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Council approves APA contract

Friday, March 26, 2004 by

Numerous citizens ask Council to wait to sign agreement

Opponents of the new contract between the Austin Police Association and the City of Austin tried several both rational and emotional arguments to stop the Council from approving the deal Thursday night, but were unsuccessful. The Council signed off on the new contract with a vote of 7-0.

The public comment on the new contract, scheduled to begin at 6:00pm, didn’t get underway until after 10pm as the Council had to first deal with the Brentwood-Highland Neighborhood Plan.One elderly man interrupted the discussions twice, shouting out from the audience that he was tired of waiting through the dozens of zoning cases and calling on the Council to allow him to comment on the Austin Police Department. Mayor Will Wynn declined stop the zoning proceedings, although City Manager Toby Futrell did discuss the man’s concerns with him.

More than 50 people signed up to comment on the five-year contract between the city and the police union. Many of them asked the Council to delay a decision, allowing the current contract to expire and reverting the city to standard civil service rules on hiring police officers. “There’s no harm done by delaying this contract. I think it would be the prudent thing to do,” said Austin Dullnig, a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission. “This contract in the past has comprised and will comprise about 60 percent of the total budget. To take the monies in that contract and consider it out of context with the rest of the budget is unfeasible and unreasonable.”

In agreement with that position was Ann del Llano of the American Civil Liberties Union, who told the Council and the City Manager that the downside of allowing the current deal to expire was minimal. “You addressed what would happen without a contract, and you said that you would leave the Police Monitor’s office in place…so that our Police Monitor does not miss one day of work,” she said. Jeff Jack of the Austin Neighborhoods Council proposed that the Council delay the vote for further consideration of the financial cost. “This contract is much too risky for our city and we strongly urge the Council to delay approving the contract until the full budget can be considered through the normal budget process,” he said. “It should be a big red flag for this City Council that the Austin American Statesman editorial board and the Austin Neighborhoods Council agree the contract should not go forward.”

But Futrell countered that the financial impact of the 2 percent pay premium for police officers was well known to the city’s budget department, and would be taken into account during any and all budget discussions. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said that relapsing into standard Civil Service procedures would not be beneficial. “I think the growth in the number and diversity of our police force has been very, very important, and I think we have the tools in this contract to increase representation in the few ranks where we’re not where we should be,” she said. Council Member Raul Alvarez also said the ability to hire officers based on factors other than standardized test scores had improved the department. “I do feel we would lose a great deal…in the area of hiring, we have a little more flexibility in that process and in terms of promotion as well,” he said. “It helps, I believe, to insure that we have a better opportunity to increase diversity in our department.”

After the extensive negotiations under the Meet and Confer process, some Council members are looking for ways to improve the process during the next round of talks. Dunkerley wants to address those changes during next week’s Council meeting. She plans to bring back an ordinance “that says we will enter the Meet and Confer negotiations at a certain date, a certain time, so that both sides and the public will know with certainty when those will begin. I want to propose that these negotiations be public negotiations.” She noted that the city frequently negotiates with private companies in secret because “they have trade secrets that they don’t want their competitors to know. But in this instance, since we’re both public organizations. This would give the public access to the negotiating points on a weekly or monthly basis.” That would be easier, she said, than to have to try to absorb the entire contract at one time when the process is over. Dunkerley explained that while she was in Beaumont she observed such negotiations being held in public. Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “I think this is going to be a big improvement, building on what we’ve learned.” Wynn said he too would sponsor those changes.

Council Member Danny Thomas urged union members and community leaders to work toward reconciliation after the racially-charged debate over use of force by police earlier this year. “I think I made it very clear how I felt about the contract,” said Thomas. “I’m a little bit past the contract now. It’s time to come to the table and have some type of dialog for the healing process.” APA representatives who addressed the Council voiced similar concerns. “We need to go back to the community and build the trust that we have in the community,” said Officer Wuthipong “Tank” Tantaksinanukij, APA Vice President. This badge represents the trust of the community and we need to keep that.”

The vote on the new contract came shortly after 1am, with the Mayor getting in the last word. “Over the past ten years, our police department has made significant improvements. There’s no question in my mind that these improvements were a direct result of our ability to change state civil service law. Despite these improvements in our force, clearly we have to do better,” he said. “I’m simply not prepared to send this force at this critical time back to straight civil service law.”

The APA membership approved the contract on a vote of 536 to 420—or 56 percent in favor—earlier this week. Nearly 25 percent of the membership failed to cast a vote on the matter.

Council supports creation of hospital district

As expected, the Council yesterday unanimously approved a resolution supporting the creation of a Travis County Hospital District by voters on May 15. That vote came after a briefing from members of the Hospital District Steering Committee on the proposed district’s organization and taxing ability.

