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Committee hears police request, but does not change position

Wednesday, February 13, 2002 by

Members of the Charter Revision Committee put the finishing touches on their report to the City Council Tuesday evening, sending six measures to be considered for placement on the May 4th ballot. Those measures include the repeal of term limits for City Council members, increasing the purchasing authority of the City Manager, repealing the charter provision limiting campaign contributions, changing the number of signatures required to initiate an ordinance, having the Police Monitor appointed directly by the City Council and directing the police department not to maintain optional personnel files that would not be open to public scrutiny. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 06, 2002 .)

Those recommendations are in addition to the Committee’s report on single-member districts, which are scheduled for discussion at today’s Council work session. The earliest the Council could debate putting any of the committee’s other recommendations on the ballot would be at its Feb. 28 meeting. Last week, Council members said they would likely delay any decision about what to place on the ballot until mid-to-late March. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 08, 2002 .)

Although much of the committee’s final meeting was devoted to revising the language in its report to the Council, there was some discussion of the two recommendations pertaining to the Austin Police Department. After hearing suggestions from members of the ACLU at previous meetings, Committee Chair Bobbie Barker invited management officials at the police department to provide information about how the proposed changes would affect the department.

Assistant Chief Michael McDonald made the presentation on behalf of Chief Stan Knee, who was in San Antonio for a law enforcement meeting. “The chief recognizes the citizens of Austin have expressed an interest in civilian oversight for over 25 years,” McDonald said. The city’s first-ever Police Monitor, Iris Jones, began work on Monday of this week and her office is not yet fully staffed. The office was created last year in the contract reached between the city and the Austin Police Association (APA). McDonald told committee members the chief would not support changes to the current Police Monitor system so soon after it was created. “To discuss an alternative to an agreed-upon contract prior to full implementation sends a controversial message to the men and women who protect our city,” Mc Donald said, reading a statement on the chief’s behalf. “The union is already expressing concern that the city is attempting to violate a binding contract. The current citizen oversight language was not easy to obtain during the recent negotiations. The union expressed extreme concerns about not forfeiting the civil-service rights given to them by the citizens of Austin to protect them from political interference.”

McDonald concluded the chief’s statement with an announcement that the department’s top administrator would submit his own recommendation to the Council. “It simply makes no sense to risk potential litigation when we have not given the new process an opportunity to work . . . I plan to formally recommend to the Mayor and the City Council that we honor our contract.”

Committee Member Charles Miles urged the committee not to reverse the decision it had made the previous week regarding its recommendation on the Police Monitor position. “Why not let the people vote?” He also predicted that the issue, if placed on the ballot and passed by voters, would end up in litigation.

Ann Del Llano and Scott Henson of the ACLU’s Police Accountability Project submitted a brief to the committee, urging them to recommend a change in the method of keeping police records. Under state law, police departments are allowed to maintain an optional personnel file for officers containing allegations of misconduct. According to the information submitted by the ACLU, most police departments in the state choose not to keep that optional file, which is not open to the public.

McDonald said officers felt the closed file was an appropriate measure to keep information gathered during investigations by the Internal Affairs department from being used in criminal prosecutions. Because police officers do not have the right to refuse to answer questions posed during internal investigations, they can be forced into making self-incriminating statements. In order to protect the officers’ Fifth Amendment rights, that information is prohibited from being transmitted to other agencies. These provisions were laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court case Garrity v. New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493 (1967). McDonald portrayed the suggestion to eliminate the optional file as one that would be strongly resisted by the APA. “The issue that comes up time and time again,” McDonald said, “is the officers don’t want to be tried by media, and they don’t want to be subject to self-incrimination.”

In order to avoid conflict with the current agreement between the city and the APA, the ACLU representatives suggested making both of the proposed charter amendments effective after the contract expires on September 26, 2003. Members of the Charter Revision Committee agreed to include that language in their recommendation to the City Council. Committee Member Clint Smith said that having provisions for a Council-appointed Police Monitor and eliminating the optional personnel files in the City Charter would put the city in a stronger position to negotiate those items in the next contract agreement.

