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Notes from the campaign trail:

Friday, February 4, 2005 by

Anti-smoking petitions apparently insufficient

City Clerk Shirley Brown said Thursday that the petitions relating to limiting smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places submitted this week probably have an insufficient number of signatures to place the matter on the May 7 ballot. When O2nward Austin organizer Rodney Ahart filed the petitions on Monday, he said his group had gathered 48,000 signatures from registered voters—considerably more than the 36,764 signatures required to place the referendum on the ballot.

In response to a reporter’s questions, Brown said each of the pages has signatures blacked out with a Magic Marker, evidently a part of O2nward Austin’s way of validating the petitions. So, although there were perhaps 48,000 raw signatures prior to the petitioners’ crossing out the invalid names, they had actually turned in fewer signatures than the total needed.

It appears that petitioners are at least 100 short of the number needed, Brown said, without taking into consideration any further disqualification by the clerk’s office. Earlier in the day, Rosemary Ybarra, the elections specialist in the clerk’s office, said that of the representative sample of signatures she checked, the validation rate was about 96 percent.

“I want to go back tomorrow and recheck our numbers,” Brown said last night. If her current count is correct and the petitions lack sufficient signatures, Brown will send a letter to Ahart informing him that his group has an additional 15 days to supplement their signatures.

Ahart said, “Of course, if we’re short we’ll be out there collecting some more. We’re in this for the long haul.”

The other petition, being circulated by the Austin Toll Party, would place the recall of Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas on the May ballot. Petition organizer Linda Curtis said Thursday the group is about three-quarters of the way to the target of 36,764. Originally, she said, Toll Party signature gatherers had thought they needed considerably more than that because they did not know how many voters had been suspended—which means they are no longer considered to be registered in the city.

Wes Benedict, who ran against Thomas for the Place 6 seat in 2003, has offered $2,000 if the Toll Party can match that with $8,000 raised from other sources. In an e-mail obtained by In Fact Daily, Benedict said $10,000 would be enough to pay petitioners to finish the job started by volunteers. Curtis said the group has already started hiring some of the volunteers, adding that they would only hire internally. She said she expects petitioners to bring their signatures to be notarized to CAMPO’s next meeting on February 14.

The Austin Toll Party started the recall drive in reaction to the vote for Austin’s massive toll road plan. Petitioners have been overheard telling members of the public that they should sign the petition in order to reverse the toll road plan. However, the petition only addresses recalling the Mayor and Council members.

Council puts off vote on TOD ordinance

Promising to schedule more stakeholder meetings on various issues, the City Council last night agreed to delay a vote on the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) ordinance.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she intended to suggest voting on the first reading of the TOD ordinance last night but then decided that the Austin Transit Communities Coalition, and others, had given Council enough reasons to extend discussion. Goodman told her colleagues the city can never be sure everyone will participate in the planning process, but that the TOD ordinance was so significant and such a precedent-setting step that Council should postpone action on the ordinance.

Goodman made a motion that directed city staff to take another month to facilitate at least one forum—and possibly more—to open up more dialogue with stakeholders. Goodman said it was important to take the opportunity to discuss “both the upsides and downsides and engage even more people in the process.”

Mayor Will Wynn seconded Goodman’s motion. He suggested that Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman and city staff post the additional comments received from the public on the city’s website and address some of the questions raised at the meeting, including some serious concerns expressed by Council Member Raul Alvarez.

Alvarez stated one of the common themes of last night’s hearing, the transition from the current base zoning to transitional zoning overlays to the permanent zoning for the station plans. In the case of Saltillo Plaza station, Alvarez said he was uneasy about the areas of the map that were left undefined, especially given the fact the area had already gone through a five-year neighborhood planning process.

“After five years of planning, we should know what those intensities (of zoning) should be,” Alvarez said during a discussion with Alice Glasco about specific station plans. “I just don’t feel comfortable.”

