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Council could delay final decision until April 4

Friday, March 1, 2002 by

The Austin City Council delved into the details of the Charter Revision Committee’ s recommendations Thursday, but members are not significantly closer to reaching a decision on what to place on the May 4th ballot. The Council postponed any vote at least until next Thursday, but they also have the option of delaying action until March 21st or even April 4th. Assistant City Attorney John Steiner said that’s the final date for adding language to the May 4th ballot. Steiner and City Clerk Shirley Brown were hoping to get the propositions nailed down several weeks before that, however.

Following the work session discussion of the merits of single-member districts and the possibility of a mixed system, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman asked if the voters could be offered an “either/or” provision on the ballot. Steiner described that scenario as “logical, but not legal.” Instead, Steiner said two separate provisions would have to be placed on the ballot. Each would have to contain wording about which would prevail if voters should somehow approve both of them. That is, if both a single-member district proposal and a mixed-system proposal received more than 50 percent of the vote, there would have to be language within those proposals dictating which one would prevail.

“There’s no precedent about a charter-amendment election being presented to the voters in that way,” Steiner cautioned the Council. “There’s always an attendant risk in using an untested method, but it’s something I can suggest that might get you where you’re trying to go.”

With no apparent consensus on which system to put to the voters, discussion veered to other possible ballot items, including proposals to alter the city’s campaign finance rules and term limits provision. Council Member Daryl Slusher, who reminded the audience he was following the term-limits provision in his re-election bid, said he was in favor of changing the current system. “As Charles Miles of the Charter Revision Committee said, the best term limit is elections,” Slusher said. “The voters in Austin haven’t been hesitant to use that vehicle to turn Council members out of office and off this dais.”

Slusher provided a thumbnail analysis of Council members over the past 20 years and how long they had served. “Of the 30 Council members that have served, eight individual Council members were defeated at the polls,” Slusher said. “In addition to that, six only served one term and didn’t run again.” Council Member Will Wynn indicated he would welcome a change to the campaign-finance rules, but felt that the issue was linked to single-member districts. “Since 1997, there’s only been one Council member turned out by the voters,” Wynn said, blaming the $100 campaign contribution limit for making it more difficult for challengers to take on incumbents.

There will be a campaign finance measure on the ballot. The “Austin Fair Elections Act” was the product of citizen initiative, and would change the contribution limits and offer up public funding for candidates. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 12, 2001.) The Charter Revision Committee specifically recommended against placing other alternatives on that ballot to avoid confusion, but also offered a recommendation that the current campaign-finance rules be repealed. Those rules were added to the charter by citizen vote in 1997. If they were to be eliminated, campaign-finance would be handled by city ordinance, leaving Council members in the politically delicate position of writing the rules to cover their own campaigns. “I’m uncomfortable with repealing in its entirety the 1997 rules,” Wynn said. “But I think the Charter Revision Committee has already set the tone . . . There needs to be an alternative to the public financing initiative.” Wynn has circulated a memo to fellow Council members urging a $100 contribution limit if the city moves to a single-member district system, but raising that limit to $500 for positions chosen at-large.

Goodman requested additional information about the “Austin Fair Elections Act”. Staff briefed the Council on the proposal in October (see In Fact Daily, October 26th, 2001), but Goodman would also like a list of items in the current term-limits charter provision that are not addressed by the new proposal.

The Council also heard from Austin Police Chief Stan Knee, Assistant City Attorney Gaye Brewer and ACLU spokesperson Ann Del Llano on the proposal to have the city’s Police Monitor appointed by the City Council instead of the City Manager. Del Llano and Ricky Bird, vice chair of the Charter Revision Committee, argued in favor of Council appointment of the Police Monitor and opening police officers’ personnel files to the public in cases of alleged misconduct. Brewer said the civil service laws, which govern the City of Austin’s relationship with police officers, would prohibit the files from being open.

Knee also provided information about proposed changes to the city’s system of keeping personnel files for police officers. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 13, 2002.) Council members will take up the proposed charter amendments again next week.

Residents fear developer won't complete road

The Zoning and Platting Commission’ s repeal of the most recent revision to the Harris Branch Planned Unit Development plan this week was so unprecedented that it left many commissioners wondering what it was they had done by their vote.

Residents, led by retired attorney and former lobbyist Jack Gullahorn, asked for repeal of the most recent changes to the 2,100-acre master-planned development. The objection was not the addition of another 269 acres of homes, but the completion of Gregg/Howard Lane.

Planner Susan Villarreal, who has worked on the Harris Branch plan since 1996, said much of the current controversy revolves around the final alignment of Gregg/Howard Lane. Gullahorn says the disagreement is even simpler than that. He questions whether developer Jack McCullough intends to build Gregg/Howard Lane at all.

Gullahorn and his neighbors, who live on an unimproved portion of old Gregg Lane, fear that the completion of improvements to Harris Branch/Cameron Lane will dump unnecessary traffic into their neighborhood. In the most recent plan revision, McCullough provided a preliminary design of the middle section of Gregg/Howard Lane, but failed to indicate how or whether the eastern or western portions would be completed.

Civil Engineer Charles Steinman, who represented the Harris Branch developer at the appeal, said the developer had followed all the rules set out by the city and county. The proposed Gregg/Howard Lane, Steinman said, would be built as market forces dictated.

