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City Council approves

Friday, October 26, 2001 by

Funds for North Mopac row

Mopac neighbors did not oppose funding

The City Council went ahead with plans Thursday to set aside $23.5 million to help cover the costs of right-of-way and utility relocation for extending Mopac (Loop 1) from FM 734 to the proposed intersection with SH 45 North. The extension had been recommended by a special committee formed to study Mopac (see In Fact Daily, Oct. 9, 2001), but opposed by the Save Our Springs Alliance. The Mopac Neighborhood Association Coalition (MONAC) was asked to take a position against the funding by SOS, but according to group member Sid Covington, the group declined to take an official position either way on the proposal.

The money is being redirected from Capital Metro to the City of Austin for use on regional transportation projects. Along with State Representative Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock), members of local business groups showed up at Thursday’s Council meeting to support the right-of-way funding. Kirk Rudy, vice president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, told Council members the road would reduce congestion and improve safety. “This city has embraced policies which try to manage growth and direct growth to the northern part of Austin and Travis County,” Rudy said. “It is incumbent upon us as community citizens, and officials that make policy decisions, to provide infrastructure for those people we are telling to go to the north part of the city.” Mark Hazelwood, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, joined him. “We think this is the lynchpin to a much larger suite of investments that is beneficial to the citizens of this area,” Hazelwood said. “A vote against this to dilute the monies that are necessary to take care of the city’s right-of-way . . . is effectively a vote against these projects, which I think would be a tremendous mistake and a step backward.” While Rep. Krusee did not address the Council directly, both Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Member Will Wynn thanked him for his participation in regional planning efforts.

The eventual vote in favor of the right-of-way funding was unanimous, but Council Member Raul Alvarez expressed a desire that future transportation spending include money for bicycle and pedestrian improvements. “When we talk about regional transportation, we don’t necessarily need to just talk about roadways,” Alvarez said. “Regional transportation also means, how are we going to make bicycle and pedestrian modes of transportation actually viable?”

Watson encouraged the Council to approve the funding as a sign to surrounding communities that Austin was committed to regional planning. He also pointed out that the perception of Austin’s regional involvement could affect other transportation projects. He specifically referred to a recent move by the Texas Department of Transportation to delay work to remove some stoplights along US 183 east of I-35. “Why did TxDOT just say they’re going to study it for a while? My guess is that part of the study that’s going on is whether Austin is going to continue to be a real partner,” Watson said. “My guess is that we are being studied even as we speak. We have been good partners; we must continue to be good partners. This vote, I believe, counts double. It counts on Loop 1 North, and it probably counts on 183.”

Other Council members seemed perturbed by any perceived linkage between the two projects. “I know politics is politics, but when we are dealing with the livelihood of citizens and transportation, it troubles me that TxDOT is . . . it’s like holding something over us by stopping 183,” said Council Member Danny Thomas. Alvarez also expressed some frustration. “I am concerned that the funding for 183 east of IH-35 was pulled back, at least temporarily,” Alvarez said. “Some of this money could have gone to that. We have the airport east of I-35, but we haven’t seen the improvements in the roadway system east of I-35.”

City staff says election plan

Could cost up to $4.7 million

Steiner explains public campaign finance proposal

The City Council yesterday received a comprehensive briefing on a proposal by an election reform group to amend the city charter by overhauling campaign finance regulations. Assistant City Attorney John Steiner said the proposed City Charter amendment, which could cost several million dollars each election year, would be on the May 4, 2002 ballot. The most striking proposed changes have to do with public campaign financing, he said.

The first thing the amendment calls for is the creation of a Fair Elections Fund. Steiner said the Ethics Review Commission (ERC) would provide an estimate of how much would be needed in the fund each year. The amendment stipulates that the fund may not exceed one-quarter of one percent of the city’s annual operating budget, or “in the neighborhood of $4.7 million,” he said. The ERC would adjust the dollar amount every four years to account for inflation. Clean Campaigns for Austin, the organization that sponsored the petition drive to get the amendment on next year’s ballot, estimates the cost of the fund at approximately $806,000 in 2003.

