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Commissioner stumbles on code of conduct

Wednesday, December 8, 2004 by

Moncada says he did not know of prohibition on appearance before board

In an apparent violation of the City Code, Environmental Board Member Phil Moncada said he was recusing himself from the one case handled by the board at its meeting last week, but after leaving the dais offered comments to help a Lake Austin homeowner seeking two variances. In the end, the board sided with the homeowner’s request to keep a 250- foot long boardwalk installed behind his house at 7014 Green Shores Drive, but recommended against his proposal to add plumbing facilities and expand a pump house near his boat dock.

In Fact Daily contacted city Integrity Officer John Steiner to inquire about the legality of a board member appearing before the board on which he sits. Steiner responded by citing § 2-7-62 of the City Code, which spells out standards of conduct for members of city boards and commissions. The code defines members of city boards and commissions as city officials, and states, “No City official or employee shall formally appear before the body of which the official or employee is a member while acting as an advocate for himself or any other person, group, or entity. . .” Steiner added, “Recusal would not cure the problem.”

Asked about the incident, Moncada said he had no idea that his appearance before the advisory board would be a violation of the code. He said he would never do anything that would jeopardize his position on the board, adding that he thought the regulation applied only to the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission. "If I've done anything wrong, I've done it in ignorance," he concluded.

Board Chair Mary Ruth Holder said she thought it was “unusual” for Moncada to speak after he had recused himself, but said she did not realize at the time that he was violating city regulations either. She said she thought members of the board were “uncomfortable” with the situation, but their knowledge of the rules was not firm enough for them to intervene.

Subsequent to her conversation with a reporter, Holder contacted an attorney in the city’s Law Department and Joe Pantalion, director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department. Holder said she learned that Moncada's actions did not invalidate the board vote. The Environmental Board only makes recommendations on such variances.

Holder has only chaired the commission for two months. Prior to her election, Lee Leffingwell, who resigned in order to run for the City Council, served as chair for five years. Leffingwell said recusal requirements had been discussed in retreats the board had with city staff. He noted that the board had not had such a retreat in several years. Holder said she would schedule a retreat with Steiner as soon as possible. "We're all sitting there in the dark and need to have him do a broad presentation. I'm very, very sorry this happened," she said.

The only member of the board who seem to have a clear understanding of recusal and the rules governing when a member should recuse himself was David Anderson, who works for consulting firm and has recused himself on several occasions. Anderson said that when he needed to recuse himself on an item he had asked the chair to move that item to the end of the agenda and then left the meeting.

An architect hired Moncada to assist him after the city red-tagged construction of the boardwalk. Board Member William Curra offered the motion to recommend denial of the variance to allow improvements to the pump house but approve the variance allowing the boardwalk to remain. The boardwalk could provide some environmental benefit, he said, since it shielded the roots of several large trees which, in turn, could help prevent erosion. Curra's motion passed on a vote of 5-1, with Board Member Timothy Riley opposed. The matter may also go to the Parks and Recreation Board’s committee on navigation before going to the Zoning and Platting Commission for a final decision.

LCRA board says 'Yes' to Hamilton Pool pipeline

The LCRA will go ahead with plans to build a new water pipeline along Hamilton Pool Road. Over the objections of some neighborhood and environmental groups, the agency's Board of Directors voted unanimously to sign agreements with three major landowners in southwest Travis County who had requested water service from the LCRA. As part of those agreements, the LCRA will require customers to comply with strict environmental regulations. "I think this is a big win for the environment," said Rusty Signor, one of the property owners who requested the line. "I've always tried to do things ahead of what the requirements were."

In order to receive water from the pipeline, new development will have to comply with restrictions set out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in September of 2000. Board Members agreed with the staff's assessment that those controls would be superior to the lack of regulation that would accompany privately drilled wells or water from Municipal Utility Districts. "I have come to believe that the restrictions that we're putting on this contract are as restrictive as we can hope for," said Board Member Rosemary Rust, before casting her vote in favor of the pipeline.

