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Council finally adopts district,

Friday, March 22, 2002 by

Transition plan for May 4 ballot

Plan allows for 8 districts to be elected next year, plus Mayor

The Council adopted a transition plan for the move from the current at-large system to the mixed 8-2-1 system, should voters approve it. The Council made the decision fairly early in the evening, but had to revisit the issue later after some confusion over the exact motion that had been made. After a break to review the tape of the meeting, Council members and the city attorney determined that the Council’s vote did, in fact, do what they intended: place the 8-2-1 proposal on the May 4th ballot with a provision to continue the practice of staggering Council terms.

Early in the evening, Council Member Will Wynn pushed for a transition plan he had drafter earlier in the week to phase in the new system by the year 2005. That plan would have called for all Council seats and the Mayor to be up for election every three years. Wynn argued that it would reduce the number of elections and save the city money. Opponents of the plan, led by Council Member Raul Alvarez, were concerned about the potential for a lack of continuity on the Council if all members were elected simultaneously. Mayor Gus Garcia referred to that effect as the “fruit basket turnover,” although he told Council members he did not personally coin the term.

The transition plan adopted by the Council on a 4-3 vote will lead to the full implementation of the mixed system by the year 2005. Under that plan, the three Council members elected at-large in May of this year would retain their seats for the full duration of their terms. One of those places would be eliminated in 2005, leaving the remaining two seats up for re-election. The Mayor and all eight single-member district Council seats would be up for election in May of 2003. Four of those single-member district seats would initially be for two-year terms, but would be changed to three-year terms from 2005. The other four single-member district seats, along with the Mayor, would be up for election in 2006, thus guaranteeing that the Council would never lack at least a few experienced members.

That plan, like most of the other plans proposed, would temporarily increase the size of the Council to 12 members. That situation would take place in 2003, when the 8-2-1 system would actually be an 8-3-1 system. The option to preserve the staggering of Council elections was supported by Council Members Danny Thomas, Beverly Griffith, Jackie Goodman and Alvarez, while Council Members Daryl Slusher, Will Wynn and Mayor Garcia preferred having all Council seats chosen at the same time.

Some of the confusion stemmed from the path taken to reach the vote. The initial motion was in support of the measure supported by Wynn, but a substitute motion was offered in favor of keeping staggered elections. Because of the wording on the agenda, there were some questions about whether the motion was for adoption of the mixed system and the transition plan or simply the transition plan itself, which also included guidelines for future redistricting. Council members discussed voting a second time, but decided it was not necessary. “The good thing about “Robert’s Rules of Order” is that very few people understand them,” Garcia said, “so I don’t think anybody’s going to take us to court to challenge what we did tonight.” Assistant City Attorney John Steiner set up a brief moment of levity when he attempted to clarify the result of the Council’s actions. “The important thing here is the will of the Council,” Steiner said, drawing an enthusiastic response from the dais. “I like that, Mr. Steiner!” the Mayor said. We want to hear from you. What do you think about the ballot propositions?

Council decides to move ahead after briefly second-guessing process

Members of the City Council flirted briefly Thursday with the idea of going ahead with a vote on single-member districts this May despite having no maps outlining what they want those districts to be. Instead, they decided to pursue the arduous process of taking public input and drawing the maps by April 11th, the date of the last Council meeting before the start of Early Voting.

“I’m starting to get concerned that this is too quick to do this,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher, who was worried about the possibility the Council could reach a stalemate over which map to adopt. “We may get to that point . . . and we might not agree on a map at that time, and I think that would be a serious setback.”

Council Member Will Wynn initially appeared to agree with Slusher’s concerns. “We’re looking at trying to quickly do it now—in three weeks or less,” he said. But he also noted that the U.S. Justice Department would need any proposed district lines by the end of August in order to grant pre-clearance for the 2003 elections. That would give the Council a few months, instead of a few weeks, to come up with the lines. “The alternative isn’t a whole lot better. The question is: is the uncertainty of not seeing maps at election time worth the advantage of having two to three times more time to get the maps drawn? I still would consider two to three months a pretty quick turn around.”

The Council eventually decided to forge ahead with the process of adopting provisionary maps before the start of early voting. “If we’re going to do that, then we don’t have a choice to not approve a map,” Slusher said. “We’re going to have to vote on one April 11th.”

The prototype maps drafted by the office of City Demographer Ryan Robinson are already coming under scrutiny. Slusher announced he would be paying special attention to the potential breakup of South Austin into three different districts, one of which stretches north of the river. “One of my concerns would be what this does to the central-south neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s sort of a cohesive area, and to have it split into three districts troubles me somewhat . . . I think we’ll hear that as we go out to hear from the public, too.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman agreed with him. “A few people from north of the river have also wondered about the split, especially if we’re looking for geographical representation and some kind of unity for issues that unite an area,” she said. “Traditionally, the issues and conditions that have defined an area (South Austin) will be met by neither the west nor the east sectors that they would now be a part of . . . and they will be a very minority voice within the area.”

Robinson pointed out that the boundary lines were simply a starting point and could always be adjusted by the Council after citizen input. However, he noted that anyone attempting to draw district lines would need to follow U.S. Department of Justice guidelines on race and population. “We’re trying to balance the two issues of creating geographically representative, compact, contiguous districts with the philosophy of maximizing voting strength of minorities,” he said.