The committee’s recommendations will now go to the City Council, which could choose to place all, some or none of them on the ballot this May. With a total of seven recommendations for ballot items from the committee and a citizen-initiated campaign finance measure, the ballot could be lengthy. Committee Chair Bobbie Barker said the group took that into consideration when making its recommendations, choosing only those items that members felt to be the highest priority. She also praised city staff and committee members for their hard work. “The members of the committee put in extensive hours doing research and came well prepared to debate the issues every week.”

Fate of affordable project in Southeast Austin in doubt

After about an hour of discussion, the Water and Wastewater Commission voted last week to recommend that the City Council proceed with a contract allowing a developer to upgrade a sorely needed water main in order to build a controversial, 35-unit, affordable housing condominium project.

Some commissioners expressed reluctance because the proposed development in Southeast Austin faces stiff opposition from surrounding neighborhood groups.

But the Commission decided it would be best to allow negotiations to proceed because if the project is approved—and numerous obstacles remain in its way—the upgraded water main will be authorized for construction. The existing eight-inch water main now serving the area is inadequate to the point of jeopardizing the safety of the nearby neighborhoods. According to city officials and residents, water pressure in the line is so low that firefighters would not be able to rely on it in an emergency.

Funding for a 16-inch water main is included the Water and Wastewater Utility’s 2001-2002 amended capital budget. However, city officials have expressed a need to stretch thinning budget dollars over numerous priority projects; it therefore remains uncertain if the city is prepared for the capital outlay required for the water line upgrade. A cost-sharing agreement, with reimbursement by the city, would allow the Water and Wastewater Utility to defer the cost of the infrastructure upgrade to a subsequent year’s budget. Because there is a safety concern involved, time is an important factor. Another consideration was the prospect of having city streets trenched a second time to accommodate an upgrade after the developer has already installed lines for the condominium project.

King Fisher Creek Ltd. is seeking a cost participation-reimbursement agreement with the city to build a 16-inch water main to accommodate its proposed Parker Springs Condominiums on East St. Elmo Road, just east of Todd Lane. The water main would also provide enough of an increase in water pressure to solve the fire safety problem and eliminate other water service problems in the nearby neighborhoods.

But neighborhood representatives at the Commission’s meeting Wednesday voiced strong opposition to the proposed development, on a 4.57-acre tract in the Desired Development Zone.

Lee Sloan, president of the nearby Kensington Park Neighborhood Association, said there were significant environmental problems with this “high-density . . . low-income” project situated on a relatively small piece of land. This development would not provide adequate protection for the sensitive wetlands and creeks on the property, he said.

“This project has massive problems,” Sloan said. All the nearby neighborhood groups and homeowner’s associations are against it, he noted, and the City Council has voted unanimously against it in the past. “(The City Council) said not to continue to dump trash projects like this in South Austin,” he added. Furthermore, the Zoning and Platting Commission has also voted against it, he said.

Sloan said his group does support affordable housing but they would rather live with a smaller water line and bad streets than to have King Fisher Creek proceed with this development. He said his association has asked the developer to work with them in reducing the density of the project but they refused.

Carl Conley, with Conley Engineering Inc., representing the developer, said the project would not only be providing improved water service to the area, but also 35-units of housing priced so people with incomes in the same range as firefighters, police and teachers could afford them.

Jack Howison, a 27-year resident of the area, told the Commission the eight-inch water main that serves his neighborhood usually fails once or twice a year, so he and his neighbors were excited about the prospect of having the line upgraded. But he said they are opposed to King Fisher Creek’s proposed development.

“They have been a problem since day one,” he noted, urging the Commission to take time to closely study this project and the unique hydrology of the area. “We may be on the verge of making a permanent mistake,” he said.

Two creeks cross the proposed development site and it also includes “a designated wetlands area,” documented by Mike Lyday, a scientist with the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, Howison said. The proposed project calls for wastewater to be pumped across those creeks, he noted.

Howison told In Fact Daily that Parker Springs was the first Smart Housing project ever voted down by the city. He criticized another low-income development built by King Fisher Creek, Douglas Landing Apartments, a project built about two years ago off of East Oltorf Street. Chair Darwin McKee said if the project is approved, which he noted as unlikely, it was important to have the increased water and wastewater capacity approved as well. The question is, he said, whether the City is going to pay for it in this year’s budget or the next year, or the next.

