaws, used to pay—pa—he used to play concerts out of Jim Bob’s mansion all the time. I heard that from members of the band as well. And then Paul Pryor was on KLBJ and Paul was not well. I think he may have passed as well. He’s—he had a—a difficult series of—of all kinds of issues.
But he—he on one radio station and Sammy and Bob on the other, literally four hours every day, all morning long, were personally attacking me and Jackie and the environmentalists. And—and it was just hateful, really hateful, horrible, dishonest stuff. It was so bad I actually filed a complaint with the FCC when the FCC used to regulate the air waves.
DT: And what were the claims like? Were they just personal ad hominem…?
BS: I actually tuned in one morning almost by accident. I was tuning around on a dial and I heard Sammy Allred screaming, “Brigid Shea is a liar! She’s a liar!” and he went into this rant about some church somewhere I think in northwest Austin that couldn’t expand because of SOS and I had lied to people and now these churches were being hurt because they couldn’t expand. And I was like well SOS doesn’t even apply in northwest Austin. It only applies in the southwest area of the watershed. So it wouldn’t affect anybody outside that boundary.
And Paul Pryor did a—a campaign that he called SOS Save Our Seats, you know, where we only cared about our political power. And around Thanksgiving, he had people show up to get free turkeys because the council was a bunch of turkeys and, I mean, just on and on and on, all kinds of personal attacks that, you know, were difficult. It was a—it was a hard time ep—I would get my car tires slashed and my car windows smashed and people would call with just hateful phone calls all hours of the night.
And that was—that’s why I said it was like a—a three-year long knife fight. I mean, it was really rough. And, at the end of it, I was like, “I’m done. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve given at the office. I am done.” And my son—my first child had just been born and I was clear I—I wasn’t going to run again. And so I retired at the end of my first term.
DT: Well and—and the—during your term, most of the controversy was about development, whether it was, you know, big projects out in the Barton Springs Watershed or I guess the zoning issues that come up in all neighborhoods across town. Were there any other energy issues that you worked on at the time?
BS: Yeah, actually we—we did the first wind energy project in the state of Texas. We partnered with LCRA and the General Land Office and the City of Austin, Austin Energy, got the first wind energy for a community in the state of Texas through the partnership with LCRA and the General Land Office from a West Texas wind farm.
DT: Do you remember the process that—that took that its fruition?
BS: I remember that the Chamber of Commerce opposed it mightily and claimed that it would be terribly expensive and that we would regret [laughing] pursuing wind energy. And I find that ironic and said at the time, you know, help me understand how you think that free energy is going to be more expensive than fossil fuel energy. We don’t have to pay for the wind. All you pay for is the turbines. So how—help me understand how that’s going to be more expensive? And they didn’t have good answers for that.
But yeah, there was opposition in the community and we had to overcome that or at least vote in the face of that.
DT: But if—if I remember right, there were also some consumer rights and electoral reform things that you worked on while you were on the council?
BS: Yeah, the Campaign Finance Ordinance was—was a really big one because the whole point of it was to give equal footing to candidates who didn’t come with a lot of personal wealth or didn’t have connections to the lobby and to wealthy special interests. And that—that law helped Willie Lewis defeat Eric Mitchell for City Council and that was a—that was a really important election because Eric Mitchell was absolutely hand-in-glove with the development community and doing everything they wanted.
I’m trying to think who else. Beverly Griffith was elected in my position after I retired and she came with very strong environmental ties. You know, I’m trying to think of the electoral and consumer reforms. A big one that we did related to consumer interests, had to do with how we’d structured the rate—the water rates and the electric rates. It used to be that the more you used, the less you paid. And so it was sort of a—it was like—it wi—it encouraged waste literally. And—and so my husband, John Umphress, gets a lot of credit for doing a lot of research on this.
And we—we got in an outside consumer advocate who was a specialist in rate cases because they’re very complicated and they sometimes get appealed to the Public Utility Commission and then you’re got roo—rooms full of lawyers arguing over, you know, what is the basis for your—your calculations and your, you know, your algorithms for your—determining your rates. And we worked closely with that—that consumer rate advocate to come up with a proposal to fi—to flip the structure so that the less you used, the less you paid instead of the other which literally encouraged waste and rewarded waste.