The vote came after hours of testimony from supporters and opponents, including one water line opponent who used his three minutes to serenade LCRA General Manager Joe Beal with a modified version of the Jimi Hendrix tune "Hey Joe.” The LCRA had postponed a decision back in May to allow more time for public input and to wait for more progress from the various teams working on a long-term regional plan.

Board Member Connie Granberg told the crowd she had listened intently and considered the hundreds of letters and e-mails she received on the subject. "If you've ever had to shoot your own dog, you'll appreciate the level of emotion associated with this issue," she said. While sympathetic to the concerns voiced by those who wanted the agency to wait several more months for a regional plan to be approved, Granburg said the time was right to go ahead with the water line. "Population growth is beyond LCRA's control, but the infrastructure to serve that growth is part of our mission, and I think we should plan and build and we should do it now," she said.

When completed, the pipeline could provide surface water for hundreds of new homes planned for the area. Landowner Rebecca Hudson has already filed a plat for her property, the Rocky Creek Ranch, showing 460 lots for single-family homes. Of the other two landowners who requested the line, one has partially platted their land while the other has not yet filed any plans. The contract with the landowners will include provisions calling for them to prevent environmental damage during construction and allowing the LCRA to inspect those projects. Should more stringent water quality protections for the entire region be established in the future, the LCRA has the ability to adopt those guidelines to replace the rules established by USFW.

The pipeline could also provide service to existing homeowners who currently get their water from wells. Several of them spoke to the LCRA in support of the pipeline, explaining that the wells in the region produced poor quality water and provided little water pressure. Those who urged the agency to approve the line said that it would not spur development, but instead help control the development that would arrive with or without the line. "I love the open spaces, and I moved out here for that reason, just like so many in this room did. But I can't support a 'last one up the ladder' approach. I got to move here, I can understand that other people should too," said Scott Holland, who lives along Hamilton Pool Road. "We have to face reality. Development will come with or without your decision to extend the line. Water will come to this area…growth cannot be stopped."

Whether or not those existing homeowners receive service from the line, and under what conditions, will help determine how big the line will be. The minimum plans are for a 12-inch pipeline, but LCRA General Manager Joe Beal said that it could be larger. "It will probably be 18 months to two years before you would see any water flow in a line like this," he said. While the estimated cost of the project, just over $4 million, is relatively small by LCRA standards, Beal said the vote sends an important signal. "I think this is significant in terms of policy…the board said we are going to provide surface water in this area."

Opponents decried the Board's decision, although the conceded they were not entirely surprised by the move. Homeowner Gene Lowenthal, who praised the LCRA back in May for listening to the neighborhood's request for a delay, said he would seek other alternatives to slow down Hudson's plans to build hundreds of new homes on Rocky Creek Ranch. He pointed out that those homes would also need sewer service, which the LCRA is not providing. Hudson, he said, is planning a separate sewage treatment plant, which would have to receive a state permit. "Under TCEQ rules, fence-line neighbors like me can challenge a sewage treatment plant. At least four other neighbors and I will formally file a protest with TCEQ. I promise you, this will add seven months to the TCEQ process. Rocky Creek Ranch will not get its permit until October, if not later," he said.

Lowenthal also hinted that the entire matter could wind up in court. "That's a possibility. If this thing goes forward, there will be pollution, and there will be lawsuits," he said, predicting that violations of the Clean Water Act could be grounds for a court case. "The LCRA's going to get a black eye from this."

The resolution passed by the LCRA calls for the agency to continue participating in the different regional planning processes that are still ongoing. During their meeting, Board Members got updates from representatives from the Southwest Travis County Growth Dialogue Process, the Hamilton Pool Community Forum, and the Regional Water Quality Planning Group, which are all involved in regional planning. Terry Tull with the Regional Water Quality Planning Group stressed that while their efforts were far from over, they were making progress. "A first working draft of the plan has been produced and was posted on our web site in November," he said, adding that a second draft of the plan could be on the web site this week. "I think these achievements show our planning process has momentum… It's for real." He hopes to have a final version of the plan ready by February, with an outside target date of March 31.

