Friday, April 27, 2001 by

Council hears scenarios

For City Charter revision

Census data shows phenomenal growth in '90s

Austin is an anomaly in terms of the size of the City Council relative to the population and the way Council Members are elected. In light of this, the Council eagerly listened to a briefing Thursday morning on possible avenues for revising the City Charter to bring the city more up to date on Council structure, more in alignment with peer cities and more responsive to citizens.

The complex and tangled issue of improving Austin’s electoral system by creating single-member districts for Council elections, and perhaps enlarging the Council size to 12 or 13 Members, sparked only brief discussion. But if the Council wants to amend the electoral process by the next general municipal election, scheduled for May 4, 2002, they need to get into gear. Assistant City Attorney John Steiner urged the Council to act soon if they want to revise the City Charter because time is running out. “A year passes very quickly,” he told the Council, so “a year is not too early to get started.”

He said August 11 is the next uniform election date in Texas, the next opportunity to bring charter revisions before voters. In order to bring the issue to the polls by that date, the final wording for the ballot must be decided by June 14. And that’s only five Council meetings away—a very short amount of time, he warned.

According to state law, two full years must pass between charter revisions. The Austin City Charter was last revised in November of 1997, he said.

Barbara Hankins, who chaired a charter-revision committee that last year recommended the city vote to amend the charter, implored the Council to take action. “I urge you to move forward on this issue,” she said. “There is a lot of need for a new look at this question . . . almost no one supported the current system,” of those who addressed the committee, she added. (On the other hand, only a small number of Austin citizens came forward to address the committee.)

“Austin is the only large city in Texas that elects its City Council purely at large,” she told In Fact Daily. Indeed, it is rare among larger cities nationally to elect council members at large rather than with single-member districts. “Austin also has the smallest City Council of any city with which we might compare,” she noted. And, “it is the only city which has three-year terms of office,” her committee report states.

The report recommends, “that the City Council consist of a Mayor elected at large and ten members elected from neighborhood (single-member) districts.” Council members would have three-year terms and the mayor would be elected to a four-year term, according to the recommendation.

“There is common agreement that the current system needs to be changed. Almost no one who attended our meetings, focus groups or public hearings defended the current system,” the report states. “The need for City Council members to be accountable to a constituency was the highest-ranked criteria by all focus groups and was endorsed at all public hearings.”

Steiner said the Council could expand to 12 or 13 members, with staggered terms. “There are enormous ranges of options on how to accomplish this,” he said. But crafting a new electoral process is complex. “Each decision leads to two more,” he noted.

By comparison, Houston and Dallas both have a Mayor and 14 council members. Though smaller than Austin, Corpus Christi, El Paso and Ft. Worth all have a Mayor and eight council members, according to Hankin’s report. All of those cities use single-member districts for electing council members.

To set the stage for the briefing on amending the city’s electoral process, City Demographer Ryan Robinson gave the Council an updated picture of Austin’s social and ethnic tapestry. Citing statistics recently released from the 2000 Census, he told the Council that Austin grew by 190,000 in the 1990s. “And fifty-thousand of that came from annexation,” he said.

Austin “grew by a city,” he said, noting the increase from 1990 to 2000 was itself bigger than the size of the entire city when he was born here in 1959, when it had a population of 186,000.

With the official 2000 population totaling 656,562, Austin is now ranked the 16th largest city in the country. This is “really something significant,” Robinson said. In 1990 the city was ranked 27th nationally. “It really has been nothing short of phenomenal,” he added.

Not only did Austin increase dramatically in size in the nineties, but in diversity as well. “We really have more of an East Coast or West Coast profile than a Southern profile,” he told In Fact Daily. A Southern profile typically consists of primarily two ethnic groups, he said, but Austin has four.

In the 1990s, the percentage of whites in the city’s population decreased from 62 percent to 53 percent. The percentage of African Americans also dropped, from 12 percent to 9.8 percent. Meanwhile, Hispanics increased from 23 percent of the population to 31 percent and the number of Asians in Austin grew from three percent to nearly five percent, Robinson said. Austin grew by 65,000 in the sixties, by 94,000 in the seventies and 120,000 in the eighties, he added.

Split Council approves rule

Change to allow chip testing

Developer argues economy needs boost

While Austin tries to tempt high tech companies to locate downtown and in other parts of the Desired Development Zone, there are still businesses that would prefer a suburban location. Office Partners I, LP is building a warehouse/office complex at 4501 Monterey Oaks Blvd., over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. The site is currently zoned W/LO (warehouse, limited office district).

The applicant initially requested LI (limited industrial), but at the suggestion of city staff changed its request to LI-CO. The Planning Commission approved IP-CO (industrial park with a conditional overlay), giving the applicant only uses allowed in industrial park districts plus “light manufacturing and those uses permitted in W/LO.”

Steve Metcalfe of Drenner Stuart Wolff Metcalfe Von Kreisler told the City Council Thursday that computer board and chip testing would be “similar to flipping on a light switch and seeing if a light bulb works. It’s much more similar to an office use than an industrial use. Given that we’ve had layoffs in the high-tech industry, we’d be able to bring in an additional employer,” he said, noting that surrounding neighbors support the zoning change. “It would be beneficial to Austin’s economy.”

