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Second and third reading could both come today

Thursday, April 11, 2002 by

Five members of the Austin City Council Wednesday voted to approve a single-member district map that puts the majority of the central city—both South and North of the river—into one district. The vote was on first reading only, at the request of Council Member Daryl Slusher, who is still concerned about the fact that South Austinites in the Travis Heights, Zilker, Bouldin Creek and Barton Hills neighborhoods would share a district with residents of Clarksville, Downtown, the University of Texas, Tarrytown, Hancock and French Place. The Council could vote to approve the map on both second and third reading today, or delay the third vote until Friday.

The map was drawn at the request of the Council, which approved a plan that includes eight single-member districts and two at large seats, plus a Mayor, on March 21.

Council Members Beverly Griffith and Jackie Goodman did not attend the meeting. Griffith told In Fact Daily earlier this week that she would not vote for the demographers’ map. “I can’t imagine any progressive person is going to like District 5,” she said, referring to the district Slusher would like to change. Staff privately refers to District 5 as the “Birkenstock district.”

City Demographer Ryan Robinson and Assistant City Attorney John Steiner explained once again why certain portions of the map cannot be changed without affecting other portions. Council Member Danny Thomas was hoping to add the eastern corner of District 5— Wilshire Wood—to District 1, the district containing the largest percentage of African-Americans (35 percent). Robinson said adding that area would dilute African-American voting strength and Thomas dropped the idea. He also said that the district, which currently contains 40 percent Hispanic voters, would become less and less African-American as time goes by.

Mayor Gus Garcia, who has been a proponent of single-member districts for many years, noted that the US Department of Justice could easily tell the city that the map must be redrawn, regardless of how the Council or the voters feel. But he told Robinson and Steiner, “You’ve done a magnificent job . . . It’s very difficult to get an ideal map.”

Council Member Will Wynn made the motion to approve the map and Garcia seconded it. Slusher said he still would like to see District 5 split up, but that seems unlikely to happen. Slusher and Goodman both live in the proposed District 3. However, if they are re-elected next month, neither would lose a seat. Griffith and Wynn are both in District 5 and Griffith is up for re-election this year. Wynn could choose to run in the district next year—or he could run for Mayor or run at large. The three incumbents currently up for re-election, or whoever wins those seats May 4, will still have a three-year term, even if the new system is approved. The city would have 12 City Council Members from 2003-2005, after which the total number would drop to 11.

Both Thomas and Garcia live in District 1 and Council Member Raul Alvarez lives in District 2. Thomas and Alvarez could run next year from their districts, but there would be no at-large vacancies. No current Council members live in proposed Districts 4, 6, 7 and 8. Click here for map in Adobe.

Billboards have lost economic viability

The Sign Review Board (SRB) Monday rejected an appeal by the city’s largest billboard company, Reagan National Advertising, for a waiver of rules to save four signs that have lost their economic value because of highway construction. Only Board Member Frank Fuentes voted for the waiver. The company wanted to increase the height of the non-conforming signs because highway construction and trees were blocking them. City staff had rejected Reagan’s appeal, and the SRB upheld the staff decision to prevent any increase in height for signs that did not conform to current regulations, yet were allowed to remain under the grandfathering provisions of that rule.

Attorney Veronica Rivera with Minter Joseph and Thornhill argued that Reagan should be given a waiver as permitted by the Land Development Code (LDC), citing specific sections of the code and listing permitted exemptions to bolster her case. “It is correct that the signs that we have at the time are non-conforming signs,” Rivera said. “However, the applicability of this section (of the LDC) was incorrect.” The signs in question, Rivera said, had been rendered ineffective by a combination of new right-of-way construction and the growth of trees. Those signs are at 6501/2 Bastrop Highway, 9002 1/2 Research Blvd., 5115 E. Hwy 290 and 7901 1/2 E. Ben White.

The LDC, Rivera said, clearly allowed the board to grant a waiver to increase the height of a non-conforming sign. “You have to demonstrate that there are circumstances that make it difficult to comply with the height restrictions, Rivera said, “and the circumstances must be unique. These signs have been encumbered. They’re not clearly visible. We are not the only ones that will be seeking application of this section (Section 252-10-22). There will be others coming as construction of right-of-way or the growth of trees causes signs not to be visible.” For further details on the LDC, see the City of Austin’s web site at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/development/ldc1.htm.

The company requested permission to raise the signs by differing amounts ranging between five and 21 feet. Rivera said that would constitute a “remedy” to a situation that was not of the company’s making.

One sign in particular brought opposition from neighbors. Representatives of the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association opposed any change to the sign at 5115 E. Hwy 290, and the operator of a nearby Econo-Lodge Hotel said raising the Reagan sign would block the view of his own sign from the freeway.

Representatives of Reagan had to fight to get their appeal heard by the SRB. They had requested their waivers to raise the signs in mid-February. The city’s revised Sign Ordinance took effect on Feb. 18th. Soon after, the company was notified that its waiver had been administratively denied. At that time, Reagan’s attorneys were informed by city staff that no appeal was permitted under the new ordinance. But they were able to successfully convince the city Legal Department that the company was entitled to an appeal to the SRB since their waiver had been requested under the old ordinance.

Unfortunately, their arguments about which section of the LDC should apply to the situation fell on mostly unreceptive ears. Board Chair Herman Thun was the most openly critical of increasing the height of non-conforming signs. “We all understand, clearly, what the City Council wants to have happen,” he said. “They do not want billboards, period. They either have to buy the billboards or create legislation that in some way . . . gets rid of them over a period of time.” Thun said the overriding issue was that the signs were classified as non-conforming. “It’s clear to me that if it’s a non-conforming sign, you may not change it . . . except specifically as indicated. All the other stuff, to me, is irrelevant.”

