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Monday, August 27, 2001 by

Darwin McKee

Attorney chairs Water & Wastewater Commission

By David Ansel

Darwin McKee is the Chair of Austin’s Water & Wastewater Commission, where he advises the City Council on matters relating to water quality, service extension requests and budget. For five years now, he has been responsible for straddling the shaky fault line separating the business and environmental communities. It’s an important ground for debate, since the provision of utility service can help set directions for growth for decades to come. “Right now, I believe Austin’s biggest challenge is continuing to provide an inviting economic environment for business, while keeping our traditional concern for environmental protection,” says McKee. “Fortunately, over the last couple of years, we’ve had a period where we’ve tried to work together to develop manufacturing and commercial facilities, where the environmental and business camps have been working in conjunction, and hopefully that will continue.”

McKee hopes to continue to foster an atmosphere of open communication. “I got there (to the commission) at a bad time. It was still one of the battlegrounds between pro- and no-growth people. We were still thinking that growth could be stopped by mere denial of utilities, and there were intense feelings about it.” Developers would build anyway and be able to skirt city restrictions by using water supply districts. Water & Wastewater needed to find a way to be less heavy-handed. “One of the reasons that I’m serving the position that I am now is that people recognized that I’d attempt to be fair and make sure all sides were heard—that discussion would continue until everyone got their say.”

According to McKee, the utility is now on better footing. “I’m proud of the fact that we’ve started to use the Water and Wastewater Utility as a planning tool rather than one where one side controls the placement of water lines and sewer lines. Just the fact that people who are pro-growth and no-growth have come to view the utility and commission as objective sounding boards, where both sides’ messages will be heard earnestly, is encouraging. When you have that level of belief in the objectivity of decision making, it’s a good thing.” He cautions business and environmental leaders, though. “It’s a question of the commitment of the people on both sides to make sure the lines of communication are open and that things don’t break down into lawsuits continually.” As a case in point, he described the recent threat of legal action regarding the Bradley settlement, wondering if it could have been prevented. “The question is, are the issues raised in the lawsuit issues we tried to address at the board level?”

Keeping up with growth isn’t just about looking towards the future and dealing with service extension requests for new construction. Water and Wastewater must also keep an eye to the past. The 75-year-old Thomas Green Water Treatment Plant is a major cause for concern. “Staff is about to recommend an RFP that will provide us with an engineering study on whether Green should be closed down, should operate in conjunction with a new plant, or if we need a new plant at all.” Downtown revitalization has given the utility a chance to rehabilitate aging downtown lines as well. Additionally, construction of the $13.5 million Ullrich Medium Service Transmission Main, which runs from Ullrich Treatment Plant to downtown, takes advantage of CSC and City Hall construction and street closings.

Is Water and Wastewater keeping up with growth? “Right now, we’re not ahead of growth, we’re maybe just barely trailing it,” says McKee. “If we continue to do what we’ve done, we’ll keep up with it. We did manage to get ahead of growth in the 80’s. Now, we’re trying to keep it up but not get ahead, so we don’t have underutilized lines. We’re trying to direct growth back to the central corridor, to take advantage of existing lines, so we don’t have to go so far to reach the mains.”

An attorney, McKee previously worked with the Travis County Attorney’s Office and was for a short time County Commissioner for Precinct 1. He now works with Brown McCarroll. He’s been an Austinite since age 10, having graduated from Reagan High School and UT Law School. He and his wife Evelyn, who is the Presiding Judge at Austin's Municipal Court, have two children, John and Meredith. In his free time he enjoys travel in the family RV and reading.

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The almost final list . . . Members of the new Zoning and Platting Commission (ZAP) are Angular Adams, Vincent Aldridge, Betty Baker, Michael Casias, Diana Castañeda, Keith Jackson, Joseph Martinez, Jean Mather and Niyanta Spelman. Members of the newly reorganized Planning Commission are Maggie Armstrong, Silver Garza, Cloteal Haynes, Sterling Lands, Cynthia Medlin, Lydia Ortiz, Chris Riley, Dave Sullivan and Ben Heimsath. That leaves one vacancy on that commission, which probably will not meet until Sept. 12. Heimsath, Ortiz, Garza and Lands serve on the current Planning Commission, which will have its final meeting this Tuesday. Armstrong and Sullivan have served on previous Planning Commissions. Chris Riley, who has served on the Downtown Commission, has stepped down from the presidency of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association. The new president is Bennett Donovan, who lives at the Railyard. Baker and Mather, of course, will lend continuity to the ZAP, which will be doing many of the duties previously assigned to the Planning Commission. Joseph Martinez has been a member of the Electric Utility Commission and Diana Castañada has previously served on the Airport Advisory Board and the Planning Commission . . . Other appointments . . . On Thursday, the City Council appointed Frances McIntyre to the Ethics Review Commission. That panel will have its work cut out in reviewing the proposed new campaign finance ordinance. The commission has scheduled a meeting for September 25. Daniel Barry has been appointed by consensus to the Brackenridge Hospital Oversight Council. Michael Warner was reappointed to the Water & Wastewater Commission. Council Member Raul Alvarez appointed Lynn Ann Carley to the Urban Forestry Board. Wendell Ramsey was reappointed to the Telecommunications Commission and Kay Ghahremani was reappointed to the Child Care Council . . . ACVB executive to be named . . . The City Council has approved a 5-year contract for the man being chosen to head the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. Assistant City Manager Roger Chan told the Council last week that the search committee had agreed unanimously on the as yet unnamed executive director who will take over when Rick Luber retires at the end of this month. Chan said the new exec comes from “a first-tier city” and has considerable experience working with minority chambers of commerce, as well as other groups. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she wanted to make sure that accountability was built into the new contract, especially since there were no performance measures in the current contract. Chan assured her that those performance measures would be there, also agreeing that there would be an audit of the bureau . . . Congratulations. . . City Manager Jesus Garza has named Sedora Jefferson to the post of City Attorney. Jefferson has served as Acting City Attorney since the departure of Andy Martin at the end of June.

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