That is undoubtedly the line of reasoning that convinced Mayor Kirk Watson, and Council Members Raul Alvarez, Will Wynn, and Danny Thomas to vote in favor of the zoning change. Council Members Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, and Beverly Griffith voted no, since the site is over the aquifer and the developer does not intend to develop under the Save Our Springs Ordinance.

Slusher asked Alice Glasco, director of the Zoning and Planning Department, whether the project would be built in accord with the SOS rules. Glasco said, “I’m told it’s under the revised composite ordinance,” indicating that a site plan had been approved for the property prior to enactment of the stricter regulations.

Slusher said, “So we’re being asked to make further accommodation to bring industry into the Barton Springs Zone, where that is not the city’s policy. It would seem to me that if we’re going to do a zoning change, then they should comply with SOS.”

Glasco said the only reason the zoning change is needed is because the city’s zoning ordinances have not kept pace with changes in the high-tech industry. “While we have attempted to amend our code to accommodate the high-tech industry, …we have not been able to do it all.”

Griffith said she would like to know how many people would be coming to the site and wanted to know if there would be more traffic generated by the zoning change. However, Metcalfe said, “I don’t think we know exactly the user that will come in. This will allow us to market it to new employers.” That was not the answer Griffith was seeking.

Glasco explained that staff did not recommend the change “because of the precedent it sets in the area.” However, if the Council approved the change, staff would begin the process of amending the City Code to allow chip and circuit board testing in W/LO.

The zoning ordinance contains a rollback provision so that if the code is amended to allow chip testing in the Warehouse/Office category, zoning on this site would be rolled back. The change was approved on first reading only and will need two more readings for final approval.

Council approves final rules

For courthouse neighborhood

New zoning category created for bail bond offices

The City Council yesterday approved new restrictions on land uses in the neighborhood around the new Travis County Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center at 509 W. 11th Street. Some interim controls had been in effect for the past few months to stop some of the businesses usually found near jails from locating in the neighborhood. Those include bail bond offices, pawnshops and liquor stores. Thursday’s vote made those controls permanent.

The Council’s action also forces any neighboring business that wants to sell alcohol to apply for specific conditional use approval from both the Planning Commission and the City Council. It also bans pawnshops from the area and creates a specific zoning category for bail bond offices. “We discovered that we didn’t have that in our zoning categories before,” said Council Member Will Wynn. “Therefore it was difficult for us to truly control them and control their location. By specifically having a bail bonds line-item in our zoning categories, we now have a pretty powerful tool that will allow us to give conditional-use permission, if we so choose, in that neighborhood.”

Wynn sponsored the original interim development controls after the Council decided to move the central booking functions of the Austin Police Department into the new Criminal Justice Center. “Bail bonds shops are needed and are part of the overall criminal justice system,” said Wynn. “What we are concerned about is that vital neighborhood. We’re just going to be overly cautious about land uses in that neighborhood.”

Thursday night’s public hearing on the ordinance didn’t draw much comment. “We pretty much expected it was going to pass,” said neighborhood activist Lynn Mosier. Although she’s still upset over the Council’s decision to move APD’s central booking operations there, she is relieved that the interim development restrictions are being made permanent. “We are thankful that they did pass the zoning overlay,” she said. “It’s the least they can do and it will at least buy us a little time and keep some of the bad element out of our neighborhood.”

The APD moved its central booking operation into the CJC on Wednesday. The building will be officially dedicated in a ceremony at 1:30pm today. It was named after Thomas D. Blackwell and Mace B. Thurman. Blackwell served as Travis County Attorney, District Attorney, and Judge of the 167th District Court. Thurman served as a Justice of the Peace, County Court at Law Judge, and District Judge and was chairman of the Travis County Juvenile Board.

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

ANC looking at commissions too . . . The Austin Neighborhoods Council is surveying its members about the current state of Boards and Commissions. Members attending the group’s regular meeting Wednesday night expressed concern about the varying levels of influence of the different boards, vacancies and occasional conflicts between board members and city staffers. The ANC plans to circulate the results of the survey to a variety of different groups. The City Council recently voted to create a task force to review the city’s board and commission system. . . Not a covert attempt to reopen Mueller by force . . . If you see helicopters flying into and out of Mueller today, it’s because President Bush returns to Austin today for the official opening of the Bob Bullock State History Museum. The Democracy Coalition, a group that organized a protest against Bush on Inauguration Day, is urging those who oppose Bush’s presidency and his conservative agenda to converge at 11:00 a.m. in front of the museum. We’re sure the Secret Service is looking forward to this visit . . . Water districts at the Legislature . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance has asked members of the Travis County delegation to oppose a number of bills that would create water, road, and development districts, in the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer watershed. SOSA Executive Director Bill Bunch says HB 3641 and SB 1771 “would speed development of 2,700 acres in northern Hays County directly on top of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.” The Senate has already approved SB 1771.

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