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Council has yet to discuss other recommended Charter items

Thursday, February 28, 2002 by

Most of Wednesday’s City Council work session was devoted to discussion of the proposal to put single-member districts on the May 4th ballot. Council members seem to be edging toward giving voters the option to select a mixed system that includes both single-member and at-large Council seats. While the Council also spent about an hour in executive session to receive legal advice on the proposal to change the way the Police Monitor is hired, members didn’t have the opportunity to discuss the seven other recommendations from the Charter Revision Committee.

City Demographer Ryan Robinson presented the Council with numerous potential maps for a single-member district system. “We have a four-district scenario, two five-member scenarios, a six, a seven, an eight, a nine, two ten-member scenarios, a twelve and a fourteen,” Robinson said. “Throughout that entire process, we have followed a consistent methodology . . . which has been to create the minority districts first.” Assistant City Attorney John Steiner reminded Council members that while they may support the single-member concept to bring about greater geographic diversity, the U.S. Justice Department would instead focus on the impact on racial and linguistic minorities. “They’ll be comparing the number of minority candidates elected now and the number of minority candidates likely to be elected under any new system,” Steiner said. “It’s going to be very difficult to draw any system that does as well as this system has done at producing African-American representation.”

While Council Member Will Wynn continues to support single-member districts, there’s a growing indication that a majority of Council members are leaning toward a system that includes both single-member districts and at-large districts. “As people know, I’m more interested in a mixed system,” Council Member Daryl Slusher said. Mayor Gus Garcia, who had previously indicated support for the single-member district concept, said he would also be willing to consider alternatives. “I’m an advocate of a pure system,” Garcia said. “But I know that in this particular situation, we may have to reach some compromises so we can get some form of district elections.” He specifically mentioned an 8-2-1 system, with eight single-member districts and two Council members and the Mayor chosen at-large.

Further discussion and possible action are expected during today’s Council meeting. So far, most of the open Council discussion and two public hearings have focused on single-member districts, but the Charter Revision Committee had seven other issues suggested for the May 4th ballot—and decided against recommending several other proposals. Another possible charter amendment that wasn’t addressed by the committee is also on today’s agenda. The Council could consider a provision requiring municipal court judges and city employees to resign before they run for certain political offices.

Finding the time to address all of those issues during today’s session could prove difficult. Several weeks ago, city legal staff had urged the Council to reach a decision by the end of February to allow them time to draft the ballot language. Should Council members need more time to make a decision on single-member districts or any of the other proposals, they could consider them again at their next meeting on March 7. If not, they would have to call a special meeting, since the March 14 meeting has been canceled for spring break. The deadline to define items for the May 4th ballot is March 20th.

Landmark Commission fails to reach agreement

The owners of Esther’s Follies were happy to hear that the city would be cracking down on illegal signs in the Historic Sixth Street District. They were a bit chagrined, however, to find out that Esther’s Follies was the first business the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) would set its sights on.

The HLC must approve all signs on buildings in the Sixth Street National Register Historic District. The sheer workload such a guideline presents has meant only erratic enforcement of the code. Now the city’s historic preservation office is attempting to turn the tide in “a comprehensive effort to restore the historic character of the district.” Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky outlined the new approach in a letter sent to many of the club and business owners along Sixth Street.

With such a high-minded mission, it was only a matter of time before bar owners and historians would collide. Owner Michael Shelton described the signs at Esther’s Follies—including one portraying Esther diving off the side of the building—as art intended to “ignite public passion.” He said Esther’s Follies is the centerpiece of Sixth Street and its signs are works of art.

Owner Shannon Sedwick said she had approached Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Stocklin at a meeting last year to discuss the proliferation of ATM machine signs and illegal banners. She considers excess and trivial signage to be the real problem on Sixth Street.

“It’s a little ironic that we’re having to be the first ones to defend our signs,” said Sedwick, who described the removal of the signs as a “great loss,” just as the windmill on the roof of the Moulin Rouge in Paris would take away the spirit of the establishment.

Sarah Crocker, a consultant who worked with Esther’s Follies during its renovation 10 years ago, stood up to defend the building’s art. “There was so much debate when we first did the building, but now it anchors Sixth Street,” Crocker said. “It’s different. It’s unique. And it’s wonderful.”

Commissioners were split. Chair Lauretta Dowd opened the discussion by saying Esther’s Follies was unique by any guidelines.

“I can’t even look at Esther’s without thinking it’s the exception to every rule,” Dowd said. “I think I’m in a quandary to fit the guidelines to this and be fair to others on the street. I can’t imagine we’re going to be ready to vote on this this evening.”