And—and that I think was a really crucial step in putting us on the right path to both energy and water conservation.
DT: So I guess try to encourage conservation on the demand side.
BS: Absolutely. We—we—we incentivized conservation. And that—and that was—that was a really a kind of radical shift in thinking at that time about how to structure rates for electric and water use. It was—it was the complete opposite of what was considered the norm.
DT: I think that—that when you left, I guess it was in ’96—was that when you rolled off the council?
BS: Yeah, I retired in the summer of ’96.
DT: You made one more municipal run at office when you ran for mayor. Can you talk about what drove you to take up the gauntlet one more time?
BS: You know, there were justice issues associated with that as well. I really felt like Austin was sort of losing its—its soul in some ways. And we were headed down a path of—of literally forcing out the—the great numbers of creative people who had helped make Austin such an appealing place. All the artists I knew couldn’t afford to live here anymore. The musicians I knew couldn’t afford to live here anymore. You know, people who had contributed so much to making Austin such a attractive and beautiful place were literally being forced out.
And I felt like we weren’t talking about affordability. We weren’t—we weren’t addressing it and we didn’t have any plans to deal with it. And—and so that, for me, was front and center on my campaign. I also really disagreed with wh—wh—where the mayor had gone and I think was going with regard to building what I viewed as an unnecessary water treatment plant on Lake Travis—Water Treatment Plant 4. And there were a lot of issues related to how we were structuring our revenue mechanisms for the water utility that—that had an impact on operations.
And another piece of that that we—we worked on during the campaign and raised issues on during the campaign was n—new businesses and new developments, new neighborhoods and new subdivisions, were paying only a fraction of what it actually cost to extend water and electric service to them. And, again, it was one of these complicated formulas that, you know, depending on how you tweaked it and where you turned the knobs, you came out differently. But Brian Rodgers gets a lot of credit for—for raising this issue.
And he’s somebody who’s—who owns a lot of commercial property in the community but he felt like it was really unfair that he was paying so little for his—they call it an impact fee—it’s the fee that you pay for the hookup. And he did some research to compare what the impacts fees were in surrounding communities. And it turns out…
DT: So Brigid, when we—we broke off before, we were talking about your 2012 run against Lee Leffingwell for—for the Mayor, City of Austin. And—and there were a couple of issues that—that drove you to—to enter the race. And I think one was some of the impact the—issues. And the other was the Water Treatment Plant #4. And I was hoping you could describe more about what—what concerned you about those two issues.
BS: Yeah. And affordability. I mean, that was—that was really a kind of an overarching concern. But I had done—I had done some consulting work where I’d actually worked for the city in the years after I retired from the council—in the years after I retired from the council and before I—I ran for mayor. And I had worked on a—a huge project to help the city comply with an EPA Penalty Order to fix its leaking sewer lines. So I learned more about the city’s sewer and water system—more than I ever wanted to know about the sewer system, in particular.
But—so I—I—I had a deeper understanding of some of—of some of these issues and it—it kind of loops back to the fairness issue for me on the impact fees. We were charging a fraction of what about nineteen or so little communities all around us—Cedar Park, Hutto, Taylor, Round Rock, Leander, Liberty Hill—what they were charging on the impact fees for new development. And it’s basically where if you’re building a new neighborhood or new subdivision, you are required to pay what it costs to extend the water and sewer line to your subdivision.
And if you don’t pay what it actually costs, then, by default, you’re forcing all the rest of the long-time residents to subsidize your development. And so that, to me, was—was a really fundamental fairness issue around the impact fees. And the—the city had consistently resisted adjusting their impact fees to reflect what it actually cost. So, for me, it was a really—a basic fairness issue. I don’t—I don’t think that long-time residents should have to subsidize new development. And that’s what was happening with the impact fees.
So that was an important issue during the campaign. And another issue that we did a lot of work on and got success on as well as the impact fees—because we—we made a difference during the campaign—we changed the law—was around how you report the bundling of campaign contributions because they weren’t doing it properly. And so you wouldn’t truly understand the impact, for instance, of people out at Formula 1 who were going around collecting money from a lot of people who worked at Formula 1 and bundling it into a big contribution.
