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Ethics Commission chair urges end to current finance provision

Wednesday, January 30, 2002 by

The Charter Revision Committee took extensive public comment on several proposals to restructure city government Monday night, but made no new decisions on recommendations to the City Council about items to be placed on the ballot this May.

The group heard from Ethics Review Commission Chair Ginny Agnew, who urged them to reconsider a request made by Committee Member Ricky Bird to ask the Council to place a provision on the ballot calling for removal of the current campaign-finance charter prevision. Agnew said those rules, passed by voters at the urging of a group called “Citizens for a Little Less Corruption,” were ineffective. “We have had a very, very difficult time enforcing it, dealing with it and reconciling it with the existing campaign finance ordinance. They don’t work together. Regardless of whether the current “Clean Campaigns” measure passes, the state of election law in the City of Austin could be clarified by removing the “Little Less Corruption provision,” Agnew said. A recommendation from the committee, Agnew said, could spur the Council into action on the politically sensitive item.

“You, in your capacity as advisors, can look at it from a neutral perspective and realize that in a good government sense, the city would benefit from having that item on the ballot so the citizens could make that decision.” Committee Member Stephen Yelenosky said he would be reluctant to recommend that to the Council on short notice, and said he would need more information before making such a suggestion.

Time is running out for the committee, which needs to submit its recommendations to the Council in February for that body to have time to consider them before the deadline for setting the May election ballot. The group has a work session scheduled for next week with a final meeting to go over its report the following week. The committee still has to decide what recommendations, if any, to make on dozens of suggestions for charter alterations.

Some of those suggestions come from the office of City Clerk Shirley Brown, who attended Monday’s meeting but was not called upon to make a presentation. Most of the suggestions from Brown’s office have been characterized as minor or technical corrections of charter language. The city manager’s office has also submitted several proposals for the committee’s review. But attorney Fred Lewis, an advocate of the Clean Campaigns measure, asked the committee not to recommend any of those minor changes to the Council without extensive study, which the committee does not have time to undertake. “I don’t think y’all should be voting in approval of any of the items suggested by staff unless you have studied them,” Lewis said. “One person’s cleanup is another person’s major issue.”

Because the committee has spent most of its time dealing with single-member districts, campaign finance and other issues brought forth by citizens and Council members, the suggestions from staff may only receive a cursory review. Yelenosky, while he did not respond directly to Lewis’ request, told other committee members he believed the City Manager could just as easily take the staff recommendations directly to the City Council for inclusion on the ballot.

While the committee may discuss some of these recommendations next week, most of their time will likely be spent debating proposals to have certain city employees appointed by the City Council instead of the City Manager. Scott Henson and Ann Del Llano both told the committee they would like the Police Monitor and Citizen Review Panel (http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/news/01/citizen_review.htm) to report directly to the Council, and environmentalist Paul Robbins spoke in favor of allowing the Council to appoint the manager of Austin Energy.

University of Texas Professor Emeritus Terrell Blodgett, who had previously spoken to the committee, returned to defend the Council-manager form of government. Removing significant employees from the management chain of command, Blodgett said, would significantly undermine the governmental structure. While the groups calling for city employees to report directly to the City Council claim it would increase accountability, Blodgett said it could actually have the opposite effect. “It would create a diffusion of accountability,” Blodgett said. “A good example is found at the federal level. Is it the responsibility of the President or Congress that we don’t have a patients’ bill of rights? Campaign reform? Economic stimulus?” Blodgett predicted that employees outside the jurisdiction of the city manager would blame the Council for inadequate support if they failed to produce the desired results, while the Council could then point back to the employees. If the Council wanted to set up consumer advocate or police oversight positions, Blodgett said, those could be created without changing the Council-manager form of government. Adding employees outside the normal chain of command, he concluded, would be like opening “Pandora’s Box”.

Blodgett faced some intense questioning from Committee Members Charles Miles and Clint Smith, but found support from Committee Member Martha Cotera, who said she would be against creating a “hybrid kind of government . . . so that pretty soon you don’t know what you’ve got.”

Next week’s meeting will be a work session for the committee, with members preparing specific recommendations for language in their final report.

County as tenant does not stir much enthusiasm

The Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition would not hesitate to apply pressure during the upcoming political season if the city doesn’t maintain its course for the redevelopment of the former airport site.

