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Staff to task force on commissions

Thursday, August 30, 2001 by

Suggests radical changes to rules

Boards would not be allowed to form subcommittees

Members of the task force set to review Austin’s boards and commissions are likely to lodge some strong protests over the proposed rewrite of the city’s ordinance governing those commissions.

Two subcommittees of the Process Review Task Force—the policy committee and the system and organizational subcommittee—have reviewed language provided by Assistant City Attorney John Steiner. The systems and organizational subcommittee discussed its comments last night. Chief among the subcommittee’s concerns was that the rewrite of the code had made substantive changes to certain commissions’ tasks.

Subcommittee Chair Mary Ruth Holder noted that one paragraph in the Parks Board’s duties had been deleted entirely. The language in the paragraph was arcane, she admitted, but it did hold some purpose for the board. The subcommittee agreed that language in the proposed ordinance needs to carefully mirror what is already on the books for the various boards and commissions.

“The duties need to remain as they are,” Holder said during a discussion of the rewrite. “It’s the council’s prerogative when they review things, what duties shouldn’t be there and what duties should be dropped or changed.”

The only exception, noted task force member C’Anne Daugherty, should be when state law, federal law or local charter required changes to the commission or board. The subcommittee intends to provide clear commentary on where city web site language, city ordinance and board members differ on purpose and tasks. Subcommittee members are still committed to soliciting input from board members on how they perceive their own tasks and duties.

Subcommittee members also strongly objected to suggested language that would stop boards and commissions from creating subcommittees. According to the proposed ordinance, the City Council would not grant boards and commissions the ability to create other boards, board subcommittees or other entities. The logic behind the suggested language is that subcommittees are doing nothing but slowing down the process of decision-making, as well as burning out staff members by requiring them to attend multiple meetings.

But Holder argued that standing subcommittees of the Parks Board serve a useful purpose. Current language on many commissions allows boards to “organize ourselves the way we want,” Holder said. To address problems, subcommittee members preferred to insert language that would make staff attendance at subcommittee meetings optional and to set a time limit on decisions executed by the subcommittee. A subcommittee, for instance, could be limited to an ad hoc status or a 90-day timeline on various decisions.

Other provisions the subcommittee questioned included language stating that the Council could remove board members “at any time without cause.” Another section the subcommittee suggested should be deleted or altered was, “Each board shall cooperate with City Council, the City Manager, city staff, other city boards and institutions and agencies on matters related to the board’s purpose.”

The systems and organization subcommittee commented in writing that the section is “gratuitous, insulting to B/C members and unenforceable. If such a provision is going to remain, we suggest a second sentence, ‘City Manager, departments, city staff, shall cooperate with B/C members.’ Cooperation is a two-way street. Also, where is the cooperation with the public by both B/C members and City staff in this equation? Provision may be taken as a signal to an incoming B/C member or applicants for these positions that the city is actually hostile to B/C members. Surely this is not the message intended.” The subcommittee recommended, if possible, striking the whole statement on cooperation.

Under the proposed ordinance, many aspects of boards and commissions would be uniform in nature, City Clerk Shirley Brown told her colleagues. Every board or commission would be nine members. Membership would be limited to one board at a time. The subcommittee recommended that board members be appointed to three-year, rather than two-year, terms if survey results from boards are favorable. Those who owed significant fines to the city would be excluded from membership. Other measures include the requirement of an annual work plan for all commissions, a requirement of regular meetings and the dissolution of boards that fail to meet on a regular basis.

The full Process Review Task Force will hear comments on the proposed ordinance changes next month. The system and organizational subcommittee will also provide survey questions for boards to answer and draft issue papers on issues such as inactive boards, the assessment of quorums and communication between boards and the City Council.

County judge preaches to

Choir at Real Estate lunch

Biscoe talks about bonds, defends crowded county jail

The sheer size of the bond package has been the toughest part of sending a $199 million bond proposal to the voters, County Judge Sam Biscoe told Austin’s real estate community yesterday.

Biscoe didn’t have to worry about the support of the Real Estate Council of Austin; the county judge got a standing ovation from the group at yesterday’s luncheon. But Biscoe recognized that the cost of the bond package was a lot to swallow for some taxpayers.

“The notion of the tax impact really will frighten a lot of folks who are low- and moderate-income,” Biscoe said. “They have to agree with us that these are urgent transportation issues that will make a difference.”