But Lee wasn’t reporting it properly. And so we held press conferences and called on him to be—come clean and be straight with people about where he was getting a lot of his money. And they changed the law at the city in the course of the campaign. But the really—the really big issue that—that influenced my decision to run for mayor is that I felt like the debate around Water Treatment Plant 4 was fundamentally dishonest. And—and Lee was a big proponent of it and continues to be and they—they continue to portray it as guaranteeing that we’ll have a water supply for the future.
And what people need to understand is, I mean, if you look at all the weather projections, our region will be hotter and drier—significantly hotter and drier—going forward. So the drought of 2011 that nearly dried up Lake Travis into little puddles—we’ll see repeats of that and it will be worse. The droughts will be more extreme, as will the deluges of rain like what we’ve seen this September, October. So we’ll just see more and more extremes. And that’s one of the scenarios that Dr. James Hansen talked about when he made his presentation to congress about climate change.
So knowing that going forward, it didn’t make sense to me to invest in the—it’s literally the most expensive water treatment plant in the entire United States. And they’ve had to keep lowering the intake valve because the lake kept drying up and so they had to keep dropping it and dropping it and dropping it to the lowest part of the lake. And that’s part of the reason why it filled up with silt in the recent flooding, because it’s near the bottom. So they’ve—they’ve created a—they’ve created a series of problems by pursuing that.
But—and other people said look, we—we’re desperate for work. It was during the, you know, the financial collapse of 2008 and 2009 when, you know, Wall Street investment and banking firms were going belly up and people were really frightened about what would happen with the economy. And a lot of businesses—after they couldn’t respond to the environmental and the conservation and the need arguments, finally just said, look, this is our jobs program. Okay, we need the jobs so let’s build it because we need jobs; we need to keep our economy going.
And—and what some of us said at the time was well you can actually have the jobs and—and simply invest in a smarter infrastructure. Instead of building an unnecessary water—expensive water treatment plant—invest in building a piping distribution system throughout the city so that you can transmit treated wastewater for all of the non-potable uses in—in the city. And you can extend your water supply by an enormous amount of time simply by doing that. And the example that I give is the biggest use of water in—in all large buildings isn’t sinks or toilets or even showers. It’s air conditioning.
Most of the air conditioning systems in large buildings are evaporative cooling systems, meaning that they run a lot of water—you see them over near UT or by the Capitol—they run a lot of water and it evaporates and that’s how you get cool air for air conditioning. And so you don’t need to use treated drinking water for that. There’s no contact with humans. It doesn’t need to be treated to drinking water standard. Instead you can use treated wastewater because it has to be treated before it’s dumped back in the rivers and becomes drinking water for the downstream communities, but it’s treated to a very high standard.
And—and so there’s a big move to swap out non-potable uses for drinking water to use this treated wastewater. And they looked at UT. They’ve—they’ve hooked up one of their large central chilling units and UT uses about five, six hundred million gallons a year just for air conditioning—a little bit for irrigation—almost all for air conditioning. The Capitol complex uses at least three hundred million gallons of treated drinking water for its air conditioning of the Capitol and the office buildings.
Downtown high rises—so you knit together UT, State Capitol, and oh, by the way, at the County, we—one of the first things I did when I got elected is push for us to swap out our water source for our four main administration and courts and jail facilities in the downtown. And we’re now—we’ve now permanently removed over eleven million gallons a year of demand for water just by swapping out the supply for our air conditioning system. Nobody even noticed it. Oh and, by the way, it’s a lot cheaper.
So not only are we saving vast amounts of water, we’re saving an enormous amount of money. The swap out will pay for itself in six to seven years. So if you knit together UT, State Capitol, high-rises in the downtown and the city and the—and the county complex, there are over a billion gallons a year permanently removed from the demand side. And no one even notices except that it’s a lot cheaper and it means our water supply will be extended that much longer.
So those are the kinds of policies that we should be pursuing and the fact that they literally lied to people and said oh, if we build this water treatment plant on—on the lake, we’ll guarantee our water supply for the future. And I literally called Lee Leffingwell before this water treatment plant decision was—was anywhere near final and said, “Lee, have you asked the engineers who are designing this to put their seal,” which is like their, you know, absolute guarantee, “on the viability of the water treatment plant for the lifetime of the bond payments” because I guarantee you if this is a twenty to thirty year bond payment, in that timeframe, we will ex—experience such severe drought in Lake Travis, we won’t be able to use the water treatment plant.
