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Council puts 8-2-1 mixed

Friday, March 8, 2002 by

System on May 4 ballot

Charter Revision Committee had recommended 10 districts

Austin voters will get a chance this May to change the way City Council members are elected, but they won’t have the opportunity to approve a single-member district system. The Charter Revision Committee had suggested that the Council place a 10-1 system on the ballot, but the Council instead will send a mixed system to the voters, allowing them to express their opinion on an 8-2-1 system with two Council members and the Mayor elected at large.

Mayor Gus Garcia, a supporter of single-member districts, decided to back the mixed system advocated by Council Member Daryl Slusher when it became apparent that there wasn’t enough support on the Council for a single-member system to reach the May 4th ballot. “The idea behind single-member districts is to have the areas of the community at the table, because as we sit here right now, there is nobody here from Northwest Hills . . . all the way up to the edge of the city,” Garcia said “If we’re talking about having representation on this Council, this is the way to do it.”

The proposal to put the 8-2-1 system on the ballot passed by a vote of 6-1, with Council Member Beverly Griffith opposed. “Minority individuals I’ve been in contact with look at us and they see diversity,” Griffith said. “Their concern is that minorities would be worse off.” She also cited the difficulty in definitively setting the lines for the new districts before the election date. “Citizens are telling me that they have looked at this several times, and that they never have known where they were going to be in terms of districts and where everybody else was going to be,” Griffith said, “and they really want that settled. They say that’s a big reason why the system hasn’t changed.”

City Demographer Ryan Robinson has prepared a “prototype” map for eight single-member districts. The plan includes one African-American plurality district, two Hispanic districts, and another district with a significant minority population. That would still leave the possibility of decreasing minority representation on the Council, which currently has two Hispanic members and one African-American.

Assistant City Attorney John Steiner says that preventing a decrease in minority representation, dubbed “retrogression,” would be a key factor in winning approval for any district map from the U.S. Justice Department. “Racial diversity on the Council wouldn’t be our main motive for going to a different system, because . . . as you’ve said . . . we’ve got a good record under the current system. Hopefully, we would be able to achieve that with any other system that we choose to go to.”

The prototype district map from the city staff will likely be supplemented with several other options over the next few weeks, but those maps will not be on the ballot May 4th. The Council could choose to adopt an ordinance setting the district boundaries before the election and make it conditional on voters approving the charter amendment. The prototype map, along with several other proposals, should be ready for public scrutiny in early April. Council members requested large, detailed maps including overlays showing neighborhood planning boundaries. Those maps could also be placed on the city’s web site. If, for some reason, the Council chooses not to adopt the district boundaries prior to the May 4th election, the district lines would have to be finished no later than August to allow time for Justice Department scrutiny. Justice Department officials are not allowed to draw lines for the city, but they do have final authority over whether the lines are considered acceptable or unacceptable.

If voters approve the 8-2-1 plan, there are several options for the transition to the new system. The Council would have to sort them out before the May 2003 election. During that process, Council members could decide if future Council elections would be staggered, or if all Council seats should be placed up for election simultaneously. All those decisions are contingent upon passage of the new system by the voters—who have turned down propositions to abandon the at-large system on five previous occasions.

Clean Campaigns amendment would supercede one

Note: All the items were approved as directions to staff to prepare ballot language, not approval of an ordinance, according to City Clerk Shirley Brown. Assistant City Attorney John Steiner is taking a well-deserved vacation and could not be reached for further clarification.

The City Council voted 4-3 to put a resolution on the May 4 ballot to simply repeal the current campaign finance regulations in the City Charter. If the Charter Amendment proposed by the Clean Campaigns organization—proposing public financing of elections and a $200 limit on campaign contributions—failed to pass, but the repeal was approved by voters, City Council candidates would then be bound by regulations that were in place prior to the enactment of the current rules, which limit contributions to $100 per person.

Should the Clean Campaigns amendment pass, any vote on the repeal of the old amendment would be irrelevant, since the citizen-proposed amendment contains a provision repealing the current language. The Council did not adjourn until almost 11:30pm last night, after a several-hour discussion of possible charter proposals.

The vote came on a motion to reconsider by Council Member Will Wynn, who initially voted against the proposal. He had proposed putting an item on the ballot to simply replace the $100 limit with a $500 limit for candidates running at large, but leaving the $100 limit for single-member district candidates. However, the only Council support he had for that amendment came from Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman.

