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Police report leads to tiff twixt Council members

Monday, November 1, 2004 by

Disagreement between Goodman, McCracken not related to report

Last week’s report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) on training and recruitment practices at the Austin Police Department offered more than recommendations for a new police academy. Discussion following the consultants’ report gave Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Brewster McCracken an opportunity—not the first—to spar on the dais.

With dozens of recommendations in the report, Council Members had the opportunity to question the outside researchers on particular areas. McCracken focused his inquiries on the training officers receive in use of computer software to locate crimes within their patrol areas. A similar mapping technique is used in Baltimore to track citizen requests for a wide variety of city services under the "Citistat" program, which McCracken began touting more than one year ago after a visit to the city (see In Fact Daily, October 20, 2003).

offered information on the computer tracking programs used by officers, but also conceded that there was the possibility for placing more emphasis on those crime-mapping techniques during the academy. "That's one area where we need to make a greater effort, so when they get out of the program they can use that tool in making their patrol district safer, and we'll take that and we're going to run with that," Chief Knee said.

McCracken's extended line of questioning regarding computer software issues eventually led to some questions from Goodman, who challenged McCracken to pay closer attention to the city's ongoing efforts in that area. "Have you been over to C-TECC?" she asked, referring to the new Combined Transportation, Emergency, and Communications Center for city and county emergency services. When McCracken admitted that he had not toured the facility, Goodman urged him to do so. "That's a closer trip to home (than Baltimore)…you can find out a lot of what we're doing," she said. "I think we're pretty cutting edge, one of the few cities that's actively working on technology and including old technology built into the new. With all the national acclimation, maybe you should check out what we're doing."

"I'm aware of what we're doing," responded McCracken. "I have a pretty good degree of confidence in the inter-operability of emergency communication. I am more concerned about some crime mapping issues and the public input, citizen input to provide help to law enforcement." Mayor Will Wynn cut off the terse exchange as Goodman attempted to query McCracken further about the nature of his concerns.

Council Members were generally complimentary of the report, and of APD. Wynn described the product of the outside analysis as money well spent. "Sixty-seven percent of our General Fund budget is now spent on public safety," he said. "When you spend this much of your public dollars, it's wholly appropriate that we spend this much time and effort outside of the traditional policing areas of salaries and equipment…I applaud the team and the Chief and the City Manager for this report."

The consultants recommended increased training for officers on how to "de-escalate" situations, or resolve conflicts with subjects without the use of force. It also urged a closer relationship between police officers and the Police Monitor's Office. Knee said that suggestion, like many others in the report, was already being implemented. "One of the things we found in talking with the research team is that many of the officers do not fully understand the process of a citizen complaint, the process and role of the Police Monitor," he said. "So based upon that input, we're scheduling the Police Monitor to come to the academy classes for three hours to talk about not only his office, but the trends he sees in citizen complaints."

While some of the recommendations in the PERF report are low-cost, others will require substantially more funding or major re-organization to accomplish. Of particular concern were conditions at the APD training academy. Consultants said the current facility, designed more than 20 years ago, was meant to house and train less than one-third of the cadets and officers it currently serves. While they applauded the training staff for creative and efficient scheduling to maximize the use of the facility, they noted that crowded classroom conditions and high student-to-teacher ratios could have a detrimental impact on training. They concluded that the dramatic growth in the city's population over the past 20 years, along with increased demands on the training academy, justified serious consideration of a significant expansion of the current facility or a new facility altogether.

To pay for those capital improvements, the city would likely have to issue bonds. Both Council Members and the City Manager indicated that could be an item on a future bond ballot. "I was a little suspicious that the Chief's favorite recommendation for a new training facility showed up near the top," City Manger Toby Futrell joked, "but these men of great integrity told me that they came to that on their own." On a more serious note, Futrell indicated that improved training facilities for the department are a priority. "We know that the training is moving to the top as something we have to deal with as we move into upcoming elections," she concluded. Council Member Danny Thomas, a former police officer, also indicated he would likely support asking for voter approval for funding a new academy. "I'm sure with a bond package, nobody would run from a new cadet academy," he said. "That is very important, and I'm sure we wouldn't have a problem, City Manager, with whatever we need to do."

Commission still mulling land law changes

City housing office requests postponement

Last week, the Planning Commission reviewed proposed changes to the city's Land Development Code designed to reduce the impact of gentrification in East Austin by promoting the development of more affordable housing. However, the commission did not vote on those proposed changes. Instead, they asked staff for additional information on two newly suggested options and decided to reconsider the proposals at their next meeting.

