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Task force rejects new commission ordinance

Thursday, October 23, 2003 by

Committee frustrated by failure of staff to put recommendations into ordinance

45 recommendations and a 58-page report, the Boards and Commissions Process Review Task Force is still left with unanswered questions, not the least of which is whether the City Council will implement its recommendations.

Tuesday night the task force held its final meeting. Over the last two years, task force subcommittees have completed a wide-ranging comprehensive review of city boards and commissions, from the survey of board membership and a review of the existing city ordinances to the question of which should be called “boards” and which are “commissions.”

This week’s meeting was not exactly a satisfying end to the task force’s work. Assistant City Attorney Sandy Zimmerman presented the task force with an ordinance that was substantially the same as a draft completed back in 2001.

“It was kind of our understanding that they were going to do one thing and our understanding was not borne out in practice,” Chair Bill Spelman said after the meeting. “ The Law Department did not change the draft ordinance to reflect all the decisions made in the report, and the report is saying some very different things.”

Rosie Truelove of Deputy City Manager Joe Canales’ office argued that incorporating the 45 recommendations would take substantial time away from staff in the legal department, especially if the task force did not know which recommendations the Council might support. In the end, the task force voted against the ordinance presented to them and asked the Council to instruct the City Manager’ s office to incorporate the recommendations into the ordinance.

Even so, some members still had doubts. Betty Baker initially abstained on a vote to approve the report. Asked why, Baker admitted she thought the task force was tilting at windmills.

“I don’t think we went far enough. I don’t think we were strong enough,” Baker said. “We talked about terminating commissions, and yet we were reluctant to get rid of them. I feel very frustrated with it.”

Mary Ruth Holder, who served side-by-side with Baker on a task force subcommittee, was clearly bothered by Baker’s comments. Why wait until the vote? Holder asked.

“I’m deeply disturbed,” Holder told Baker. “Isn’t that kind of armchair quarterbacking?”

“I don’t think it’s armchair quarterbacking,” Baker replied. “It didn’t go as far as we should have gone.” Baker chairs the Zoning and Platting Commission and Holder serves on the Environmental Board.

Somewhat chastened, Baker did go back and change her vote, although she expressed doubt that the City Council would implement the recommendations. She went on to add what many veteran commissioners might only say in private, “The City Council appoints a task force so they can blame us if it doesn’t work.”

The final vote was 7-0-2, with city staff members Truelove and Zimmerman abstaining.

After the meeting, Spelman said it had been the consensus of the task force that it was easier to set criteria for performance or ongoing review, than to abolish commissions outright. In the report, the task force recommends abolishing eight non-functioning commissions, returning the Zoning and Platting Commission functions to the Planning Commission and rewriting the ordinance to more clearly reflect what the Design Commission actually does.

“If the system is broke, you try to fix it first,” Spelman said. “If we do pass an ordinance that would be consistent with the report, we would be giving people clear criteria as to how to evaluate their effectiveness. If boards and commissions really need to be eliminated, we’ll do it a lot better (this way).”

The task force did offer substantive recommendations on composition of new task forces and how they operate, from what should constitute a quorum to how those boards should be evaluated. The task force cautioned against use of the word “sunset,” although the clear intention is to end boards and commissions that don’t function.

In a side-by-side chart listing all the recommendations, Zimmerman recommended what should be in the ordinance and what should be approved by resolution. That generated some discussion among task force members—especially from Holder, who wanted to make sure performance standards were codified so they weren’t lost beneath a pile of resolutions.

But the biggest fear within the group was that the Council would not take its work seriously. Truelove said it was the Mayor’s wish that the reports be distributed to Council offices. Then it could be decided if and when the task force might present a brief. That left many of the members of the task force disheartened and uncertain as to what would result.

City Clerk Shirley Brown pointed out that a survey of 600 commission members indicated the biggest frustration was not knowing whether the Council had read and acted on feedback. Now the Boards and Commissions Task Force—armed with a heavy dose of paper, charts and cross-referenced ordinance drafts—is in the same boat.

“We as a group made 45 recommendations, and those aren’t going to be in the ordinance. That’s my personal frustration,” Brown said. “Those 45 recommendations are not in a document that Council will vote on. Will they even look at them?”

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Bellmont cottages case unlikely to be heard today . . . One of those historic zoning questions that the City Council would rather not hear will likely be postponed today on a request from neighbors. Sarah Crocker, who represents the owner of the cottages, has indicated that she would agree to the neighbors’ request. Council Member Betty Dunkerley is out of town. She has a particular interest in questions surrounding the use of the historic designation. But by postponing the matter, Council members will set the stage for a barrage of mothers carrying babies to next week’s meeting. Residents of the neighborhood just west of Lamar on 31st Street convinced the Historic Landmark Commission to begin the historic zoning process, over the advice of city staff. But, earlier this month, the Planning Commission deadlocked over the historic value of the four small houses, sending no recommendation to the Council . . . There are still a couple of Wal-Mart Supercenters and ten other zoning cases on the agenda—along with a proposal to enact a moratorium on permits for buildings greater than 50,000 square feet over the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer. One of the Wal-Mart zoning cases will likely be postponed, but Wal-Mart’s attorney Richard Suttle said he intends to press for a hearing on the case for property at I-35 and Slaughter. Suttle has met with neighborhood representatives numerous times over the matter . . . Commissioner off to India . . . Planning Commissioner Niyanta Spelman was missing from last night’s meeting. She’s taken baby Ronan to meet her family in India. Since it’s such a long trip, husband Bill Spelman said, she had a few day’s layover in Paris. She will be back in mid-November . . . Downtown street closings. . . Parts of 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and Colorado Streets will be blocked off for use by a film crew today and tomorrow . . . Halloween concert. . . The Austin Symphony will perform it’s annual Halloween Children’s Concert will be this Sunday at 1:30 and 3pm at the Paramount Theatre located at 713 Congress Avenue. The concert will introduce children to various instruments in the orchestra and teach them about the music being performed. Surprise special effects are planned to accompany Halloween favorites, “Danse Macabre,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and the musical fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” The symphony promises an atmosphere that will spark excitement and imagination in listeners of all ages, although the program is designed mainly for families with children between the ages of 3 and 10. Individual and Family Series tickets are available through the ASO Box Office (476-6064 or until Friday or through any STAR ticket outlet. Call 469-SHOW (469-7469) . . . SOS seeks extras . . . An upcoming Tommy Lee Jones film needs extras to fill a section of the UT football stadium on Monday, November 24th. For every volunteer extra SOS Alliance can provide, the production company will donate $10 to SOS Alliance. For more information or to sign up, call Tonya Reese at 477-2320 or email her at

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