Board Member Betty Edgemond moved to uphold the decision of city staff and deny the appeal. The vote was 6-1 in favor, with Fuentes opposed. Representatives of Minter Joseph and Thornhill said they were still studying the Reagan’s options for appeal.

But some are adamant about recommended bidder

Travis County Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis got the weeklong delay he wanted on the approval of a management contract for the second phase of water line construction at Kennedy Ridge, but not without hostility from his fellow commissioners.

Water and wastewater services to Kennedy Ridge and Plover Place—sometimes referred to as Travis County’s colonias—are being underwritten by a grant from the Office of Rural Community Affairs, formerly part of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. After a review of three bids on the two projects, County Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes recommended awarding the management contract of both water projects—for a total of $57,330—to Langford Community Management Services (LCMS).

That decision dismayed local residents, who would prefer to keep Grant Development Services. GDS managed the first phase of the water line installation at Kennedy Ridge without facing the competitive bid process. Resident Miguel Esparza, who serves as general manager of the Kennedy Ridge Water Supply Corp., told the commissioners court at its session on Tuesday that GDS had done a good job.

“The first grant has been stretched to serve more than twice the amount of people it was intended for,” Esparza said. “Therefore, we, the residents of Kennedy Ridge, are respectfully petitioning you in the matter of retaining our present grant development company through the remainder of the grant process and to successfully complete acquiring and installing utilities for all the residents of the Kennedy Ridge subdivision.”

Esparza expressed some reservations about starting over with a new management consultant after all the work GDS had put into the project. Construction on the project must be underway soon or the county will face sanctions from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.

Bids for the professional services contract were evaluated on a matrix that included price considerations, administrative requirements, experience with grant programs administered through the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and past performance on grant projects.

The LCMS bid proposal ran slightly higher than the $53,330 proposed by Travis County, Grimes told the court, but Transportation and Natural Resources Department staff judged that company the best qualified. In addition, LCMS is a HUB (historically underutilized business) firm.

GDS has alleged that the criteria used by the county did not present a fair reflection of its performance on the Kennedy Ridge project and that Langford was given the chance to adjust its price after bids were considered. Engineer Marty Rumbaugh of Austin Loomis, who worked on the Kennedy Ridge project and was also in the audience, ranked the performance of GDS as “good,” especially for a project so heavily geared to using Kennedy Ridge’s own residents as a source of labor.

Davis backed community concerns and called on the court to reconsider the bid. Davis emphasized that he should have been consulted during the bid process since he was the one who had to sign off on the grant contractor’s performance. He also said he wanted another week to look over the bids again. Commissioners Margaret Gomez and Karen Sonleitner were clearly opposed to reconsidering the decision of the purchasing department.

Gomez said she had no intention of flouting the State Purchasing Act and explained the bid law process, in Spanish, to the residents of Kennedy Ridge in attendance. She added that she had no desire to go to jail over the bid. Sonleitner reminded everyone that the bid process was in place for a reason. To offer GDS the contract and exempt them from the bid process, she said, was a poor message to those firms that had spent the energy, time and money to respond to the bid proposal.

Sonleitner ended her comments by declaring she would not be a party to Davis’ suggestion, provoking Davis to tell her she needed to be civil. Davis then asked for a closed-door attorney-client discussion of the issue, to which County Judge Sam Biscoe remarked, “I can hardly wait for our executive session discussion.”

The court did go ahead and award the $22,300 Plover Park portion of the contract. The court will reconsider the Kennedy Ridge project next week. Biscoe requested that a clear explanation of the 10-point spread between Langford and GDS be prepared for that discussion. He also asked the county to try to iron out any performance questions with GDS and get a preliminary response on those questions back to the court.

Before the vote on the delay, Davis had to promise Sonleitner he would word the item on next week’s agenda in a way that would allow the court enough flexibility to approve the most appropriate firm. Davis consented and promised he would consult with the county attorney’s office on the wording of his agenda items.

Police announce dual endorsements . . . The Austin Police Association Political Action Committee yesterday endorsed Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and former officer Billy Sifuentes for Place 3 and Former Assistant City Manager Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken for Place 4. The group had already endorsed Council Member Daryl Slusher for Place 1. . . Slusher headquarters opening . . . Now that the petition drive and ensuing lawsuit is over, Slusher is having a party and headquarters grand opening. The shindig is from 4 to 7pm Friday at 92 Red River, just south of Cesar Chavez in the Rainey Street neighborhood. Slusher’s campaign phone number is 477-5000. Goodman’s campaign HQ is conveniently located at 93 Red River. Her phone number there is 415-5276 . . . Editor takes birthday off . . . In Fact Daily will not be published next Monday in order to allow the editor to rest on her birthday. We will return on Tuesday, April 16 . . . Zoning and Platting Commission to receive briefing . . . After a disagreement over the meaning of a 4-4 vote, members of the ZAP Commission decided they wanted an official opinion. Commission Chair Betty Baker promised they will have one at their next meeting. The panel split 4-4, with one member absent, over a complicated balance of tract appeal brought by neighbors of property that sits next to the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve By their vote, the group apparently upheld the decision of Mike Heitz, director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department . . . Cap Metro names new CFO . . . Capital Metro is preparing to name Cynthia Hernandez, director of customer service at San Antonio’s VIA, as the transit agency’s new chief financial officer. Interim General Manager Fred Gilliam praised Hernandez at a Cap Metro finance committee meeting yesterday, saying she brought transit agency experience to Cap Metro, as well as zero-based budgeting skills. Hernandez has more than a dozen years of experience at VIA . . . East side City Council meeting today . . . Today’s meeting is at the Conley-Guererro Senior Activity Center, 808 Nile Street.

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

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