The amendments brought forward by staff, after a lengthy stakeholder review process, are not meant to single-handedly eliminate the upward pressure on real estate values in East Austin. But Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department staffer Steve Barney told commissioners that the amendments could facilitate the construction of new housing as part of a larger package of code amendments.

Suggested changes include allowing small lot subdivisions in the MU (mixed use) zoning category, along with allowing small lot subdivisions under SF-5 and SF-6 zoning. "Several Smart Housing builders have found that small lots are a way of building reasonably priced single-family detached homes," said Barney. Many of the other changes also relate to the types of housing that could be built on lots with the MU designation.

The staff is suggesting that urban homes, cottage lots, and secondary apartments be allowed under MU in neighborhood planning areas that permit those types of in-fill development. Staff is also suggesting that two-family residential and single-family attached residential be allowed under MU, and that single-family uses within MU-zoned areas comply with the site development standards consistent with SF-3. "To staff, it makes little sense that other land uses allowing much higher densities are currently permitted in the Mixed-Use Combining District, but small lot subdivision is not permitted," said Barney.

The commission has already reviewed a proposal to allow different types of residential uses with in the Mixed Use category, so most of the debate was reserved for two items submitted by stakeholders. One request, relayed by Sonia Lopez with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, was to specifically allow condominiums as a permitted use under MU. "This came up as in issue in the East Riverside/Oltorf Neighborhood planning process. Residents, she said, were concerned about the proliferation of apartment complexes. "There's a ton of existing multifamily housing," she said. That fact made residents reluctant to accept more mixed use zoning, since it can include apartments. Residents suggested that condominiums be listed as another option for residential under MU. "Since you allow everything below, down to single family, and above to apartments, it doesn't make any sense why you wouldn't allow a condominium which is in between those two uses," she concluded.

But Stuart Hersh with the city's Neighborhood Housing Office asked commissioners to delay a vote on that proposal, noting that his office had not had the opportunity to study the impact it would have on the development of affordable housing. Since condominiums can be bought and sold like single-family homes, Hersh said, they frequently increased in value. "Condominiums are often cited in the literature as a source of taking housing that is otherwise affordable and rendering it less affordable due to 'flipping.' We haven't examined that issue in conjunction with these amendments because that suggestion didn't emerge from the staff task force," he said. "We're not averse to looking at it, but we just haven't done the legwork." Hersh had similar concerns about another suggestion relayed by one developer to the staff regarding more flexible setback requirements. In order to allow the staff time to analyze both of those suggestions in more detail, the commission voted unanimously to postpone action on the code amendments until November 9.

A change of direction. . . The board of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District last week approved a proposal by the Groundwater District Coalition to hire a new legislative lobbyist. The coalition is considering hiring Mike Toomey and Associates to provide representation during the upcoming legislative session. Toomey was a heavy hitter among Republican lobbyists before becoming chief of staff for Gov. Rick Perry in 2002. Toomey left his post with Perry’s office in early September amidst speculation related to the ongoing investigation of Texans for a Republican Majority’s political action committee. The vote was 4-0-1, with Board Member Craig Smith abstaining due to what he called the “revolving door syndrome” of former state officials lobbying the people for whom they had previously worked. The board also affirmed that the district would remain in the coalition . . . New job for planner . . . Planner Annick Beaudet, formerly with the City of Austin, has joined the law firm of Brown, McCarroll . . . New digs . . . City staff can expect some new neighbors in One Texas Center come Veteran's Day. The 14-member staff of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization will be joining city staff in the building. Executive Director Michael Aulick says CAMPO staff is currently sorting and boxing in order to be ready to move in a few days … Alert to political party hounds . . . On Tuesday night, Democrats will be celebrating at the Driskill Hotel, with the main Travis County party on the second floor and other parties scattered throughout. Republicans will be rejoicing nearby at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel . . . Tonight’s meetings. . .The Historic Preservation Task Force will meet—likely for the last time—to review recommendations they have already approved. The meeting is set for 5:30pm in Room 240 of One Texas Center . . . The Music Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center and the Design Commission will meet in the 11th floor conference room of One Texas Center. That meeting is set for 5:45pm . . . Travis County white house? . . Democrats will hold a rally in front of a white house that happens to be at 1600 Pennsylvania—in East Austin. Supporters will begin gathering at 5pm, with the rally set to begin at 5:45pm.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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