Tull did not specifically ask the LCRA to wait for his group to finish before voting on the pipeline, but instead urged all parties to continue their participation in the planning process. "If our planning effort succeeds, it has implications for our region that go far beyond those of the project you are considering today," he said. "Consequently, in recognition to our duty to the thousands of people across the region who will be affected by what we do, we have not found it appropriate to adjust our schedule to accommodate your timetable for making a decision on this project."

Revitalization zone no winner says East Austin

Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas faced a skeptical audience last night as they hosted a public hearing on their proposal for a Community Preservation and Revitalization Zone in East Austin at the Conley-Guerrero Community Center.

Alvarez and Thomas first floated the plan for the revitalization zone in October. The zone would provide tax abatements for businesses and developers that set aside money for either affordable housing or a homeowner’s assistance program to pay utilities. As Alvarez told the audience of 50 last night, their intention was to try to address the fine line between two competing needs in East Austin.

“We’re trying to encourage development in such a way that will also address some of the concerns and some of the needs of the existing area,” Alvarez said. “We’re not just coming at it from one angle. We’re trying to come up with a program that tries to balance all of the issues that we’re grappling with in East Austin.”

The audience, however, did not exactly greet the proposal with open arms. Some, like Ora Houston–a retiree who lives on a fixed income–, want assistance from the city to pay property taxes or even more affordable housing. Houston said the property taxes on her East Austin home were now more than $5,000.

“I’m going to have to go sell cans or something to pay my property taxes,” Houston told the audience. But that wasn’t her only concern. “I want to know what protections are going to be put in place that when we give this developer incentives to put in affordable housing at 65 percent of median income, that he won’t go ahead and flip the property and sell it at market rate.”

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez(D-Austin) was also on hand last night to try to explain just how the state had limited the city’s ability to offer tax abatements or tax freezes to individuals. Tax abatements, Rodriguez explained, are limited to larger businesses. Under state law, even those taxes collected by a tax increment financing districts must go directly into infrastructure rather than affordable housing.

“The city’s hands are somewhat tied as to what they can and cannot do, so the state needs to do its part,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve worked on some legislation to change some of the tax abatement laws so they go a little bit further. If we talk about tax abatements, we would like for it to go to local businesses and community preservation.”

Susana Almanza of People Organized for the Defense of the Earth and her Resources (PODER), however, was not satisfied with the answers from the trio of leaders. Almanza said she didn’t need a gentrification report to tell her that her community was being gentrified and that working class people of color were being displaced by middle- and upper-income whites.

Almanza said she only needed to see the arch with the star go over East Eleventh Street to know that the new development was intended for “someone else.” That drew some laughter from the audience.

“Eleventh Street wasn’t being revitalized for us,” Almanza told the crowd. “Who can afford to rent there? I know business owners but they can’t afford to rent there.”

Almanza recommended height limitations on East Austin streets to limit development and a serious push at the Legislature to provide rent control. Mixed-income development was considered a great idea for Austin, but the idea was not so great that people were volunteering to put mixed-income development in West Travis County, Almanza said. She called the new urbanism the “new racism” to segregate Austin.

Austin and Travis County spend millions buying land to preserve the drinking water protection zone, Almanza said. They should spend millions to protect East Austin. Almanza said the city had not done enough to protect social equity.

Almanza’s suggestions were met with applause. Another speaker, Marguerite Jones, suggested that the city was selling its tax abatements too cheaply, offering a 15-year abatement to developers who would only have to set aside a fraction of its units at a median income level well above what most families in East Austin receive.

Jones also suggested that the city stop giving incentives to development like the Hilton Convention Center Hotel. The city was eager to lure the hotel to town, but Hilton was paying no more than $5 per hour for employees to park cars. Such a salary is far below that needed to produce a median income level below the poverty line under the incentive programs.

