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Council rejects plan to put police

Wednesday, March 20, 2002 by

Monitor question on Charter ballot

Garcia, Slusher, Wynn and Thomas vote no

Austin residents won’t have the opportunity this May to vote on changes to the recently implemented system for civilian oversight of the city’s police department. The City Council yesterday rejected two proposals from the Charter Revision Committee to put propositions relating to the police department on the ballot. One would have allowed the Council to appoint the Police Monitor, while the other would have changed the department’s system for keeping personnel files.

With Council Member Danny Thomas joining the opposition, the proposal regarding appointment of the Police Monitor failed on a 3-4 vote. Council Members Beverly Griffith, Raul Alvarez and Jackie Goodman wanted to send the matter to the voters. Thomas, a 21-year veteran of the police force, seemed torn by the issue. Throughout the discussion, he appeared to be leaning toward putting the proposal on the ballot, but finally said the current system, set up early this year, should first be given a chance to work. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 16, 2002 .)

The proposal to eliminate the confidentiality of police personnel files was still too hot to handle. No one moved to put it on the ballot, effectively killing it.

Both options were endorsed by civil libertarians and opposed by police union officials. Charley Wilkison, with the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT), told Council members that allowing voters to request changes to the meet-and-confer agreement between the city and the Austin Police Association (APA) would, in effect, violate that deal. “We did not get everything that we wanted, and the city did not get everything that it wanted,” Wilkison said of the original meet-and-confer talks. “But the one thing the city got because of your leadership was police oversight. You would not have had that had we not negotiated in good faith. What we’re looking at today is something that totally invalidates that contract.”

Several Council members attempted to address the concern that the contract would somehow be broken if citizens requested a change on May 4th. Mayor Gus Garcia, who eventually voted against putting the proposal on the ballot, sought to have “permissive” language in the proposed charter amendment. Instead of the traditional language stating that the Council “shall appoint” a Police Monitor, Garcia urged other Council members to consider whether the phrase “may appoint” would give the city more flexibility. ACLU representative Scott Henson said there was language available which would be legally acceptable. “It doesn’t invalidate the contract,” Henson said. “We’re asking you to change it in the future.” Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman stressed that point as she attempted to persuade fellow Council members to place the issue before the voters. “I am very much a supporter of organized labor,” Goodman said. “I’m not going to do anything that’s going to jeopardize one of the few organized-labor mechanisms that Texas has ever let people have.” Opponents of the proposed charter amendment reminded Council members that other police departments around the state were closely monitoring Austin’s treatment of the meet-and-confer process. “If you use the power to send something to the voters that overturns the agreement, you will forever destroy the right of meet-and-confer in this state,” said Wilkison.

Alvarez made a motion to put the charter amendment on the ballot, with Council Member Griffith offering a second. But the other Council members were reluctant to tamper with the current system. “I think that fundamentally what we need to do is see how the oversight system we’ve put in place is going to work,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher. “It was a compromise . . . that’s the way legislation is done, that’s the way change occurs and I think we need to give it a chance.”

The vote against putting the measure on the ballot won praise from police union representatives. “I think the City Council demonstrated throughout the state that they keep their word,” said Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield. ACLU volunteer Ann Del Llano, who worked for the creation of the Police Monitor position, was disappointed at the 3-4 vote. “It’s sad to see our elected representatives fall down on their duty to guard the public interest,” she said.

Although the public won’t be voting to decide who gets to appoint the Police Monitor and the Citizen Review Panel, the issue isn’t necessarily dead. “I personally supported Council selection of the Police Monitor,” said APA general counsel Tom Stribling. He also predicted that the union would not automatically oppose that option if it were brought up during the next meet-and-confer process. “As a citizen of the City of Austin, I support the fact that the Council be involved in the selection process.”

If supporters are determined to put the issue before voters, one option remains in the form of a charter amendment in 2004. They could follow in the footsteps of backers of the “Clean Campaigns” measure—that will be on the ballot in May—and collect thousands of signatures. “They have the right to start a petition and come through the front door of City Hall and demand an election be set,” said CLEAT’s Wilkison. “That’s not been done.” Although Del Llano didn’t rule that option out, she was not optimistic about the possibility. “We’ve been through all the process that there is to go through,” she said. “This issue has been ‘Austinized’ past recognition.”

