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Friday, September 23, 2016 by Courtney Griffin
AISD to see new academic programming database, sometime soon
Austin Independent School District parents will soon be able to better maneuver the district’s many academic programming options for their children. Monday, AISD staff announced that a programming database will soon be released, ideally sometime this school year, although the exact date has not yet been determined. The database was compiled after AISD’s board of trustees requested its own list and received it at Monday’s board workshop meeting. Board documents associated with the request list the district’s magnet programs, schools of choice and other special programs as well as noting the differences between each category of programming. However, District 5 Trustee Amber Elenz pointed out that the district’s list did not include some programs and needed to be revised. Board members requested academic programming lists after realizing that many parents did not know what programming options were offered within AISD or the differences between the programs.
Friday, September 23, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano
FAN begins Council candidate AMAs
Today, the Friends of Austin Neighborhoods (FAN) launches a series of City Council candidate AMA forums on Reddit. According to a press release from FAN, “Neighbors throughout the city will submit questions to the candidates, similar to a press conference. Each forum will last one hour, but ongoing audience comments are allowed for postdebate commentary and analysis. Candidates will use their discretion to select which questions to answer, but participants can vote on any question or answer in the forum as a way to provide instant feedback on which issues are most important to them. Each forum will be publicly viewable in perpetuity (as long as Reddit.com keeps the content available), and commenting will be closed after six months.” The fun starts today at 2 p.m. with District 7 candidates. The District 6 AMA will take place Tuesday, Sept. 27, at 2 p.m.; followed by District 2 on Friday, Sept. 30 at 12 p.m.; then District 4 on Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 2 p.m.; and, finally, District 10 on Monday, Oct. 10, at 2 p.m.Tune in here during those times, and let the fun begin.
Thursday, September 22, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano
Groups ask for budget backtrack
The Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin teamed up yesterday to express their “concerns about the negative impact on housing that the City of Austin’s $3.7 Billion budget creates.” In a statement released by the groups, they note that the city does not process permits quickly enough as is. They write, “Strangely, with this new budget, City Council actually added more red tape and cut funding for additional permitting support, which will make a bad situation even worse. The City cannot reduce housing supply and expect prices to stop escalating at an astonishing rate. The City’s budget decisions will continue to stifle supply and increase the cost of housing. We encourage the Council to reverse its decision to cut resources from the Development Services Department (DSD) immediately.” Specifically, they object to the conversion of a new development services position to a Neighborhood Housing and Community Development position, a 10 percent cut from the “contractuals and commodities budget,” a cut in funding for the annual customer survey, removal of $250,000 that would have gone to training, removal of $106,568 for reclassification of positions and removal of $235,000 for funding of third-party plan review and inspection. A spokesperson from Mayor Steve Adler’s office told the Austin Monitor that the mayor shares the concerns expressed in the letter. “Overall, he wants to point out that this budget approved expedited permitting and puts millions more into permitting to make it cheaper and quicker to build,” he said. “But he voted against many of the amendments that they objected to, and he shares their concern.”
Thursday, September 22, 2016 by Jo Clifton
Bastrop trial over, appeal promised
Bastrop District Judge Carson Campbell ruled on Wednesday in favor of three governmental entities – the city of Bastrop, Bastrop County and the Bastrop Independent School District – on most of the issues in their lawsuit against the Pine Forest Investments Group. The ruling declares the contract between the Pine Forest Investment Group and the city of Bastrop to be invalid. However, Bill Aleshire, who represented the former members of the Pine Forest Property Owners Association, told the Austin Monitor via email that his clients, John Gardner, John Clark and Bill Haschke, along with PFIG’s major investor, Robert Leffingwell, “were not found to have committed ‘fraud’ and will not be liable for the government’s court costs.” In addition, he said those defendants would not be liable for the government’s attorneys fees, “since the Government did not plead for attorney fees.” At this point, those fees have surpassed $723,000. Ben Wetmore, attorney for the Pine Forest Investment Group, and Leffingwell told the Monitor that his clients would be appealing and asking the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals to look at “the many procedural problems in this case and ruling.” He reiterated that he and his clients are still waiting to hear from the city’s attorney, Charles Bundren, to respond to their efforts to settle the matter. Bundren did not respond to the Monitor’s request for comment.
