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Council votes to put off Smoking ban to 2004
Vote is 5-2, with Thomas and Slusher dissentingThe City Council voted 5-2 last night to postpone implementation of the new smoking ordinance until January 2, 2004. With Mayor Will Wynn and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman leading the opposition and new Council Member Brewster McCracken having made strong statements against the ordinance during his campaign, the action was no surprise to most Council watchers. Only Council Members Danny Thomas and Daryl Slusher voted no. Thomas said he could see no point in putting off the effective date, voicing fears that the ad hoc task force now meeting may weaken the ordinance put in place under former Mayor Gus Garcia. Slusher also voiced his concern about the task force—which he said had been “appointed” without a Council vote. Slusher said when he voted in favor of the task force he had believed the matter would be brought back to the Council to appoint the members. “My understanding was that it would be like we do all task forces,” he said. “It didn’t show up the next week…we took the recess, and then the task force started getting appointed during that time. That’s not the way I’ve ever seen it done before.” Goodman, who sponsored the idea of creating the task force, defended the two meetings of the group so far. “I and my office have been so mischaracterized during this. The proponents of the smoking ban have been the most vociferous in accusing me and my office of doing something that we have not done,” she said. “When I proposed the task force, there was not an item of individual appointments to be made. The concept of the task force was to include people who had been excluded in the drafting of that ordinance. We have appointed nobody. So the characterization of my office appointing people is totally off base.” The ad hoc group, Goodman said, had an important role to play, especially for those who had not been given an appropriate opportunity to shape the new ordinance. “In the interest of moving forward in case the effective date of the smoking ordinance remained the same, I was trying to retrofit a process that did not happen before,” she said. “Folks have all come together, and I thought that they needed to start talking well before we came back from our break.” After some urging by Wynn to focus discussion on the effective date of the ordinance instead of the composition of the task force, Goodman moved to postpone the effective date until Jan. 2, 2004. Council Members Betty Dunkerley, Raul Alvarez, and McCracken agreed, voting to postpone. “Whichever way we go at the current time, there’s going to be individuals that lose on this,” McCracken said. “I believe that this gives our task force the opportunity to have the time to work together to find issues of common ground and find a compromise.” Dunkerley, who voted in favor of the original ordinance, said there could be positive results from a cautious approach to its implementation. “I think the worst thing we could do is confuse the issue even more,” said Dunkerley. “I think if we went ahead and implemented the ordinance, and then amended it again shortly thereafter, that’s confusing for all of the citizens as well as the business owners. I’m still supporting the ordinance, but I think it probably does make sense to defer the implementation for a couple of months until we can decide what’s going to happen to it.” The 5-2 vote means the amendment to the ordinance passed on all three readings. Council approves rule Changes on first reading Speakers not limited in number of agenda items they may address Mayor Will Wynn led the Council out of the starting gate like a racehorse eager to reach the finish line as he began his first real meeting as Mayor Thursday morning. Only Council Member Daryl Slusher pulled items from the consent agenda, which was dispatched in short order, leaving for discussion only the rules for conducting Council meetings, expenditures for the new City Hall, a taxi cab franchise request and the smoking ordinance—plus numerous time certain items, including several contentious zoning cases. The Council finally adjourned at 10:35pm to go into executive session with city lobbyist John Hrncir. The discussion of the newly codified rules governing Council meetings brought comments from frequent Council speakers Robert Singleton and Karen Hadden. They asked the Council not to approve deleting all the Wednesday work sessions for the remainder of 2003—an item on the consent agenda—until after they had considered the proposed rule changes. Singleton told the Council, “I was a little leery initially of Council splitting up the Wednesday and Thursday sessions, but it’s turned out that’s it’s actually been beneficial to citizens as a whole because it means the Thursday meetings start later. It’s easier to get people who are concerned about an item down here in time to speak on it. I’m not sure that starting the agenda at 10 o’clock in the morning is necessarily a good way to conduct the public business. There are a lot of people who ….where there are going to be a lot of public comments are not going to be able to get here in time for that.” Hadden chimed in, “I think the work sessions serve a great function in letting people see what’s on the agenda and hear some discussions before Thursday. I understand that you’re trying to streamline the process…..I’m very concerned (the rules) are not geared toward ensuring adequate participation. For example, if you can only speak three times during a meeting, what if there are four items that are very crucial to you or to the citizen group or organization that you represent?” The consent motion was approved, including deletion of the Wednesday meetings. About an hour later, the Council approved the consolidated and changed rules, with a few amendments, on a vote of 7-0 on first reading only. Singleton told the Council that the rule limiting speakers to addressing only three items per meeting would not pass muster—since state law does not allow limitations on the number of speakers addressing zoning changes. That limitation had already been removed from the rules, explained City Attorney Sedora Jefferson. “The ordinance that came with the agenda on Friday did have a limitation….When we saw the published reports (In Fact Daily) we went back and checked the existing rules.” At that point, she said, city staff realized that they had misconstrued the intent of the original set of rules. “So that particular provision is out. What remains is what has always been there—that a citizen may not participate in removing from the consent agenda more than three items.” But there’s no limit on the number of items a person is allowed to address, she said. Slusher, however, amended that portion of the ordinance, so a person may sign up to remove up to five items from the Council’s consent agenda. Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who made the motion to approve the rules, accepted Slusher’s amendment somewhat reluctantly. Whether it will still be in the ordinance on third reading remains to be seen. Slusher also amended a part of the ordinance referring to the Council’s ability to limit the number of speakers or time allotted for a hearing by deleting the reference to 20 speakers or more than 60 minutes of anticipated testimony. It now says, “Except as required by state law, the Council may limit the number of speakers or the length of testimony at the Council’s discretion. If the Council limits testimony under this subsection, the registration card of each non-speaking person shall be made part of the public hearing record.” Goodman tried to talk Slusher into forming a committee to scrutinize the ordinance, but he declined. Wynn said he would volunteer his chief of staff, Richard Arellano, who directed the revision and compilation of the rules, to meet with anyone who has concerns about the new rules. Police Monitor Iris Jones steps down Austin Police Monitor Iris Jones is leaving the city after less than 18 months on the job. She’s turned in her resignation and will be taking a job with the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, DC as Client Service Advisor. Her last day in office will be August 31st. See In Fact Daily, Jan. 16, 2002 . “It’s really very exciting,” said Jones of her new opportunity. “It’s wonderful to join a firm that I’ve had a lot of respect for and admiration for over many, many years.” The long-time Austinite also said she’ll miss living in Texas and has been happy during her time at the Police Monitor’s Office. “I leave behind an organized office and a qualified, dedicated staff. I am very proud to have played a role in the creation and operation of a stable, solid office.” Jones’ letter of resignation came as a surprise to City Manager Toby Futrell. “I was not expecting it,” she said. “I do not think Iris was actively looking, but opportunities come your way and people make a decision to take them.” She praised Jones’ performance during the turbulent first year for the Police Monitor’s office, which included a legal battle over the independent investigation into the shooting of Sophia King by an Austin police officer. “The one thing that we knew is that when you implement a new civilian oversight process, it’s going to be a rocky road,” Futrell said. “There’s not a police oversight process in the country that didn’t spend their first three years trying to make the culture change. We knew it was going to be rocky. It was rocky. Iris has left us in good stead with a trained staff and a framework in place. So we’re well positioned to move forward.” Jones, a former Austin City Attorney, has put in more than 11 years off and on as a city employee. She was the first African-American and the first woman to serve as Austin’s City Attorney. Assistant Police Monitor Al Jenkins will assume Jones’ duties when she leaves in August. From there, Futrell says they will launch a search for the next candidate. “What we’re looking for is someone who can be fair, someone who can be objective, and someone whom both the police and the community can trust and respect. It’s a very tough job.” Akin Gump has 16 offices worldwide, including four in Texas. The firm employs about 1,000 attorneys. Council tells cabbies To come back later Vote is 5-2, with Thomas and Slusher dissenting Austin cab drivers who want to form their own company will have to wait 90 days before hearing a response from the City Council. The start-up cab company, Lone Star Cab, requested that delay to work with city staff on a proposal to modify the rules for granting new cab company franchises and new cab permits. Some drivers with the existing three companies want to form their own employee-owned co-op, to be called Lone Star Cab. But the city staff and the Urban Transportation Commission both recommended against granting another franchise, citing the number of cab permits already in place city-wide. Managers and drivers with the existing three cab companies told Council members that the industry could not withstand additional competition. “Right now, the taxi cab industry in Austin is overwhelmed,” said John Hill with Greater Austin Transportation, which operates American Yellow Checker Cab Company. “We do have enough permits to cover the population as is.” Cab permits are issued on the basis of population. Cab drivers, including Hannah Riddering, told Council members the economic slowdown had hit their industry hard. “The very idea of having 100 extra taxis—or even two or three—makes me practically sick to my stomach,” she said. “I personally am doing OK, but most of the drivers are seriously suffering. People are beginning to lose their homes . . . They’re working longer hours. They’re working seven days a week. It’s really bad out there. It’s really very scary.” Attorney Doug Young, representing Lone Star Cab, told Council members that the rules currently in place unfairly restrict the possibility of any new companies entering the marketplace. During periods of population growth, new permits would go to existing companies; while during periods of economic and population decline new permits are