There won’t be enough water. So he kept saying we have a contract for water from LCRA. And I said to him, “LCRA doesn’t manufacture water. They can’t provide it if there isn’t water in the lake and we need to be planning for drought, not planning for excessive epic waste of water.” So I just thought this was a really dishonest debate, we need to be doing more to be better prepared for the future. And that was part of the reason why I ran for mayor. And I—and the interesting thing was I—you know, after serving on the council, it was really—it was rough and I was glad to be done with it and I carried around a big bag of resentment toward my opponents for a long time.
And when I finally forgave them and when I finally let go of it, I was liberated to—to be willing to serve in public office again. And so, for me, it was a big—it was a big epiphany to just not take it personally and to be able to not continue to hate people who ha—had fought me and opposed me and done horrible things. And, as I said earlier, I—I decided to stop taking poison hoping they would die. So, for me, it was very, very liberating. And I had a similar experience after I lost the mayor’s race. I woke up the next day and it was Mother’s Day and I was like ah, I lost the election.
Oh this is terrible. And I had a little pity party for a while and I thought, you know, I can either choose to think oh poor me, I lost the mayor’s race, I’m a loser, et cetera, or I can say, you know, we changed the impact fees and made them more fair. We changed the way campaign contributions are reported and made that more fair. We—we made the whole discussion around affordability a—a—a central focus for the community, and I don’t—I don’t regret running because I did a lot of good and I made a difference by running.
And I thought oh poor me loser or don’t regret it, did a lot of good—I’m going to choose that. And so, you know, for me it was—it was part of that whole liberation that related to—to forgiveness, to be able to see things and—and see that there’s a different way of looking at things and—and I’m going to choose the—the one that’s more—that’s more powerful and more—and—and—just simply a—a more positive view as you—we—we all have that choice.
We—we’re all driving the bus of our life and we get to choose which path we’re—we’re going to take. But that was also part of what influenced my decision to run for County Commission.
DT: Well let’s talk about that. And so 2014, you—you run for County Commissioner of Travis County. And what—what was driving you and what was the experience of campaigning and then serving?
BS: You know, the big thing really was climate change. So it was kind of a come full circle from why I came to Texas in the first place in 1988. And it was probably about 2010 or 2011 and I think it was all probably in a—in a—in a mosaic related to forgiving my enemies and to being willing to—to run for office again. But I had—I’d had an epiphany around climate change and—and what could be done about it because I’d—I’d gone through this sort of roller coaster, since 1988, you know, it was yes, we can do something about this.
You know, Bill Clinton is president and—and Al Gore is Vice President and we can actually do something about this. And I—when I was on the City Council in 1995, I had the privilege to go to the United Nations Climate Summit in Berlin, but it was discouraging because we weren’t making near enough progress and I didn’t think Clinton’s people were doing the things that they should have been doing and could have been doing.
But, you know, I still was hopeful and—and—and then after that George Bush got elected and climate change was off the table and we really weren’t making any progress on it and oil and gas companies had lots of influence with the administration. And—and I despaired that we’d be able to—to do anything, plus I was having the experience at a personal level of, you know, providing people with the data and the science and the evidence of what was happening and—and seeing them, you know, say this is a hoax.
The scientists are being bribed and they’re—and they’re—in the—they’re manipulating their data and—and it’s not real and so—so this whole sort of backlash of like well you might believe that’s what’s happening and that’s your belief, but I believe that it’s not happening. And so it was like put into this realm of like theology or something where you could debate it. And so, for years, I went back and forth just like frustrated. I—I—I created a business with a partner called Carbon Shrinks, where we worked with large carbon emitters.
When Obama and McCain were running in—in 2007, 2008, they were both talking about the need for cap and trade policy that would essentially rely on the markets to—they-they’d—they’d praise—place a value on carbon and then you’d—you’d trade—basically trade credits. If you re—emitted a lot of carbon, you had to pay and—and if you—and if you had wind energy or solar energy, you—you got the credits. And so it would incentivize moving the market in the right direction.
