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Group recommends Council also appoint Citizen Review Panel

Wednesday, February 6, 2002 by

The Charter Revision Committee will tell the Austin City Council it supports a public vote over moving the recently created Police Monitor position from the oversight of the City Manager to the Council. But the group decided against a host of other proposed charter changes that would have removed several other employees from the normal chain of command and significantly restructured the council-manager form of government.

The committee had previously heard from those involved in pushing for the creation of the Police Monitor, who said they believed having the monitor appointed directly by the Council would increase the level of accountability. (See In Fact Daily, Jan 30, 2002. )

Committee Member Charles Miles said he supported the proposed change. “I don’t see where it should be a great problem. It should be better, in that the Council is elected by the people,” Miles said. “There might be controversy around it, but there’s always controversy around anything when you’re dealing with the police. I really think that you have a much better chance of civil liberties being protected with elected officials . . . they are the people the public gets a chance to evaluate every few years.”

If the Council does decide to put that proposal on the ballot and voters approve it, there would be some questions about implementing the change. The current system, where the Police Monitor is hired by and reports to the City Manager, was worked out during the “meet and confer” process with the Austin Police Association (APA). The current contract with the APA runs through September 26, 2003. Assistant City Attorney Gaye Brewer told committee members the city could reestablish negotiations with the APA before the current agreement expires. “The contract does provide for reopening meet and confer in the event of certain changes that would change the substantive rights of officers,” Brewer said, “Whether this would change the substantive rights of officers depends on what this charter amendment would mean.” Brewer warned that even if negotiations were established, they would not automatically end with a positive result. “It’s possible that there would be an inability to resolve it to everyone’s full satisfaction . . . It’s possible we could wind up in litigation over exactly what should happen in the event the charter amendment were to overlap the contract.” She suggested stipulating a definite date for the Council to assume responsibility for appointing the police monitor so it could be included in the next round of meet and confer discussions.

Miles, however, pushed for approval of the measure without a definite date. “We’re talking about what goes in the city constitution, and what goes in the constitution is much more important than what goes into a contract that ends a year from now,” Miles said. “No matter what we do and how much we try to pacify anybody, it’s still going to end up in court.” Committee Member Clint Smith supported Miles, saying the ultimate responsibility would reside with the Council. “All we’re doing is seeking to give the Council the authority (to appoint the monitor),” Smith said. “It would be up to them to decide when they want to do that. If they want to do it now and deal with litigation, fine.”

Other proposals for Council appointment fail

The resolution passed by the committee also includes a provision that the Council appoint the civilian members of the Citizen Review Panel . The members of that group were selected in December by the City Manager. The selection of Iris Jones as Austin’s first Police Monitor was announced in January. She begins work next week.

A series of proposals to have other city employees report directly to the Council were shelved by the committee, which decided against recommending to the Council that they be placed on the May 4th ballot. Those included proposals to have the Council directly appoint the City Attorney and create an office of Consumer Advocate, and allow the City Auditor to hire additional specialists. The committee also declined to forward a recommendation to the Council on proposals to have the Council appoint Austin Energy’s General Manager or to create an independent board to govern the electric utility.

Mayor sent memo opposing changes for employees

Prior to the meeting, Mayor Gus Garcia sent the committee members a memo advising them that those changes, if approved by voters, would constitute a significant change to the council-manager form of government. “It is my opinion that most of the proposed amendments may only work on a commission form of government more adequately suited for a city of smaller scale and population,” Garcia wrote. He also told the committee that he wanted to “express for the record that I do not support any proposed amendments that would adversely affect the ‘council-manager’ form of government.”

Along with the recommendation on the appointment of the Police Monitor, the committee did agree to recommend that the Council place a measure on the ballot regarding the purchasing authority of the City Manager. The proposed language would raise the amount the City Manager could spend without a Council resolution to $100,000. It would also clarify language on city contract procedures to read that the manager’s administrative purchasing authority applied to each year of a multi-year contract instead of the contract in total. That would hypothetically allow the City Manager to sign off on a three-year, $300,000 contract if it only totaled $100,000 per year. Several other clarification items suggested by the City Clerk’s office were withdrawn from consideration.

Campaign finance draws split vote

While most of the decisions regarding which proposals to recommend for a vote by the public passed unanimously, a recommendation on a public election to delete the current campaign-finance provision of the charter resulted in a split vote. The vote was 3-2 to request that the Council place a measure on the May 4th ballot to remove Article 3, Section 8 of the City Charter. That provision was added in November of 1997 as part of the “Austinites for a Little Less Corruption” campaign. But the committee heard earlier this month from a representative of the Ethics Review Commission that the charter language was difficult to interpret and enforce and ran counter to existing city ordinances. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 25, 2002. ) Committee Member Stephen Yelenosky said he would not be able to recommend a vote to the Council without extensive study, which couldn’t be done during the committee’s time frame. Although he respected the recommendation of the Chair of the Ethics Review Commission, Yelenosky said “We had no independent basis for judging whether this ought to be removed or not.” Miles disagreed, saying he felt comfortable judging the issue. “Everybody here would be negligent in saying they didn’t know something about what’s going on with this thing and some of the things people don’t like about it,” he said. “I’m almost inclined to vote on it . . . nothing might be better than this.”