The Council also voted 4-3 to place the issue of repealing term limits on the ballot. Goodman made the motion and Council Member Beverly Griffith seconded. Council Member Daryl Slusher and Mayor Gus Garcia voted with them. Since Goodman, Griffith and Slusher have all been participants in the signature-gathering process, they have learned first-hand what an expensive and time-consuming process it can be. Griffith is the only one of the three to have more than the 18,263 signatures needed to file for a third term.

Voters will have the opportunity to decide whether an electric utility consumer advocate should be appointed by the City Council, but the Council rejected a proposal to create a separate utility board. That idea did not have enough support to even generate a motion. However, the question of whether the Council should appoint Austin Energy’s General Manager became quite a tug of war—with Council Member Raul Alvarez in the middle. Goodman made the motion and Council Member Danny Thomas seconded it. Goodman talked about the need for a consumer-oriented person who would be able to meld the different roles required of the general manager. Thomas said he had found getting information out of the utility to be difficult. “It’s an area we need to look at,” he said, describing information gathering as “pulling teeth.”

Wynn and Garcia were staunchly opposed, as was Slusher. Griffith said nothing during the discussion, but apparently would have voted for it. Alvarez said what he really wanted was a consumer advocate, at which time Goodman changed her motion to remove the general manager slot from consideration and put the advocate in its place. The vote on that matter was 4-3 also, with the Mayor, Wynn and Slusher voting no.

The Council approved a resign-to-run provision for Municipal Court judges who have more than one year left in their terms. There are currently three Municipal Court judges running for higher office: Evelyn McKee and Elisabeth Earle—who are running against each other—and John Vasquez.

The Council instructed staff to come back with new language to help them deal with the question of the manager’s authority to approve contracts without coming to the Council. Garcia set the next meeting—March 20, normally a work session—as a regular voting session. There will be another meeting on March 21. That way, all the items approved on a vote of 4-3 can be finally approved on the 21st, giving the City Clerk and attorneys more time to prepare for the May 4 election. There will be a meeting next week.

ACLU, police seem frozen in opposition again

The City Council heard briefly yesterday from supporters and opponents of amending the City Charter to allow the Council to appoint the police monitor and civilian oversight board. They also heard about the issue of amending the charter to provide that police officers’ personnel files no longer be confidential. But none of the Council Members seemed anxious to vote and consideration of the matter was postponed for another two weeks. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she was still working on language she would like both sides to consider, since she was not satisfied with changes suggested by the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, Ann del Llano.

Police watchdog Scott Henson complained that the plans brought forth by the Police Oversight Focus Group (POFG) (See In Fact Daily, May 18, 2000, June 8, 2000, June 9, 2000 ) were thrown out during negotiations of the current police contract. Henson, co-founder of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability with del Llano, said, “We were the victims of bait and switch. We have brought to you just a couple of items that were stricken.” from the POFG report.

Henson said, “We’re not saying violate the meet and confer process. Wait until that contract expires . . . It’s not the case as the Statesman said that this would kill the current system. They would not overlap and would not be in place at same time.”

Del Llano, who was chair of the POFG, reminded the City Council that the legal staff had said there is “no legal impediment to independent monitor and board. I wanted to make sure you are aware that the public strongly supports civilian oversight.” She said the ACLU had received copies of over 100 emails in the last month to the City Council supporting the independent monitor.

Charlie Wilkinson, representing CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas) argued against the ballot item. “Nobody said we wouldn’t have police oversight,” without this provision. “We don’t want a provision that says you can open a contract without consulting both parties . . . to take it out of their hands would be wrong and it violates the contract. That’s the opinion of the organization that represents the officers . . . I think you should also look at the way this is being pushed forward. Let’s say officers wanted to try to remove this oversight process . . . you would tell them to go to the voters (and bring it forward in a petition) and that’s what you should tell the ACLU.”

Following the discussion, Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association, said putting the item on the ballot would “destroy the meet and confer process. We’re a labor union. We feel like we negotiate over conditions of work, etc.” He agreed that the ballot item, if phrased so that it could not take effect until the current contract ends, would not legally violate the contract. However, he said, if the City Council puts the item on the ballot, it would violate the spirit of the contract—and violate the trust between the parties.