Utility consumer advocate advances on 4-3 vote

A Charter proposal to allow the City Council to appoint “a city attorney” to advise its members was voted down yesterday as it left too many unanswered questions. The City Attorney’s Office had thought that the proposal’s wording meant the Council should appoint the City Attorney, an idea that surfaced at the Charter Revision Committee—not at all what Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Beverly Griffith had intended. That committee rejected the proposal. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 6, 2002.)

Goodman said she wanted an attorney who would be able to draft items, such as those being discussed by the City Council this week. That lawyer would look at things from the Council’s point of view, she said, whereas the lawyers in the City Attorney’s Office are obligated to see every question from a “corporate” kind of viewpoint.

City Attorney Sedora Jefferson was concerned about who could advise the City Council in executive session. She said appointment of an attorney just to work for the City Council would open a Pandora’s box.

Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “I would be willing to consider whether the city attorney should be under the City Council or the manager, but I think we need to have a lengthy discussion . . . also this hasn’t had the kind of thorough review we need to put this in the City Charter.”

The motion failed 3-3 with Council Member Will Wynn off the dais. When he returned, Mayor Gus Garcia gave him the opportunity to vote, and he joined the Mayor, Slusher and Alvarez in opposing the motion. Council Member Danny Thomas joined Griffith and Goodman.

The Council had been meeting for more than the three hours they had allotted for yesterday’s session when the issue of the city manager’s administrative spending authority came up. But wording proposed by Finance Director John Stephens didn’t suit the Mayor and the quorum was dwindling. So that item was postponed until today. Assistant City Attorney John Steiner was given his mission for the evening hours: come up with the right wording on this and the other proposals.

Stephens told the Council he was most anxious to have an item on the ballot that would give the city manager authority to enter into multi-year contracts. The amount is set in the City Charter, but goes up with the Consumer Price Index. At this time, the city manager must ask the City Council for authority to enter into any contract over $43,000.

While Stephens thinks this should mean $43,000 per year of the contract, he said, “There has been a recent interpretation . . . that the 43,000 applies to the life of the contract,” which would mean the city could not purchase more than $14,333 per year on a three-year contract. “The most important thing for us is that this Charter language be clarified.”

He said the multi-year contracts assure a continuous supply of products, as well as guarantee a consistent product and service quality for the city. Such contracts also reassure vendors and help them with cash flow issues, he said.

In addition, Stephens asked that the city manager’s administrative spending authority be increased from $43,000 to $100,000. “It could be somewhere in between, but the recommendation from the city charter committee was that it be $100,000. Over a 3-year period, the city manager would be able to enter into a contract for $100,000 a year for a total of $300,000.”

The Mayor was a lot more interested in problems brought about by amending contracts that start small and end up very large.

Garcia said, “When the city manager goes to hire an engineering firm or an architectural firm or whatever and he says, ‘I want to scope out this project, so I’m going to give this firm a contract for $30,000 for scoping.’ What happens then is the next time that there is any action it has to come to Council because it goes beyond the threshold (of $43,000), and usually it’s much larger, but it comes in as an amendment. We’re amending a contract that was entered into by the city manager under his or her authority.” Garcia says large contracts should go through the bid process—not come through in the guise of an amendment to a smaller item. Noting that he was losing his quorum, Garcia instructed Steiner and Deputy City Manager Toby Futrell to work on that language for today also.

The question of whether the City Council should appoint a consumer advocate for the electric utility was approved on a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Gus Garcia and Council Members Will Wynn and Daryl Slusher voting no. The arguments were much the same as two weeks ago, with Wynn putting up the biggest fight. Alvarez wants the duties of the advocate laid out in the Charter and Steiner is supposed to work on that language too.

Council Members were unable to resolve the question of whether to present a map of single-member districts to voters yesterday. After voting 6-1 to proceed with the concept of an 8-2-1 system, they moved on to other issues. Council Member Beverly Griffith voted against the proposal, as she did two weeks ago.

Single process mandated by HB 1445

The City of Austin and Travis County continue to consolidate the review of subdivision plats in an effort to create a “one-stop shop” that will streamline services and reduce costs.