Well in 2008 and 2009, Wall Street collapsed and people were terrified that the entire economy would collapse so it was absolutely the worst time to tell anybody let’s use market mechanisms to make this work because market mess—mechanisms had failed so badly. And—and so that was discouraging as well. And around 2010 or ’11, I thought, you know, I can’t—I—I can’t just give this up and, you know, sort of let fate take its course and—and frankly leave my children to what I know will be a very difficult future if we can’t get something meaningful done about climate change.
And it was—so that—it was that kind of guilt that I feel as an adult leaving a big, giant mess for my kids. And I—and I had this sort of epiphany that, you know, we were focused on cap and trade and I was focused on, you know, helping large carbon emitters develop st—strategic carbon reduction plans and we’d had some success with that, except after the markets collapsed and there was no clear political momentum to create the policies, there was less of an interest in the business world because it didn’t—I knew they weren’t—they weren’t going to have to comply with anything.
But I thought, you know, if—if we can’t stop it, which I had concluded in 2010 or 2011—w—we were past the point where we could stop the—the harm from climate change from happening—I thought then we have to do more to prepare people. And I was never interested in that in the beginning because I thought that’s just like admitting defeat. I don’t want to work on that. I want to work on stopping it. But when I realized we were largely past the point where we could stop it from happening, I just thought then we’ve got a duty to do what we can to try and help people get out of harm’s way.
And, for me, that was—that was sort of an ah-ha moment because I’d previously rejected the idea of working on, you know, resiliency and mitigation and, you know, all that sort of thing because I just thought I don’t—I don’t want to focus on, you know, helping people build, you know, survival huts and packing with MREs. It’s like waving a white flag of defeat. But thinking about my children and their future, I thought there is more we can do.
And in 2010 and 2011, there wasn’t that much focus on a—on a approach of community preparedness that really came out of that whole grassroots experience and wasn’t, you know, sort of the command and control of bringing in the National Guard and doing what they do. It was helping people know what to do when a wildfire breaks out because there’s not enough firefighters. Just like we saw in Paradise, there’s—there’s not enough people to come rescue everybody. So we’ve—we’ve got to do more to give people the tools so that they can help themselves get out of harm’s way.
Same with flooding. Same with extreme and deadly weather of all flavors. And so that was really a big part of what propelled me to run for the—the County Commission. Initially I wasn’t as interested in the County, but the more I looked at it, I thought the county declares the emergency, the state of emergency. That’s the county function. They have a larger role in regional emergency response. And I saw that it was possible to really do something with—with that position. And that’s been really my almost singular focus and obsession.
I’ve worked on some other things but the thing that’s been my overriding interest has been how can we better prepare people. So, for instance, I’m pushing our—it’s called CapCOG. It’s the Council Area—Capital Area Council of Governments, CapCOG. And it’s a ten county governing body and they receive all of the, you know, the majority of the funds for the 911 service. Well the 911 service isn’t very robust. It doesn’t reach many people because it’s mostly made up of landline phone numbers. And I began asking questions about where did—how do we get the landline numbers in the database, who do they reach.
And I finally requested of the staff to do an audit because I suspected that most of them went to call centers and large employers. And when they did the audit, that was exactly what they discovered. About forty percent of all the landlines went to a handful of large employers and call centers. So it might look impressive to have over half a million, but it wasn’t reaching that many people. And so we’re now trying to put together an effort to get each of the local governments to identify wherever there’s a—a connection with a customer.
Like at a city, do they come in to get their water hooked up? At a county, do they come in to pay their taxes or to register their motor vehicle? Wherever’s a point of contact with the—with the public, can we have some kind of education at that point to encourage people to sign up on their mobile phones to receive alerts about fires, floods, tornadoes, all kinds of extreme and deadly weather. That was one of the things I he—have heard on news reports from the—the—the fires in California, not enough people were on the reverse 911 call system.
So they didn’t know until it was really late that they had to get the heck out of there. So just things like that. And they’re—and they’re structural things. But we’re also creating things. I mean, I reached out to the Rockefeller Foundation because their now former president had written a book called The Resilience Dividend which really is a fascinating collection of case studies of how communities responded during extreme events like Superstorm Sandy and then how they bounced back or what—what enabled them to be resilient in—in different ways.