Thursday, September 22, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
At Chamber function, Adler looks past bond election to next big fight
The Austin Chamber of Commerce formally embraced the doctrine of density on Wednesday with the official release of its 2016 Mobility Report. The chamber celebrated with a packed luncheon at the JW Marriott that was attended by City Council members Delia Garza, Leslie Pool and Pio Renteria as well as representatives of Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. Mayor Steve Adler spoke to the hall at the beginning of the program, largely using the familiar remarks he has used time and again to sell his $720 million mobility bond proposal. However, in a nod to the new report’s emphasis on reforming the Land Development Code to allow more dense mixed-use development along the city’s corridors and in its activity centers (as identified in the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization 2040 long-range planning document), Adler also began setting the stage for 2017’s first major political battle: the adoption of CodeNEXT, the long-gestating rewrite of the Land Development Code. Adler warned that opponents of CodeNEXT will try to paint the political battle lines between neighborhoods and real estate interests. “And I reject that,” the mayor said. “Because I think that we have a unique opportunity to work for and together as a single community in a way that gives us the supply and density that we need along the corridors but still protects our neighborhoods.” The CodeNEXT draft is expected to drop in January. In the meantime, you can thumb through the chamber’s mobility report here.
Thursday, September 22, 2016 by Jo Clifton
Final vote on lobby ordinance today
City Council Member Leslie Pool told her colleagues during Tuesday’s work session that all those who had objected to the proposed lobby reform ordinance were now satisfied with the changes. According to Fred Lewis, an attorney who has been helping Pool and Mayor Steve Adler with the proposal, the new ordinance “will provide real transparency” around compensated lobbyists’ communications with Council and staff. In addition to the changes Council approved last November, fees will be reduced from $300 per individual lobbyist to $100 per person or entity registrant, plus $50 for each employee registrant of an entity that files. Nonprofit agencies that have 501(c)(3) status will pay only $25, according to the current iteration of the new ordinance. However, Pool explained that the city is doing a cost-of-service study to determine how much money the Office of the City Clerk will be spending to comply with the new ordinance. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo objected to the fee reduction, and Pool said she would be willing to change that when Council considers the item on Thursday. However, since the new ordinance will not take effect until next June, after the cost-of-service study has been completed, the amount of the fee chosen on Thursday seems less important. Pool told the Austin Monitor that under the city charter, the city is not allowed to make a profit. Over the years, money from lobby registration has gone into the Fair Campaign Finance Fund, which is distributed among Council candidates who abide by certain regulations. However, it seems likely that Council will decide to put General Fund money into that fund, while paying salaries and other expenses in the city clerk’s office associated with lobby registration from lobby registration fees.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016 by Jo Clifton
Smitty hanging up his spurs
As he told his friends and colleagues in an email Tuesday, Tom “Smitty” Smith is stepping down from his position as executive director of Public Citizen of Texas. At 66, Smith says it is time to hang up his spurs and let someone else deal with the Texas Legislature. Smith has worked for Public Citizen for 31 years, and he counts among his most important achievements “helping to start Texas’ renewable energy boom by organizing citizens, by co-founding the wind coalition, doing a jobs potential study that got west Texans on board with getting the transmission lines built,” as he noted in his letter. “Our recent work with municipalities has broken the solar price barrier in Texas, and now Texas’ energy future is heavy on solar. Texas is now ranked first in the nation for installed wind energy.” Also on his top 10 list of favorite accomplishments is “helping citizens organize to stop the construction of 17 of the 20 proposed coal plants planned in the past decade.” He notes that it was during that campaign that he fell in love with his organizing partner, Karen Hadden, who is now his wife. Smith told the Austin Monitor that he hopes Public Citizen will hire a new executive director to start work at the beginning of 2017. He said he intends to hang around for another month or two to help that person get their feet on the ground, but he doesn’t want to stay much longer because then he might get sucked into working during the upcoming legislative session. Smith said that he and Hadden plan to travel after his retirement, but he said he has no plans to leave Austin.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano
ANC ranks your City Council
Yesterday, the Austin Neighborhoods Council announced the debut of its brand-new Council Member Scorecard. The card ranks the 11 members of City Council according to specific votes that ANC had taken positions on through its resolutions over the last two years. Most Council members got passing grades. Council Member Leslie Pool scored the highest, with 92 percent; Council members Ann Kitchen and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo both earned 90 percent; Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Pio Renteria and Greg Casar received 79 percent scores; Council Member Ora Houston got a 77 percent; Council Member Delia Garza got a 74 percent; and Council Member Sheri Gallo earned a 64 percent. Council Member Ellen Troxclair got a 52 percent from ANC, and Council Member Don Zimmerman got the lowest score – 20 percent. In a press release about the new scoring system, ANC President Mary Ingle noted that the results “aren’t especially surprising.” But Ingle said she was excited to have a way “to quantify which Council Members are doing a better job of listening to the citizens of Austin and which are serving some other interest.” Ingle also noted that there is no easy way for the average citizen to figure out how Council members have voted on various issues. The press release further explains that in scoring Council, “Issues and votes were divided into seven categories including ‘Affordability,’ ‘Transparency’ and ‘Neighborhood Self Determination.’ Each council member receives a point if they voted in accordance with ANC’s position. Major votes (e.g. [accessory dwelling units], reflecting lobbying transparency) receive three points. The points are then divided by the total points possible for each issue to get a score. A vote can count toward more than one issue. The total score is the average of all scores for issue areas.” We’ve embedded the ANC scorecard below, for the curious-minded.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016 by Jo Clifton
