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Transportation Commission wants

Wednesday, February 21, 2001 by

More input on Council items

UTC expresses frustration

The Urban Transportation Commission is neither the first nor the last city commission to be frustrated by its lack of input into the decision-making process of the Austin City Council.

A resolution approved by the UTC last night asked the Council to send all agenda items related to transportation policy issues to the commission for review. The UTC’s mandate is to provide the Council with the people’s view on transportation issues, yet commission members believe that their function has been forgotten.

“We had noticed that certain key transportation policy issues were appearing on the city council agenda without ever being given to us for input,” said Commissioner Michelle Brinkman after the meeting. “I think it’s more of an issue of a lack of a formal process to offer input. I don’t think anybody was trying to deliberately subvert it, but there’s just no formal process right now for these things to come to us.”

Commissioner Scheleen Walker said it’s not only the big issues that frustrate commission members, but also the smaller decisions. Last week for instance, the City Council approved new rates for tow trucks. Only a year ago, the Urban Transportation Commission had a heated and lengthy debate on the issue, yet no one sought the commission’s advice or input about it.

“There is a sense of frustration,” Walker said. “This was an item we took up, but no input was ever asked of us, even though it’s an item we do normally review.”

The UTC resolution, which will also be e-mailed to commissioners of all city boards, once more raises the specter of just what the role of a city commission should be. That lack of clarity was the main reason the Airport Advisory Commission was disbanded in January. At that time, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman asked for a sharper delineation between city and board roles.

The resolution did outline those issues the UTC considered appropriate for it to consider:

• matters of public policy • creating and advising on city ordinances affecting transportation • establishing the annual budget in regard to transportation infrastructure and programs • establishing official criteria for prioritizing individual transportation projects • actions by the Council on the city’s and CAMPO’s transportation plans • application for federal, state and grant funding for transportation projects • approval for transportation system decisions, should Council approval be required

“This is intended to be clear about what should and should not come to the commission,” Brinkman said. “We don't want to review every item. Our role is advisory. We don’t want to approve every transportation contract that comes through the city.”

Commissioners support the resolution so strongly that they intend to ask the City Council whether the commission should exist at all if the resolution fails. It’s not a matter of a lack of participation on the part of the UTC.

“It’s a matter of no one paying attention,” Brinkman said. “My understanding from several different sources is that we are not the only city commission that is faced with this problem—there are probably only a handful of commissions that don’t have this problem.”

Walker went so far as to suggest a sunset review process for all city commissions. Every five years or so, the Council should reconsider the make-up of the commissions as well as their purpose. In cases like the Downtown Commission, members are appointed from groups that no longer exist, Walker said.

The commission approved the resolution, with Walker abstaining. Both chair Jay Wyatt and Commissioner Michael Dahmus were absent from the meeting.

RMC recommends new

Water conservation rules

Commission asks Council to preserve conservation funds

The Resource Management Commission last night approved an ordinance changing regulations for water use during times of shortage, and asked the City Council to take funds from divisions other than Water Conservation to repair city swimming pools.

The ordinance relating to water conservation is expected to appear on the Council agenda at the end of March. Tony Gregg, city water conservation officer, said he had met with numerous stakeholders, including the Texas Lawn and Nursery Association, the Austin Apartment Association, and the Southwest Car Wash Association, in order to come up with rules that would be fair to all.

Gregg said the distinction between commercial and noncommercial car washes has been removed from the ordinance. The criteria for operation is based on the number of gallons of water used per wash. New landscape will be defined as vegetation installed for a new house or commercial building or as part of a city capitol improvement project. Landscaping on existing homes or buildings will not be treated as new unless it changes more than half the area of an existing landscape. The owner of new landscaping is allowed more flexibility in watering, but must provide notice to the city before installing it.

Unlike the old ordinance, the new ordinance will be in effect year-round. Enforcement of the regulations will depend on whether the city has reached a serious situation (mandatory water-use management) or a crisis (emergency water-use management) as determined by the city manager. The commission unanimously approved recommending the revised ordinance.

In the second resolution, authored by Commissioner Michelle LaVigne, the commission notes that half of the $800,000 in this year’s budget for pool repairs and installation of recirculating equipment came directly from the water conservation division’s rebate incentive budget. The commission said other departments should contribute to pool repairs so that water conservation money can be used to assist Austin citizens to reducewater use. This is what the money was originally intended to accomplish.

In other action, the commission discussed proposed conservation measures from Southern Union Gas Company. Cher Montalvo, representing Southern Union, said the proposal to give rebates to customers for sealing fireplaces and installing gas logs was an “environmental rebate.” Chair Michael Osborne said, “Given that gas prices have gone up substantially, we need to be talking about a meat and potatoes approach.” An example would be “a blanket around your hot water heater,” he said.

Commissioner Kathryn Houser described the program as “a rebate to use more gas in a gas fireplace.” Earlier, environmental activist Paul Robbins urged the commission to “set some kind of standards for the Southern Union Gas program so we don’t have conflicts about it year after year.” Robbins said he was particularly distressed by the gas log program, which might set a precedent for spending conservation money on programs that don’t save energy.

Sensing a losing battle, Montalvo said she would prefer to withdraw the fireplace rebate from consideration. She said she would take it back to the company and either resubmit it later or prepare an alternative program. Montalvo also presented information on replacing electric air conditioning with gas units. However, Osborne said he wanted to see a comparison of two systems side by side. “Let’s determine if it really does save gas,” he said. The rest of the commission seemed to agree. That matter may be reconsidered next month.

Temple Beth Israel wins

Permit for daycare

Divided Planning Commission grants CUP

Congregation Beth Israel received its final approval last week—a conditional use permit—to build a daycare center adjacent to the temple at 3901 Shoal Creek. The Planning Commission approved the permit and a variance to allow construction of the center’s parking lot and part of the new building in the critical water quality zone. The vote was 5-3, with Commissioners Jim Robertson, Jean Mather and Robin Cravey voting no. Commissioner Ben Heimsath said he could not particpate because of a conflict of interest.

Mather said she was concerned about children playing in the critical water quality zone. Cravey tried a motion to deny the variance because of severe erosion on property upstream of the temple. He said, “This is a contribution to a very serious problem, and it reduces the use of our creeks and greenways.”

Commissioner Silver Garza made a substitute motion and Commissioner Sterling Lands supplied the second to allow the church to build the daycare and parking lot. The Environmental Board had recommended denial of the request for variance, even though city staff recommended it. Attorney Richard Suttle represented the church in its odyssey through the Board of Adjustment, the Planning Commission, the Environmental Board, the City Council and finally, back to the Planning Commission. (See In Fact Daily October 10, 2000, November 16, 2000 and February 9, 2001).

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Is this the beginning of a new campaign? . . Former City Council candidate Amy Babich is circulating a suggestion to close Riverside Drive from Lamar to South First Street on April 19th, otherwise known as Earth Car-Free Day. In her e-mail, the parks board member mentions that cities in several countries have started the tradition. It remains to be seen what Austin's reaction would be to such a proposal . . . Non-sequitor. . . Hays County’s special counsel Jacqueline C. Murphy said in a press release that the ruling by the Third Court of Appeals finding county commissioners liable for violation of the Open Meetings Act may result in elimination of the public comment section of the Commissioners’ Agenda. Erin Foster, chair of the Hays County Water Planning Partnership said, “Now the county wants to eliminate the 3 minute per person Public Comment portion of the Commissioners Court Meetings? That’s going in the wrong direction.”

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