Grumet: Feeling frustrated with the media? Switch off cable TV and turn to local news

Today the American-Statesman’s editorial board joined hundreds of newspapers around the country in standing up for the importance of a free press, particularly as President Donald Trump continues his dangerous rhetoric against journalists. While Trump’s cries of “fake news” ring hollow against the well-sourced reporting about his administration, however, there’s no denying the media sometimes suffers from a troubling credibility gap with the public.

A Gallup poll last year found just over a third of Americans (37 percent) believe news organizations “get the facts straight.” That’s a depressingly low metric for people in my industry, and one I think grossly underestimates the painstaking work journalists do everyday. Yes, reporters sometimes make mistakes. But most traditional news organizations strive to correct the record quickly and with transparency.

Part of the problem, of course, is the catchall nature of “the media,” a term that includes everything from local newspapers to the New York Times and the Washington Post, local television affiliates and 24-hour cable news, online news outlets and blogs, not to mention the hodgepodge of information showing up in people’s Facebook feeds.

I reached out this week to Kathleen McElroy, the new director of the journalism school at the University of Texas, and she suspects much of the consternation revolves around 24-hour cable news, which offers a mix of news and political commentary, largely around hot-button national issues. Her advice to people growing disillusioned with media coverage? Turn your focus to local news coverage.

“Very little of what’s newsy is what’s happening on cable,” said McElroy, who worked at the Statesman in the late 1980s and later became an editor at the New York Times. “How much of what you’re consuming is national politics? If you’re consuming only national politics, maybe it’s time to think about your school board, your city council, your planning board, what’s going on in the churches in your area.”

Indeed, many of the issues most likely to affect your everyday life — your commute, the conditions at your kid’s school, what you’re paying in taxes and getting in services, even this new-fangled Major League Soccer stadium you might have heard about — are local topics covered by your friendly neighborhood newspaper.

“People cannot go to a 12-hour City Council meeting in Austin,” McElroy told me. “They can try to read CodeNext on their own, when that was still viable, but good luck on that. How much information do you need from neutral, professional sources? I think it’s a lot more than people think. Whether it’s a restaurant review or reading about the classification ratings that are coming out in schools or about the (California) wildfires, that’s information that goes beyond what’s going on in Washington.”

While we’re talking about neutral, professional sources, please bookmark PolitiFact.com/Texas, the truth-squading project spearheaded by the Austin American-Statesman, in collaboration with the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Their rigorous work seeks to verify or debunk various statements made by local and state officials, and they post links to all their backup materials so you can check the math yourself. They’re even tracking how Gov. Greg Abbott and Austin Mayor Steve Adler are faring on their campaign promises.

You can also see how the Austin City Council has voted on dozens of issues, including the ones you’re most interested in, at the Statesman’s wonderful VoteTracker project. The database goes all the way back to the start of the 10-1 council in January 2015. Spend some time with it to see what your district rep has been up to. It’s worth knowing before heading to the polls this fall.

Please support the work of the Statesman and other local news outlets that work tirelessly to cover Austin news. We all have a stake in keeping this community strong.

 

 

 

 

Grumet: Goodnight CodeNext (with apologies to Goodnight Moon)

In the great map room

There was a consultant

And a neighborhood vexed

And a picture of

The transect zones from CodeNext

And there were 11 council members

In yellow vests and hard hats

And a planning commission

At odds with the ZAP

And three drafts of a code

That made people holler

And piles of invoices

For eight million dollars

And a petition drive for an election fight

And a frustrated mayor who turned off the light.

Goodnight CodeNext.

Goodnight residents vexed.

Goodnight transect zones we had to reject.

Goodnight hard hats

And the yellow vests

Goodnight meetings

Goodnight protests

Goodnight codes

Goodnight roads

Goodnight maps

Goodnight ZAP

Goodnight density cries

And goodnight preservation sighs

Goodnight complaints

And the petition drives

Goodnight nobody

Who wants CodeNext revived

And goodnight to the mayor keeping his reelection alive.

Goodnight affordability.

Goodnight to all that’s fair.

Goodnight to growth problems everywhere.

Grumet: Don’t disparage the ‘Anti-$100 Bill Coalition’ in soccer debate

I know it’s a popular sport to joke about the passionate level of civic engagement at Austin City Hall, especially when ideas get bandied between advisory groups for months on end and City Council meetings run till 3 a.m.