Bastrop, Leffingwell in court today
Barring a decision by District Judge Carson Campbell to grant a continuance, Bastrop, Bastrop County and the Bastrop Independent School District will have a final hearing today in their lawsuit against the Pine Forest Investments Group, whose principal investor is Robert Leffingwell, brother of former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Leffingwell’s attorney, Ben Wetmore, has filed a motion for continuance. Wetmore has been attempting to schedule a settlement conference with Charles Bundren, the attorney for the Bastrop entities, but Bundren has asserted his unavailability for such a conference. At this point, Bastrop has paid Bundren $723,531 to litigate the matter. Other defendants in the lawsuit include former Pine Forest Property Owners Association members John Clark, John Gardner and William Haschke, all of whom are represented by Austin attorney Bill Aleshire. In responding to Wetmore’s motion for continuance, Bundren asserted throughout a lengthy response that Clark, Gardner and Haschke committed fraud, even though the plaintiffs’ petition did not allege fraud. Bundren also alleged that Leffingwell and the property owners association defendants “filed a frivolous, false and fraudulent affidavit of Paul Burt, suggesting that Judge Campbell may have violated the Judicial Canons of Texas.” Burt’s affidavit, detailed here, said that he witnessed the judge talking to the plaintiffs and their lawyers behind a locked glass door several hours before the ruling in their favor. Burt said that he could not hear the conversation. Bundren’s proposed final judgment includes allegations of fraud against Clark, Gardner and Haschke. Aleshire told Bundren via email on Tuesday that he could avoid unnecessarily adding additional parties – Aleshire’s clients – and additional issues for appeal by changing the wording to indicate error, for example, as opposed to fraud. Wetmore has said he was present in the judge’s chambers when Bundren told Campbell that an appeal would cost the governments $75,000 to $125,000.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
Sobriety center nearing the light of day
Thanks to a higher power, Austin’s sobriety center is mere steps away from formally pulling itself together. On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted 4-0-1 to approve the bylaws of the local government corporation that will operate the center. Another 4-0-1 vote approved the county’s inaugural appointees to the board that will oversee that corporation. The Downtown Austin Alliance’s William Brice, attorneys Craig Moore and Jana Ortega, and Judge Nancy Hohengarten will join four other appointees selected by the city of Austin. Attorney Andy Brown – who chaired the committee that laid the groundwork for the sobriety center – will serve as the designated joint appointee by the city and county. Once the corporation is able to walk on its own, it will hash out an interlocal agreement with the county and the city, which should be the last major bureaucratic hurdle. After that, it will only be a matter of time before the Medical Examiner’s Office building at West 12th and Sabine streets becomes available for the center to set up shop.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016 by Nora Ankrum
Calling all resourceful entrepreneurs
The [Re]Verse Pitch Competition is back for its second year, inviting entrepreneurs to compete to come up with the best way to turn discarded materials into a new product or service. Participants’ ideas will apply to the following local businesses and organizations, which have each chosen a material that needs a new use: In-N-Out Burgers (mesh plastic bags), Austin Creative Reuse (fabric sample books), Livestrong Foundation (yellow wristbands in out-of-date packaging), Central Texas Food Bank (inedible canned goods), Half Price Books (books, records and other media) and the Austin Transportation Department (vinyl street banners). The first-place winner gets a $10,000 innovation prize, and the runner-up gets to participate in the 2017 FastForward business accelerator and training program. The competition begins Oct. 11. More information is available here.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016 by Jack Craver
AE seeks to refund some Williamson County residents
Austin Energy officials told City Council members Monday that the utility would do everything in its power to refund approximately 6,000 Williamson County residents who were improperly subjected to a tax that AE collects on behalf of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The utility estimates that roughly $300,000 was inappropriately collected from a 1 percent tax that is levied on the electric portion of customers’ utility bills. Council Member Don Zimmerman told AE General Manager Jackie Sargent that he was pleased to hear the utility was being proactive on the issue, recalling his own experience bringing a successful suit over taxation against the city of Austin on behalf of the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District, of which he was president. He noted, however, that tracking down everybody eligible for a refund would be difficult, since some have since moved.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016 by Nora Ankrum
CodeNEXT seeks input on fiscal health
The fourth and final “prescription paper” for CodeNEXT, the city’s initiative to rewrite the Land Development Code, is now available for the public to read. The prescription paper series has provided “recommendations created to stimulate discussion on quality of life issues for Austinites and how those issues relate to rewriting the Land Development Code,” according to a press release from the city. Each paper has focused on a select topic, with the first three covering the natural and built environment, household affordability and mobility. The current paper focuses on fiscal health, with a particular emphasis on infrastructure and service issues. The community is invited to provide feedback on this and the other papers in the online discussion forum at SpeakUp! Austin. There will also be a public discussion on the fiscal health paper on Monday, Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m., at Northwest Recreation Center, 2913 Northland Drive.