And—and so it’s a fascinating look at how places responded to a whole variety of—of really horrific weather occurrences and natural disasters. And so we got them to donate a hundred copies of that book and we put them in all the libraries and we launched a book club with the mayor encouraging people to read the book and then look at their own neighborhoods and their communities to see wh—how could we be better prepared, what could we do. My office is also working with a—a neighborhood that is not unlike other communities throughout the county—there’s only one way in and one way out.
And so if there’s a fire and they’re in a—in a heavily wooded area, they’re in trouble because they’ll have a difficult time getting out. And so I went to them last year and said, “Would you like to work with me in creating a neighborhood based fire drill and evacuation plan?” And they were really excited because they’d been trying to get something like this going but there wasn’t—there wasn’t like external support to help them do it. And I was able to bring our Fire Marshall’s Office the Emergency Services Fire Districts out there.
So the Lake Travis Fire and Rescue, our parks officers, because we have county parks out there—Hippie Hollow—it’s the Comanche Trail Neighborhood Association—Hippie Hollow and Bob Wentz Park—our—ITS staff that can help with some of the technology components, others from our Emergency Services Operations at the County. So we’ve got a whole team of people—the Sheriff’s Department.
We have a whole team of people that have been meeting for going on nine months now, literally building an understanding at the community level, getting buy-in from the community, and now designing the fire drill and setting it up in such a way that we will learn from it what worked and what didn’t work and then have a plan to go back and—and modify it. And what we—we want to create out of it is a sort of a—a how-to guide for other communities to be able to do a similar kind of fire drill and evacuation plan so that people start to build up the muscle to know what to do. So that’s been a big part of my focus.
And it’s—it’s really my passion. I—I tell people I’m fine if you’re not interested in it, just know I’m going to be working on this. And so where I was frustrated in the past where people would say, “It’s all a conspiracy, it’s a hoax, it’s not real,” what I’ve said to people now is let’s set that other conversation aside. Let me just ask you a basic question, “Do you think your community leaders should do what they can, within limits, to try and help you and your neighbors get out of harm’s way from floods and wildfires and tornadoes and all kinds of deadly extremes of weather?”
And everybody says yes. And I say, “Perfect. Let’s work on that. We’ll set aside the other stuff for another day, but let’s work on that.” So what does that look like? How can we help you get out of harm’s way? And that was the genesis for the fire drill and evacuation plan for Comanche Trail. That will be useful for a ton of other communities which have one way in and one way out. The 911 system—understanding what’s in our database. If you don’t even know who you’re reaching and you just look at the numbers and think wow, we’re reaching a lot of people, well not really.
You’re calling the office phone, you know, at large employers. You’re not reaching all that people—that many people and you certainly aren’t reaching them at night or on the weekends. So understanding at a—at a kind of a basic structural level. And the other part of it is I continue to make sure that we track the added cost related to climate change because in the same way that there was tobacco litigation, I’m—I feel strongly that there needs to be climate change litigation. We need to take that liability and that cost back up the food chain, back to the—the entities that are largely responsible for it.
We’re—we’re having a conversation now out at Steiner Ranch—which is also my precinct—which similarly has a one way in, one way out. We’re meeting with them to identify an evacuation route. We’d literally build another road out of Steiner to create a—an evacuation route for them. It’s probably going to be a minimum of eight million dollars. And so I think the next conversation to have with people is, “Well who do you think should pay for that? Should you pay for all of that? It’s benefitting your community.” And most people say no.
And I say, “Well do you then think that the people who are largely responsible for causing this should pay at least for some of it?” And everybody says yes because people get it then at a very, very basic level. This is what’s going to help me, help my family, help my neighbors, and it’s caused by somebody else but yet you want me to pick up the full cost. That’s not right. So there’s a big justice component to this. And that’s—those are just some of the things that I’ve been working on at the county level, but it’s a—it’s a big—it’s the main reason I ran and it’s what I’m committed to working on.