The bond package, which commissioners initially pegged at $80 million, came in at $250 million. Biscoe said he was comfortable with the $199 million compromise, even though it would cost taxpayers.

According to a memo from Christian Smith of the Planning and Budget Office, the $199.3 million bond would be issued at $63 million a year over four years. That’s slightly more than the $199 million issue that commissioners finally approved on Tuesday.

Under the assumptions Smith laid out, based on a bond package of $199.3 million, the average homeowner would pay an extra $41.56 in 2006. Other years between 2002 and 2008 ranged from $22.06 in 2003 to $39.91 in 2008. The price of the average home in Austin this year is $172,757.

Frate Barker Road has also been a tough decision, Biscoe told the Realtors. “Clearly, folks were divided,” Biscoe said, adding that most of the people who opposed the project did not live in the immediate community. The $14.2 million road project, one of five propositions on the ballot, will cross over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone as it connects Frate Barker Road to State Highway 45.

Biscoe told the audience the road projects were intended to address the traffic congestion problems of Travis County “although we have some people who do not believe that we have a regional mobility problem,” said Biscoe, drawing snorts from the crowd. He added that the projects on Travis County’s agenda were all on the CAMPO regional plan. All were within one mile of Austin’s extra-territorial jurisdiction and many projects would be annexed into the city. That meant that urban commuters—who might question why they should pay for county roads—would benefit from the added mobility, while Travis County continued to carry debt to improve regional traffic flow.

Biscoe also defended the county jail, recently cited for overcrowding by the State Jail Commission. He blamed the violation of state law—which the state has ordered Travis County to fix within 90 days—on operational issues rather than space limitations in county facilities. The county currently has 50 vacant correctional officer positions, Biscoe told the audience. And the pay for those positions is 20 to 35 percent higher than in other counties in Texas, both large and small, Biscoe said.

Travis County has added 350 beds to county facilities in the last 18 months, with another 100 on the way, Biscoe said. Overcrowding could be addressed by sending 300 inmates back to the state who are in the county jail on state parole violation, Biscoe said. And the county needs to review which violators of county misdemeanor offenses need to be spending time behind bars.

Planning Commission says

Good-bye, approves station

Only three of nine actually retiring from volunteer service

A simple dispute between two commercial property owners almost turned into a discussion of Wal-Mart’s alleged shortcomings at the final meeting of the Planning Commission Tuesday night. Wal-Mart, the parent of Sam’s Club, was asking for removal of a conditional overlay preventing service stations from locating on the company’s property at 9700 Capitol of Texas Highway.

The owner of a small shopping center next door opposed the particular spot on the property where Sam’s Club had decided to build the gas station. Glenn Weichert, attorney for Capitol of Texas Joint Venture, told the Commission that the service station would block the view of his client’s businesses from the highway. Weichert said the stores in the shopping center are Blockbuster Video, Radio Shack and a men’s clothing store. He asked that the commission deny the zoning change or direct the owner to move the gas station to the back of the property.

Attorney Steve Drenner, representing Sam’s Club, said his client could not relocate the proposed gas station because doing so would interfere with a stormwater easement. He said the agreement between the two merchants did not involve where other improvements could be built on the Sam’s Club site.

Commissioner Lydia Ortiz announced that she would not vote in favor of removal of the overlay because “this project falls over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone,” which is not an unusual position. However, she continued, “We’re asked to support a project from Wal-Mart stores. Wal-Mart has a terrible reputation for labor practices.” At that point, Commissioner Robin Cravey raised a point of order. A number of eyebrows were raised too.

Cravey said he agreed that there should not be a gas station over the aquifer. Chair Betty Baker pointed out that the property is already 100 percent impervious cover. She said she thought current technology would prevent spillage of the gasoline into the aquifer.

The commission voted 6-3 in favor of lifting the overlay, with Commissioners Jean Mather, Cravey and Ortiz voting no.

Only three of nineCommissioners say Good-byes

Tuesday’s meeting was the final one for the old Planning Commission, and a chance for nine former strangers to say good-bye to one another in front of a TV camera and a very small audience. They’ve struggled together for at least two years, some for four years; and there is not uniform friendship amongst the nine. But they have sat through week after week of meetings and listened to innumerable pleas from the public, developers, lawyers, environmentalists and other civic activists, with a great deal of restraint and respect for those speaking. Commissioners Jim Robertson, Robin Cravey and Ray Vrudhula are reclaiming their Tuesday nights. Commissioners Betty Baker and Jean Mather have been chosen to serve on the new Zoning and Platting Commission, which will meet on Tuesdays, beginning September 11. Commissioners Ben Heimsath, Lydia Ortiz, Silver Garza and Sterling Lands will be part of the new Planning Commission, which is currently scheduled to start meeting on September 12.

