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Charter revision group

Tuesday, December 4, 2001 by

Says 10 districts, not 12

Smaller number a disadvantage to African-American candidates

After further review, members of the Charter Revision Committee have decided that the recommendation they will send to the City Council will call for ten single-member districts, not twelve (see In Fact Daily, Nov. 27, 2001 ), with the Mayor elected at-large. The confusion stemmed from group members misunderstanding the recommendation of the previous charter committee, which called for a system of ten single-member districts to be expanded to twelve. Language adopted by the previous charter committee called for the increase in districts to be triggered by an increase in the city’s population by at least 25,000 people over the numbers reported in the 2000 Census.

“I thought it had already been triggered,” Committee member Stephen Yelenosky said of the population requirement. He went on to call the group’s reading of the original document a “mis-impression.” Committee Chair Bobbie Barker agreed. “I guess I misunderstood. We had assumed that the trigger had already occurred,” Barker said, which would have had the effect of making the group’s recommendation for twelve districts, not ten.

Assistant City Attorney John Steiner told committee members that while it might be their intent to phase in the increase to a thirteen-member council from the current seven-member body, there was no guarantee that would occur in the next few years. While the city’s population would certainly grow by more than 25,000 before the 2010 Census, it would be difficult to re-draw district lines with estimated population figures. “The practical upshot . . . will be, barring something like a large annexation, you would be saying ten districts for the next ten years and then going up to twelve,” Steiner said.

The Charter Revision Committee is recommending that the proposed changes be placed on the May 4, 2002 Charter Election ballot. Any change approved by the voters would also have to be cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice ( http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/voting) to ensure that the voting strength of the city’s minority population is not diluted. Whether a ten-district or even a twelve-district plan would accomplish that is in doubt. An analysis of the city’s shifting population earlier this year showed that because of increasing levels of integration and the rapid growth of the city’s Hispanic population a minimum of fourteen single-member districts would be needed to ensure the election of an African-American. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 19, 2001 .)

The committee cited several concerns other than race in backing up its recommendation for single-member districts. “Single-member districts also mean cheaper campaigns. With a voting constituency just 1/10th the size of an at-large constituency . . . a successful candidacy would not require personal wealth or solicitation of larger contributions,” their report states. The current at-large system, they argue, has also lead to a concentration of elected officials in certain neighborhoods to the exclusion of others. “There have been periods when as many as five to six Council members have been from one part of town . . . we have ignored appropriate geographic representation for many parts of the city.”

While Council Member Daryl Slusher plans to ask the committee to examine possible alternatives to the campaign-finance measure that supporters have dubbed the “Clean Campaigns” initiative, the committee may take up other issues in the next few weeks. Those include proposed revisions to term-limit provisions and other campaign-related issues. Committee member Clint Smith would like to explore the possibility of giving more authority to neighborhood planning teams, or “neighborhood councils” (similar to the system used in the city of Portland, Oregon) and the committee could also consider technical or “cleanup” provisions for the city charter. Additionally, Committee member Ricky Bird is finishing up a minority report on single-member districts and plans to submit it this week.

Sign Review Board responds

To proposed ordinance changes

Chair Herman Thun happy about appeals process proposal

If the City Council approves recommended changes to city’s billboard ordinance, the Sign Review Board (SRB) will no longer hear appeals over staff decisions on billboards. SRB Chair Herman Thun, told fellow board members last night he was pleased that they would no longer be required to decide disputes between sign companies. “I’m glad this thing gets out of the SRB,” he said.

Luci Gallahan, manager of the sign permit and license center, told the SRB that staff and the Planning Commission were recommending removal of all language relating to appeals to the sign review board. “As you are very well aware, we’ve had situations where competing sign companies have used the appeal rights in this code to take property disputes to the Sign Review Board. We don’t feel this is an appropriate venue. We feel they should be taking their disputes to the courts.” She noted that the Planning Commission agreed. (See In Fact Daily Oct. 29, 2001.)

But Board Member Frank Fuentes felt differently. “Why is it that we didn’t participate in this? Here I am, we are receiving this today, and it’s going before Council on Thursday. There’s nothing we can do about it, but I’m upset.”