Austin Mayor Will Wynn questioned Clarke Heidrick and Probate Judge Guy Herman about the authority the district would have to impose and raise property taxes once it comes into existence. Last summer state lawmakers granted Travis County the authority to hold a hospital district election, capping the district’s property tax rate at 25 cents per $100 of property value. And Heidrick told Council Members that the appointed Board of Governors for the Hospital District would be subject to the will of Travis County Commissioners when it came to setting that tax rate. “While the board of managers has lots of flexibility as to how it designs its system, because of the sensitivity of taxes and expenditure of public dollars…the Travis County Commissioners Court must approve that budget and must actually set the tax rate and levy the tax,” he said. “On the tax statement, there will be a separate line item…but it’s actually levied as a county tax and the county homestead exemptions would be applicable to it.”

The resolution also calls on City Manager Toby Futrell to employ an independent auditor to verify that the city’s property tax rate would reflect the reduction in health care spending by the city, which is required by state law.

Wynn took pains to clarify that while the Council supported the creation of the district, the City of Austin would not be contributing to any political campaign since such activities are prohibited by state law. “This is not the city staff or the City Manager taking a position,” Wynn said. “This is us as elected officials taking our formal position advocating for a hospital district vote on May 15th.”

Judge Herman said the members of the steering committee would continue to be active in publicizing the election over the next few weeks. “We are picking up endorsements on a daily basis,” he said. “We’re educating folks throughout the community…north, south, east, and west. We’re going anywhere and putting on presentations. We’re really trying to get the public involved and ready to go on this election May 15th.”

A group called Save Our Taxpayers announced its opposition to the district earlier this week.

Austin approves Clean Air Action Plan

The Clean Air Action Plan won enthusiastic approval from the Austin City Council on Thursday afternoon. The plan, launched under the guidance of then- Mayor Kirk Watson, will be sent to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) next month for public comment and approval and eventually to the Environmental Protection Agency for its review. If the federal and state agencies both sign off on the voluntary measures to reduce air pollution, the steps outlined in the plan could go into effect in the spring of 2005.

The biggest component in the effort to reduce ozone levels in central Texas will be emissions testing for automobiles. The testing is designed to spot cars emitting high levels of the chemicals that contribute to the formation of ozone. Emissions testing has been in place for years in major Texas cities such as Houston and Dallas, and has a long history in California. The emissions test will be a part of the regular state safety inspection required for each automobile registered in Austin. For cars built after 1996, they will simply be connected to a diagnostic computer to determine if they’re operating properly. Older vehicles will undergo traditional tailpipe testing, during which a sensor in the tailpipe will measure the content of the exhaust while the vehicle is idling. The test is expected to add about $20 to the cost of a state inspection sticker.

“This is a very important step forward,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher. “I think it’s extraordinary the amount of participation in the region on this issue, and it requires regional participation because the air we breathe doesn’t know borders. The biggest part is the emissions testing program and I’m really happy that we’re going to implement that here.” Travis and Williamson County commissioners and city councils in the major cities in Williamson County have also agreed to emissions testing for vehicles registered within their jurisdictions. San Marcos City Council members rejected emissions testing on a vote of 4 to 2, but City of Austin Sustainability Officer Fred Blood said that decision would only affect 10 percent of the cars registered in the counties participating in the Clean Air Action Plan.

“Today represents the end of four years of work on this Clean Air Action Plan,” said Blood. “We are a national leader in air quality both because of the Early Action Compact and our aggressiveness to attack air quality on a local level. Public officials across five counties, and in particular this Council, need to be congratulated on that.”

Austin Mayor Will Wynn made it a point to thank officials in outlying areas who supported the regional effort. “The amount of energy and input from our suburban neighbors has been remarkable to me. The beauty of the fairness of this Clean Air Action Plan is it is an equitable analysis of where our pollution comes from,” he said. “Clearly, Austin and Travis County being the most densely populated in the region . . . we play a disproportionate role and we’re acknowledging that. But it’s quite encouraging to see our more suburban neighbors taking the same approach.” The Council vote to approve the plan was 4-0, with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Members Danny Thomas and Brewster McCracken temporarily off the dais.

The measures outlined in the plan now go to the TCEQ, which will write the rules for their implementation after taking public comment later this summer. Given EPA approval, emissions testing for vehicles could begin approximately one year from now, with other portions of the plan being phased in by the end of next year.

Jones, Ortiz receive kudos

Some of the leading figures in Austin’s environmental movement turned out for Thursday’s Council Meeting to pay tribute to Tim Jones, who has resigned from the Environmental Board after 13 years for health reasons. Jones has been famous (and sometimes notorious) for his dedication to tracking down sources of pollution and for his dedication to protecting water quality in central Texas.