Lori Renteria with the East Cesar Chavez Planning Team supported Alvarez in his concerns. Renteria told Council that a lot of misunderstandings with the East Austin community could have been prevented if city staff had started with the planning team and not focus groups. By the time city staff got to the planning team, it was already drafting a resolution of opposition. Once the specifics were known, that opposition turned into support, especially given the willingness to make changes, Renteria said.

“I want to congratulate George Adams and all the staff for making the revisions to the ordinance, as frustrating as it has been to have a new draft every week,” Renteria told the Council members. “We know that they’re trying to address our needs, and right now we feel real comfortable at this place, knowing that they’re going to follow our neighborhood plan and come to us in the interim.”

Renteria did say she’d prefer to see a consultant hired for the seven TOD station plans who had some ties to the community, rather than hiring an outside group such as ROMA. She pledged the support of the East Cesar Chavez team and surrounding neighborhoods to assist in a planning process that reflected the neighborhood’s priorities.

Advocates for affordable and accessible housing also were on hand to support the proposal of 25 percent affordable housing around TODs, which has yet to be incorporated into the ordinance. Landowners and developers expressed some concern about the transition from current base zoning to the station plan zoning, with some supporting no intermediate step. And neighborhood leaders expressed a concern that the neighborhood planning process not be ignored during the rezoning, with careful consideration of current neighborhood goals.

During discussion of the one-month delay, Council Member Daryl Slusher said he had hoped that the fight over station plans would not be about high-density development, and it wasn’t. Slusher said the pedestrian-friendly, high-density approach was one that could break the patterns of sprawl in the Austin community. He also supported the points on affordable housing, saying that it only made sense that those working-class families who needed mass transit the most would be able to buy or rent affordable housing near stations in order to be able to live near their jobs or near transit.

Council Member Brewster McCracken stressed the need for front-end planning on transit-oriented developments, pointing to not only the TOD projects that worked but also the ones that failed. McCracken said the city delegation had visited developments that had clearly failed because of poor planning. To fail to support the right kind of design standards around stations simply set the city up to fail its citizens, McCracken said. .

Futrell gets a parachute more golden

In the unlikely event that City Manager Toby Futrell is forced out of office before reaching 23 years of service with the city, the City Council has agreed to purchase enough retirement service credits to enable her to leave the city with full retirement benefits. That change was made Thursday night after the Council reviewed Futrell's performance in executive session.

While Futrell has been with the city for 28 years, working her way up from a file clerk to the city's top job, some of that time was spent with the city's Health Department. At the time the department used a mixture of city, state, and county employees. Futrell was originally an employee of the State of Texas Health Department, which means those years of service counted toward the state's retirement system, not the city's.

The move by the Council gives Futrell retirement security should she be forced to resign or the city changes its Council-Manager form of government. A forced resignation does not appear to be on the horizon, considering that Council Members were effusive with their praise for Futrell, who has been the City Manager since Jesus Garza retired in the spring of 2002. "This Council and I believe that our City Manager has been doing a remarkable job," said Austin Mayor Will Wynn, praising her ability to balance the city's budget during the years of the economic slowdown.

Other Council Members each took their turn to offer thanks for her hard work before voting on the changes to her compensation package, which include shifting $8,000 per year from deferred compensation to regular salary.

"It is cost neutral," explained City Council Daryl Slusher, who moved approval of the resolution. "The reason is that the City Manager has asked to not have a pay raise. I think her top achievement is the budget. She's very responsive to the citizens…and she never asks more of the employees than she'll do herself."

While Futrell's annual salary of $196,115.22 is at the top of the city's pay scale, other city managers of major cities in Texas make more. The Dallas City Council recently voted to raise the salary of its acting city manager to $250,000 per year. "If you look at her salary, a lot of people think that's a lot of money, but if you look at the market for city managers these days, we're really not paying our city manager what we should be paying her," said Council Member Danny Thomas. "There are some times when she stands strong and bold about her decisions, but she also listens, and that's what I like about her."