There is an update to the 1997 measure, dubbed the “Clean Campaigns” amendment, that will likely be on the May ballot after thousands of signatures were gathered by supporters. Assistant City Attorney John Steiner told committee members that in the event voters did decide to eliminate the current provisions and the new charter amendment did not pass, there would still be campaign finance rules. “We would fall back on state law and the city’s own campaign finance ordinance,” Steiner said. “State law has a regime of requiring all candidates for public office to periodically report all money . . . state law does not limit the amount of money that can be contributed or the amount that can be spent.”

Committee Member Martha Cotera was one of the strongest advocates for sending a recommendation to the Council. “I know that this is something that some of the Council feel uncomfortable about,” Cotera said, pointing out that it is politically difficult for current Council members to discuss campaign-finance reform. “And yet, it has created a lot of problems.”

The Council will have the final determination over whether any of the committee’s recommendations for a vote are actually placed on the ballot. The Council will hold a final public hearing tomorrow on single-member districts before taking a vote on that proposal. The Charter Revision Committee has one final meeting scheduled next Tuesday to go over the language in its final report to the Council.

Committee will study plan to refurbish square

The Design Commission will draft a letter of concern over the initial designs for downtown’s Republic Square, citing issues with several aspects of the park plan, including historical interpretation.

The city originally had four public squares, including Brush, Wooldridge and the site where the First Baptist Church now sits. Republic Square, originally built when Austin was the capital of the Republic, is now slated for redevelopment. The Texas Commission on the Arts asked Texas sculptor Jesus Moroles—who also created the Houston police officer memorial—to create an art piece for the park. He designed a water wall and staging area. The sculpture will be donated to the city as part of the renovation. The Downtown Austin Alliance and the Austin Parks Foundation will also participate in the renovation.

The Design Commission agreed this week to draft a letter articulating design issues with the park plans. Those plans have made the rounds of a number of commissions in the last four months. Commissioner Joan Hyde, point person on the letter, stressed that the letter was simply a starting point for discussion rather than a statement of serious issues with the park design.

“This is an early briefing,” said Hyde, a local landscape architect. “What we often do after a hearing is a detailed evaluation. In this case, we’re just offering some general thoughts for them to consider at this early stage. It’s too early for us to do an evaluation.”

Hyde broadly outlined their concerns because commissioners have yet to agree on the language in the letter, which will be sent to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department on Monday.

• A historical approach to the park should be examined more thoroughly. This square is a historical site, and planners should study more carefully how that history would be incorporated into the plan.

• A number of the mature oaks—up to eight trees, according to the site plan—would be removed along the edges of the park on San Antonio Street and Fourth Street.

• The design of the park ought to closely follow the purpose of the park. Instead of starting with a piece of art or an image, the planners should start with a purpose for the park and design around that purpose.

• The commission wants to see more information on how the park will mesh with its neighbors. The Museum of Art will be on one boundary of the park. The commission would like to see the two linked together in the design plan.

• The design does not appear to incorporate concepts from the proposed Great Streets plan.

Plans for the park were presented to the Design Commission in early January. Those presenting the plan have spoken of the park as a “cultural destination.” Hyde said the Design Commission’s intention is not “to tell them what to do, but to raise some issues we think they should consider as they move forward with the design.”

Tuesday Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

Griffith fundraiser tonight . . . Council Member Beverly Griffith is throwing a party from 5:30 to 8:30 tonight at the Iron Cactus, 6th and Trinity. In addition to fundraising, of course, Griffith will be reporting on the progress of her petition drive. Council Members Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman and Griffith are all seeking more than 20,000 signatures in order to overcome the City’s Charter amendment requiring two-term incumbents to bring in the signatures of 5 percent of the city’s registered voters . . . Intervening on her own behalf? . . Linda Curtis, who has been collecting signatures and organizing others to collect them on Griffith’s behalf, has sent out emails announcing her intention to intervene in the Austin Police Association PAC suit. The suit was filed to get a judge to overturn the charter provision, which may be in conflict with state law. Curtis, who is being paid for her time, says in emails to Council Members Danny Thomas, Raul Alvarez and Griffith, “I am contacting you on behalf of citizens who voted for term limits,” and “who support our home rule powers. We are planning to intervene on the city’s side of this issue, but we need more time.” She asked the trio if they could do anything to delay the hearing on the matter, which is set for 1pm Friday. Meanwhile, Austinites for IRV (instant runoff voting) will get their day in court today. The group has sued the Texas Secretary of State to overturn her decision that IRV is contrary to state law and is seeking an injunction . . . More repercussions of 9/11 . . . Austin-Bergstrom International Airport has got to find a way to make up for revenues lost as a result of fewer travelers coming through its gates. The Airport Advisory Commission recommended that the airport raise fees charged to off-airport parking businesses for using ABIA’s facilities. But those offsite owners have been telling the City Council this week that the huge raise being requested may drive them out of business. They point out that the airport invited them to do business in the area in order to make up for a projected lack of parking at the airport itself. Look for this item to be postponed from this week’s Council agenda . . . Single-member district opposition . . . It seemed like nobody would stand up and say they didn’t like the idea of single-member districts, even though the citizenry has said so five times so far. However, a group called Initiative for Texas, which is trying to get for Texans the initiative and referendum rights enjoyed in other states, has now put up a page opposing the charter amendment and urges readers to contact the City Council to vote against placing the item on the ballot. That’s at http://www.initiativefortexas.org/defendingvoterrights.htm

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

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