Thomas tried to smooth the waters at the meeting by acknowledging that gentrification is occurring in East Austin but that he and Alvarez simply wanted to get the ball rolling on some kind of plan. Thomas reminded the group that he was a product of East Austin and that he had seen both the positive and negative sides of the area.

“We just wanted to start some sort of dialogue somewhere,” Thomas told the group. “It’s not over. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Winstead honored . . . Yesterday, the Greater Austin Chamber announced that Pete Winstead, the founding partner of Winstead Sechrest & Minick, has been named the chamber’s 2004 Austinite of the Year. In making the announcement, the chamber cited Winstead’s leadership of Opportunity Austin Portfolio Austin. According to the chamber, the program has helped strengthen the region by helping existing businesses. They also cited his work to improve the local transportation system as chair of the Turnpike Authority, chamber chair, and president of the Real Estate Council of Austin. Winstead will be available for media interviews this morning. For more information, call Amanda Lawson at 322-5637 . . . . . . It’s that time again . . . Williamson County Commissioners are making a list (not sure if they’re checking it twice) of issues they want their Legislative delegation to pursue during the upcoming session opening in January. Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman compiled a list from conversations with fellow commissioners. Major topics include funding for mental health programs; indigent health care issues, particularly the CHIP program; the creation of a fourth county court-at-law; creation of a county judge or magistrate to deal with toll road violations; groundwater conservation district issues, and a fee for constables to collect child support payments for the Attorney General’s Office. Staff will draft a letter containing the issue and after the commissioner’s approval, will forward it the local House and Senate members . . . Pflugerville, Travis to work on issues together . . . County Commissioners have agreed to form a standing committee to discuss common issues with Pflugerville. Initially, the committee will focus on transportation issues such as improvements to Pecan Street and Wells Branch Parkway, as well as subdivision regulations. Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman said the committee would meet on an as-needed basis. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said the committee – which will be modeled on the county’s recent efforts with Austin – is long overdue. Commissioner Ron Davis said he wanted to make sure any efforts wouldn’t stifle current economic development efforts. County Judge Sam Biscoe and Sonleitner will serve on the Travis County-Pflugerville subcommittee . . . Apple in the Big Apple . . . Former Austin Chronicle reporter Lauri Apple was thrilled yesterday to receive a call from the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City. Apple reports she will be starting her legal education in January. Her Christmas wish list includes the Uniform Comercial Code, an annotated version of the US Constitution, and canned goods, since the tuition is quite high . . . Charity at work . . . Travis County’s combined charities campaign, which ends on Friday, has raised $108,000 toward its $150,000 goal for United Way charities. A number of departments— Facilities Management, Human Resources, Justice of the Peace Precinct 3, Justice of the Peace Precinct 5, the District Attorney’s Office and the Probate Court have all exceeded past giving goals in the campaign. County Judge Sam Biscoe said county employees have raised $60,000 since last Tuesday . . . Sludge hearing cancelled. . . John Carlson, attorney for the Blackland Prairie Concerned Citizens Association, informed the Commissioners Court on Tuesday that CapTex has withdrawn its application for registration of a sludge permit outside of Manor. The application was slated for a hearing Wednesday at the TCEQ. The Blackland Prairie Concerned Citizens Association agreed to the action, which was filed without prejudice, which means that CapTex can file another application in the future . . . Homeless plan to be announced . . . The Community Action Network’s Homeless Task Force and the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department have drawn up a plan to end chronic homelessness in Austin and Travis County. On Friday, the two groups will release the plan at a press conference featuring Austin Mayor Will Wynn and Sally Shipman, Southwestern States Regional Coordinator for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Shipman served on the Austin City Council in the 1980s. Developed with broad community representation, the groups heard from service providers, homeless and formerly homeless persons, business representatives, local government agencies, policy makers and representatives of churches. Austin and Travis County are home to an estimated 3,789 homeless individuals on any given day, of which about 600 are categorized as chronically homeless.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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