Cravey quoted the Marx Brothers: “Rufus T. Firefly, leader of Fredonia, meeting in that historic peace conference with Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania, when Trentino, in his churlish yet suave way, said, ‘You try my patience, Sir!’ To which Firefly replied, ‘I don’t mind if I do! You must try mine sometime. And you have. I hope it stood the trial. We’ve endured some trying hours and now we share a lasting bond. It hasn’t always been duck soup.’ We’re meeting tonight on the last night as the last members of a venerated Austin institution—I could have said vilified—firmly grounded in the City Charter and the forum that has enjoyed the service of some of the greatest citizens.”

Robertson said his two years on the commission had been “interesting, educational, challenging (and) thought provoking,” adding, “contact with the people has been the best part of it.”

Garza said, “I appreciate all the effort (that commissioners have made) and I’m sorry to see all these such dedicated individuals step off because there’s a lot of knowledge and determination that is lost when you make a change.”

Heimsath, eager to begin the new adventure, predicted that the two commissions would work well together. I’m relishing this opportunity,” he said.

Lands said, “This has been quite a learning experience and I feel a significant blessing to be able to serve in a city where there are so many doing so much. And at times we appear to be going in different directions and we have an opportunity to come here and at least focus, and I consider (it) a blessing to serve in that capacity. I look forward to even greater works in the very near future.”

Baker, who had to have the last word, quoted remarks she had heard from other commissioners over the years, beginning with Jean Mather’s oft-repeated statement: “I would like to see an undisturbed vegetative buffer.” She finally reminded her colleagues, “It’s taking two commissions to replace us.”

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tell us all about it . . . The City Council is scheduled to hear about the expanding Convention Center Hotel in executive session today. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Beverly Griffith want an explanation of the contract between the city and hotel builder Landmark, as well as a description of proposed changes to the building . . . Final official act . . . the Planning Commission voted 8-1 Tuesday night to approve standards for waivers on alley widths and loading facilities. On a vote of 5-4, the commission voted to recommend that the Planning Commission approve all subdivision variances. Currently, those are done administratively. Commissioner Robin Cravey, the chair of the Codes and Ordinances Committee, said, “This is just taking the very same standards that we use every time we grant an environmental variance and making those the minimum standard we use for a subdivision variance. The proposal is to set a minimum standard.” Chair Betty Baker backed him up, noting that she had seen “less than a half dozen of these in the last four years. We’re not talking about stopping development from here to Chicago, only from here to Buda.” When the commission is faced with approving a subdivision that citizens are protesting, the commission is told “there has been an admin waiver and our hands our tied. It’s going to give us an opportunity—the citizens blame us—it’s an important item for the commission to have the responsibility for because we’re blamed for it.” Baker said all administrative waivers would come before the commission, but “99.9 percent would be on consent. It’s the others that turn around and bite us.” Commissioners Baker, Cravey, Jean Mather, Sterling Lands and Ray Vrudhula voted for the change. Commissioners Lydia Ortiz, Silver Garza. Ben Heimsath and Jim Robertson voted against it . . . A funny farewell . . . Members of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department bid farewell to Neighborhood Plan Godmother Carol Barrett yesterday, with sweets, gifts and a skit satirizing safety briefings. Since Barrett is moving to Berkeley, CA, to be Director of Planning, the staff felt it necessary to warn her about hazards she might encounter there. For example, a citizen who might protest an apartment building because it was the ancestral home of giant sea turtles . . . Running for judge, but running from Mom? . . . County Judge Sam Biscoe told the RECA crowd he had announced for another term as county judge. He reported that he must win the office because if he didn’t his mother would expect him to return to Tyler and enter the ministry, “which she always demands when I see her.” That got a laugh . . . Subdivision Ordinance aka Connectivity Ordinance up again today . . . Even though it’s posted on today’s City Council agenda, we’re not sure there will be a vote on the new ordinance today. It’s been difficult to determine the contents of the final draft, and now some neighborhood leaders are saying that the ordinance should address existing and small lot subdivisions separately from new ones.

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