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Planning Commission absenteeism adds red tape and slows process to a crawl

Wednesday, May 24, 2000 by

Mayor Pro Tem Goodman examines attendance records

When development representatives ask the city's Planning Commission to bless their subdivision or zoning change, those with experience count commissioners before deciding whether to proceed or ask for a postponement. Even if neighborhood leaders muster a crowd, they may have to go home without a hearing and just hope that their neighbors will be willing to come back. On numerous occasions over the past year, commissioners' absences have forced postponements of controversial matters. So, the commission, which has a hefty workload already, is even more overworked when all nine members do appear.

Jerry Rusthoven, formerly a principal planner in the Development Review and Inspection Department, and now executive assistant to Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, said absences are especially problematic on cases like conditional-use permits. The commission is supposed to make a final decision on such permits, but if the commission fails to muster the five votes necessary for approval, the case has to be appealed to the City Council.

Commissioner Jean Mather, who rarely misses a meeting, said, "We postpone and postpone and postpone. I feel like (absences) really make it difficult. We often barely have a quorum," of five members. She said planning commissioners are "too busy in their other lives" to devote as much time to the commission as the job requires. Mather is a retired landscape architect and has served on the commission since 1993.

Commission Chair Art Navarro said absenteeism on the commission is "a burden. It causes problems because all issues deserve a full hearing. You need a full commission," for controversial issues. "The community deserves to be heard by the full commission," he said.

Commissioner Robin Cravey said absences waste a lot of commission time. He explained, "You find yourself with five members. People leave early and you can't get a quorum vote and you've gone through the hearing." If the matter is controversial, it is likely that the vote will be postponed to be fair to the applicant. But people will have to come back and may wish to address the commission again, taking up more time. Cravey also complained about absences from the commission's standing committee meetings. Some items are referred to a committee before the whole commission can hear them. When a committee fails to meet for lack of a quorum, that means another week, or more, before the item can be heard by the full commission.

Mayor Pro Tem Goodman–who spent six years on the Planning Commission before she was elected to the council in 1993–asked the commission's staff coordinator to give her detailed information on absences for this year and last year. The compilation showed that Commissioner Susana Almanza was absent 13 times during 1999. So far this year, Almanza has missed three of 17 meetings, including last night. Commissioner Gwen Webb was absent eight times in 1999 and twice this year. Chair Navarro and Commissioners Ben Heimsath and Ray Vrudhula were each absent seven times in 1999. Commissioners Mather and Jim Robertson were absent four times each last year. Commissioners Betty Baker and Cravey were each absent only once in 1999 and twice this year. Cravey and Robertson were appointed last July. The terms of Commissioners Almanza, Heimsath, Navarro and Webb expire in July.

Goodman said she found the number of absences unacceptable. She said she is also concerned about commissioners who arrive late and leave meetings early. "A Planning Commission that has a hard time keeping a quorum for the whole meeting is going to be overworked," she said. "That doesn't mean I don't understand" that an occasional absence is unavoidable, she said. "But there's a base commitment you make–to be there once a week–for as long as it lasts.

Almanza, who has the most frequent absences, said she does not believe her absences are excessive. "They'll call the roll. They say Ben Heimsath is on his way." Almanza said if individual votes were counted, as opposed to meetings, her absence would not be more excessive than that of other members who arrive late and leave early.

Almanza said she took time off to be with her mother who was very ill last year. She also said she was given a fellowship to take a sabbatical after years of service to the community. During that time, Almanza said she visited family in South Texas and New Mexico. She said she intends to apply for reappointment. Almanza said, "There's a lot of follow-up that needs to happen with those neighborhood plans. And the community has told me, 'Hey, we need you there to make sure those things happen or they'll just sit on the shelf.'"

Heimsath said he only comes in late when he has to meet with clients, but he has tried to keep that to a minimum. He said he has done a good job and would apply for reappointment. Heimsath also chairs the commission's Comprehensive Plan Committee. That committee takes up many hours each month, in addition to commission meetings, he said.

One development representative, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "Arriving late and leaving early is just as bad as an absence. Most of them (commissioners) begged to be up there."

Baker, former chair and current vice chair of the commission, said, "I personally try to get there on time and I don't ever recall leaving early. I've stayed when I was sick so they would have a quorum. Whether it was a verbal or unsaid commitment, it certainly was presumed we would attend the meetings all the time."

City Code Section 2-4-3 states, "Any member who misses three consecutive regular meetings or misses one-third of all regular meetings in a 12-month time period, except for health reasons as determined by the chairperson in both instances, shall be ineligible to continue serving and his or her vacancy shall be filled by the City Council."