“We’re simply asking that the approvals that they have received stand,” Steinman said. “The appellant’s problem is not so much with Harris Branch as it is with the process of laying out major roadways.”

The question still unanswered at the Zoning and Platting Commission is whether the city can force McCullough to complete Gregg/Howard Lane, even if it’s a major arterial recognized by the city’s transportation plan. City staff, led by Don Perryman, wrote that the city has no mechanism to force developers to plat land. The use of eminent domain to build roads is often an expensive process. “Due to cases such as these, staff is carefully looking at large PUDs when a proposed roadway exists that may or may not be platted by the developer. In two recent cases, Avery Ranch and Wildhorse Ranch, the City has required dedication with zoning.”

Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry said the granting of the appeal meant the commission agreed with Gullahorn’s arguments. That left unanswered questions about just what McCullough could be forced to do. Gullahorn said the appeal rolled back both the 12th revision and the preliminary plan based on the revision, approved by commission last December.

Waiting any later to plat Howard/Gregg Lane—which is expected to stretch all the way out to State Highway 130—will deny the community “a huge relief valve” on current traffic, Gullahorn said. Gullahorn wants to see McCullough use a separate instrument to dedicate right-of-way required to complete the full extension of the road.

“He’s going to have to address the question of the road,” Gullahorn said. “He cannot leave it hanging in limbo in the worst possible way.”

The developer’s perspective is that when and where a road is built across his property is his business. But the commission has acknowledged that the problem is bigger than the developer since its resolution will address long-term transportation needs.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

City Council says no to alcohol ordinance . . . The city already has an ordinance that restricts sale of alcoholic beverages within 300 feet of public schools and churches. Exemptions may be granted to businesses that were in operation prior to the location of the school or church. The provision to add private schools to the list has been in the works for some time, and it was just bad timing, said Mike Heitz, director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, that it should come up at the same time as the relocation of the Cedar Door. The popular bar was forced out of its old location when the city reached a settlement with Lumbermen’s, and the City Council has expressed a desire to help the bar owner relocate. Susan Toomey Frost, owner of the Pecan Grove RV Park, wants the Cedar on her property. The only opposition at this week’s Zoning and Platting Commission hearing (see In Fact Daily Feb. 27, 2002 ) was from the Parkside Community School, next door to Toomey Frost’s property. So, naturally, Toomey Frost took a dim view of the ordinance amendment, and she told the Council it might be very difficult to save all her pecan trees and meet the letter of the ordinance. That was enough for Council Members Daryl Slusher and Will Wynn, who said the ordinance should be shelved indefinitely. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she had a lot of unanswered questions too. The Council voted 7-0 for indefinite postponement . . . Villas on Guadalupe postponed . . . Neighbors say they have a valid petition against this controversial high-density complex, but it was removed from yesterday’s City Council agenda for one week because of a posting error by city staff. Last time the case had a posting error, it had to go back to the Zoning and Platting Commission for reconsideration . . . Short work on zoning . . . With the postponement of the Villas and another multi-family case, the Council approved nine other zoning cases on a consent motion . . . Rally tomorrow . . . Members of the El Concilio political organization will be holding an early vote rally at 1pm Saturday at Parque Zaragosa next to the Recreation Center . From the park, those rallying will walk to the early voting location at the HEB at 7th and Pleasant Valley Road. One of the group’s members, Marcos De Leon, a former county commissioner, is running for the Democratic nomination for House of Representatives District 51 . . . Planning for kids’ summer activities . . . Our Kids Magazine is offering a venue to showcase different types of summer camps for children from 1 to 4pm Saturday at the Northwest Recreation Center, FM 2222 and MoPac. Sponsors say 44 camps will have representatives at the Camp Fair 2002, including both overnight and day camps and specialty camps, offering musical training, etc. Admission is free . . . Yates reschedules fundraiser . . . A forecast of cold rain has convinced Travis County Commissioner candidate Ira Yates to hold his barbeque fundraiser on March 9, next weekend, instead of this Saturday. Yates is running for the Republican nomination for the Precinct 3 post currently held by appointed Democratic Commissioner Margaret Moore . . . Money for parking garage site approved . . . After an executive session on the item and a few questions from Council members, the Council unanimously approved transfer of $14 million for the Convention Center Parking Garage. Of that amount, more than $7.6 million has been deposited to a court registry for the Whittington block. The money is in the court’s care because both the city and the property owner are still scheduled to go to a jury trial on the amount. The city will later reimburse itself by issuing bonds . . . The political action committee of Austin Neighborhoods Together is hosting its first “First Friday” meeting tonight at Threadgill’s, 301 W. Riverside. The meeting runs from 5pm to 6:30pm. The group plans to hold meetings each month to discuss neighborhood issues and meet elected officials and candidates. Call 422-7395 for more information . . . Joslin Elementary School student Jonathan Gustavo Aldama got the full treatment as the “Mayor For a Day” during Thursday’s Council meeting. Jonathan was waiting in the lobby for the music and proclamations portion of the meeting when a few of his friends volunteered to the nearest passer-by that he was the honorary mayor. That passer-by happened to be attorney Richard Suttle, who quickly responded with a request for the young man’s vote.

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

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