The view from up north
This election cycle, District 6 City Council candidate Jimmy Flannigan was an early adopter of campaign commercials, putting out a series of short videos featuring his opponent’s trademark fedora and asking Austinites whether they had “hat enough.” This past week, incumbent Don Zimmerman joined the fun with a new commercial that features a Bizarro “subsidized” Zimmerman who dresses like Mr. Moneybags, smokes cigars, gives money to corporations and … rides his bike to work? While the cyclist plutocrat is a new trope for us, it’s probably worth remembering that Zimmerman’s advertisements have historically favored style over easy comprehension.
September is National Public Lands Day, which bills itself as the “nation’s largest, single-day volunteer effort for public lands including parks, trails, and green spaces.” This year, the event is hosted by the Austin Parks Foundation and Texas Conservation Corps. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities at APF’s website, so head on over to see what needs doing.
Ott appoints city’s first chief equity officer
As of Friday, Austin has a chief equity officer. Brion Oaks will be the first person to hold the position, which was created in the Fiscal Year 2015-2016 budget. The equity officer will work with city staff to foster a culture that “institutionalizes the use of an equity lens designed to address institutional barriers that interfere with access and equitable service delivery.” Oaks, who will begin work on Oct. 17, comes from 13 years at the American Heart Association, where he was most recently the vice president of health equity at the Southwest Affiliate. City Manager Marc Ott announced his appointment, saying, “Mr. Oaks has a demonstrated commitment to improving equity in central Texas. He’s been building relationships and alliances on the front line to address one of our most complex societal issues – health equity. … It’s clear to me that his work in that area will serve him well as he helps guide Austin on our path to a more equitable future for all of our residents and employees.”
Go ahead: Say things about parks
Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department is in the process of honing its 2017-2021 strategic plan and those who want to say something about the department now (instead of in five years) have another week to do so, thanks to a last-minute, one-week extension of the public comment period. At the moment, there aren’t many responses in the official city discussion of the plan, and Austin has only until Sept. 23 to change that.
Friday, September 16, 2016 by Nora Ankrum
Mayor seeks Disability Employment Award nominations
Mayor Steve Adler has issued a call for nominations for this year’s Disability Employment Awards, a program of the Mayor’s Committee for People With Disabilities. The honor goes to employers who recruit, hire and retain employees with disabilities, according to a press release from the city. The winners will be recognized during the annual Disability and Employment Awards Program in October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The deadline for nominations, which can be submitted here in a variety of employer categories, is Wednesday, Sept. 28, 5 p.m.
Friday, September 16, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano
A small performance-review review
Eager to hear how our city departments are doing, like, officially? So were City Council members during a recent budget work session, when they asked for an update from the newly formed Office of Performance Management. According to the Tuesday memo penned by Chief Performance Officer Kimberly Springer‐Olivares, Council can expect reports on the Public Works, Austin Code and Fleet Services departments in October. The memo was also able to tout some “early successes,” however, noting that Public Works is working on communicating with other departments about capital projects earlier, Fleet Services “has taken steps to ensure departments comply with vehicle rental and leasing standards” and Austin Code has reduced its budget by almost $1 million to forestall a rate increase while it reviews how it uses the city’s Clean Community Fee.