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Council splits 4-2-1 on judicial appointments

Friday, February 6, 2004 by

New lineup means Judge Castro is out

Unable to arrive at a consensus after more than two hours in executive session last night, the City Council split 4-2-1 on a slate of candidates to fill six Associate Judge positions. Judge Celia Castro, the longest-serving judge on the municipal bench, was not reappointed. However, two other judges who were in danger of losing their positions, Mitch Solomon and John Vasquez, were reappointed. Assistant Police Monitor Alfred Jenkins was appointed to fill the final slot.

Voting in favor of the group were Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Betty Dunkerley, Daryl Slusher and Brewster McCracken. Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas voted against the motion and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman abstained. Because there were only four in favor of the motion, the item will require two more votes. Presiding Judge Evelyn McKee won easy reappointment as did Associate Judges Fernando Clervi, Ron Meyerson, Kenneth Vitucci, and Michael Coffey. Coffey is the judge for the Downtown Community Court. Relief judges are Arturo Alvarez, Eric Carey, Katherine Daniels, Kelly Evans, Barbara Garza De Leon, Belinda Herrera, Stanley Kerr, Kirk Kuykendall, Beverly Landers, Donna Mulcahy, Linda von Quintus and David Garza. A vacancy left by the resignation of Judge Karrie Key last year was not filled.

Prior to the vote, the Council heard from a number of members of the community, most of whom were Hispanic, asking that they reappoint all of the judges. David Frank, president of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said he had served on the Travis County Bar Association’s Municipal Court screening committee. “At no time was the committee ever informed that we were evaluating potential replacements of sitting Municipal Court judges,” he said. “Had we known (that) we would have used entirely different criteria. We would have considered whether they had judicial experience.”

Members of the Judicial Subcommittee, Wynn, McCracken and Goodman, had said they wanted to bring new people into the process. But Frank told them, “It is not appropriate for you to consider bringing fresh blood (to the court). This is not a creative endeavor. It requires experienced people.”

Attorney Alberto Garcia, who was the first Hispanic judge at the Municipal Court, also spoke in favor of keeping Vasquez and Castro. “I think it is very important that we have judges that speak Spanish in this community. And your actions right now tell the Hispanic community that you want to get rid of the only two Hispanics who are fluent Spanish speakers, people who communicate with the people who come before them, whether it be a traffic ticket or if they’ve been changed with an aggravated assault.”

The second issue, Garcia said, concerned the setting of bond and decisions on whether to approve or reject charges filed by the police. Part of the rationale for not keeping the three judges was supposedly low ratings from a handful of prosecutors and police officers who were surveyed on their opinions of the judges. The message the legal community is hearing, he said, is that the Council wants judges who are not “soft on crime.” For that reason, he said, those people are still going to be getting out of jail “because their families are going to hock everything they have to hire a bail bondsman.” He advised the Council to attend “the County Court at Law and sit there and see individual after individual going up to the judge and telling them they want you and I to pay for a lawyer because they have no money to hire an attorney.” That’s because Municipal Court Judges have been frightened by the prospect of losing their jobs, he said, “because you have put the label on them that they were soft on crime. I’ve never felt before that they were soft on crime. I thought that we had a liberal community that took care of its citizens and that was receptive to the needs of the community…”

Slusher made the motion, noting, “We’ve looked at this from every possible angle that we can.” Mayor Wynn seconded the motion, referring to the process that he, Goodman and McCracken used to arrive at their recommendations. He outlined how the Council came to use the new process by which they select judges, talking to other cities about their selection process. He termed the process, “certainly not perfect, but for the first time a significant outreach to folks who have some perspective on our City of Austin Municipal Court system. And we’ve gotten far more feedback, I believe, than any other Council has ever had before in making these tough personnel decisions.”

But Goodman and both minority members of the Council rejected the motion, with Alvarez saying the loss of Castro—the only full-time Hispanic judge besides Vasquez—was “a step backwards to some degree.” He said the growth of the Latino community means that lessening of diversity is “something that is going to be real important and is going to have an impact and I think we need to work to rectify.”

Goodman said she would abstain, but not because she objected to any of those who were being appointed. She had worked to get all the incumbent judges reappointed and to add Jenkins.

Council easily approves overlay changes

Neighbors show support for Smart Housing project

Developers of the Pleasant Valley Courtyards apartment complex on Thursday received City Council approval to change a conditional overlay on their property in the 4500 block of East St. Elmo Road. The change was necessary to place one building of the Smart Housing development at a location where the original site plan had called for the leasing office and a community center.

“We hate that this is back before you again,” attorney Nikelle Meade told Council members. Meade, who represents Pleasant Valley Courtyards, L.P., said the site plan had been changed to comply with guidelines from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. Several neighborhood representatives attended to show their support for placing a two-story, seven-unit apartment building on the site.