They weren’t. In the end, the only order the HLC made was to ask Esther’s Follies to remove its roof art, clearly in violation of city code. The commission will come back next month to reconsider the remaining signs.

Commissioner Julia Bunton, who opposed the original Esther’s signs, was still clearly of the mind that their absence would come closer to the historical nature of Sixth Street. Nothing in these signs, she said, suggested the street’s original shop owners. She said she had walked away “bruised and battered” when the ordinance to regulate signs was first passed and the commission failed to enforce its own guidelines.

Commissioner Jim Fowler, on the other hand, said it was never the original consultant’s recommendation that the sign guidelines “should be rigidly followed.” Everyone appreciates the notion of consistency, but the commission’s job is to exercise judgment, Fowler said. Fowler saw Esther’s Follies signs as “portraying what the business is all about.”

“Esther’s is not the problem in the proliferation of signs on Sixth Street,” Fowler said. “It’s all this other stuff on Sixth Street, and it’s our job to exercise judgment for the citizens.”

Today at City Council . . . In addition to the long list of possible Charter Election items, there’s not much excitement on the Council agenda tomorrow. The Council will consider whether to pay the Whittington family $14.6 million for their downtown block to build the new Convention Center parking garage. The lot has cost the city untold grief and a lot of money in legal fees already. A public hearing is scheduled for 6pm on amending an ordinance relating to the sale of alcohol near private schools. This does not relate to the Cedar Door, whose owner is seeking a zoning change on Toomey Road next to a private school. That case won’t be up before the Council until next month. It is unclear whether the Council will hear more about fees for airport area parking lots . . . Yates hosts Boots and Bikes Barbeque . . . Republican Ira Yates is throwing a fundraiser at his ranch, 5711 SH 45, east of the Circle C golf course. For those unfamiliar with the area, you can reach the ranch by traveling south on MoPac. After it becomes SH 45, turn left and go north on SH45 to the second driveway on the right . . . Oops! . . We were mistaken in early editions yesterday when we said attorney Tony Canales represented the plaintiffs in a Firestone tire rollover case last year in the Valley. Canales’ daughter, Barbara Canales-Black of Corpus Christi, is running in the Democratic primary against Sen. Juan Hinojosa, who was on the same side of the case. Hinojosa was one of the state legislators who received continuances based on his service in the Legislature. We would also like to thank the reader who pointed out that we had misspelled the Senator’s name, which we’ll try to avoid in the future . . . Historic properties’ owners win tax breaks . . . The Historic Landmark Commission gave quick approval to tax exemptions on 28 historic properties this week. Among the properties were the Walter Tips Building at 710 Congress; the five businesses in the Jacob Larmour Block of 900 Congress; the Steiner Building at 807 Congress; and the Brown Building at 714 Colorado. The tax exemptions will come from the City of Austin, Austin Community College, Travis County and, to a lesser extent, Austin ISD . . . First time’s the charm . . . Darwin McKee, attorney with Brown McCarroll, won his first case before the Zoning and Platting Commission this week. McKee, who serves as chair of the Water & Wastewater Commission, got a zoning change for property at 6215 MLK Jr. Blvd. from LO to W/LO, allowing a storage facility to be built on the property. Planner Annick Beaudet said the facility would fit with a neighborhood plan which is currently in the land use stage of development. McKee said the applicants had support of two neighborhood associations, although one neighborhood resident asked the commission not to recommend the change. Neighborhood leader Willi Elam-Sneed said the neighborhood is plagued by drug dealers. She said the Craigwood neighborhood is “your worst nightmare. Putting a storage facility there will only enhance that nightmare.” McKee argued that the neighborhood’s problems were unrelated to the zoning change, which would be an overall plus for the neighborhood. He also promised a high level of security, including fencing, lighting and an on-site attendant . . . So little time, so many meetings . . . Last week, Scheleen Johnson Walker attended her final Downtown Commission meeting. Walker, who works in the Transportation and Natural Resources Department of Travis County, is focusing her efforts on shepherding the county work group through a draft of the new waste facility siting ordinance. Walker’s husband, Jim Walker is chair of the Mueller Airport Implementation Commission. The couple expects the arrival of a son in June . . . City seeks artists . . . The Art in Public Places Program is seeking three qualified design professionals to serve on the Art in Public Places Panel, a standing subcommittee of the Austin Arts Commission. The panel took a hard knock recently over the selection of non-African-American artists for artwork at the Carver Library. That decision has been reversed. Those who want to participate must submit an application by April 5 at 5 p.m. Applications are available on-line or by visiting the Dougherty Arts Center on Barton Springs Road.

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

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