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Mobility Talks speaks
Way back in February, City Council launched a public process intended to prioritize city transportation projects and the funding to follow through with them. Now that process, dubbed “Mobility Talks,” is over and, with the participation of about 7,000 people, the report is here. The Austin Monitor will, as you might expect, dive into the (lengthy) report in good time, but for those hoping to get a jump on the nearly 100 pages of data, it is available in its entirety here.
Busiest! Summer! Ever!
Have you heard that Austin is over? Well, despite the absence of Uber, Lyft and days of yore, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is expecting its busiest summer ever, with projections that 1 million passengers will fly through the city each month this summer (which runs from May to August). This isn’t just bragging, though — airport officials advise those traveling through ABIA to arrive two hours before their flight during peak departure hours and 90 minutes prior to flights all other times.
Where do former aides go?
Longtime City Council aide Heidi Gerbracht, whose most recent City Hall post was in the office of Council Member Bill Spelman, received some stellar news this past week. She is now the board chair-elect of Annie’s List and will begin serving in that capacity in January 2017, carrying on a life of public service outside of the city.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano
More than zero
As part of a plan to reach zero waste in Austin, a City Council-initiated 2015 Community Diversion Study found that more than 80 percent of the materials that currently comprise Austin’s trash could have been recycled or composted. Despite that, Austin Resource Recovery Department Director Bob Gedert remained positive in a statement, saying, “I’m extremely encouraged by the results of this study. … The report has provided us with valuable data that shows us how we are doing and where we need to improve as a community in order to reach Council’s vision of Zero Waste.” Overall, the study found that our community-wide diversion rate is about 42 percent, which is shy of the Zero Waste Initiative goal of 50 percent for this year. According to a press release about the study results, “The study revealed that businesses and apartments generated more than 85 percent of the discards in our community. City-collected materials from single family homes are less than 15 percent of the total trash and recycling generated in Austin. Additionally, about 37 percent of materials sent to area landfills could have been composted.” Those who want a copy of the study for themselves can head over to the city’s website, where they are free for the taking.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016 by Courtney Griffin
AISD renames Lee Elementary
On Monday night, the Austin Independent School District voted 8-1 to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School to Russell Lee Elementary School, replacing the well-known Confederate general with an Austin-based photographer known for his diverse pictures. Vice President Paul Saldaña voted against the motion, voicing his preference for a name that reflected AISD’s diversity. Other trustees, including District 1 Trustee Edmund Gordon, voiced their opinion that the school should be named after Bettie Man, the first African-American teacher at Lee Elementary. However, they chose to vote in accordance with board precedent to honor the wishes of District 5’s Amber Elenz, who represents Lee Elementary.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano
AISD trustees recommend raises
AISD staff presented the district’s recommended budget, which includes a 4 percent raise for all employees and a $13 per hour floor for classified employees. These increases will cost the district $20.04 million and $1.2 million respectively, despite the recent court ruling declaring public school financing constitutional. The district is also investing $3 million for Professional Pathways for Teachers (PPfT), a new payment incentive program. The board will take up the budget for a formal vote June 20.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
County to go fishing for ideas on downtown tract
Travis County is turning to the free market for ideas on what to do with one of its most controversial properties. The Commissioners Court voted on Tuesday to instruct staff to prepare a formal request for proposals for 300 Guadalupe St. That, of course, is the site the county had proposed for its failed $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond project last year. The move to solicit proposals comes as a citizen advisory committee is working with county planners to explore alternative options for a courthouse site. While 300 Guadalupe St. is still technically on the table for consideration, the county is not bound to keep it fallow in the meantime. The county is also not committed by the proposal process to divest itself of the property, and the expected proposals themselves are not expected to be limited to sales requests. Strategic Planning Manager Belinda Powell told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday afternoon that she anticipates returning to the court with more details on the request for proposals in late June. Once it’s released, county staff aren’t expected to reel in the nets for anywhere between 90 and 120 days.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016 by Jo Clifton
Pool announces fundraising, list of supporters
