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Charter revision report answers

Monday, December 17, 2001 by

Some, but not all Council questions

Some hoping panel can address term limits, campaign finance

The City Council unanimously approved the Charter Revision Committee’s single-member district recommendation Thursday, but that was not the issue uppermost in the minds of several Council members. Council Member Beverly Griffith asked what other issues the current committee would be considering.

Committee Member Stephen Yelenosky said, “Certainly we’re going to be looking at campaign finance. That is a Charter ballot issue, as you know, by referendum. Our understanding is we could recommend something like it, something different that would on the ballot along with it.” Yelenosky spoke briefly about the item that has already eaten up two committee meetings: whether Austin should have Neighborhood Councils, such as those in Portland, Oregon.

Committee Member Marta Cotera chimed in, “We’re certainly interested in (eliminating) term limits. I agree with Terrell Blodgett that to have term limits is undemocratic. It says that you cannot vote people out of office if you’re not happy with the job they’re doing. To me, term limits limit the power of the people, because it’s indicating ahead of time this is what you have to do. So it’s very undemocratic. I’m very interested on working on that along with campaign finance reform.”

Cotera then denigrated the mixed system of representation, which allows some Council members to run at large and some to run from districts. She said the people in Corpus Christi are happy with the system, but she still believes it to be undemocratic, creating two tiers of council members. Some members of the previous Charter Revision Committee, had suggested that option.

Cotera said the committee would be deciding on a final list of topics for future discussion at next tonight’s meeting. That meeting is scheduled for 6pm in the board room at the Parks & Recreation Department, 200 S. Lamar.

Griffith then asked, “Are you open to suggestions?” Cotera assured her that the group was ready to listen. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman inquired whether a Council vote would be necessary and after some discussion was assured that it would not be. Goodman said she would be visiting the committee. Griffith is likely to ask the committee to look at putting authority to hire the police monitor under the City Council. The first monitor has not yet been hired, but the matter is already controversial.

Council Member Will Wynn has said he is interested in increasing the amount of money the City Manager can spend without Council authorization. The charter currently limits the manager’s authority to $39,000, which means the Council has to approve many routine spending items.

On previous occasions, staff and committee members have expressed doubts about whether they had the time to make further recommendations about what would go on next May’s ballot. However, it seems clear now that they will be asked to do more than simply study and report on term limits and campaign financing. Cotera assured the Council that the committee would be willing to meet as often as necessary to do the work.

If the committee does come up with a proposal for campaign finance reform, it would be placed on the same ballot as the proposal from the Clean Campaigns group, which has a complex plan for public financing. But the ballot language would have to be carefully worded, according to Assistant City Attorney John Steiner, because of the peculiar requirements of state law. That law, he explained, prevents the city from asking citizens to choose between multiple alternatives of roughly the same proposal. Instead, each proposition must stand on its own. The problem this creates is the possibility that two mutually exclusive proposals will receive more than 50 percent voter approval. He said one way around that is to put language in one of the proposals indicating which one would prevail; but Goodman, for one, did not like that approach. Of course, such a discussion was theoretical, presuming that the committee would come up with another proposal in addition to the single-member district plan.

Some City Hall staff members are also expressing doubt that the Council will want to put the single-member district proposal on the ballot because it does not prescribe a district map. Steiner told the Council on Thursday that the US Justice Department would want to pre-clear the proposal before it goes on the ballot.If the proposal were approved by voters, the Justice Department would then have to pre-clear the district map.

Barbara Hankins, chair of the previous Charter Revision Committee, which made the single-member district recommendation adopted by the current committee, told the Council that an important recommendation from her panel had not been adopted by the current committee. The recommendation reads: “That, in the year preceding the year in which the Federal decennial census is conducted, the City Council appoint a Charter Revision Committee to examine and recommend on possible changed to the method of election of the City Council.” Hankins said that residential integration may progress to the point that the single-member district method—which came about largely as the result of the Civil Rights movement—is no longer the best mode of representation for Austin. That committee met monthly for more than a year, and Hankins said she was glad that its recommendations had finally come out of the “black hole” into which they had fallen.

The committee will hold public hearings on Jan. 7 and Jan. 14 and plans to hold its final meeting on Feb. 4. The Council plans to hold public hearings on matters for the ballot on Jan. 24 and 31 and one in February.

Capital Metro doing OK

On investment strategy

Consultant describes conservative strategy

An ongoing recession, declining interest rates and an unstable stock market have not stopped Capital Metro from pulling better than expected returns on its investment portfolio this year.

The rate of return on the transit agency’s $200 million portfolio has been a little better than 8 percent, which exceeds last year’s return, said Ed Sanchez of Public Financial Management. He spoke to a joint meeting of Capital Metro’s Finance/Planning and Business Development/Operations Committees last week.