Commissioner Michael Warner initially said he would like more time to consider the issue. Vice-Chair Lanetta Cooper agreed, noting this project “could have an effect on our water quality.” She proposed postponing consideration for one month.

Commissioner Jim Haley noted that the Commission’s recommendation would only be for approval to negotiate, not a nod of approval for the project. Warner made a motion for approval and Haley made the second with a friendly amendment to have either the Environmental Board review the project or a full report from Lyday on the potential impact on water quality posed by this development.

McKee said he supports affordable housing. He also said he understands the neighborhood residents’ views, but “I’m going to vote for it . . . If they make it, I don’t see any reason for the city to make a second cut to provide you fire service you need,” he told Sloan and Howison.

Cooper abstained. Commissioners Chien Lee, Dacio Marin, McKee, Haley, and Warner, voted in favor of the project. Commissioners Aida Berduo Douglas, Drew Miller and Kim McPherson were absent.

The agreement would call for the city to reimburse King Fisher Creek up to $287,5000 for the cost of the water main and related facilities. In addition, the contract would waive about 90 percent of the developer’s construction inspection fees for the water main project. The item is scheduled for City Council consideration on February 28.

Heckler reports endorsements . . . Even though Travis County Pct. 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner has racked up an impressive number, Democratic primary opponent Jeff Heckler announced yesterday that he has received some important backing too. The Austin Sierra club, Texas Environmental Democrats, Travis County Sheriff’s Officers Association and CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas) have chosen to back the challenger. The ALGPC endorsed Sonleitner, along with Roger Quannah Settler in the Republican primary. We don’t imagine that his primary opponent, Bob “Road Warrior” Honts, a former Pct. 2 commissioner, tried very hard to get the gay and lesbian group’s endorsement. The group also endorsed Democrats Tony Sanchez for governor, Rep. Dawna Dukes of Dist. 46 and James Sylvester (Dist. 50), and gave a dual endorsement to Lulu Flores and Eddie Rodriguez for Dist. 51. They also endorsed Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez, Elisabeth Earle for County Court-at-Law # 7 and Julius Whittier for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 2 . . . Oops, left out the most important word . . . City of Austin Urban Designer Jana McCann says, “‘ ROMA had NOT dropped its study on the ( Rainey Street ) area because the consulting firm couldn't get past the political issue of whether it should even be developed. She said ROMA had intended to take the three options on Rainey Street—no development, all development and something in between—and calculate how each would play out economically.’ I clearly pointed out that our department (not the consultant) proposed to drop the study as part of required City-wide budget cuts.” So, now we know what McCann thinks. We are sorry to have misquoted her . . . Griffith’s fundraising . . . The Council member who has raised the most money and the most signatures wants to set the record straight. She did loan her campaign $5,000 in the beginning to get the ball rolling. But she says the other $45,000—and the impressive number of signatures—were raised by “being organized, and focused and determined and working your buns off. That’s where the 20,000 signatures came from.” Griffith also said the City Clerk’s office has told her the number of signatures needed will be determined on Friday, the last business day before the first filing day, which is Tuesday, the 19th . . . Planning panel meets tonight . . . The Planning Commission is set to consider the North Loop Neighborhood Plan tonight, as well as associated zoning. In addition, the commission is scheduled for staff briefings on the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Plan, which is still in progress and on the newly revised billboard ordinance . . . Three-day weekend coming . . . The City of Austin and In Fact Daily will be observing President’s Day on Monday. Libraries will be closed and so will this publication. We hope you have a nice weekend with your loved ones . . . Wednesday the 13th . . . If you have bad luck today, you can just say it’s your Spanish blood and blame it on the calendar. For reasons unknown to the writer, the 13th is a bad day in Spain if it’s in the middle of the week. You don’t have the weekend to recover . . . Democrats partying tonight . . . Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and his guest, gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, are throwing a party at 5:30pm today at the Austin Music Hall. It’s free.

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

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