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Task force says boards should stick with nine members

Monday, August 4, 2003 by

Group also recommends slots open to all citizens

A task force reviewing the operations of the city’s boards and commissions has recommended that panels of more than nine members justify their size and that all seats on every commission be open to any applicant, rather than limited to citizens of a particular occupation or interest group. Those recommendations are among those reached by the Boards and Commissions Process Review Task Force last week as they considered several controversial topics.

In addition to commission size, the group reached consensus on the definition of a quorum and the ethical requirements for commissioners as they finished evaluation of a 60-page document compiled for the City Council.

The task force, chaired by former Council Member Bill Spelman, agreed that nine members is the optimum number for commissions, partially because it gives each Council member one appointment, plus two consensus appointments. After some review of the language, task force members agreed to recommend that commissions with more than nine members justify their size for City Council consideration. That recommendation would, of course, not apply to task forces whose numbers are set by federal or state law—including several health-related boards. However it would apply to those created by the City Council and governed solely by ordinance, such as the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC), the Downtown Commission, and the MBE/WBE advisory committee. The latter group is supposed to have 11 members, but has three vacancies. The HLC has members in 10 of 11 slots, but four of the appointments were due to expire two months ago. The Downtown Commission, which has authorization for 21 members, has three vacancies and the terms of two of the current members expired last October. That commission has expressed an interested in eliminating the vacant positions and adding others.

A justification for larger commissions should be due to the Council within six months of the acceptance of the final report from the task force. The task force concluded that groups larger than nine often have a difficult time maintaining a quorum and sometimes even of finding enough volunteers to fill the board. During the initial period of the task force’s work, the vacancy rate for boards and commissions was as high as 45 percent. Those problems have eased in recent months, according to a representative of the City Clerk’s Office.

Auditor C’Anne Daugherty recommended striking language from the report asking commissions to provide a “compelling reason” for large task forces. She called it “in your face” language. Task force members wanted it to be clear they weren’t out to “get” a particular group.

In the revised language, the task force urged the Council to solicit input from all boards and commissions if their members thought the standard number of nine might not work for them. The stipulation was added that the number would apply unless state or federal law set another number.

The task force agreed to a quorum based on the number of authorized members, rather than the number of members present at a meeting. The quorum question is one frequently fielded by City Clerk Shirley Brown’s office. Spelman said one problem is that there is no uniform rule that can tell a board chair whether he or she has a quorum.

The third issue was financial disclosure requirements for commission members. The task force elected to strike the requirement for financial disclosure forms for most commissioners, noting that new state requirements under House Bill 1606 applied to Council members and certain appointed officials, but not to volunteer commissioners.

Instead, an acknowledgement of the city’s ethics guidelines will be rolled into the form signed when a commissioner takes his or her oath of office. The city will reserve the right to ask members of more sensitive commissions—such as the Zoning and Platting Commission or the Planning Commission—to sign fuller disclosures. Sign-in sheets will carry a reminder that members must recuse themselves during motions in which their vote might be or be perceived as a conflict of interest.

The task force also decided the following:

• An orientation for new commissioners should be developed and delivered. The orientation session, strongly supported in surveys, would be mandatory.

• Use of city staff members to handle the work of a commission subcommittee would be discouraged, with the exception of subcommittee agenda postings.

• The word “sunset” would be struck from the commission review process. The five-year cycle of commission reviews would be handled by the City Auditor’s office, unless the task becomes too burdensome. Criteria for the audit were outlined in recommendations.

• A commission could be modified or abolished or its duties transferred to another commission. A commission chair would be given the right to address the Council on a recommendation. If a commission were abolished, a reasonable termination date would be given for the commission to complete its business.

Spelman told In Fact Daily that the task force will have at least one more meeting in September to comment on individual commissions. He said, “The only thing that is really at issue here is the objective of each of the commissions.” When the city’s Law Department rewrote the City Code into plain English, the purpose for some of the commissions changed in ways that several commission chairs do not like. So, now a lawyer must go back and reinstate in the previous language, he added.

Council rejects I-35 zoning change Request at odds with neighborhood plan, staff, commission recommendation

A developer’s quest to build medical offices across I-35 from Brackenridge Hospital has been scuttled by the Austin City Council. The requested zoning change from MF-4-NP (multi-family) to GR-MU-CO-NP (retail/office) for the land on E. 14th Street was rejected by unanimous vote. Both the Planning Commission and city staff had recommended against the change. Efforts to resolve differences between the property owner and the neighborhood through mediation were unsuccessful.