“He’s on the ground out there, dealing with pollution in our waterways and stopping it. He’s exposed a lot of pollution and gotten it cleaned up,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher. “He’s not just a fair-weather environmentalist…he’s out there when it’s pouring down rain when the pollution is really happening. I think we can count on him to still be doing that, just not as an Environmental Board member. I know that he’ll be here protecting Austin’s environment. We really need him to do that. It’s a tough fight we’re all engaged in and we need Tim Jones in that fight.” Slusher was joined by Environmental Board Chair Lee Leffingwell, who praised Jones for his dedication and commitment. “I think our water is a little cleaner than it would have been, and our central Texas critters are a little healthier than they would have been, in large part because of Tim Jones,” said Leffingwell. “You’ll be missed, my friend.”

Almost all of the current members of the Environmental Board and several former members were present for Council Member Slusher to present Jones with a Distinguished Service Award. George Cofer, Bill Bunch, Pat Murphy, Mike Blizzard, and Mary Arnold were among those who gave a standing ovation for the long-time environmental activist.

“If I had known I had this many friends, I don’t think I would have left,” said Jones. “I think the last time I saw so many of my friends like this around me was when I was in court on a trespassing charge…I felt like I’d gone to my own funeral.” Jones thanked his fellow board members and the city staffers in the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department he had worked with over the years. “In the 13 years I’ve been on this board…there’s been an evolution of the Environmental Board and there’s been an evolution of the Watershed Protection Department,” he said. “Staff has adopted the conditions that we continually impose on variances. The ideas that we had and the measures that we came up with, to a great extent, have been incorporated into the process. It indicates that this board has been a real help.” Jones was optimistic that his medical condition was treatable, and indicated he would consider re-applying to the board if his health improved. “All you developers out there, don’t get too comfortable I’m gone,” he said. “I’m not ending my service to the community, you can be sure of that!”

The Environmental Board isn’t the only city commission losing a prominent member. Planning Commission Chair Lydia Ortiz stepped down this week from her position in order to focus on her job and her new child. “The city needs the dedication of folks like Lydia that serve,” said Council Member Raul Alvarez, who presented Ortiz with a Distinguished Service Award. “We’re hopeful that she’ll be back to serve again, and I know she’s active with different community groups.” Ortiz thanked the Council, her fellow commissioners, and the city staff. “I think the city should be very proud of its staff,” she said. “It’s very fair-minded, professional, and I think very dedicated.” Just because Lydia Ortiz is stepping down from the Planning Commission doesn’t mean the Ortiz family is escaping late-night meetings concerning civic affairs. Her husband, Hector Ortiz, has recently joined the Parks and Recreation Board.

Austin Energy moves on solar rebate program . . . The Council approved one new full-time position at AE to work on the recently enhanced solar rebate program and increased the conservation rebate kitty by about $1 million for rebates on solar energy equipment. The Council also approved transfer $7.65 million from the Austin Energy repair and replacement fund to cover the first two years of work in decommissioning the Holly Power Plant . . . Public land acquisition . . . The City Council approved acquisition of 236 acres of the Barton Springs Contributing Zone in Hays County for about $1.6 million yesterday. Money for the land will come from Open Space bonds and from the Lowe’s mitigation fund. In addition, the Council approved purchase of 7.9 acres east of Congress and north of Stassney on Wasson Road for $415,000 from Greenway and Destination Park Bond Funds approved in 1998. The land is adjacent to 315 acres that the city already owns and will provide an access point to that property . . . Appointments . . . With the resignation of Lydia Ortiz from the Planning Commission, the City Council moved quickly yesterday to fill her former position. Council Member Raul Alvarez appointed John Michael Cortez to fill the post, leaving a vacancy at the Zoning and Platting Commission . . . Other appointments . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley appointed Bradley Stein to the Music Commission and Shannon Eaton to the Urban Forestry Board. Council Member Brewster McCracken appointed Gregory Sapire to the Urban Transportation Commission. Carol Martin was a consensus appointment from the Library Commission to serve on the Bond Oversight Committee. Chip Rosenthal was reappointed by consensus to the Telecommunications Commission and Jon Holder was reappointed by consensus to the Child Care Council. The Council also reappointed Bruce Barrick by consensus to the Austin Community Education Consortium . . . Sign amendments postponed . . . With last night’s heavy agenda, the Council decided to put off consideration of proposed amendments to the sign ordinance. Those were not the controversial items sought by Council Members Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken, but fairly innocuous changes to height limitations from the Planning Commission . . . The Council also postponed, at the request of the applicant, consideration of zoning from CS to GR-MU-CO for the Guadalupe Street Lofts at 45th and Guadalupe. That item is scheduled to return on April 15 . . . Municipal Clerk’s pay OK'd. . . The Council approved a compensation and benefits package for Municipal Clerk Rebecca Stark in the same amount as she currently receives, a move in keeping with the city’s budgetary prohibition on pay increases. Stark receives an annual salary of just under $86,000 plus a car and cell phone allowance. They also approved moving one full-time equivalent position from the clerk’s office to the City Auditor’s Office.

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