District 7 City Council Member Leslie Pool officially kicked off her campaign Monday with an announcement of support from a strong list of traditional liberals as well as labor and environmental representatives. According to a press release from Pool’s campaign consultant, Matt Hersh, Pool raised about $13,000 in the week since she officially started running for re-election. The money was raised, Hersh noted, without a fundraiser. Among Pool’s notable supporters are Austin environmentalists Mary Arnold, Bill Bunch, Sarah Fusco, Tom “Smitty” Smith, Karen Hadden, Shudde Fath, Jennifer Walker, Mary Ann Neely and Craig Smith. Public officials throwing their support behind Pool include state Reps. Donna Howard, Elliott Naishtat, Eddie Rodriguez and Celia Israel along with Gina Hinojosa, former president of the AISD school board and state representative-elect. The campaign announced that Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, as well as former Mayor Frank Cooksey and former Council Member Laura Morrison, are supporting the incumbent. Pool also has the backing of three important labor groups: the Austin Police Association PAC, the Austin Firefighters Association and the Austin-Travis County EMS Association. She can also expect an endorsement from AFSCME when the time comes considering she already has the support of several union representatives, including Jack Kirfman, Carol Guthrie and Krissy O’Brien. So far, no other candidates have declared for District 7. Pool was one of five Council members who drew two-year terms but is running for a full four-year term in November.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
Renteria boards Capital Metro board
City Council will soon have three of its members sitting on the Capital Metro Board of Directors. With little fanfare last week, Council voted to appoint Council Member Pio Renteria to fill the seat being vacated by Ann Stafford. Stafford is stepping down after serving two consecutive three-year terms. She attended her last board meeting on Monday. Renteria will likely be made official at the next board meeting on June 15. He’ll join the city’s other appointee, Council Member Delia Garza, as well as Council Member Ann Kitchen, who is serving at the behest of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016 by Jo Clifton
Volunteer files ethics complaint against Hawkins
Pinaki Ghosh, a former member of the city’s volunteer Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission, filed an official complaint with the city’s Ethics Review Commission on Monday against Rondella Hawkins, who oversees the city’s Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs, related to Hawkins’ solicitation of three free SXSW Interactive badges. As outlined in Monday’s Austin Monitor story, Hawkins requested and received the passes from festival director Hugh Forrest for herself and members of her staff. Ghosh said in his complaint that Hawkins “has created an environment of corruption within the commission. Government employees directly ask for gifts using their government emails, misuse public finance, misuse government position, have unhealthy relationship(s) with private enterprises like SXSW. The entire commission is being used,” by Hawkins, “for personal gains and, as a result, citizens are suffering.” Hawkins was not available for comment on Monday but responded to an email Sunday night, defending her actions and saying that she saved the city money by getting the passes for herself and her employees. She concluded, “I do not know of any City ordinance that I violated.” Ghosh has also filed a complaint against Lemuel Williams, chair of the technology commission. That complaint is scheduled for a hearing before the Ethics Review Commission in June.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
Cap Metro to embiggen Lakeline Park and Ride
Capital Metro’s Board of Directors on Monday approved the expansion of a parking lot in far northwest Austin. The $1.79 million contract with Muniz Concrete and Contracting, Inc., will add 460 spaces to the Lakeline Park and Ride, which already has enough room to hold 485 vehicles. Capital Metro officials explained that the facility is often filled to capacity and even overflows during special events such as South by Southwest. The expansion dovetails with big changes to the MetroRail service, including new trains, double-tracking along the route and the construction of a larger downtown station. Those additions are being funded by a state grant, while the Park and Ride work will be paid for with money approved in the agency’s 2016 capital budget. Said Chairperson Wade Cooper after Monday’s unanimous board vote, “I’m excited to have a nearly 1,000-space parking lot.”
Early voting continues
Early voters continued to trickle into the polls last week. As of Friday, 8,605 voters (or 1.25 percent of registered voters) had cast their ballots in the election. Because it is a primary runoff, those totals are also broken down by party. For the curious, 3,209 Republicans have voted so far, and 5,396 Democrats have shown up to vote. Remember, election day is May 24.
Fair Housing at committee this week
In a post on the City Council Message Board, Council Member Greg Casar said that, this Tuesday, his Planning and Neighborhoods Committee will be taking up the issue of fair housing, and he encouraged his colleagues to join in on the discussion. According to that post, the committee will be talking about such things as more mixed-income developments, small housing in high-opportunity areas, increased public investment to subsidize affordable housing and options that would allow homeowners to stay in place (as opposed to selling due to unmanageable property taxes).
Austin Achieve plans to expand
Austin Achieve Public School, which is a charter school in East Austin, has announced plans to build a new middle and elementary school on a second campus. According to a press release from the school, it will be honoring a Windsor Park request to cap enrollment at its existing Manor Road location at 600 students and will build the new campus near the intersection of U.S. 290 and U.S. 183, at 7424 East Highway 290, with access from the frontage roads. Plans include a 100-foot setback from neighbors and a 50-foot setback from the road. The new facilities are scheduled to be completed by 2018. Though relations with neighbors haven’t always been rosy, in a statement to the press, Windsor Park Neighborhood Association president Karen Pagani threw her support behind the school, saying, “Our neighborhood has been concerned about the potential impact of a second facility on Austin Achieve’s current site for some time, and we are happy that the school has found a second, much larger site that will allow them to expand to serve more children while still being good neighbors to the people living near both campuses. … Austin Achieve strives to provide the children of East Austin with a high-quality education close to home, and I am happy to have them in our neighborhood. I am very pleased to see that they are reaching out and working with their new neighbors much earlier in the process this time around.”