But we should cheer for the smart, inquisitive people who make the time to attend public meetings, read up on various proposals and ask tough questions, especially when taxpayer dollars are on the line. They make our city better.

I was disappointed Thursday evening when Precourt Sports Ventures lobbyist Richard Suttle, speaking to a roomful of people at the Central Library about the possibility of bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to Austin, drew an unfortunate analogy to the city’s reputation for civic engagement.

“Overwhelmingly this is a popular deal,” Suttle said of the MLS proposal, still being negotiated, in which Precourt would pay $1 a year to use city-owned land for a stadium but wouldn’t pay any property taxes on the venue. The franchise promises to provide other perks and regional economic benefits.

“Now, there are some folks that have questions,” Suttle continued. “And in Austin, I tell the story that if we decide we’re going to give out $100 bills on Congress Avenue on Saturday for free, no strings attached, the Anti-$100 Bill Coalition will be formed by tomorrow, and we’ll have discussions on what that would look like.”

Editorial: Negotiate MLS stadium deal on Austin’s terms, not Precourt’s

Some folks in the crowd chuckled. A few people booed. One woman yelled out, “That’s very unfair.” I shared her sentiment.

I’d love to see Austin have its own MLS team, and I see the tremendous potential for it to bring different parts of the city together. But residents are right to ask serious questions about the financial cost to the city, the impact of traffic and parking on the neighbors, and the tradeoffs other cities have experienced when a pro sports team comes to town. 

These residents shouldn’t be likened to naysayers who can’t even see the good when it’s raining Benjamins.

Suttle told the crowd, and later emphasized to me, that wasn’t his intention.

“All I mean by that is that we have a robust city where we like to talk about stuff, and that’s a healthy thing, because we always end up with a better solution when we have everybody in the room, everybody talking,” he told the crowd.

He told me the “Anti-$100 Bill Coalition” was “meant to be the most absurd example” of community feedback, not a commentary on the soccer stadium critics.

Commentary: MLS stadium deal should score points for the community

In fact, Suttle said he left the meeting with a to-do list based on the concerns residents raised Thursday evening.

“I heard loud and clear that the neighbors that live within a mile of the place, a mile east on Braker (Lane), are concerned about people parking in their neighborhood and walking to the stadium,” Suttle told me. “What that means is I’ve got to go find the model on how they solved that in the neighborhoods near Zilker Park for ACL.” Additionally, Suttle said he recognizes Precourt needs to provide a specific plan for parking. The current site plan has only 1,000 parking spaces for a stadium that will seat 20,000.

He also took note of concerns one resident raised about drainage and water quality, as the McKalla tract is near the headwaters of Little Walnut Creek. One speaker wanted to see more details on the perks for youth soccer; another wanted to see Tejano music incorporated into events at the site; another suggested the deal include a clear cap on the city’s financial contributions to the venture. All duly noted, Suttle said.

The most recurring criticism I heard Thursday evening, though, is that Precourt wouldn’t pay property taxes on the stadium, which would be built by the franchise and then given to the city. One estimate puts the unpaid property taxes at $5 million in the stadium’s first year, including roughly $2.7 million for Austin schools, $1 million for the city of Austin, nearly $850,000 for Travis County, almost $250,000 for Central Health and about $230,000 for Austin Community College. 

Kind of the opposite of handing out free $100 bills to the public.

Precourt is still negotiating other financial terms with the city, with the goal of bringing a proposed deal to the City Council Aug. 9.

But a word of advice: Listen to your critics. Use their concerns to make your proposal better for Austin. And leave the absurd analogies at home.

Grumet: Did Austinites really buy into the city’s plastic bag ban?

While H-E-B and other retailers consider whether to bring back disposable plastic bags, I’ve heard some interesting discussions about how much Austinites actually supported the city’s recently nullified plastic bag ban.

That’s because plastic bags didn’t entirely go away. Remember, Austin’s ordinance only barred stores from providing those wispy, single-use plastic bags, but H-E-B lawfully provides thicker, reusable plastic bags for sale. Did residents simply replace one kind of plastic bag with another, and send the same amount of plastic into the trash?

Let’s look at the numbers.