Futrell's work ethic was a common theme as Council Members sang her praises. "She's there all the time, working on behalf of the city, so when all the rest of us hard workers finally go home, you can be assured that Toby's light is still on in that office," said Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who worked with Futrell when she was on the city staff. "She impresses the heck out of me week in and week out," concurred Council Member Raul Alvarez, with all of the issues she's able to tackle…the sensitive issues she's able to diffuse. I'm amazed what we've been able to do in the past three years given the economic situation the city's been in, and I think that's due in large part to your leadership, Toby."

Futrell herself gracefully accepted all of the compliments, giving credit to the Council and city staff for helping the city navigate the recent economic downturn. "I'm overwhelmed by the comments," she said. "Thank all of you for everything you've done for what we've been able to accomplish. It's incredible, what we've done, in light of the economy."

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved ”Director Watch” continues . . . For the fourth meeting in a row, the Travis County Hospital District Board of Managers has failed to agree on hiring a new executive director. The board brought its final four candidates out of an initial pool of 88 to Austin last weekend for a meet-and-greet reception on Friday, and a day-long series of interviews on Saturday. As part of an “aggressive” timetable to get a new director on board, the Managers have posted hiring a director on the agenda for meetings last Saturday, Monday night, Wednesday night, and last night. The Managers have been exceedingly tight-lipped about their deliberations and the apparent deadlock. The earliest they could meet again would be next Monday, though they adjourned last night with no mention of setting a date for their next meeting . . . Austin lobbyist bound for D.C. . . . One of City Hall’s better-known lobbyists, Sarah Crocker, is shutting down her Austin office and starting a new business in Washington D.C. Crocker said Thursday she would close on sale of her South Lamar building at the end of the month. She still has a few cases pending, including opposition to the controversial Bunny Run case, which involves changes to a restrictive covenant. Crocker represents several area neighborhoods who oppose changing a plan that calls for offices into an apartment complex . . . Crocker’s hearings postponed . . . Crocker had two cases on last night’s agenda, each asking for a variance from the Land Development Code. Council Member Betty Dunkerley asked that the cases be postponed for one week in order to gather more information . . . Gale to announce candidacy again . . . Perennial candidate Jennifer Gale said Thursday that she intended to file the signatures needed to have her name placed on the May 7 ballot. It is unclear whether she can do that before Monday, the official first day that candidates may file applications for a place on the ballot. Gale, who has run for the City Council, Mayor, School Board, Congress, and possibly other positions, is the only candidate at this point willing to toss her name in the ring against popular Council Member Betty Dunkerley . . . Appointments . . . The Council reappointed Dick Kallerman, Hank Kidwell and William Moore to the Impact Fee Advisory Committee by consensus . . . Patricia Mendoza was reappointed to the Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board and Council Member Brewster McCracken reappointed Gregory Sapire to the Urban Transportation Commission . . . Oops! . . . In Fact Daily erred when we said that former city employee Lisa Sanchez was with the Parks and Recreation Department. She worked for Water and Wastewater. The city is not in settlement mode, but has allocated $147,000 to Cornell, Smith & Mierl to act as outside counsel in the case. Sanchez has sued the city, claiming a “whistleblower cause of action and alleged free speech violations.” . . . Hawkins to receive Urban League award. . . Health and Human Services Commissioner Albert Hawkins will receive the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award from the Austin Area Urban League. Presentation of the award will be made at the League’s 28th annual Equal Opportunity Day Banquet on Monday, Feb. 14. Banquet ticket information is available from the Urban League at 478-7176, ext. 235. . . . Museum Express . . . Texas Memorial Museum's newest educational program for children, Museum Express, received $4,000 from ConocoPhillips, to provide scholarships for Central Texas' disadvantaged schools to participate in the program. The Museum Express program is designed to enhance formal science education for grades K-12. It takes the Museum's scientists and educational staff into Central Texas schools for presentations using specimens from the Museum's collections. More information and sign-up for Museum Express is available at http://www.tmm.utexas.edu/education/programs.

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