The Fair Elections Fund would be used to provide money to candidates running for City Council and Mayor who qualify for public campaign funding. At least 5 percent of the fund would also be used to supply the ERC with an operating budget to administer the programs set up by the amendment.

Steiner said the first step for a candidate would be to get a certain number of contributions to use as “seed money.” The limits on seed money are capped at $10,000 for City Council candidates and $20,000 for mayoral candidates. Candidates would be allowed to raise seed money from August 1 until six months before the May election.

To qualify for campaign money from the Fair Elections Fund a candidate must obtain individual contributions of exactly $5 from 500 Austin voters if running for City Council or $5 from 1,000 voters if running for Mayor. Only registered voters living in Austin are valid contributors. The period for qualifying runs from August 1 to the filing deadline. Moreover, the candidate can spend no more than the seed money limits in procuring qualifying contributions.

The amendment proposal calls for spending limits for candidates receiving public funding. For City Council candidates the limit would be $100,000 per election and for mayoral candidates $200,000 per election. In addition, a candidate opting for public funds must agree to limit his or her personal spending on the campaign to $5,000 for City Council candidates or $10,000 for mayoral candidates.

Steiner outlined two kinds of public funding, bloc grants and matching funds. The bloc grants are fixed at $16,666 for qualifying City Council candidates and $33,333 for qualifying mayoral candidates. Runoff elections are considered separate. Therefore, another round of funding is acceptable.

In addition to the bloc grant, participating candidates are entitled to three different types of matching funds. These funds are based on private contributions, contributions to a non-participating opponent that may exceed stated limits and opposing independent expenditures.

Council Member Daryl Slusher expressed concern about a perception among some people that the city is taking a hostile viewpoint. He wanted to assure citizens that is not the case, saying he wants to have a full, public discussion on the subject. It’s time for “open, thorough discussion, and hopefully, by May, the citizens will be well informed on this,” he said.

The current system, which was put into place via a vote on a similar citizen referendum, is “seriously flawed,” Slusher said. “It’s a disaster.” The so-called reform hasn’t worked because it favors incumbents and wealthy candidates, he said.

Mayor Kirk Watson also noted that participants in the previous campaign had cast aspersions on those who disagreed with them, generally saying, “if you’re not in agreement (with campaign finance reform) then you were corrupt.” He said that simply is not true and he expressed his appreciation to Fred Lewis, with Clean Campaigns for Austin, for not using that tactic.

Council awards wastewater contract to

Earth Tech over competitor's objections

The Council, without dissent, approved allocating 3,800 square feet of the new City Hall for a café and city store, as well as voting 6-0 to quell a controversy by approving a $2.7 million contract with Earth Tech Inc. for consulting services to improve city wastewater facilities. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who was attending a security conference for mayors in Washington, D.C., arrived after noon.

As recommended by city staff, the Council chose Earth Tech Inc. for professional services in managing and coordinating “the planning, design and construction of sustainable wastewater collection facilities.” The city has six years to come into compliance with a 1999 Environmental Protection Agency order to upgrade, evaluate and repair problems in the city’s wastewater system.

In order to complete the projects in a timely fashion, the city elected to hire an outside consultant. Controversy arose when Malcolm Pirnie Inc., another firm in the bidding process, claimed that the city acted outside of normal procedures in selecting the contractor.

Bobbie Enriquez, speaking on behalf of Malcolm Pirnie, reminded the City Council that the Water & Wastewater Commission had recommended a thorough investigation of the staff’s process for recommending the contractor. “The integrity of the selection process was compromised by several irregularities. The city does not currently have a written process that a selection process should follow. Management recognizes the serious flaw and has directed the Public Works Department to develop uniform procedures for implementation. The selection process clearly illustrates problems that can occur when there are no uniform rules in place.” Enriquez then went on to describe a strange, convoluted procedure that resulted, she said, in moving Earth Tech from fourth place to first place and Malcolm Pirnie from first to second.