Our recent editorial noted the bag ban led to Austinites using nearly 200 million fewer disposable plastic bags a year. But that same editorial also pointed out the weight of single-use plastic bags kept out of the landfill was nearly offset by the 23 tons of the thicker, reusable plastic bags arriving each year at the city’s recycling centers. Those centers aren’t equipped to recycle plastic bags, so those bags end up going to the landfill.

A reader suggested these numbers mean Austinites didn’t strongly support the city’s bag ban, which the City Council approved in 2012 and the Texas Supreme Court struck down last month. When the free disposable bags went away, the logic goes, customers simply paid for the heavier, reusable plastic bags and then threw them away, too.

I don’t think that’s the story those numbers tell, though.

Consider the old brain-teaser about which weighs more: A ton of feathers or a ton of bricks? The answer, of course, is they weigh the same. A ton is a ton. It just takes more truckloads of feathers than bricks to hit the one-ton mark.

That’s also the case with plastic bags: Specifically, you get about seven times as many disposable plastic bags per ton as you would thicker, reusable plastic bags, according to the weights of both bags provided in this 2015 report for the city.

That report even included a helpful photo from H-E-B showing, on left, a box containing 100 reusable cloth bags; in middle, a box containing 250 of the thicker, reusable plastic bags; and on right, a box containing 2,000 disposable plastic bags.

HEB bags
This photo provides an at-a-glance comparison of a box containing 100 reusable cloth bags (left); a box containing 250 of the thicker, reusable plastic bags (middle); and a box containing 2,000 disposable plastic bags (right). H-E-B provided this image for a 2015 Austin report on the city’s plastic bag ban.

Let’s be clear: 23 tons of plastics headed to the landfill is a bad thing, whether it’s composed of thicker, reusable bags, or seven times as many disposable plastic bags. But in terms of measuring Austinites’ compliance with the spirit of the bag ban, the number of bags matters. Considering the weight of discarded bags remained about the same, it seems only a fraction of Austinites were throwing out the heavier, reusable plastic bags, compared to the number of residents who used to toss disposable plastic bags.

In other words, many Austin residents made the switch to reusable cloth bags, or used the heavier, reusable plastic bags repeatedly, as intended.

I should also tell you: None of these plastic bags have to go in the trash.

True, you can’t recycle them in the blue recycling bin that you roll out to your curb. But H-E-B and Randall’s have recycling bins near their store entrances where customers can drop off plastic bags and other kinds of plastic film, such as bubble wrap and the plastic wrapping that comes around paper towels.

Last year H-E-B recycled about 1,000 tons of plastics statewide from those bins, spokeswoman Leslie Sweet told me. She didn’t have a breakdown for the Austin area or for plastic bags only. But rest assured that number includes some of those heavier, reusable plastic bags, which in fact bear markings on the bottom proclaiming they are “recyclable.”

HEB_reusablebag
The thicker, reusable plastic bags sold by H-E-B are labeled as recyclable – but you can’t put them in Austin’s blue recycling bins.

Why doesn’t the city recycle them?

Blame the machinery. The items placed in residents’ curbside blue bins go to recycling processing centers where machines separate paper from metal and glass bottles from plastic ones. Any kind of soft plastic material, such as plastic bags or bubble wrap, gums up the gears, a city spokeswoman told me.

But the city does accept plastic bags and film for recycling if you drop it off at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center in Southeast Austin.

Sorry, city employees. Your second job is our business.

I hate to say it, but if you’re a stickler for privacy, a government job isn’t for you.

For starters, your salary is a matter of public record. In fact, most people could find it with just a few keystrokes if you’re among the hundreds of thousands of public employees in the Texas Tribune’s Government Salaries Explorer.

Your annual performance reviews? Public record.

Your emails and text messages, even from your personal email account and personal cell phone? Also public records, if the communication pertains to work.

And that embarrassing reprimand for filing work orders with fake names like “Dick Hertz” and “Ima Dumas” is not only a public record, but it’s likely to earn you some media attention.

Point is, when you work in the public sector, you work for the public. Whether you’re fielding complaints about soaring water bills or scrutinizing rezoning applications, you’re handling matters of public interest. We have a right to see what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Above all, we expect your actions serve the public good, not a personal agenda.