Jim Walker, who also chairs the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Implementation Commission, met with the neighborhood coalition last night to update them on the project’s timeline. Business plans from the two developers vying for a city contract are due on Jan. 31st. The implementation commission will hear a presentation from the two developers during a public meeting sometime in early March.

Walker said it might not be in the neighborhoods’ best interest to see the selection process drag out into the spring city elections, but added that making Mueller an issue during the campaigns certainly would be a trump card for the politically active neighborhoods. The Mueller neighborhoods, Walker pointed out, are some of the precincts with the highest turnout in the city.

“This thing will be in a somewhat fragile state at that point,” Walker told the small group that met at Asbury United Methodist Church last night to talk about the redevelopment projects. “The question is, how much do we want to rock the boat and how much do we want to steer the boat? If we’re not being allowed to steer anymore, we need to rock it.”

The work of the next six to eight months—and the involvement of the community in that process—will set the course for the Mueller redevelopment project for the next 10 years, Walker said.

Accountability of the master developer, and how the city would hold the developer accountable, were of special concern of the neighborhood coalition. Many of the questions directed to Walker were intended to make sure the developer could meet the spirit of the master plan.

As Walker admitted to the group, the implementation commission’s access to the choice of the master developer had been limited to date. The commission has no idea how criteria will be weighted on the matrix to evaluate candidates or what thresholds might be “deal breakers.” Just the decision that the commission would see the presentations before the city’s team evaluated the two master developers—“while something was still at stake”—had been a major concession, Walker said.

Neighbors had a few primary concerns: Some wanted a mix of developers to be engaged by the master developer to ensure variety within the project. Others wanted to make sure that the master developer encouraged social goals, such as securing companies committed to affordable housing for lower-income employees. Another wanted an “out” for the city if the master developer completed the first phase in a less-than-satisfactory fashion. All those things, Walker admitted, would be a part of the evaluation process.

Reaction to Travis County’s interest in on a 20-acre parcel for a general office campus was mixed. One resident said Travis County has not necessarily been known for its taste in architecture. The need for surface parking and the fact the building would be off the tax rolls did not win a lot of support from the group, either. Others said the interest might be a good catalyst for office space, giving the master developer an initial tenant. The county, Walker said, would also be a stable tenant for a portion of the 100 acres set aside for office space on the northwest corner of Mueller.

Friday.

New City Council candidate . . . Vincent Aldridge, an attorney, says he would like to run in this spring’s Council election against incumbent Council Member Daryl Slusher. The problem, he says, is that he cannot tell whether Slusher will gain the necessary signatures to stay in his Place 1 seat or if he will end up switching with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, another incumbent gathering signatures. But at the moment, Aldridge is betting that Slusher will switch to Place 3. Aldridge is a member of the Zoning and Platting Commission . . . Mommy Activist v. Don Martin . . . Marguerite Jones, whose email name is “mommy activist,” lives along the Longhorn Pipeline route in far South Austin. She has been in the battle against the pipeline since we started covering the issue. Don Martin is a veteran public relations professional and has ably represented the company. The two will square off at 12:30pm today at Green Pastures Restaurant, 811 Live Oak. Their audience will be the South Austin Rotary Club . . . Going to the back of the line . . . Consultant Sarah Crocker has just signed on to represent the Vintage project on Town Lake. On first reading, the City Council bowed to neighborhood wishes and gave the developer MF-4 zoning with a 60-foot height limit, not what he was seeking. Crocker says she needs plenty of time to study the project and work with the neighbors, so will ask that consideration of the zoning request be postponed until June 27 . . . Regulation or prevention? . . . There won’t be a Mardi Gras parade through downtown Austin this year. The parade, originally scheduled for the evening of Friday, February 8, was not cancelled by Austin Police. Department officials say they don’t have that authority under city ordinance. “It does give us the authority to regulate the times, locations and dates of parades for public safety,” says Assistant Police Chief Jim Fealy. The department felt that a Friday night parade downtown would cause problems, so Fealy says they suggested a parade on the afternoon of Saturday, February 9th instead. Fealy says the organizers worked with the department, but decided against an afternoon parade. Organizers of “Mardi Gras Austin” and the Friends of Sixth Street remind revelers that individual bars and clubs will still be holding special events.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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