The vacant lot sits on top of a hill at 807 and 809 E. 14th Street. Property owner Robert Hageman told Council members that the existing MF-4 zoning, while supported by the neighborhood, was not practical. “It’s been MF-4 for about 70 years. It’s been vacant for almost 30 years,” he said. While neighborhood residents point to the proximity of UT and Brackenridge Hospital as factors that would make the site attractive to new residents, Hageman said the presence of I- 35 made residential construction impossible. “The sound level on that lot, not even at its worst, is 77 decibels. Bars are shut down at 85 decibels. This is extremely loud. The only time it’s not loud is when IH-35 comes to a standstill.” The closeness to the hospital, he argued, made the site ideal for medical office space for specialists practicing at Brackenridge.

Neighbors told Council members they would prefer high-density residential to any commercial or office use for the site. “There’s a long established community consensus that we need more quality, quantity, diversity and affordability of housing options here in central East Austin,” said Mike Clark-Madison. “There’s community consensus for an MF-4 density here, or perhaps even higher if that’s what it takes. The market need for density is obvious. We’re four blocks south and east of UT. Four blocks north and west of UT you have super-duplexes. You have the Villas on Guadalupe. You have this stampede of high-density housing. We’re being told here that it’s not viable. We don’t understand why.”

Margo Garana agreed that the site could be attractive to residential developers. “This property faces the Erwin Center. It faces the UT Nursing School. It’s really close,” she said. “I would really love for there to be some sort of housing there for students.” Other neighbors objected to the traffic that would be associated with offices and to any deviation from the future land-use map associated with the neighborhood plan, which calls for the site to be residential. City staff told Council Members that the East MLK Neighborhood Plan calls for office and commercial development to be concentrated along east 11th and 12th streets.

“I participated in the neighborhood plan,” Hageman countered.” I never was aware that if I didn’t speak now, I would forever have to hold my peace. I thought that I could rezone that property at any time. I had intentions of building commercial since day one, and the neighborhood knew that.” He said there was clearly not market support for residential on the site. “I’m going to fund this out of my own pocket, and I’m ready to start and add tax base to the City of Austin,” he said. “We made the zoning request in December. It’s now July and I’m ready to get going.”

After several questions from Council Member Danny Thomas, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman moved to deny the zoning change. Thomas provided the second. “I am very sympathetic to the owner of the property, but I’m also sympathetic to the neighbors,” he said. “I do see that he tried to work with them, but I do think it would have an impact. I know for a fact the neighbors have worked hard to keep their neighborhood up and try to have less traffic.” The vote to reject the requested zoning change was unanimous.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Retiring . . . Tracy Watson, who has served the city in various capacities for 25 years, tells In Fact Daily he plans to retire at the end of September. Watson directs the city's Office of Dispute Resolution, which has successfully mediated a number of disputes between a variety highly contentious issues. He says he is looking forward to starting his own mediation practice. The dispute resolution office is being phased out as part of efforts to cut the city's expenses. Watson's assistant, Frank Kopic, will be moving to the Public Works Department . . . Archer Nathan to manage White campaign for Houston mayor . . . Fresh from a victory in the Austin mayoral race, Christian Archer and Mark Nathan will see if they can do the same for Houston mayoral candidate Bill White. The duo will oversee what they call "a massive door-to-door canvass" and manage all get-out-the-vote operations in the November race. White, a former chair of the Texas Democratic Party and former Deputy Secretary of Energy, is running against Rep. Sylvester Turner, conservative businessman Orlando Sanchez and Houston City Council Member Michael Berry. The firm is also managing the campaign of Democrat Jan Soifer for Travis County District Judge, as well as assisting Southwest Austin neighbors and local environmental groups in their fight against the Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for MoPac and Slaughter . . . Design Commission meets tonight . . . This seems to be the only meeting on the city's list for today. The commission will talk about the marquee for the Convention Center and the Mexican-American Cultural Center. The latter is on a list of projects City Manager Toby Futrell has proposed be postponed. Commissioners also want to talk about the role of the commission in city government, which seems especially apt, since the task force looking at city commissions has inquired as to the current purpose of the Design Commission . . . “It’s like a Hollywood script” . . . said City Manager Toby Futrell, explaining why there are so many new “acting” department heads: Sondra Creighton, acting director at Public Works; Joe Pantalion, acting director and Tammie Williamson, acting assistant director at Watershed Protection and Development Review Department; and Jeff Travillion, acting director of the Department of Small Business and Minority Resources. In addition, John Stephens is still an acting Assistant City Manager and Michael McDonald is still acting Chief of Staff. Futrell reminisced, “Fourteen years ago half of our executive team was active. And I have a feeling we’re headed that way. It’s happening in such clusters I want some time to think about it. It’s a critical time to have gaps in your management team, and it’s also a time when I’d like to have some people try on some jobs and see how they feel.” Futrell added that the budget has taken up so much of her time that she wants to wait until it’s done so she can concentrate on important staffing decisions.

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