So I was disappointed to learn the city employees’ union is pushing against a long-overdue effort to require Austin employees to disclose their second jobs. The city’s human resources director originally promised such a policy last fall, but opposition from the local AFSCME has stymied the effort.

ALSO READ: Late-night council meetings hurt the cause of open government

“As long as employees who work for the city of Austin show up for work on time and are doing their job, we feel like what they do on their off hours is their business,” Carol Guthrie, the local AFSCME ’s business manager, recently told Statesman reporter Elizabeth Findell. “Many employees have to have two, sometimes three, jobs to make ends meet. They’re proud people who don’t want people to know they subsidize their family that way.”

OK, first of all, there’s no shame in picking up extra work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates one in 20 workers has a second job, with dual-earners evenly dispersed among age groups and over-represented among college grads. Findell’s previous reporting shows some city workers are making extra bucks as pilates instructors, barbers, H-E-B baggers, ride-hailing drivers and real estate agents, among other professions.

I bet the vast majority of these second jobs pose no conflict with workers’ duties at City Hall. But the only way to know is to have full transparency. A librarian who moonlights as a Realtor probably isn’t a problem, but a Development Services worker dabbling in private real estate raises ethical issues.

These self-dealing concerns are not hypothetical. Last year an auditor’s office investigation found an Austin Energy employee responsible for approving developers’ electric service plans was also working as a consultant for some of those projects. Another investigation found an Austin Water employee approved an online marketing campaign with the same firm that gave him a free website for his side hustle in real estate.

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER: Viewpoints tweets the latest insights and analyses on politics

As Findell has reported, only a third of Austin’s 36 departments require employees to notify a supervisor about their outside employment, and not all of them keep the information in a centralized, easily accessible format for the public to see. That’s unacceptable in a city that prides itself on transparent government. It’s also out of step with other Texas cities.

Houston requires its city workers fill out a form and get the approval of their department director for any outside gig. Fort Worth has a similar form, and San Antonio, El Paso and Arlington likewise require workers to get their department head’s approval in writing before starting a second job.

Not only does this disclosure provide transparency, but it ensures there’s a conversation between worker and boss about any potential conflicts of interest.

That’s a better safeguard than Austin’s current policy, which simply prohibits employees from taking a second job that poses a conflict of interest or interferes with their city duties — and largely leaves that call up to the employee, except in specific departments that require notification. Even the proposed policy being drafted by Austin’s HR director doesn’t go far enough: Employees’ second-job disclosures would be noted in their personnel file, but there would be no centralized place for the public to look up that information, rendering this open-government gesture largely hollow.

I don’t begrudge city workers earning extra money on the side; in fact, I applaud their talents and drive. I do think a full disclosure policy, commonplace in other large Texas cities, protects employees as well as the city. It puts everything on the table, so there aren’t surprises down the line about whether an employee’s second job poses a problem.

Austin and its workers should embrace this kind of transparency, in full view of the public. When you work for the government, it’s just part of doing business.

Grumet: What would Austin soccer stadium pay if it paid property taxes?

Financially speaking, it’s the biggest unknown in the proposal for a Major League Soccer stadium site at McKalla Place: How much property tax revenue would the city forfeit if the stadium was kept off the tax rolls?

Michael J. Gaudini, a policy advisor with Council Member Leslie Pool’s office, fired up Excel and calculated some reasonable estimates that provide some scale to the debate, with some caveats I’ll explain in a minute.

We know a private appraisal in 2016 valued the land at $29.5 million, and we know Precourt Sports Ventures plans to spend $200 million building the proposed 20,000 seat stadium if the Columbus Crew SC moves here. Using those values, Gaudini estimates such a stadium would pay roughly $5 million in property taxes its first year, if the stadium and the land were both fully taxed.

That bill would include $2.7 million for Austin schools, $1 million for the city of Austin, nearly $850,000 for Travis County, almost $250,000 for Central Health and about $230,000 for Austin Community College. (Gaudini’s spreadsheet has exact dollar figures, but I’m rounding here for ease of discussion.)

Of course that’s just Year 1. Gaudini forecast three scenarios stretching into the next 25 years, rightly recognizing that forecasts become less reliable the further you reach into the future.