issued. “It’s apparent from our existing ordinance that it’s almost impossible for a new company to come in,” Young said. “We’re frozen with three companies. We know that’s the effect in a rising economy as experienced by Lone Star last year, and by the fact that no companies have presented themselves under our current ordinance. We now know that the monopolistic effect comes into play in a bad economy also, where it would freeze out an applicant in these circumstances.” Young asked the Council for time to work with staff on new criteria for issuing franchises and permits. He suggested a period of two months, while staff indicated it could take up to six months to come up with and acceptable compromise. Council Member Danny Thomas proposed a 90 day delay, which was unanimously approved. In other action, the Council rejected on a vote of 5-2 a request to change zoning on property just East of South Lamar on Bluebonnet Lane. About 30 neighbors registered their opposition to the siting of a large Walgreen’s Drugstore on the property, voicing concerns about traffic and safety of children who use Bluebonnet to walk and ride their bicycles to school. Only Council Members Betty Dunkerley and Danny Thomas supported the zoning change. The vote represented a rare loss for consultant Sarah Crocker. After the vote, Crocker said she was disappointed but considering her client’s options. ©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved. Redistricting hearing today . . . According to the Texas Senate’ s web site, the Jurisprudence Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on the latest map beginning at 9am today in the Capitol Auditorium. The map offered by Senator Todd Staples (R-Palestine) splits Travis County three ways, with Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s district reaching to the Valley . . . McCracken election costs . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken has reported spending almost $260,000 for the General Election and the June runoff. McCracken raised about $111,000 for the runoff and spent slightly less than that to bring in his huge victory over opponent Margot Clarke. According to Susan Harry, McCracken’s principal fundraiser, the outstanding loan amount shown on the latest report, $16,625, is the amount he has not recouped from his unsuccessful 2002 race. Harry said he only loaned the campaign about $2100 this year . . . Appointments . . . The Council reappointed the following by consensus yesterday: Ethelynn Beebe, David Brown, Tim Hill and Gilbert Martinez to the Building and Standards Commission; Rebecca Morris to the Environmental Board; Jeff Francell to the Parks and Recreation Board; Heidi Dues to the Urban Forestry Board; Alan Schumann to the Building and Fire Code Board of Appeals; and Rossana Barrios to the Austin Community Education Consortium. Council Member Raul Alvarez reappointed Frank Fernandez to the Electric Utility Commission; Council Member Danny Thomas reappointed John Donisi and Council Member Brewster McCracken reappointed Keith Jackson, both to the Zoning and Platting Commission . . . Seeking new blood . . . The Downtown Commission will ask the City Council to invite the University of Texas, Travis County and the State of Texas to join the commission. At the same time, the commission will ask the East Eleventh Street Village Association, Austin Area Research Organization and the defunct Economic Development Commission to be cut from the commission. The latter groups have no representatives on the current commission. Commissioners also want to invite an affordable housing expert to join the group. That would increase the number of members on the Downtown Commission to 22 . . . Retail study planned . . . The Downtown Austin Alliance will be partnering with the City of Ausstin to complete a retail study of downtown Austin. A special meeting of the Downtown Commission will be held on Aug. 6 to discuss the proposal. The DAA will serve as lead on the retail study, which will include a market study and an assessment of current inventory. It will also include recommendations on ways to boost downtown retail . . . Mind the rules . . . Members of the Downtown Commission expressed some strong opinions Wednesday night about the city’s failure to meet the letter of its own ordinances. City staff members continue to ask for variances on projects, from the new sign on the Convention Center, to a lack of review of the new Palmer City and its parking garage, to the failure to include retail on the first floor of the Convention Center garage. The Convention Center garage, which must be given a variance for its lack of retail, was pulled from the Board of Adjustment agenda this week. It will be addressed at a future BOA meeting . . . Land purchase approved . . . Capital Metro’s board of directors has approved a $500,000 earnest money contract on the land for a North Austin operations center for the transit agency. The yet-to-be-disclosed location would be used to provide an additional facility for the maintenance and storage of buses. Capital Metro recently restructured its contracts to take over more of the maintenance of its buses and provide a location to dispatch buses on the north side of town . . . Lawsuit settlement . . . The Council voted unanimously to offer the legal guardian of Richard Danziger up to $9 million dollars to settle a lawsuit she filed on his behalf. Danziger and Christopher Ochoa were convicted of the 1988 murder of Nancy DePriest at a Pizza Hut restaurant, but another man later confessed to the crime and DNA evidence backed up his claim. Danziger ’ s attorneys accused the Austin Police Department of violating his constitutional rights and of failing to disclose evidence. Danziger spent years in prison and suffered brain damage from an attack by another inmate. His sister had sued for $100 million. The Council declined a staff recommendation to settle a separate lawsuit by Ochoa for $5.5 million. Both Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken said they felt that amount was too high.
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