“We’ve entered into an agreement that has many components to it…to further protect the neighborhood, both Kensington Park and Franklin Park,” said Meade. “I think we’ve worked out something that’s a win-win for all of us.” That arrangement dictates the orientation of the building and other design features in order to protect the privacy of nearby residents.

The one area of contention left after months of negotiations involved access to the site. One neighborhood group had requested that the developers limit access to the apartment complex from E. St. Elmo, routing most traffic to Pleasant Valley Road. However, another neighborhood group opposed that plan. “We have worked long and hard on this project, and I think that we’ve done a lot of compromising,” said Franklin Park Neighborhood Association President Diane Sanders. But she did not like the idea of making the turn-in from East St. Elmo an entrance-only driveway. “We don’t want to isolate the tenants; we want to integrate them into the community and make them feel welcome,” she said. “With us putting all these restrictions on how they can get into their residence and how they can leave, it’s very unfair.”

But that one issue did not prevent the Council from approving the change of the conditional overlay on a vote of 7-0. Meade reassured the Council there was a contingency plan in place to help alleviate neighborhood concerns over traffic. “We’ve agreed with Franklin Park that if after a number of years the access to St. Elmo remains limited to entrance only, that we would limit access out of our property onto Pleasant Valley to exit only,” she said.

The final plans for the complex call for 163 apartment units. The site covers 26 acres and is zoned MF-3-CO-NP.

Changes on S. 1st tract win ZAP approval

Retail, residential mix for Smart Housing project

The Zoning and Platting Commission is recommending split zoning for a 13.3-acre tract on South First at Ralph Ablanedo Drive. The owners had originally sought GR for the site, and then returned with a modified proposal for GR-CO and SF-6 after hearing concerns from commissioners. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 23, 2004.) After modifying the dimensions of the two tracts during discussion on the dais, the commission voted 9-0 to zone part of the lot SF-6 and the rest LR.

The SF-6 will allow for the construction of condominiums along the northern and western edges of the lot, which border other residential uses, but the bulk of the track will be zoned LR. Agent Jim Wittliff, representing property owner Mickey Rich, told commissioners the most likely use would be a shopping center. “It’s a village concept neighborhood services center,” he said, listing possible occupants as a coffee shop, beauty salon or small restaurant.

“There are several GR uses. Any general retail, such as a clothing store, requires GR zoning.”

But Commission Chair Betty Baker told Wittliff she could not support that request. “Normally, we look at GR zoning at major intersections,” she said. “Everything you named was an LR use. I wish, Mr. Wittliff, there had been some real hard and fast need and demonstrated projection for this tract. I still feel your application is a little premature. I do feel that zoning is appropriate at this location, but not GR.”

If the City Council accepts ZAP’s recommendation, the SF-6 portion of the site will run along the northern and western borders of the lot. Commissioners are recommending that the SF-6 zoning extend 200 feet from the property line to the interior, which is slightly greater than the 135-foot depth requested by the applicant on the north side. However, the ZAP recommendation would result in a larger area zoned for commercial use than the suggestion from city staff, which called for more than nine acres of the site to be zoned residential.

Council appointments . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley appointed Leslie Pool to the Water and Wastewater Commission and Steven Keys to the Animal Advisory Commission. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman appointed Leonard Lyons to the Parks and Recreation Board. Dan Rozycki was appointed by consensus to the Urban Transportation Commission. Mayor Will Wynn appointed Guy Manaster and Council Member Brewster McCracken appointed Rossana Barrios to the Library Commission. The Council also approved the reappointment of David Donnelly to the Austin-Travis County EMS Advisory Board by consensus . . . Sign up for mobility workshop. . . The Downtown Austin Alliance is sponsoring a workshop on bus rapid transit, presented by Norm Marshall, president of Smart Mobility, Inc. The workshop is at 4pm Tuesday at 211 East 7th Street, Room 111, First Floor. To RSVP, email or call 469-1766 . . . Keep Austin Beautiful deadline Monday . . . Keep Austin Beautiful will be selling tickets for its 19th annual awards luncheon through Monday. The event, which is set for next Friday at the Hyatt Regency, is KAB’s biggest fundraiser of the year . . . Triana sweeps endorsements. . . Judge Gisela Triana released an impressive list of organizations backing her candidacy for Judge of the 200th District Court yesterday. Civic organizations endorsing her include: AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, Travis County Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Association, Lodge 49 of the Fraternal Order of Police, Black Women’s Political Caucus, Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus, Austin Progressive Coalition, and the Black Voters Action Project. The following Democratic clubs have also endorsed Triana: Austin Tejano Democrats, South Austin Tejano Democrats, Texas Environmental Democrats, South Austin Democrats, West Austin Democrats, North by Northwest Democrats, Central Austin Democrats, Stonewall Democrats, University Democrats, and Capitol City Young Democrats. She has also received the endorsement of the Hispanic Bar Association of Austin. Triana faces attorney Jan Soifer and District Court Master John Hathaway in the March 9th primary election.

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