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Notes from the campaign trail:

Monday, February 7, 2005 by

Runoff date dictated by new laws, computers

Each Council Member is elected to a three-year term, beginning on June 15, as set forth in the City Charter. However, if there is a runoff, Council Members Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman will have to serve a few days longer in order to accommodate recent election law changes and Travis County’s need to reprogram voting machines.

The city Law Department has informed the Council and City Clerk Shirley Brown that the city will not be able to hold a runoff, if one is required, on the traditional schedule, to fill Council vacancies this spring.

According to a memo from Assistant City Attorney Sandy Zimmerman, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has recommended a June 11 runoff date, if one is required–which is almost a certainty in the Place 3 contest. The legal reasons for not holding the election on June 4, four weeks after the May 7 election, are numerous, starting with a conflict in the deadlines for canvassing the May 7 election and the start of early voting for the runoff.

If the runoff were held on June 4, early voting would have to begin on May 18, Zimmerman explained. However the Texas Election Code says the Council must meet between the 8th day and the 11th day following an election to do the canvass, between May 15 and May 18. Prior to 2004, the canvass would have been done earlier. But the Legislature lengthened the time between election and runoff and the drawing for the runoff cannot be done until the Council conducts the canvass. If the city wanted to hold the runoff on June 4, there would only be two days of preparation time between the canvass of the general election if that is done on the first possible day, May 15, and May 18, the day early voting for the runoff would begin. The County Clerk’s office must create duplicate programming cards for each voting machine, and run tests to make sure they are working properly.

The Texas Legislature changed the rules for canvassing votes in 2003. The special election in May 2004 did not involve candidates creating no possibility of a runoff. So, this is the first time the city has faced this set of circumstances.

Under the City Charter, Council members serve a three-year term or until their successors have been elected and qualified. Generally, that means a new Council Member will take office on June 15. But a Council Member is required to continue serving until his or her successor is qualified, Zimmerman wrote.

If there is a June 11 runoff election the canvass would be conducted between June 19 and June 22. As soon as the canvass is complete and the City Clerk has issued a certificate of election, the candidate can take office. Council Member Slusher said, “Evidently, we don’t have much choice if state law says we have to hold it then. But I don’t think anyone’s term should be extended so the county could have more time to reset the boxes. The Charter says June 15. I don’t like the idea of anyone’s term being extended for artificial reasons. The voters elected us to three years—not three years plus.”

Slusher said he was initially concerned that a later runoff would conflict with the charter. But he has learned that the charter allows a Council Member to serve until his or her successor is elected. Goodman said she thought the change would make little difference because the Council would not want to make any major decisions just before new members joined the Council.

Utility finds new spot for lift station

The Water and Wastewater Utility has selected a new location for a temporary sewer lift station originally planned for a spot within the future Town Lake Park (see In Fact Daily, January 13th, 2005). After hearing from neighbors who were concerned that construction of the lift station would further delay work on the park, the utility has instead selected a site just off of Toomey Road, west of Lamar Blvd. about two blocks north of Barton Springs Road.

"We had extensive meetings with the neighbors here," Division Manager Ghopal Guhthikonda told members of the Water and Wastewater Commission. "With this proposed plan, it will not impact Toomey Road." While the original design for the site had called for closing Toomey Road for part of the construction phase, Guhthikonda said the plans had been re-drawn after meeting with business owners and residents and that the road would not have to be closed.

Guhthikonda also stressed that the proposed location for the lift station would not interfere with the activities taking place at the ball fields next to Toomey Road. While some parking spaces will be unavailable because of the construction, the utility will add new spaces to make up for the loss. Since the lift station itself will be approximately 60 feet underground, there will be very little noise generated by the facility. "We do have plans for an odor control and corrosion control building with a blower that could generate some noise, but it would not be significant," he said. "We are going to take measures to make sure we use the low-noise blowers."

Both the Water and Wastewater Utility and Parks and Recreation Department will be doing extensive community outreach over the next few weeks, contacting nearby residents, business owners, and groups that use the ball fields. Letters have already been sent out to key stakeholder groups outlining the need for the lift station.

The project is scheduled to be put out for bids in March, and the city could authorize construction 90 days after that. The project will likely take between 13 and 16 months to complete. "This is a temporary lift station," Guhthikonda explained. "We intend to relieve this by 2010. By the time this project is complete it will be 2006, so we are looking at a maximum of four years the lift station will be at this location.

Health care program caught in snag

Negotiations between the Travis County Hospital District and the Travis County Medical Society Foundation to fund Project Access for nine months have run into a peculiar snag. It seems that Travis County officials quit making payments to the charity care project after they learned that the contract for the program would be transferred to the hospital district.

Project Access is a system of volunteer physician care, hospital care, diagnostic services and medication assistance for low-income, uninsured Travis County residents. The medical society program serves clients whose income is below 150 percent of poverty. The district’s Board of Managers approved funding the program as part of its mission to provide “service enhancements” to indigent health care delivery (See In Fact Daily, January 21, 2005.)

According to Ellen Richards, a planner for the county’s Health and Human Services Department, when the district began negotiations to purchase $225,000 of services from Project Access, it was suggested that since the Hospital District would be taking over the current contract between the county and Project Access, it would be more expedient to merely amend that contract to include the added services. County Commissioners are expected to vote to transfer the contract to the district tomorrow.

That, she explained, is where the problem was discovered. “We found that Project Access hasn’t been paid by the county since October,” Richards said. “The county is waiting for the contract to transfer, but we have been told that money to pay them will transfer with the contract.”

Interim District Director Jim Collins said the county currently owes about $60,000 to the project, and that the money has already been budgeted. He said once the contract is transferred and amended, the district will pay the balance due Project Access, and will apply the money transferred from the county to the district’s general fund.

Still to be negotiated is a set of performance requirements for Project Access during the term of its contract with the district, according to Collins. Part of the motion in which the district’s board approved the project was to outline a set of reporting criteria to measure the effectiveness of the program. Collins said the district’s board may have a finalized contract to approve by next Thursday.

A similar contract with the City’s Community Care Services for $145,250 to will recruit additional nurses, hygienists, and dentists was a bit less problematic. Collins, who also serves as the district’s attorney, said an amendment to the current contract was successfully negotiated. The district board unanimously approved that contract and sent it to the city for its approval.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

This week’s fund-raisers . . . Margot Clarke is holding a fund-raiser from 5:30–7pm Thursday at Doña Emilia’s. Sponsors include ZAP Commissioner Janis Pinnelli and Joe Pinnelli, Susan Moffat, Amy Wong Mok, Laurie Swan and Tish Hinojosa . . . The Texas Campaign for the Environment, which works on issues such as recycling computer and other electronic waste and landfill regulation, is holding an “ Earth Night” celebration. The event, featuring Austin singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, will begin at 8pm at Ruta Maya Coffeehouse, 3601 S. Congress Ste. D-200 (Penn Field). TCE will be honoring two Texans – Rick Lowerre and Bob Gregory – who exemplify “the good fight.” For more information call 326-5655 or 457-0700 or visit the website: . . . From the Knaupe campaign . . . Gregg Knaupe’s website blog said Saturday the campaign would have a big announcement on Sunday. Contacted while pounding the pavement for votes, Knaupe said the campaign had hired fundraiser Jodie Eldridge, a veteran in Democratic campaigns . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Music Commission will meet at 6pm in City Hall 101. Their agenda includes a progress report from Austin Music Partners and discussion and possible action on how a change in Austin’s smoking ordinance might affect musicians and their venues. The Design Commission is scheduled to meet at 5:45pm in room 523 of One Texas Center.

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