Peter Rieck, director of the Public Works Department, said a panel of six city staff members conducted the selection process. “We have not been able to verify any of the issues that have been raised,” he said. City staff has looked “but been unable to determine that there have been any improprieties on this issue,” he added. “Earth Tech appeared to be the most qualified firm.”

William Moriarity, vice president of Earth Tech, said, “We won the game fair and square.”

City Hall cafe and store approved

Jan Hilton of Redevelopment Services addressed the Council on a resolution to allocate 3,800 square feet of the new City Hall for a café and retail store for city souvenirs. The store and café are designed to blend with the unique architectural style of the new City Hall, she said, with the appearance of a museum shop.

“It’s pedestrian-oriented,” she said. “You can barely see the signage.” The café space is roughly 2,400 square feet, she noted. “We think the café would be a perfect opportunity for a local bakery.”

Outdoor seating will be under the shelter of overhanging architectural features of the building, thus somewhat protected from the elements. “We believe it will be used throughout most of the year,” Hilton said.

TVs will be installed in the café so people can keep an eye on Council proceedings while grabbing a quick bite to eat. That way they won’t miss their agenda item when it comes up, she said.

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2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Hyde Park plan moving forward without church . . . The City Council approved the Hyde Park Neighborhood Conservation Combining District 4-2 on second reading Thursday, with Mayor Watson and Council Member Danny Thomas opposed. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman was temporarily off the dais. Members of the neighborhood planning team say they’re still hoping to resolve differences with some of the property owners that have valid petitions against the NCCD. The key vote will be the third and final reading, at which point the neighborhood will have to secure six of the seven votes on the Council to include the properties that have valid petitions—including the Hyde Park Baptist Church. There’s no word yet if the item will be posted for the November 1st council meeting, although the church could be expected to push for that . . . No Brack hearing yet . . . The public hearing on what to do with reproductive care at Brackenridge Hospital was postponed Thursday. Council Members want more time to study recommendations from the Brackenridge Hospital Oversight Council (BHOC). (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 23, 2001.) In addition, the city has received indications that Seton, which operates Brackenridge under a lease agreement with the city, may be preparing to make some changes in its procedures regarding emergency contraception. Also on Thursday, the Southwest Regional Office of the Consumers Union issued a statement urging the City of Austin to take over all birthing and obstetric services at the hospital. That option, also supported by the BHOC, has met resistance from Seton because of its financial impact on its services . . . No opponents . . . The Council approved a zoning change for 1015 W. William Cannon to allow construction of the Garden Terrace, an apartment complex for low-income residents being developed in cooperation with the Capital Area Homeless Alliance. More than one-third of the units at the complex will be reserved for the working homeless. The development is a project of Foundation Communities. The other Alliance case pending before the Council, a zoning change for 10300 Dessau Road to allow development of single-family housing for low-income single parents, was postponed until November 1st. Also postponed until November 1st, consideration of a zoning change to allow the Blood and Plasma Center to relocate to 5335 Burnet Road . . . Ready to run . . . Sherry Boyles, executive director for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, has indicated she will announce her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Texas Railroad Commissioner on Saturday. She has also served as executive director of the Texas Democratic Party and as a legislative aide . . . SOSA fundraiser Sunday . . . The Soul of the City Concert featuring Jimmy LaFave, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Slaid Cleaves begins at 7pm Sunday at the Backyard. The SOS Alliance is offering tickets for $12 at the door. Waterloo Records is also donating 10 percent of its Sunday sales to the alliance. Call 477-2320 for more information. . . Picky candidate . . . Mayoral candidate Eric Mitchell issued a statement last week saying he would bypass all media appearances except those at hand picked radio stations KVET-FM and KAZI-FM. But he popped up on Fox 7 TV Thursday night, talking about his non-traditional campaign methods—the station caught up with the candidate during his appearance on KVET’s “Sammy and Bob” morning show.

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