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Charter Revision Committee

Tuesday, November 27, 2001 by

Opts for single-member districts

Will committee will tackle campaign financing ?

The Charter Revision Committee put the finishing touches on its report on single-member districts for the City Council, but the recommendations will not be unanimous. While a majority of the committee approved a recommendation for 12 single-member districts with the Mayor elected at-large, there will also be a minority report expressing different views. Committee members will also be allowed to submit their own individual reports to highlight specific concerns or issues.

The committee has been working on a draft of the report for several weeks. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 5, 2001.) In addition to the number of single-member districts, the report suggests a four-year term for the Mayor. Committee members approved the report at Monday night’s meeting with little discussion. Committee Member Ricky Bird was the only one attending the meeting who voted against it. He will be involved with drafting a minority report over the next week.

Included in the report will be a recommendation for a separate redistricting committee to come up with the new district lines by incorporating data from the 2000 Census. Committee members sought ways to ensure that the committee would be impartial. “We have to make sure that we don’t open the door in setting up this redistricting committee for rebounded political payoff,” said Bird. Bird was concerned about the possibility of someone being put on the committee who might draw a district for himself. But he was unable to persuade the remaining committee members to set out specific guidelines for that redistricting committee. Committee Member Stephen Yelenosky said he was concerned about the short timeframe they were given to study the complicated issue. “I don’t think we have enough information to take a position on these things,” Yelenosky said. “Whereas with single-member districts, we did have something new to say because of the 2000 Census.”

Assistant City Attorney John Steiner also advised against including extra language intended to offer directions to the redistricting committee on criteria for drawing the new districts. Many of those criteria, Steiner said, were already part of state law. “I’m not sure those things need to be restated,” Steiner said. “You have to comply with the Voting Rights Act; you have to comply with the ‘one person, one vote’ standard. The other thing is that redistricting, at its worst, can become an endless court battle. Every added criterion that you put on it is an extra place where somebody can get a crowbar in and start working it,” Steiner said. “Leave the redistricting body as much unfettered discretion as you can.”

Although the Charter Revision Committee has finished work on its primary recommendation regarding single-member districts, there will be several more meetings of the group. Chair Bobbie Barker wants to take public comment on a variety of other charter-related issues. She plans to request input from City Council members this week on which issues should take priority. Those may include: campaign financing, the creation of a “Neighborhood Ombudsman” position, the spending authority of the city manager and the classification of Council aides in the city’s organizational structure. Bird would also like to see a provision requiring a two-thirds vote of the City Council to call for a charter amendment election instead of the current simple majority. “The City Charter is like the constitution and we need to start treating it that way,” Bird said. “When you start playing with the City Charter, you’re really adjusting the fundamentals of the government. It should be harder to adjust your fundamental document.”

Historic Landmark OKs

Hard Rock Cafe mural

Pink Cadillac symbol or just a work of art ?

When is a pink Cadillac not just a pink Cadillac? The Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) decided last night that it wouldn’t be the commission’s job to decide.

The newest Hard Rock Café franchise will open at the site of the former Inferno nightclub early next year. Last night, developer Rick Sconyers presented an 84-foot mural the restaurant wants to place on the side of the building at 220 East Sixth Street. But the city has already deemed the pink Cadillac that is central to the mural to be advertisement for the restaurant. That turned the painting by Orlando artist Jim Jackson from mural to signage, according to city historic preservation officer Barbara Stocklin.

“If there’s a sign on Sixth Street, it does need to be approved as a sign,” Stocklin told commissioners. “If it’s a mural, it would be approved under the National Register Historic District Guidelines.”

Defined as a sign, the mural would need the approval of the city’s sign office and the Board of Adjustment. As a mural—a work of art—it would just need the approval of the HLC.

To muddy the waters even further, the Historic Landmark Commission does have jurisdiction over signs in the Sixth Street National Register Historic District. But any sign that is greater than 35 square feet in size, or electric, also must go through the city’s permit process for signs, Stocklin said. Stocklin also expressed concern that allowing the Hard Rock Café mural might give the green light to other Sixth Street businesses to create advertisements purporting to be artwork.