DT: It’s interesting because it seems like you—you are changing the subject from the sort of polemics about climate change to ones about extreme weather events, you know, the—the floods and the wildfires and drought and so on and re-couching it in terms that people are able to deal with and accept rather than getting into a controversy that doesn’t seem to have any end.
BS: And that was the epiphany for me that—that I was talking about about around 2010 or 2011, where I realized if we can’t stop it, then we have to do more to prepare people and—and we’re not. That—that wasn’t the focus of policy efforts back in 2010 or 2011. And I realized, you know, if you—if you talk with people about it from the—the—the—the—the frame of—of just simply saying, “Do you think your community leaders should do what they can to try and help you get out of harm’s way from wildfires,” which we know are coming—this region is the fourth highest urban wildfire threat region in the country and most people don’t know that.
They think they’re safe because we live in a city but they’re not. So, you know, it’s—it’s—it’s—it’s—it’s—it affects you personally. It affects your family personally. It affects your home. It affects your friends and your neighbors. Doesn’t get any more personal than that. And that’s a profound contrast to talking about policy actions and, you know, certain kinds of changes in consumer behavior that, taken together with millions of other actions, could begin to change the course we’re on. We—of course, we have to do that, but most people I know think seriously, you think me buying a Prius is really going to sa—save the atmosphere? I mean, I—I don’t really see it.
You know, how—how can I have that big of an impact? And the other piece of it is, it’s literally the scariest conversation you can have with people. This is a world ending discussion. I mean, we—that’s the path we’re on. We’ll literally run out of water, our communities burn up, our—our coastal cities drown from rising seas, I mean, it’s like all bad. And it’s really depressing. And I’ve had even good friends say, “Can we change the subject? This is really kind of little too much of a Debbie Downer.”
And so I get it. I—I get it. It’s a hard conversation to have with people. But if you—if you talk about, you know, do you think that, as a community, we should try and help each other figure out what to do in a case of an emergency like this and—and give you some better tools and—and beef up our own technology tools so that we have a better way of communicating with you. Everybody says yes, of course. So, for me, that was the epiphany. Focus on that and—and people are all in agreement. Everybody wants that.
And—and—and then you don’t have to debate about whether or not it’s happening because people see there’s wildfires happening all over. They see that there’s flooding happening all over. It’s not a question of whether or not you believe it’s happening. It’s happening and people see it. And the next logical question is, “What would I do in a case like that?” Well that is something that you want your community leaders to help you with.
DT: You know, you—you have dealt with environmental issues for thirty, forty years now and a lot of them are serious. Some are severe. Some of them are existential and yet, you remain cheerful and positive and optimistic and you’re pretty resilient in your own life, you know, reinventing you—your—your own career from being in politics, being nonprofits, and trying to fit, you know, the challenge and the—the work. And I’m curious how you have managed, aside from work and policy and opportunities, your own soul so that you keep that kind of attitude because I know with a lot of conservationists, it’s—burn out is a problem. And can you talk briefly about that?
BS: Well I’ve definitely gone through that. I mean, when I—when I retired at the end of my three-year term on the City Council, I was re—I was really ready to shake the dust of that from my feet. I was done. And plus I’d just given birth to my first child and I had a whole new chapter in my life unfolding. But my children are now young adults and I’m—I really am fearful for their future. And the—and the other part of it for me is I did—I did a lot of—I did a lot of personal reflection and a lot of work ar—around personal transformation.
And that’s part of how I—I—I came to the point where I realized I need to forgive people, I need to take care of this unfinished business in pe—I—I—I actually did a lot of training through an entity called Landmark Education. They grew out of the old EST seminars and they’re now a favorite in corporate settings because they have such a powerful ability to get people out of ruts and change dynamics in the workplace. And—and it’s really a set of—of tools for getting a different perspective on your life.
It was—it—the example I gave of when I woke up the next morning after I’d lost the mayor’s race and I saw pretty clearly I—I had at least two choices about how I viewed it and it was my decision. I mean, other people might say, “Oh, it’s so sad you lost the mayor’s race. You must feel terrible.” And I’d say, “Actually I—I—I don’t.” I mean, I wish I would have won, but I don’t regret running because I made a difference. I changed the laws. I raised the issue of affordability and put it front and center and I think all those things are really important.
