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No Council Members live in North Austin, Wynn notes

Thursday, January 24, 2002 by

A change to single-member districts not only spreads representation across a city but it also shifts power from city departments to Council member offices, a panel told members of the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) at a luncheon yesterday.

The panel— City Council Member Will Wynn, Director Richard Murray of the University of Houston’s Center on Public Policy and attorney Bill Kaufman of Kaufman and Associates in San Antonio—gave RECA members a brief overview of their perspectives on single-member districts. When she introduced the panel, Susan Harris, who heads RECA’s committee on the subject, called it an emotionally charged issue that was met with a variety of viewpoints.

The Charter Revision Committee has recommended putting single-member districts on the May 2002 ballot. The City Council is expected to take action on the recommendation on Feb. 7. Two public hearings, on Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, are scheduled prior to the Council vote. A hearing last week, however, yielded only one speaker.

Wynn, who pushed for the creation of the second Charter Revision Committee, explained the committee’s three top reasons for the single-member districts.

Single-member districts cover smaller geographic areas and provide better representation. Representing an area of 70,000 residents is much easier than representing 700,000 people, Wynn said.

Dividing the city into single-member districts also will dramatically reduce the cost of Council campaigns and empower neighborhoods to elect Council members that represent their interests. Murray estimated Council campaigns for at-large districts can run five times the price of single-member district campaigns. In other words, Wynn said, single-member districts become de facto “meaningful and inexpensive campaign reform.”

And, finally, the creation of single-member districts will geographically disperse City Council members. The majority of Council members have come from Central Austin. No Council member, in fact, has ever lived any further north than Koenig Lane. Wynn told the luncheon he lived and worked in Central Austin, too.

“I’m the first to say I’m part of the problem,” he told the luncheon crowd.

Murray and Kaufman, both of whom have experience with the implementation of single-member districts, shared the pluses and minuses of the single-member system.

Houston has a City Council made up of 9 single-member districts and 5 at-large candidates, whereas San Antonio has 10 single-member districts. Murray said his opinion of the benefits of single-member districts would vary from community to community. It may guarantee more minority representation, but it does not guarantee that more people will go to the polls, Murray said.

An at-large system can guarantee a citywide perspective, better coalition building and a better pool of candidates drawn from across the city, Murray said. Women, Murray said, historically tend to do better in an at-large system of government.

On the other hand, single-member districts guarantee better influence for neighborhood groups, a greater diversity on City Council and better representation for poor communities. He warned that it was easy to overestimate the impact single-member districts will make on a city. Chicago—at-large or with single-member districts—is still ward politics. The structure may change, but the politics generally does not. The basic operations of government, on the whole, tend to remain the same, Murray said.

Kaufman, who serves as legal counsel to the real estate council in San Antonio, pointed out that the move to single-member districts often shifts power out of city departments and into Council offices. Council members often become ombudsman for the grassroots services that are being missed by city crews. If a pothole needs to be fixed, it will be the Council member’s office that takes charge, rather than public works.

With single-member districts you get an advocate in City Hall, Kaufman said, but that often comes at a cost to citywide decisions. Council members tend to advocate for their own districts alone. When the money from Community Development Block Grant funds have to be divided, Council members tend to lobby for projects in their own districts ahead of projects that make the most sense for the city or that provide the most benefits.

The Real Estate Council of Austin has yet to take a position on the single-member district issue, but plans to issue a position statement within the next few weeks.

TxDOT wants local entities to pay in the future

Texas may be one of the few states in the Union that continues to use frontage roads, but it’s a practice that Travis County commissioners aren’t willing to give up so easily. The Texas Department of Transportation has set a Feb. 4 deadline for comments on the decision to eliminate frontage roads from future highway construction projects. Instead, the state proposes that local entities or developers pay for what it calls “backage roads.”—local roads that would run parallel to the freeway and substitute for the frontage roads that have been used in most Texas freeway projects since the 1950s.

Travis County commissioners intend to disagree with this idea in a letter they will approve next week. The only thing commissioners didn’t like about TNR Executive Director Joe Gieselman’s long list of objections presented to yesterday was that he didn’t object strongly enough. “I don’t see the improvement here,” Commissioner Margaret Moore said of the state’s plans. “Frontage roads seem like an integral part of moving traffic. It makes it easier for people who use the freeway.”

Or, as County Judge Sam Biscoe said,” If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

A number of corridors would be affected by the proposal, including US 290 West from Williamson Creek to FM 1826, US 290 East from US 183 to FM 1826, State Highway 71 from US 290 to one mile north of the intersection of those two roads, State Highway 71 from Burleson Road to East of FM 972 and US 183 from a half mile east of Interstate 35 to State Highway 71.