The City Council struggled with how to describe the “Clean Campaigns” ordinance to voters yesterday, angering the campaign’s chief spokesperson, who stormed out of Council chambers long before the final language was decided. The campaign, of course, fueled by enthusiastic volunteers, is the reason for this May’s Charter amendment election. Without the impetus of that campaign, it seems unlikely that voters would be considering any of the proposals the Council has spent this week discussing.

The ballot language finally approved reads: “Shall the City Charter be amended to create a public funding system for campaigns of City Council candidates through city bloc grants and matching funds, which may include tax revenues; limit campaign contributions to $200 per donor; and to provide independent sovereign powers to the City Ethics Review Commission, including subpoena power.”

He said bringing out the new sovereign powers of the Ethics Review Commission was inappropriate, when that had not been a problem in the other cities that had adopted the proposal. To read the language of the Charter proposal, see http://www.cleancampaigns.org/fair_election_act.html

As he left the building, Lewis said, “I show up today, and one minute before I was offered a chance to speak they showed me the language . . . and I didn't think that’s the way you deal with somebody when you want to work something out.” However, it seems likely that he could have offered more input if he had not decided to leave in the midst of the discussion. We want to hear from you. What do you think about the ballot propositions?

Manager's authority would expand on multi-year contracts

On third reading last night, the City Council voted 4-3 once again to place the appointment of a consumer advocate on the Charter ballot. However, Council Member Raul Alvarez said he wanted to change the language to provide for appointment of an electric utility consumer analyst. “I think it’s essential given the new state of the electric utility industry (deregulation) . . . I am not at odds with the management of the electric utility, but . . . we need to institute procedures to make sure the public interest is going to be safeguarded.”

Mayor Gus Garcia said, “I don’t think a consumer analyst can figure out anything . . . It is a complex operation and the best thing we can do is work with the City Manager to figure out how to get (better reporting) . . . whether this passes or not, we need to find a way to change the manner in which the Council gets information on these critical issues.”

Council Member Will Wynn protested once more, noting that a consumer advocate could, for example, recommend against the closure of the Holly Power Plant and against the important transfer of funds from the utility to the general fund. His protests did not have any impact on Council Members Alvarez, Griffith, Goodman or Thomas, all of whom voted for the amendment.

The authority of the City Manager to enter contracts administratively would not be significantly changed under the amendment language approved unanimously last night. Currently, the manager may enter contracts for up to $43,000 without City Council approval. If the amendment is approved by voters, the manager would be able to enter into the same contracts, but the amount would be on an annual basis, rather than over the life of the contract. So, a three-year contract, for example, could be for $129,000, at $43,000 per year. The Council also added a prohibition on the manager entering into contracts for personal or professional services that “may exceed the manager’s authority.” That has been a sore point for Garcia. (See In Fact Daily March 20, 2002. )

City Finance Director John Stephens had asked that the city manager’s administrative spending authority be increased from $43,000 to $100,000. The matter was not even discussed, with Alvarez immediately making a motion to leave the amount as it is. However, Assistant City Attorney John Steiner said it would be necessary to put the item on the ballot in order to clarify the multi-year contract provision.

All quiet on the City Hall front . . . Since all the action moved from the City Clerk’s office to the LCRA building for Thursday’s meeting, we called City Hall to see how the deputy clerks were faring. Just tired, no problems, reported Lenda Ferrell, who covers the front desk. The only visitor seeking candidate information yesterday was Place 1 candidate Jennifer Gale. Ferrell said Gale just wanted to look at the applications of her opponents, a reasonable request easily honored. City Clerk Shirley Brown was busy at the Council meeting but said she would be responding in writing on Friday to requests from various candidates, including Linda Curtis and Vincent Aldridge, for copies of competitors’ petitions . . . Appointments . . . Yesterday the City Council appointed Frank Fernandez, as recommended by Council Member Raul Alvarez, to the Electric Utility Commission . Emily Schleier was appointed by consensus to the Sixth Street Recycles Task Force . . . Villas on Guadalupe postponed . . . As predicted, the City Council granted the North University Neighborhood Association’s request to postpone consideration of the zoning change for property in the 2700 block of Guadalupe and adjoining Hemphill Park. The developer arranged a purchase of land that caused the neighborhood’s petition to be invalidated. Therefore, only four votes are required to approve the change when it comes back on third reading. The case was rescheduled for April 4 . . . HB 1445 agreement with Travis County approved . . . When an application for a subdivision in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction is filed, developers will soon be able to work through a process that combines Travis County and City of Austin regulations. Former City Attorney Andy Martin did the legal work as his final duty for the city before taking off for his new job in San Antonio . Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “This is an example of regional cooperation . . . which is becoming more frequent and less an unusual thing.” The agreement was approved unanimously, with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman off the dais. Travis County will consider a similar item next week. (See In Fact Daily, March 20, 2002.) . . . Peaceful zoning day . . . The Council approved on consent all five items presented by Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Director Alice Glasco on first reading. Four of the cases were for the Parmer Center at 13001-13200 N. I-35 and on Center Ridge Drive. The fifth case was for 9319 Anderson Mill Road, from I-RR to GR-CO. Applicant Southwestern Bell had entered into an agreement with surrounding residents to limit future uses of the property. No one objected to any of the rezonings . . . Garza to be feted . . . Out-going City Manager Jesus Garza is being honored tonight by the Austin Asian-American Chamber of Commerce. They’re holding a Retirement Dinner Banquet for him this evening at the Austin Club, 110 E. 9th Street.

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

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