So I don’t regret it. I think we made a difference. And then—and then that changed other people’s perspective. So part of it is just seeing that you have real choices about how you view things. And—and honestly for me, forgiveness was a huge part of it. Once I let go of all that bad juju, it really was healing for me. It was—it was very cathartic. And I tell everybody we could get so much more done in politics if there was more forgiveness. I mean, I’ve had this issue with one of my colleagues on the—on the Commissioner’s Court. We’re different parties.
We have very different views on—on certain environmental issues and we’ve had big fights over it. And in one particular fight, he walked out of a meeting and the next morning we were standing at the elevators, you know, waiting for the elevators to come. It was a little awkward. And I finally just said, “You know, I’m getting over this and I’m not taking it personally so why don’t you?” And I could tell he was thinking about it. And we’ve been able to work well together, you know, just acknowledging look, we’re going to disagree on some stuff, but I’m not taking it personally so why don’t you not take it personally.
DT: So we—I think we’re sort of drawing to a close here and there are two questions we typically ask. And—and one is maybe kind of a—a—a sister question to on—the one you’re—you just answered and—and—and this first question you answered, sort of the—the advice you’ve given yourself. And I’m wondering if, as—a sort of analogue to that is well what is the advice you’d give to others, particularly younger people who are coming in to the, you know, this old set of challenges that have to do with the environment and life on—on the planet—what—what would you tell them?
BS: I’ve actually thought about this one for thirty years. I think probably the biggest thing is don’t—just don’t give up. I think humans are wired for survival and I feel like human ingenuity has overcome enormous obstacles and difficulties. And I—I do believe that, you know, the generations that are coming behind us are going to—are going to bring real solutions and—and—and technology breakthroughs to these challenges. There was just a—a story in the news the other night about designs for floating cities, where they literally are designed to rise and fall as the—the oceans swell and—and sea level rises because of melting—the melting polar caps.
So I think—I think that’s part of it is—is just don’t give up, that we’re wired to survive, you all have many talents and ideas that we’ve nev—maybe never thought of or not thought of in the way that you are and—and bring—and bring that to the table and focus on how to—how to overcome the obstacles that we know we’re going to be facing.
DT: Well the last question I have re—re—reminds me of when you came to Austin and you had worked here for a couple years and you were trying to decide whether you’d stay and—and you noticed how people grew very inspired about a place—Barton Springs and—and that you were persuaded that well this must be a good place to—to be. And—and I’m curious if there are—if there are places that inspire you personally, aside from what the community feels, but—but you—is there something that you connect with that gives you solace and serenity and a reminder of why you do this kind of work?
BS: Well, honestly, Barton Springs is—is at the top of the list. And the other great springs and spring fed rivers, especially in Central Texas. I mean, we’re in this unique ecosystem that—it’s this conjunction of the—the—the coastal plain and the—and the uplift of the—of the Hill Country plateaus—the Waco Springs, the Guadalupe River, the San Marcos Springs and the San Marcos River. I mean, I just think those are beautiful places. But Barton Springs really is—has a special place in my heart for so many different reasons. When I first came to Austin, David Zwick had said, “You must go see Barton Springs.”
He said, “It’s so beautiful. It’s so incredible. It’s this amazing, clear spring fed, massive pool right in the middle of the city. You’ve got to go see it.” And I—and so I did. It was like my second or third day here. And I—I found Barton Springs and I—I remember walking up to the fence and, I mean, you can’t really see the springs until you get right up to the edge of it. And when I—when I got up to the edge and looked in, I was—it kind of took my breath away.
And I remember thinking this must been—what it must have been like for the Romans when they first came across these natural springs across Europe and decided to make the great baths—the great Roman bathhouses around them is that, you know, these are—these are shrines, these are—these are re—amazing and spectacular and—and rare, beautiful places. So it kind of—kind of captured my heart when I first came to Austin.
DT: Well thank you. Is there anything you’d like to add?
BS: No, I think we pretty well covered it. You did a great job. I—like I was telling your colleagues, there were things in there that I was like I’d forgotten I did that. So you did remarkable research.
DT: Well [inaudible]. Thank you very much.
BS: You’re so welcome. It’s an honor.
[End of Interview with Brigid Shea – November 17, 2018]