Stresses new ideas, energy, commitment to youthful crowd

City Council candidate Brewster McCracken told a youthful and enthusiastic group of supporters that he has the vision, energy and commitment to lead the city into the future. Introducing McCracken, 36, was Celia Israel, former chair of the Austin Women’s Political Caucus and a veteran of Democratic politics. A legislative lobbyist, Israel is a member of the newly-appointed police Citizen Review Panel . She told the crowd of about 125 predominantly thirty-something professionals, “The important thing to me is he’s got the energy.”

McCracken, an attorney with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said he wants to address “our traffic crisis,” the recent increase in Austin’s crime rate, response time for emergency vehicles and the high cost of living in Austin. Specifically, McCracken told In Fact Daily the city should adopt a “rush hour initiative,” including computer flow monitors on entrance ramps to major arteries. He said such a system could lessen congestion by 10 to 20 percent. In addition, the candidate suggested more pre-positioning of tow trucks to clear up wrecks and stalled vehicles more quickly and expanding use of HOV and “hot lanes.” Hot lanes allow would drivers to pay a fee or to enter a faster lane if the vehicle is carrying more than one person or using alternative fuel, he explained.

In addition, he said, “We do not have a plan,” such as Fort Worth has, for affordable downtown housing. He also criticized the current Council for not having “a plan on how to revive our economy . . . We can do it. We’ve done it before.” He pointed to the creation of MCC and Sematech 20 years ago as important turning points for the city.

Following his press conference, McCracken told In Fact Daily that he believes the incumbents have not focused on bringing new industry into the city. “Austin was slammed by this recession because of a focus on high-tech jobs,” and a failure to look for other types of industry, he said. Asked what types of companies he would like to bring into the area, McCracken said, “I think what we have to find is what types of employers that are out that could provide those opportunities . . . generally those are service industry occupations as opposed to manufacturing. At the same time, what we need to do is have an open mind in terms of what other cities have done.” He cited Nashville, Indianapolis and Portland, Oregon as good role models. He said the city needs “more traditional employers . . . that fit with Austin’s pattern of knowledge-based and environmentally clean” industries. He pointed to Barnes and Noble distribution centers as one example of the type of business he would like to attract. “We need jobs for folks who are entry-level in the economic system,” he concluded.

McCracken also reiterated that he would not run against Council Members Jackie Goodman or Daryl Slusher, but refused to say he plans to run against Council Member Beverly Griffith. “I’m keeping my power dry,” he said. He said he is hopeful the race will not pit him against Betty Dunkerley, the former Assistant City Manager who tossed her hat in the ring a few weeks ago.

McCracken said he hopes Austin will increase its use of clean energy sources. “The Netherlands, for instance—about 40 percent of its power grid comes from wind power. People tell me it is feasible to add 100-125 MW of renewable energy per year. That is the kind of thing we could promote in the city that is in keeping with our values and in keeping with the kind of philosophy the city has developed with the way it wants to go.”

While the utilities are building 1,000 MW of wind power in West Texas, with more possible, wind is what is known as an “intermittent generator.” Since the wind does not blow constantly, experts say the most any user can expect to draw is 25-30 percent of the capacity. For instance on a hot summer day, of the 100MW Austin has purchased, the city might only get about 10MW from that source. In addition, there are constraints on transmission that might prevent a West Texas source from providing all its capacity, at least until more lines are built.

McCracken is married to Mindy Montford McCracken, a prosecutor in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and the daughter of former State Sen. John Montford.

Tuesday

, Wednesday,

Friday

One step forward for Villas on Guadalupe . . . The City Council approved an ordinance to change zoning for the Villas on Guadalupe on second reading—but not on the all-important third reading—on its consent agenda yesterday. Rachel Rawlins, attorney for the North University Neighborhood Association, which has gathered signatures from 29 percent of the project’s neighbors, said her clients would certainly prefer to have the case ended, but that was not to be. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she wanted more information from the staff comparing the different densities under MF-4, MF-5 and MF-6 to build about 150 apartment units and a parking garage. The developer has requested the densest category, multi-family 6 at 27th and Guadalupe. The Zoning and Platting Commission recommended MF-4 zoning, as opposed to the staff’s recommendation of MF-6. The matter was rescheduled for March 21 . . . Holiday for In Fact Daily . . . We will publish on Monday, but will not be available for the remainder of the week. . . Yates barbeque Saturday . . . Republican County Commissioner candidate Ira Yates is holding a boots and bikes fundraiser at his ranch, 5711 SH 45, from 4 to 7pm Saturday. Today is the final day for absentee voting in the Primary Election, which is Tuesday.

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

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