Fuentes said he had written a letter to Gallahan several months ago requesting information on proposed changes to the ordinance. “We had just come off some very time consuming issues, specifically with regards to the appeal process. Now, I see here that they’re taking away from the Sign Review Board. That long, hard-learned lesson that we all took really was for nothing.” He said he was upset that he received no response to the letter, and that the board was hearing about it only right before the City Council vote.

Gallahan said she had never received the letter and apologized. But Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry said the Planning Commission, not the SRB, is charged with addressing ordinance changes. Since the responsibility for reviewing and proposing ordinance changes belongs to the Planning Commission, the presentation to the SRB was just to let them know what was happening.

Thun said he didn’t disagree with Fuentes, but noted that the presentation had originally been scheduled for November. Explaining why he was happy to lose the duty, Thun continued, “I don’t think we as individuals are prepared for that kind of process that we went through here a couple of months ago, quite frankly. That’s laborious and these are legal issues that are difficult when you’re meeting once every month to get into that. You almost have to have a continuing process to understand all that.” He said the ordinance proposes to send appellants to court, which is better equipped to deal with the thorny issues, instead of to the board.

The SRB has been the scene of several fierce battles between the city’s largest company, Reagan National Advertising, and its small competitors. (See In Fact Daily, June 19, July 10, July 23, Aug. 14, Oct. 5, 2001.)

BOA gives Congregation

Beth Israel final variance

Plans include education building, larger sanctuary

Attorney Richard Suttle had to make one final housekeeping trip to the Board of Adjustment last night to get final approval for additional construction on the Congregation Beth Israel campus.

Suttle’s loss before the Board of Adjustment on a variance last year—on the night of Yom Kippur—was his first loss before that commission. It led to a conditional site plan hammered out between the city’s oldest and largest synagogue and the Rosedale neighborhood. The Planning Commission and City Council approved that plan, which included MF-4 zoning on the six-acre site off Shoal Creek Boulevard, last November, but it was not the final step, Suttle told the board. (See In Fact Daily Oct. 10, 2000, Nov. 16, 2000.)

Expansion plans, estimated to cost between $12 and $14 million, include adding on to the educational building, enlarging the sanctuary and renovating the social hall. The plans will also remove two portable classrooms on the site and remove paving close to the critical environmental features on the property. The conditional use permit allowed the congregation to take one edge of a new building on the property up to 3 stories and 45 feet, Suttle said.

“We got approved and everything was fine,” Suttle said. “Then we realized you can get a conditional use permit, but it does not take into consideration the compatibility standard waivers.”

Rosedale neighbors spoke in favor of the variance at the initial hearing, saying they would prefer the congregation to build up, rather than out, on the property. Suttle agreed that the waiver was appropriate—neighbors approved it too—because the single-family homes that triggered the compatibility waiver were sitting 20 feet above the proposed buildings on the site. The new buildings would be no intrusion on the neighbors, Suttle said.

Commissioners this time gave quick and unanimous approval to the variance. The first variance failed after neighbors in Tonkawa Bluffs had complained that a variance on the property left too many unanswered questions. Neighbors questioned ultimate limits on heights, as well as plans for the congregation’s parking garage. Others raised questions about environmentally sensitive features on the property.

Approximately 760 families currently belong to Temple Beth Israel. More than 2,000 attend temple on the High Holy Days. High Holy Day activities are held at alternate sites such as The Promiseland on 51st Street.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Call for volunteers . . . Austin Area Interreligious Ministries is looking for volunteers—especially those who know how to tape and float—to help repair about 20 homes that were damaged during the November flooding. Volunteers are asked to meet at 8am Saturday at Shepherd of the Hills Presbyterian Church, 5226 W. William Cannon, to receive assignments. For more information, call 472-7627 or see the AAIM web site at http://www.aaimaustin.org. . . Still in demand . . . Former Mayor Kirk Watson will be the featured speaker at next Monday’s RECA luncheon. Today is the deadline to RSVP to the Real Estate Council at http://www.recaonline.com. . . Travis Demos to party . . . The Travis County Democratic Party will democratically celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Three Kings and/or the Winter Solstice Friday, beginning at 5:30pm at Fiesta Gardens, 2101 Bergman. It’s a potluck. For more information, call 477-7500.

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