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Airport advisors agree to

Wednesday, December 6, 2000 by

Disagree on new ordinance

Council to consider plan to change board

A divided Airport Advisory Board began the process of dismantling itself at a lengthy work session at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport last night.

A rewrite of the ordinance that created the advisory board will be one of Chuck Griffith's last acts as the city's director of aviation before he retires at the end of February. The draft, which goes to Austin City Council on Dec. 14, substantially alters the make-up and function of the board. The concept of the new and more powerful commission has disturbed current board dissenters who have long considered themselves shut out from important decisions at the city's new airport.

“There is a big difference between historically editing an ordinance because we no longer need a board to oversee the development of an airport,” said Commissioner Hannah Riddering, who has not hesitated to criticize airport operations. “Changing the substance and qualifications of the board is a substantial change and I have a real problem with that, as everybody already knows.”

Under the new ordinance—modeled on a code Griffith helped pass in the Tennessee legislature—the make-up of the commission will be specified by occupation. Among the nine members would be a person holding a pilot's license, a resident of the airport's compatible land use area, a civil engineer or architect, an attorney, a real estate appraiser, a person from the business community, a person from the banking industry, and two consensus members nominated by council. The term of current Airport Advisory Board members ends on Jan. 15.

The ordinance was sponsored by Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Members Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith last month and postponed so the current advisory board could consider it. What galls at least three current commissioners—Riddering, former Austin school board member Diana Castaneda and Leonard Lyons—is that the new board will apparently get to do what they say they were never allowed to do. It will advise city staff on important decisions regarding the airport's capital improvement projects, federal grants and budget decisions.

“It's bad enough now that nothing happens on this board,” said Lyons, who complained he had never seen a financial statement or a contract while he was on the board. “Now you make it official.”

Griffith told Lyons that many of the more specific items don't come to the board because “we don't feel the board has the expertise to give us assistance on some of these matters.” Commissioner Joe Trochta stressed that it is the Director of Aviation, not the advisory board, that is empowered to make decisions on the day-to-day operations of the airport. Lyons countered that the board simply wanted the chance to offer an opinion, not make day-to-day decisions.

The new ordinance is being viewed in one of two ways. Supporters believe the rewrite creates a more effective, focused group with the expertise to provide important feedback on airport development. Others feel it takes the power of a populist board—intended to address the concerns of the everyday user—out of the hands of the taxpayers who paid for the airport.

Commissioner Troy Kimmel said it would be fruitless to oppose an ordinance so clearly supported by Watson. “I guess my thought is, the Mayor wants this. We serve at the pleasure of the Mayor and the City Council,” said Kimmel, who tried to be a conciliator between those who supported the ordinance and those who didn't. “I don't know why it came back to us. If the Mayor feels comfortable with this, I don't know if we have the right to tell him to change it.”

While Chair Bill Martin tried to lead the advisory board in a discussion of the ordinance during last night's work session, the conversation kept straying to the role of current board members. Riddering and Castaneda in particular, told Griffith he had ignored concerns they considered valid and suggestions they thought to be useful. Griffith, in turn, told the commissioners that the advisory board's role should be limited to the discussion of agenda items that will be presented to the City Council.

The one point of consensus around the table—which included future aviation director and current Assistant City Manager Jim Smith—was that the effectiveness of advisory boards is based almost entirely upon the good will between commissioners and staff members. The sharing of information cannot be legislated, Smith said. How much or how little city staff members share is frequently based on the level of trust developed with advisory board members.

Two hours into the discussion it became clear that advisory board members would not reach consensus. Martin agreed to present the new ordinance to the Austin City Council with no recommendation from the board. Castaneda promised to write the dissenting viewpoint for distribution to council members before next week's meeting.

The group did agree to some clarifications on the ordinance, such as allowing a board member to carry multiple job titles, such as pilot and real estate appraiser. They also suggested that the term “may,” instead of “shall,” be inserted into the requirement of the various job titles.(See In Fact Daily, Nov. 8, 2000)

With gas price rise, Austin Energy

Set to reconsider customer fuel charge

New generating units to come online in May

The price of natural gas has hit a new high—$8 per million BTU’s—and Austin Energy is set to re-evaluate the fuel charge on electric bills. Ed Clark, the utility’s spokesman, said Tuesday that the price of natural gas has climbed from $2.25 in January to its current level. Clark said Austin Energy has raised the price twice this year, but still has the lowest fuel charge of any major utility in Texas.