Staff position confounds business group

Those who work hard to encourage new business on Sixth Street—like Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) Executive Director Charlie Betts—were a bit chagrined by the lengthy discussion of the HLC over whether a pink Cadillac symbolized the Hard Rock Café or not. The bottom line, Betts said, was that the Hard Rock Café had spent serious money to upgrade a building that was a local eyesore.

The DAA was among the group of downtown backers that opposed renewing the Inferno’s liquor license, saying it was a haven for crime and gang activity. Betts encouraged commissioners to support a business that was going to add so much to Sixth Street.

“That nightclub was a nightmare site,” Betts said. “We are so appreciative and delighted with the improvements. They do not have to do anywhere near what they’re doing to utilize this site . . . I think we should be doing everything in the world we can to encourage these people.”

The mural is a pastel roadway scene with artifacts like Texas Longhorn cattle, bison, Austin bats and a yellow rose in it. City staff asked for some concessions on the sign, such as high-quality acrylic paint and a wax-based coating to prevent graffiti. The city also asked the Hard Rock Café to commit to maintaining the work, which will cover about half of the side of the building at the intersection of Sixth Street and San Jacinto, along the San Jacinto façade.

Hard Rock Cafés sometimes put the rear end of a late ‘50s pink Cadillac convertible over a door or bar in its restaurants. Sconyers argued that the addition of the Cadillac to the mural was really intended to indicate an “attitude” rather than advertise the presence of the Hard Rock Café on the block. But he conceded that he would be willing to get rid of the Cadillac if some other vehicle could be painted into the mural to represent the intended freewheeling spirit.

Betts said he had no particular interest in the merits of the mural as a sign, as long as that sign wasn’t pornographic. That drew a chuckle. Downtown developer Carl Daywood, who also spoke in support of the mural, said he thought of Mary Kay Cosmetics—not the Hard Rock Café—when he saw a pink Cadillac. Commission members were split on the topic of what the car symbolized to them. Betts added that the discussion was really splitting hairs over the issue.

Commissioner Jim Fowler said the HLC had consistently voted down murals and he supported every one of them. He made the motion to approve the mural, which Commissioner Teresa Rabago seconded. Vice Chair Lisa Laky, who was chairing the meeting in Lauretta Dowd’s absence, asked for a clarification on Fowler’s motion. Did he consider the mural to be a sign . . . or just a mural?

Sconyers told commissioners he had never asked for the mural to be considered a sign and wanted it approved as art. Stocklin, however, had taken the mural to the city’s sign officer and gotten a ruling that it was a sign, not a mural. Sconyers argued that he had never gotten a chance to defend the piece.

After some discussion, commissioners decided to approve the mural as a mural under their powers to control art in a historic district. They agreed the definition of a sign would be left to the Hard Rock Café, city staff and the city attorney to consider. Those voting in favor of the mural included Fowler, Rabago, and Commissioners Julia Bunton, Liz Goins, Patti Hall and Jane Manaster. Those voting against it were Laky, and Commissioners Laurie Limbacher, Mario Sanchez and Daniel Leary. Dowd was absent from the meeting.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Neighborhood presidents say no Blood Plasma Center . . . The presidents of three north central neighborhood associations have sent a strongly worded and lengthy letter asking the City Council to deny the Blood Plasma Center a conditional use permit to operate at 5335 Burnet Road. The letter from neighborhood presidents Daniel Goldman, Gloria Pennington and co-presidents Chris Allen, Aletha St. Romain and John Pozdro, was sent out by email to neighborhood association members. The leaders say that the mixed-use area adjacent to the proposed center is too close to residences. In addition, they argue that Carr Development will not continue with a 90-unit condominium project if the Plasma Center is across the street. The Planning Commission granted the permit and neighbors appealed the action to the Council. The matter is on this week’s agenda. (See In Fact Daily Aug. 13, 2001, Nov. 1, 2001 .) . . . Eastside activists still talking about Holly. . . If they all show up, the City Council will get another lengthy dose of citizens asking them to close the Holly Power Plant at this week’s meeting. The Council is also scheduled to talk about private, competitive utility matters during an executive session . . . Sierra Club press conference . . . The regional offices of the Sierra Club are having a press conference at 10 a.m. today to discuss the relationship between spending on mass transit and air quality. Don’t expect a rosy report on local conditions. The event will be at the regional office, 2906 Medical Arts Parkway. For more information, call Dick Kallerman, 444-1326.

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