“The investment choices were made early in the year in anticipation of interest rates going down,” said Sanchez after his presentation to the committee. “I think decisions we made on the investments in the early part of the year have paid off.”

Investment income is important but is not a substantial part of the Capital Metro budget. Approximately 86 percent of Capital Metro’s operating revenue this year—$124.6 million—came from sales tax. Investment income, by comparison, amounts to only $7.8 million. Other revenue sources are passenger fares, ($4 million) third-party fares, ($5 million) and miscellaneous revenue ($2.5 million). The budget is expected to grow from $143.8 million in fiscal year 2001 to $148.5 million in fiscal year 2002.

Transit authority officials told the committee that fares are rebounding. Rob Smith, director of strategic planning and development, responding to a question from Council Member Beverly Griffith, said fares had dipped last year but have been picking up over the last six months. The transit agency expects fares to grow at 2 percent per year, and possibly 4 percent if routes and park-and-ride lots are expanded.

Most people don’t realize how conservative the Capital Metro portfolio is, Sanchez said. The portfolio is diversified among federal agencies (49 percent), U.S. Treasuries (31 percent), high-quality Commercial Paper (7.3 percent), TexPool (12.4 percent) and less than one percent apiece to Bankers’ Acceptances and Mortgage-Backed Securities. The maturity of those investments is no more than 3 years.

Because Capital Metro is a public entity run with taxpayer dollars in Texas, it is subject to the Texas Public Funds Investment Act, Sanchez said. The act was passed in the wake of the investment scandal in Orange County, California in the 1990s. It requires “very, very conservative investments” for public agencies.

“That’s what the public needs to realize when they’re concerned about investments,” Sanchez said. “Capital Metro has to invest in very safe and secure investments.”

So despite the 11 cuts to the interest rate in the last 12 months and the ups and downs of the market, the investment portfolio of Capital Metro has been fairly stable, Sanchez said. In fact, investment advisers are likely to predict a rate of return on investments at 4 percent next year and a 4 percent rate of return is assumed in next year’s budget. The rate could go up to 5 or 6 percent if the yield curve on stocks begins to rebound.

Griffith asked Capital Metro staff to provide additional revenue information to the committees in future meetings, including a month-to-month comparison of sales tax revenues. Griffith said it was important to look at those figures monthly because sales tax is “our life’s blood.”

Griffith also asked for monthly unemployment figures, which have increased from 1.9 percent to 4.6 percent in a matter of months in Austin. Such figures, Griffith said, are the realities that the transit agency needs to deal with when making decisions. She told In Fact Daily, “I think we should’ve had that information for a long time. We need to plan on the basis of actuals,” not predictions..

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Historic home lot secured . . . Owners of the R.L. Moore House won final approval from the City Council for a zoning change for the house’s new location at 2303 Rio Grande. The zoning for most of the site will be GO-MU-H-CO, while a second tract will be zoned GO-MU-CO. That split zoning will allow the property owner to secure the necessary parking for the building. The home will serve as the office of a foundation devoted to the support of a teaching method developed by R.L. Moore, who taught mathematics at UT from 1920 to 1969. The neighborhood had opposed the zoning until Jerry Rusthoven, executive assistant to Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, resolved problems they had over a 12-foot strip of land . . . Aquifer explained . . . The Save Barton Creek Association is hosting a slide show presentation tonight entitled “Aquifer 101.” Staff of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District will utilize photos, diagrams, and maps to inform and educate attendees on hydrologic processes throughout the Edwards Aquifer. They will also discuss threats to the aquifer, and the district's role in working to conserve and protect it. The meeting, as always, will be at The Filling Station, 801 Barton Springs Road . . . City Council appointments . . . The City Council last week reappointed four members of the Human Rights Commission: Austin Dullnig, Michael Supancic, Betty Taylor and Neal Walton. The Council also reappointed Mary Lou Adams and William Moore to the Medical Assistance Program Advisory Board . . . More parties. . . The Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) and ANT-PAC, it’s political action arm, are having a holiday party on Wednesday from 6:30 to 8:30pm at Threadgill's World Headquarters., 301 W. Riverside Dr. at Barton Springs Rd. The group will be presenting awards to Clare Barry as Outstanding Neighborhood Activist and to MONAC (the MoPac Neighborhoods Coalition) as the Outstanding Neighborhood Organization. Everyone’s invited . . . Goodman party on Thursday . . . Claudette and Hugh Lowe will host a fundraiser for Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman at their home at 400 Academy on Thursday from 5:30 to 8:30pm. Goodman’s husband, Jack Goodman, recently completed training in the Culinary Arts program at ACC and promises a delicious spread for the party.

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