During 1999, Almanza and Vrudhula each missed three consecutive meetings, according to the staff compilation. Robertson has missed three consecutive meetings this year while he was on vacation. Nikki Hoelter, coordinator for the commission, keeps track of absences. Hoelter said Robertson had gotten permission for his absences from the City Council member who appointed him. Vrudhula's absences last year occurred when he was on vacation and Council Member Gus Garcia reappointed him last July.

Webb declined to comment on whether she would ask for reappointment, but said, "There have been times when we've not had a quorum and that caused problems, but Austin is booming and we're all business people who have other commitments. I think we by and large have done well, except in February and March. If you want people who are active in the community, that leads to absences."

She said the commission, which begins at 6 p.m., should not meet beyond 10 p.m. "Most of us are doing this after we've worked a full day," she said. "If I've got to catch a plane at 6:25 a.m., it's hard to stay late." She also said the commission performs less efficiently as the night wears on.

Planning Commission recommends council okay extra $2.9 million for City Hall expansion

Money needed to add retail, and expanding parking and office space

The Planning Commission voted last night to recommend that City Council add more than $2.9 million to the project budget for the new City Hall and Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) buildings and associated underground parking garage. The vote was 8-0, with Commissioner Susana Almanza absent. Jan Hilton, CSC/City Hall deputy officer for the city's Redevelopment Services, said when city planners asked the public what might keep them from coming to the new City Hall, they were told "lack of parking and accessibility."

The addition of 75 parking spaces of 340 square feet each will cost an estimated $985,000, Hilton said. The addition of 5,728 square feet of office space and 10,000 square feet of retail space, Hilton said, will raise the City Hall project budget by $1,944,000. Hilton said one reason for the need to increase office space in the new City Hall is the possibility of the passage of a City Charter amendment requiring single-member districts. She said council members indicated that all council members would want space at City Hall, even if they decide to have district offices also. Hilton said planners have also added a ceremonial room to host and greet official visitors. That space can be used by the community as well, she said.

Hilton said the city's retail consultant ( Gerald Trimble of San Diego-based Keyser Marston Associates Inc.) had recommended the city construct an additional 10,000 square feet of retail space. This will fill what otherwise would be a gap between the retail space in the two CSC buildings that will flank the new City Hall. She said City Hall might include a visitor's bureau and a retail bookstore or something similar that would sell items bearing the city's name.

Commissioner Betty Baker, who works for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she had visited a lot of city halls around the country and found none with retail shops.

Commissioner Robin Cravey said, "Within a few weeks after the Lamar Street (bicycle and pedestrian) bridge was cut off at one end, it's a bitter pill to spend another million dollars for more parking spaces at city hall." He was referring to the fact that high bids for construction of the bridge resulted in eliminating a flyover that would have allowed bridge users to reach 5th Street without crossing traffic.

The idea of the city subsidizing retail parking met resistance when Hilton presented it to the Downtown Commission two weeks ago because of concerns that would give retail businesses in the two buildings constructed by CSC and the new City Hall an unfair advantage over other downtown retailers. (See In Fact Daily, May 11, 2000.) Downtown Commission Chair Robert Knight also thought it was unwise to subsidize retail and the city should instead put in uses that the market would support.

Colores del Pubelo…The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is sponsoring a Latin American Arts and Crafts sale this Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the parking lot of Half Price Books, 31st and Guadalupe. Proceeds from the sale will benefit AFSC… Planning Commission Coordinator Nikki Hoelter has been promoted to Planner 1 in the Development Review and Inspection Department, but has been unable to leave her old duties behind because her replacement has not been hired. Hoelter, as the woman with the timer and the tape recorder, helps the commission keep moving through its agenda… Roast a retiring council member…A handful of local luminaries will be honoring outgoing Council Member Gus Garcia next Tuesday, May 30, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Saengerrunde Hall, 1607 San Jacinto. Among the roasters are Mayor Kirk Watson, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, former Council Member Brigid Shea and Statesman editorial page editor Arnold Garcia. Proceeds will benefit Avance-Austin, a nonprofit organization that helps young mothers learn parenting skills and receive literacy training… Boards and commissions moving… Jill Horton of the city's Building Services Department told Planning Commission members last night that their next meeting, on June 6, will be at One Texas Center in Room 305. Horton said subcommittee meetings will be held in the same building in Room 221. Horton said Channel 6 will be moving cameras to One Texas Center today. The Planning Commission will not meet next week. Assistant City Attorney David Lloyd told In Fact Daily that the Board of Adjustment, Historic Landmark Commission and Environmental Board would also make the jump to the better facility.

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