Beyond that, Gieselman expressed concern that it would be the county or city that would now bear the financial weight of any roads connecting to the freeway system. The whole point of getting rid of frontage roads, Gieselman said, is to get rid of the cost.

Gieselman, who heads the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department, said that most states have made freeways work without frontage roads, pushing development to side streets. It’s not a foreign concept, Gieselman said. It’s just a different way to look at traffic.

County commissioners didn’t buy that argument. Commissioner Ron Davis argued that the lack of frontage roads would delay emergency vehicles. Other objections on the list included the possibility of an increase in neighborhood cut-through traffic, the inability to use frontage roads for increased capacity when main lanes are in high demand, the lack of an air pollution and noise buffer that frontage roads provide to neighborhoods, the inability to divert traffic during emergencies such as hazardous spills and the shifting of unwanted commercial development into smaller arterials.

Biscoe asked Gieselman to strengthen his language and bring back a new draft of objections to county commissioners next week. Commissioners Court also will ask the state to work with local governments to evaluate the full fiscal impact of the elimination of frontage roads and decide where limited access highways without frontage roads would make sense.

President Bush failed to declare Travis County a disaster area after the floods last November, but that doesn’t mean all chances for financial aid are gone.

The Small Business Administration arrived in town on Friday to offer low-interest home and business loans to those impacted by the November floods. Pete Baldwin, the emergency management coordinator for Travis County, says government officials are stationed at 624 Pleasant Valley North in a building being used for the county’s weatherization services.

The last time SBA was in town was after the tornadoes of 1992. SBA will stay for about two weeks—“or as long as business keeps coming”—to process loan applications, Baldwin told Travis County commissioners this week. He estimated between 500 and 600 homes across the county were impacted by the flood. His office will be contacting as many of those homeowners as possible to advise them on the availability of loans. Hours for the SBA temporary office will be 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 1-800-366-6303.

Former public works director of Buda arrested . . . Everett Conner turned himself into members of the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force in Kyle yesterday. He had been charged with unauthorized discharge of waste pollutants. TNRCC officials say his actions contributed to improper management of the Buda wastewater plant. (See In Fact Daily, May 30, 2001) . . . Asian center wins approval . . . The ZAP Commission approved plans for a new shopping center on North Lamar at Ferguson Drive Tuesday night by a vote of 8-0. The developer requested a zoning change from LO to CS. At the urging of city staff and neighbors, a conditional overlay was added prohibiting certain uses the neighborhood found undesirable and providing guidelines for the operation of pawnshops. The developers plan for the anchor tenant to be an Asian grocery store, with other shops in the center also having an Asian theme. The property is currently vacant. Construction on the shopping center is tentatively scheduled for completion in 2004 . . . ROW costs for Loop 1 North . . . Travis County commissioners plan to finalize a draft letter of their contribution to the right-of-way along Loop 1 North next week. County staff will tweak language in the letter, which guarantees up to $6.5 million for the county’s contribution to right-of-way between Parmer Lane and State Highway 45. The figure is a combination of a number of funding sources: Capital Metro Interlocal Agreement ($707,000), 2000 Road Bonds ($4 million) and 2001 Certificates of Obligation ($1.7 million. That’s about half the cost of right-of-way outside the county. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner also wanted clearer language on liability limits in the letter and pointed out that Williamson County’s latest figures have lowered its proposed costs on right-of-way to pass through its jurisdiction . . . Rae’s job performance review continuing . . . The Capital Metro Board of Directors, which had been scheduled to continue discussions about the future of General Manager Karen Rae on Tuesday, postponed that meeting until Friday. That meeting is scheduled for 1pm, but consideration of Rae’s “employment agreement and related issues” is set to be discussed in executive session at 2pm. After that, the direction of the agency should be clearer. . . South Austin Demos endorse . . . Elbert Donsbach, treasurer and stalwart member of South Austin Democrats, reported to In Fact Daily that the organization has endorsed Ron Kirk for US Senate, David Bernsen for Land Commissioner and Tony Sanchez for Governor. In the strictly local races, Travis County Commissioner for Pct. 2, Karen Sonleitner, beat Jeff Heckler 55-22. Heckler’s folks point out that the precinct is not in South Austin. Nevertheless, Sonleitner has also won endorsements from the Austin Central Labor Council, the South Austin Tejano Democrats and Travis County Democratic Women. Commissioner Margaret Gomez handily beat opponent Barbara Cilley 68-12, for the endorsement in the Pct. 4 race. Elisabeth Earle, daughter of District Attorney Ronnie Earle, won the endorsement for County Court at Law #7 over fellow Municipal Court Judge Evelyn McKee.

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

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