Grumet: Austin’s MLS stadium numbers aren’t as strong as they look

Under his first scenario, assuming a 4 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $211 million, including $114 million to Austin schools, $42.5 million to the city of Austin, $35 million to Travis County, $10 million to Central Health and $9.6 million to ACC.

Under his second scenario, assuming a 6 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $278 million, including $150 million to Austin schools, $56 million to the city of Austin, $46 million to Travis County, $13.5 million to Central Health and $12.7 million to ACC.

Under his third scenario, assuming an 8 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $371 million, including $200 million to Austin schools, $74.6 million to the city of Austin, $62 million to Travis County, $18 million to Central Health and $17 million to ACC.

The 6 percent or 8 percent scenarios are the likelier ones, if recent history is any guide.

These forecasts are built on assumptions, including the idea that tax revenues will continue on a steady upward march for the next quarter century, between fluctuations in the tax rate and growth in property values.

Editorial: Negotiate MLS stadium deal on Austin’s terms, not Precourt’s

One could also debate whether the construction cost of the stadium is the best way to value it for tax purposes. We know that hasn’t been the case at the Circuit of the Americas, which has successfully lowered its tax appraisals by arguing the Formula 1 racetrack is worth only a fraction of what it cost to build.

I asked Gaudini about this, and he acknowledged the Travis Central Appraisal District might look at other indicators to set the value, as the agency did for COTA (the appraisal district, understandably, didn’t want to speculate with me about a proposed stadium’s tax bill). But he found several indications, including this presentation by the Tampa-area tax appraisal office, that construction cost is a fair value to use.

All of this is an academic exercise: Precourt wants a property-tax free deal. That’s not uncommon: FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo play their MLS games at city-owned stadiums that don’t pay property taxes. With a few exceptions, property tax-free stadiums are baked into the financing for pro sports franchise deals.

Also missing is any sort of comparison to the taxes that other developments might pay if McKalla Place was used for housing or mixed- use projects. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan asked city staff for that very thing at Tuesday’s work session with the hope of better understanding the opportunity costs. The council is set to consider two resolutions Thursday: One launches the city’s negotiations with Precourt for a soccer stadium deal, while the other allows other developers to pitch plans for the site.

Nonprofit-owned affordable housing on city-owned land wouldn’t pay property taxes, though it would help address a critical city need. (Precourt recognizes that and has added an affordable housing component to its stadium plan). However, if a for-profit developer built a mix of apartments, shops and offices at McKalla Place, it likely would pay property taxes.

Grumet: Who’d want part-time MLS stadium jobs? You’d be surprised

These comparisons are beside the point for Mayor Steve Adler, however. He said there’s no doubt a mixed-use development on McKalla Place would bring more property tax revenue. But the soccer stadium, he said, would serve a larger community purpose.

“We did the (downtown) library on an incredibly valuable tract,” Adler noted. “I don’t remember an analysis being done about what we would be able to do if we put that to a mixed use development, which would have been an extraordinary value. We didn’t do that because a library was a really important thing for us to have, and now there are thousands of people a day going to the library.”

Of course there’s a difference between a city-owned library and virtually free use of city-owned land by a for-profit venture like Precourt.

But a soccer franchise would bring other community benefits. Weighing them all will be the City Council’s challenge on Thursday.

Poll shows how we’re split over CodeNext and what issue can bring us together

What do you think of CodeNext? It may depend, as much as anything, on how long you’ve been in Austin.

While the legal wrangling plays out at City Hall over whether to put a CodeNext-related item on the November ballot — a subplot with legal questions almost as complex as the rewrite of the land development code itself — I went searching for indicators of what the public actually thinks of CodeNext.

True, more than 32,000 people signed petitions supporting a ballot initiative that would allow voters to decide the fate of CodeNext and similar zoning overhauls, an indication many are concerned about the issue. But as Uber and Lyft can tell you, gathering enough signatures to put something on the ballot doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have enough votes to prevail on election day.

The most revealing glimpse I found on CodeNext attitudes comes from a poll commissioned by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. This scientific survey of 501 Austin residents found 45 percent favored CodeNext and 36 percent opposed it. With 19 percent unsure, a decision could swing either way.

EDITORIAL: With no good options, City Council faces dilemma over CodeNext

Most notably, the poll shows a stark difference in support for CodeNext based on how long people have lived in Austin. Support for CodeNext is 63 percent among those here less than a decade, and just 27 percent among those here more than 35 years. The opposition counts just 23 percent of the less-than-10-years crowd — and more than half of the folks here longer than 35 years.