The new procedures, which are set for approval at the City Council this week and County Commissioners next week, will provide for review of plats under a common development standard, regardless of whether the plat is in the city or its extra-territorial jurisdiction. House Bill 1445, approved during the last legislative session, requires jurisdictions to designate either city or county or both for the review and approval of subdivision plats.

The compromise between Austin and Travis County has met with the general approval of the development community. At yesterday’s Commissioners Court meeting, Harry Savio of the Texas Capital Area Builders Association (TxCABA ) said the county and city had done a yeoman’s job of streamlining procedures, although some issues remained.

Changes are expected to go into effect on April 1. How construction plans would be handled and how on-site inspections would take place remain concerns. Other issues outlined in a letter to Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon included a need for clarification of fiscal posting of projects and timelines on the review of projects that developers consider to be too short to be realistic.

TxCABA also objects to double fees being charged on projects. “While the statute may allow it, the charging by both entities for a project that is supposed to be benefiting from a single one-stop shop is contrary to the bill’s objectives,” TxCABA President Larry Morgan wrote in a March 7 letter to the City Council. “Similarly, while it is understandable that both the City and County want to keep full authority over projects, this should be used as an opportunity to streamline and simplify the development process.”

Approval of the new ordinance was delayed one more week while Joe Gieselman, executive director of the Transportation and Natural Resources Department, negotiates with the remaining cities in the county. A total of 24 cities are located in Travis County..

Under the agreement being hammered out between Austin and Travis County, one permit application will be produced that incorporates both city and county requirements for plats in the extra-territorial jurisdiction. Applicants would file applications, pay fees and receive a response for approval or denial with the city at the city’s Permit Office at One Texas Center.

Within 10 days of filing the plat, county and city staff will meet to check applications for completeness and send a written response. The single office would provide joint review comments to the application within 28 days of filing the application. All commissions on the approval of plats in the city would continue to apply.

County Commissioner Margaret Gomez praised both the one-stop shop concept and the ability of city and county to work together on the project. The item will be posted for action on March 26.

You can’t please some of the people ever . . . Particularly early morning talk show hosts. City Clerk Shirley Brown might have gotten some irate phone calls yesterday, if rumors about those KVET guys are true. They were inciting folks to call the clerk to protest the fact that she and her staff merely counted thousands of signatures, verifying that each line was filled in and every page notarized, instead of checking to see that each represents a registered voter. Since Council Member Beverly Griffith was the first to file, she seems to have caught the early criticism, along with Brown. However, Council Members Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman are right behind her and intend to file their signatures today—the deadline to do so. Brandi Clark, Griffith’s campaign manager, was incensed about the complaints. “They can count them, be my guest! That’s why we had people in here night after night doing a validity check.” Of course, one of Griffith’s signature-gathering organizers has been the loudest in complaining about the city’s process. Linda Curtis, a professional activist, has indicated that she wants to look at all the petitions herself—and perhaps take legal action. Clark said, “Everybody gave it their best effort; this just gives them (the incumbents) the chance to be on the ballot and they’ve complied. Those people who want to save the city money should think twice if they realized how much it would cost to hire people to come in and verify signatures night after night” . . . Meanwhile, at the other campaigns, work continued near midnight. A spokesman for the Goodman campaign said he did not expect the signatures to be delivered until after this morning’s Council meeting, which begins at 10am. Slusher and Goodman each have 21,000-22,000 signatures . . . Stalking horses . . . As rumors ran through the environmental community yesterday that a legal attack on the incumbent candidates might leave green voters with nowhere to turn, there were those who said they would round up volunteers to throw their names on the ballot in case of that eventuality. The one thing stopping everyone from rushing to file might be the $500 filing fee that must be paid in lieu of 178 signatures . . . Meanwhile over at the Villas on Guadalupe . . . We have heard rumors that the developer has been offering to buy off some of the surrounding neighbors to remove their names from a valid petition against the zoning change. The case is set for third reading at the City Council Thursday . . . Dueling fundraisers . . . Council Member Beverly Griffith is holding a campaign kick-off party from 6-9 pm tonight at the Zilker Clubhouse. Meanwhile, friends of her likely opponent, Betty Dunkerley, will be having a fundraiser at Scholz Garten, 1607 San Jacinto, from 5:30 to 7:30pm. You might see some of the same people at both parties.

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

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