Clark pointed out that Texans are seeing lower prices than consumers in California and the East Coast, where the price of natural gas has gone to $12 and $10, respectively. California has deregulated its utilities. The price is lower in Texas, he said, because of greater availability, but he expects the spot price to increase here.

Austin is fortunate to be using nuclear power and coal along with the natural gas, according to Clark. “The nuke is saving us money right now,” he said.

When temperatures soar again next summer, Austin will have four 45 MW quickstart generating units, Clark added. Enron and Austin Energy are partners in the project, which broke ground last week. The $93 million project, adjacent to the south Austin wastewater treatment plant, will generate 180 MW for Enron for three years and thereafter belong to Austin Energy. Clark said the project is scheduled to be ready for operation in May 2001, in time to help the city when energy use peaks in the summer.

The gas-fired generators will be outfitted with state-of-the-art pollution controls. Clark said that the Enron/Austin Energy units would be the first small peakers to use this type of pollution prevention equipment in Texas. The equipment will reduce emissions of nitrous oxide to 5ppm, according to Clark. The state permit would allow emissions of 25ppm. The site is one mile from the nearest home and will use treated wastewater from the adjacent plant.

“The project's low emissions, increased efficiencies and great location represent a very prudent next step in meeting the growing energy demand in our community,” said Chuck Manning, Austin Energy's General Manager.

Enron is serving as project manager for the development, engineering, procurement and construction of the project. Austin Energy will operate and manage the facility once it becomes operational in May 2001. Project costs for Austin Energy will be paid for out of revenues and will not increase base electric rates.

Planning Commission 'splits baby,'

Recommending office zoning on Oltorf

Owner wanted commercial zoning

Last night, members of two South Austin neighborhood organizations told the Planning Commission they oppose a zoning change for a small house at 306 W. Oltorf Street, while the owner pleaded for a commercial classification.

The owner of the property, Juan Pedraza, said he wants to sell Mexican jewelry and clothing from the one-bedroom house he purchased about 18 months ago. His neighbors said the property should remain single-family housing, fearing parking problems, noise and increased traffic that would result from commercial or office uses.

Nico Ilai, who lives in the Dawson neighborhood, said she owns property that was zoned multi-family, but she chose to use it for single-family residences. She said the proposed shop “backs up to three single-family homes.” She urged the commission to leave the boundary on commercial property where it is—farther away from the new homes on Wilson Street.

Matt Coldwell, who lives in the Bouldin neighborhood, said he and other residents worry about a slow encroachment of commercial development into their neighborhood. Michael O’Malley said he has a contract on one of the new two-story homes being built just around the corner on Wilson Street. He said he and his new neighbors have given an easement behind their property for creation of an alley. He said he was concerned that shoppers would park in the alley.

City staff had recommended that the zoning be changed to NO (neighborhood office), but it was not clear that such a change would really benefit Pedraza. The lot is only 50 feet deep and the zoning requires a 25-foot vegetative barrier between the office and homes.

Commissioner Jim Robertson said, “Given that it doesn’t give the applicant what he wants and the neighborhood is opposed even to the NO zoning, are we splitting the baby and not making anybody happy? Are we exercising sound planning?”

Chair Betty Baker replied, “Of the people who spoke in opposition, I don’t think any would purchase the house and live there. There is nothing else residential except the houses oriented to Wilson and NO would give the owner some fair use of the property.”

Baker and Commissioners Ray Vrudhula, Ben Heimsath, Lydia Ortiz, Silver Garza and Sterling Lands voted to recommend NO for the small house. Commissioners Jean Mather and Robertson voted no. Commissioner Robin Cravey was absent.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

More ballot news . . .A group called Austin Democracy Now has filed an open records request with election officials in Miami-Dade County, Florida. “If the Florida courts are shirking their responsibility to make sure there is a full and fair count, we have no choice but to be a watchdog for the public,” said Sonia Santana, spokeswoman for the group. The group will raise money to fly its own vote counters to Miami, Santana said . . . Kids’ art . . . The Boys & Girls Clubsof the Capital Area has announced the opening of the Second Annual L'Oreal Kids Art Exhibit, Thursday through Sunday at the South Austin Clubhouse, 303 W. Johanna . . . Destination: North Pole . . . Children undergoing cancer treatment and their families will take a Continental Airlines jet to the North Pole, other wise known as Gate 22 at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport around noon today . . .

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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