Now, you may quibble with the pollster’s wording of the question, which described CodeNext as an effort “to rewrite the land development code and rezone certain areas of the city … in order to create more diverse housing options and increase density” in Austin or select neighborhoods. The question waves at the expected positives without acknowledging critics’ concerns about the potential displacement of longtime residents and the disruption to established neighborhoods.

And the poll, conducted in December by Baselice & Associates with a 4.4 percent margin of error, is no doubt a few months removed from the pulse of Austinites now. Even so, the results provide a helpful map to the fault lines in the CodeNext debate.

The poll showed Democrats supported CodeNext 2-to-1, while only a third of Republicans did. Predictably, support was stronger among the folks who said they believed in planning for future growth, and tepid among those who would prefer no growth at all.

The length of time people have been in Austin struck me as the most useful prism for understanding the debate, though there are exceptions to the trends. I’ve talked to some decades-long residents who champion CodeNext, and you can count me among the newcomers (I moved here five years ago) who aren’t yet sold on the plan. Still, in broad strokes, it helps to understand people on the other side of the divide.

RELATED: CodeNext foes are done with compromise. They’re going for the kill.

Most of us recognize Austin is a vibrant city that will continue to draw newcomers (there’s no hope, as the joke goes, of building a wall around Austin — and making California pay for it). It’s not a question of whether Austin will change, but in what ways, and to whose benefit?

I don’t think most longtime residents want a city frozen in amber, but they do want the neighborhood they’ve invested in to retain its feeling of home. I don’t most think newcomers want to knock everything down, but as we’re searching for housing, it’s clear to us that much, much more of it is needed.

And here’s where the poll provides some common ground: 85 percent of those surveyed agree that “Austin has an affordability problem.” (I’d love to meet the 15 percent who aren’t feeling the squeeze.) Devise a CodeNext draft that can address that overarching problem, providing more of the affordable units new residents need without physically or financially pushing out longtime residents, and the city of Austin might get more of us on the same page.

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Jade Helm takeover was #FakeNews but plans for this counterattack were real

With everything we’ve learned about the ability of Russian bots to grossly amplify the reach of #FakeNews, we shouldn’t be all that surprised by this week’s revelation that the 2015 Jade Helm conspiracy theory was an early triumph of this toxic technology.

But before we make our jokes about tin foil hats and move on, we should recognize how such cyber chicanery can have a very real impact.

This part barely made headlines here, likely because it involved wingnuts in North Carolina. But in August 2015, the feds arrested three men who were building bombs, stockpiling guns and preparing to attack our government because of Jade Helm.

Back then, we were all busy rolling our eyes at Gov. Greg Abbott tasking the Texas State Guard with monitoring the U.S. military training exercises happening that summer in Bastrop County, while similar special ops training was held in several other states. But the notion of a martial law takeover by the U.S. military was not an obvious hoax to Walter Eugene Litteral, Christopher James Barker and Christopher Todd Campbell — then 50, 41 and 30, respectively.

HOW WE GOT HERE: A timeline on Jade Helm 15

According to arrest affidavits, these men gathered the materials to make pipe bombs and explosive tennis balls covered in nails. They had dozens of guns, military-issue Kevlar helmets, body armor vests and handheld radios with throat microphones. They planned to ambush U.S. soldiers on a 99-acre camp in Clover, S.C., a town not far from Charlotte, N.C.

“According to (Campbell),” the warrant stated, “he and Litteral intend to booby-trap the camp and draw government’s forces into the camp and kill them.”

Thankfully that showdown never came. The owner of a military surplus store where the men bought their gear learned of their plot and alerted the FBI, according to the Washington Post.

Of course it’s possible Litteral, Barker and Campbell would have planned their attack even without the involvement of Russian bots. After all, the bots simply spread the conspiracy theory that was already out there. It was a real person, right-wing provocateur Alex Jones, who conjured the fever dream in March 2015 that Jade Helm, the multi-state military training exercise planned for that summer, was somehow something sinister.