Vision Zero approved by Council
As of Thursday, Austin has a Vision Zero Action Plan. City Council approved the plan in a vote of 7-1-2, with Council Member Don Zimmerman voting in opposition, Council members Ora Houston and Ellen Troxclair abstaining and Council Member Greg Casar absent. For extensive background on the plan, we recommend KUT’s series Road to Zero. Or, for the more studiously minded, the complete report can be found here.
Friday, May 20, 2016 by Vicky Garza
Grove PUD delayed again
Discussion on The Grove at Shoal Creek Planned Unit Development has been put on hold once again as city staff is still reviewing the overall project. Although it was on the agenda for the May 18 Environmental Commission meeting and a roomful of stakeholders showed up to speak, commissioners decided to wait to hear it until it was “fully cooked.” City Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak told commissioners that the Planning and Zoning Department was still reviewing the project and discussing it with the applicant, ARG Bull Creek Ltd. Representatives from the Bull Creek Road Coalition and Friends of the Grove, who stayed until the item was brought up around 9:45 p.m., agreed to hold off until there were solid recommendations, although Sara Speights, BCRC president, asked if it could be an item next time to some laughter and applause. Meanwhile, the applicant seems eager to move things forward. The applicant’s representative, attorney Jeff Howard, said that the project has cleared drainage, water quality, trees and environmental concerns, and urged the commission to consider the project before June 1. However, Environmental Commission Chair Marisa Perales said that she recognizes that Watershed Protection had made its determination back in November, but “environmental issues in our purview go beyond just what Watershed Protection has looked at, to open space and parkland requirements. We want to be able to look at a broader scope of environmental issues.” Commissioners voted unanimously to refer the item to the Development Subcommittee as soon as the staff comes up with an overall project recommendation.
MF-6 density bonus shuttled to CodeNEXT
Though it was largely her brainchild, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo led the charge to push a proposed Multi Family-6 density bonus to the CodeNEXT process after acknowledging that her proposal and staff’s recommendation were different enough that she no longer supported it without significant amendments. Despite the item being unanimously denied fairly quickly, Mayor Steve Adler took a moment to “memorialize” the short-lived amendment, which did manage to bring the Austin Neighborhoods Council and the Real Estate Council of Austin together.
APD body cameras and plate scanners put off
Two high-profile Austin Police Department purchases were put off until June 9 on Thursday, after City Council decided it just needed more information to proceed. The first, the purchase of an Automatic License Plate Recognition System, stirred skepticism despite APD Chief Art Acevedo’s assurances that the scanners would not be used for ill purposes, such as collecting money. He explained that APD had no intention of taking the Kyle Police Department route and told Council Member Don Zimmerman that the scanners “would specifically only be for crime-fighting and not for revenue-generating.” However, Austin Police Association Vice President Andrew Romero spoke against the purchase, saying the money could be better spent on APD’s “staffing crisis.” The second item was a bit more high-profile and a lot more expensive. Council also voted to delay a move forward on a body camera contract that could cost as much as $12 million. Zimmerman explained that the contract would be studied, with expert witnesses, at the next Public Safety Committee meeting. That may give Council members more time to mull over warnings from concerned citizens who testified that the current terms under which body cameras would be used could use some work. A handful of people warned that the terms in question were not transparent and would allow police to use the cameras for their own benefit instead of ensuring transparency for the public. Both items are currently postponed to Council’s June 9 meeting.
Thursday, May 19, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
Primary runoff candidates file finance reports
Uber and Lyft’s recent spending spree in their failed campaign to pass Proposition 1 is a tough act to follow, but that’s not stopping the candidates in the May 24 Democratic primary runoff from trying (though their efforts should be attributed more to federal and state laws rather than any particular boldness). With less than a week to go before election, the candidates in two separate races have revealed through campaign finance reports how much money they’ve raised and spent in their respective quests for local office. In the Travis County Commissioners Court Precinct 1 contest, Jeff Travillion reported raising $46,100 since late February. He has also spent about that much and has more than $15,000 left in his war chest. His opponent, Arthur Sampson, claimed a total of $1,400 in contributions, $350 in expenditures and $0 in reserves. Sampson’s filings claim to only cover the period from late February to April 24, which may help account for no mention of spending on television advertisements that are reportedly running on at least one major cable news network. In the County Constable Precinct 1 race, things are bit more even. Incumbent Danny Thomas raised $6,450, spent $4,494 and has $1,956 in the final days of early voting. His opponent, Janie Serna, managed to collect $4,471. She also spent $4,071 and still has $335 in the bank. Early voting ends on Friday and election day is next Tuesday. Vote!
Thursday, May 19, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano
Pool to host town hall
This Saturday, May 21, City Council Member Leslie Pool will host a town hall for District 7 residents. According to an invite to the event, it will include a transportation panel, moderated by Pool, and a “scavenger hunt” that invites those in attendance to “explore the information fair and engage with city officials to find answers to a list of questions about city services.” It will all take place at 11:30 a.m. at the Northwest Recreation Center.