RELATED: The Americans are coming! Jade Helm and the politics of paranoia

But as the conspiracy theory spread online with lightning speed, with a flurry of comments and shares that suggested legions of alarmed residents, real people took notice. And a handful of elected officials pandered to the paranoia.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, issued a statement in May 2015 saying “true patriots” had cause to be “legitimately suspicious.” That same month, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, then making his run for president, demanded answers from the Pentagon because “the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration.”

I know Republicans had major differences with the Obama Administration. But I think we can agree Gohmert and Cruz didn’t exactly nail this one.

ALSO READ: Race, Russian bots and the angst around #AustinBombings

In providing this week’s revelation about the Russian bots, former CIA director Michael Hayden helped us understand how the clearly ludicrous Jade Helm conspiracy theory spread so far and wide, and how the success of this operation paved the way for Russian meddling in the social media chatter around the 2016 presidential campaign. And that’s troubling enough. But let’s not lose sight of the life-or-death stakes in this realm of Internet mischief.

Just over a year after the foiled Jade Helm counterstrike in North Carolina, a gunman walked into a Washington, D.C. pizzeria, convinced it was harboring a child sex ring.

Fake News. Real danger.

Was Jeff Davis Avenue named after a different Jefferson Davis?

Pop quiz: Jeff Davis was ________________________.

(a) A populist governor and U.S. Senator from Arkansas in the early 1900s.

(b) A comedian on the TV show “Whose line is it anyway?”

(c) The first and only president of the Confederacy.

(d) An artist who creates mementos out of old vinyl records.

OK, technically all four of those men were named Jeff Davis. But when you hear the name, which figure comes to mind first?

That will be a central question when the Austin City Council holds a public hearing Thursday over a proposal to rename Jeff Davis Avenue in Brentwood to something, well, less War-Between-the-States sounding.

As part of our community’s reexamination of statues and place names commemorating Confederate leaders, the council is considering proposals to rename Robert E. Lee Road after Azie Taylor Morton, the first African-American to serve as U.S. treasurer, and rename Jeff Davis Avenue to honor William Holland, who served in various elected posts and championed educational opportunities for black students. (Update: The council approved the renaming of both streets Thursday evening.)

RELATED: After Charlottesville, Austin’s Confederate monuments get a second look

Residents along both streets oppose the name changes by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio, at least among the fraction of property owners who sent a written response to the city. For the most part, the opponents point to the cost and hassle of updating their driver’s licenses, checks and mailing addresses with various institutions. Some question more broadly whether history is being painted over in the name of political correctness.

But at least six residents raised a curious argument: Jeff Davis Avenue isn’t named for that Jefferson Davis.

You see, there was a Jeff Davis who served three terms as Arkansas governor before a stint as U.S. Senator.

“Jeff Davis is not the same as Jefferson Davis, the person associated with the Confederacy/Racism,” one resident wrote to the city.

“Two separate old timers in the neighborhood swear this street was named after the Governor of Arkansas from 1901-1907,” another resident wrote to the city. “The next two streets are also named for governors of the same period.”

That last part is true. Next street over is Jim Hogg Avenue, named for the Texas governor from 1891-1895, followed by Joe Sayers Avenue, who occupied the governor’s mansion from 1899-1903.

Why round out the trio with a governor from Arkansas, though?

No one can say for sure. Nothing in the public record indicates where the Jeff Davis name came from, apart from the fact the developer included that street name on the plot for the neighborhood in 1927, Rusty Heckaman, a reference archivist with the Austin History Center, told me. While there’s no definitive proof, Heckaman said he wouldn’t be surprised if the street was named for the Confederate leader, given the resurgence in the 1920s of the “Lost Cause” framing of the Civil War as an honorable battle over states’ rights, not a desperate fight over slavery.

But he can’t say for sure: “I wish we had a smoking gun, but we don’t,” Heckaman said.

RELATED: Austin City Council could rename Robert E. Lee Road, Jeff Davis Avenue

For some in the Brentwood neighborhood, however, the Arkansas governor theory persists. Maybe it’s the truncated name. “I do not recall in my history classes Jefferson Davis ever being referred to as ‘Jeff,’” one resident wrote.

Fair enough. But Texas also has a Jeff Davis County, and historians say that one is named for the Confederate president. And it’s worth noting the younger Jeff Davis, born a year into the Civil War, was himself named after the figurehead of the Confederacy.

But let’s assume for a moment the street in Brentwood is named for Arkansas Gov. Jeff Davis. Why are we honoring him?

In the early 1900s, the Arkansas governor railed against the right of African-Americans to vote and called for the segregation of property taxes so that white people could ensure their tax dollars went to whites-only schools. Davis’ speeches often extolled the virtues of lynching with shameful language I won’t repeat here. Historian Fon Louise Gordon, quoted in Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950, argued the governor was responsible for “the injection of racial hatred, not merely exclusion, into political rhetoric” of the time.

Is this Jeff Davis somehow better than the other Jefferson Davis?

Let me tell you instead about William Holland.

An ex-slave who served in the Union Army, Holland went on to become a Travis County teacher, county commissioner and state representative. As a lawmaker in 1876, he authored legislation establishing Prairie View A&M University to provide educational opportunities for African Americans. In 1887 he lobbied for the creation in Austin of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth — one of the precursors to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He was serving as the institute’s superintendent when he died.

In their own ways, in their own times, Jeff Davis and Will Holland made it clear who they would welcome on their streets. I know who I would welcome on mine.

Why Austin isn’t getting as much affordable housing money as you might think

Facing an urgent need to fund more affordable housing in Austin, the City Council set its sights on some tax dollars it figured no one would miss.

New tax dollars.

Specifically, the shiny new tax revenue that materializes when government-owned land, which doesn’t pay property taxes, becomes private housing, commercial or mixed-use developments that do.

The City Council decided in 2000 that as city lands were sold for development, 40 percent of the city tax revenue from those sites should go into Austin’s housing trust fund.

A different council doubled down in December 2015, saying 100 percent of the city tax revenue on former city lands should go to various housing programs.

By June 2016, the council widened the net to capture all city tax revenue from the redevelopment of all government-owned sites — lands owned by state agencies, Travis County, Capital Metro, Central Health, you name it. All of those city tax dollars, the council decided, should go toward affordable housing.

“We have such a need for affordable housing in this community, and this is a very appropriate remedy,” Council Member Kathie Tovo, who championed that 2016 measure, told me this week. (In fact, she said, her 2016 measure spelled out the full extent of the policy that her council predecessors had intended in 2000.)

I recently wondered how much money these mandates are channeling toward Austin’s housing efforts. I was surprised to learn the answer was: Not all of it.

VIEWPOINTS: More study needed before Austin uses this tool for affordable housing

This year, $3.7 million in city taxes are being paid on redeveloped, ex-government lands assessed at $923.8 million. But only $2 million of that revenue went into the housing fund, city finance staff told me.

Next year, redeveloped, ex-government lands worth $1.1 billion will spin off an estimated $4.6 million in city taxes. How much will go to affordable housing? Who knows.

The City Council makes the real spending decisions each year during budget season. The resolutions that called dibs on these redevelopment dollars reflect a goal, but they’re not legally binding. And when council members are facing the city’s many budget needs, they sometimes decide they can’t put as much money as they’d hoped toward affordable housing.

“A couple of us expressed a strong desire (during last budget season) that we would be able to identify enough additional money” to put the full $3.7 million toward the housing fund, Tovo said. “In the end, we had so many needs.”

I appreciate the council’s efforts to look for affordable housing money under every couch cushion, and I don’t doubt their sincerity in wanting to see all of these new tax dollars put toward the cause. But think for a moment about some of the big-ticket developments in the works on old government lands. Is it realistic for Austin to absorb all of these residents and workers without putting at least some of their property tax revenue toward the city services they will need?

VIEWPOINTS: Are developer incentives for affordable housing working?

It’s tempting to put all of the property tax revenue from those developments toward the affordable housing Austin desperately needs. But the reality is, even if these are new tax dollars, other parts of the city budget may need them. They come from residents and commercial projects that add to the demand for city services.

Tovo remains hopeful the city could somehow set aside all of this tax revenue for the housing fund. I’m less optimistic, but I see the value in these resolutions. They set an ambitious funding goal for the council and ensure an annual reckoning at City Hall over housing needs.

“This resolution forces us to acknowledge each year what the amount (for affordable housing) should be,” Tovo said. “I hope we get to the point where it is all flowing to the affordable housing fund because it is so necessary for our city.”