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Smoking foes move to put ordinance before voters

Wednesday, February 2, 2005 by

Proponents of stricter rules gather 48,000 signatures for spot on May 7 ballot

The anti-smoking group O2nward Austin filed a petition with 48,000 signatures yesterday to put a strict new ordinance on the books that would eliminate smoking in all but a handful of restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, music venues and pool halls. Organizer Rodney Ahart told In Fact Daily if voters approve the referendum on the May 7 ballot, smoking would be illegal in almost all public places in the city.

City Clerk Shirley Brown talked while stamping page numbers on petitions yesterday afternoon. Brown said workers in her office would begin validating signatures this morning. In order to place the matter on the ballot, Brown said, a group must submit 36,764 valid signatures, or 10 percent of those registered to vote.

According to Brown, the names of 407, 177 voters are on the books, but after eliminating the registrations of those who do are suspended, the city had 367,641 voters.

Brown said her office will use a random sampling method, checking 25 percent of the signatures submitted, as prescribed by state law. She said 13 or 14 employees in her office would work to validate signatures until the task is completed, probably early next week.

Ahart said the ordinance proposed by Onward Austin is like the one enacted by the City Council in 2003 under Mayor Gus Garcia. When Brewster McCracken joined the Council and Will Wynn became Mayor, the Council then had a bare majority to change the ordinance adopted by the Garcia Council. They approved changes allowing bars to pay a fee and allow smoking throughout. Restaurants with bars could pay a fee and build a separate bar where smoking would be allowed if it had a separate ventilation system, Ahart said.

“We have a provision that would grandfather those establishments,” said Ahart, estimating that there were only 7 or 8 such businesses in Austin. “That was something that we wanted to do, because those businesses in good faith were trying to comply with the law.” Ahart said smoking would still be allowed on patios and outdoors. Billiard and pool halls are exempted under the current ordinance as are bowling alleys. That would change if voters approve O2nward Austin’s proposal.

"There are lots of citizens in Austin who support a stronger ordinance. We're excited, "to have completed the signature gathering process, said Ahart, who said his group began the petition drive in mid-October.

Paul Silver, owner of 219 West, has taken the lead role in opposing further smoking restrictions. Last night Silver said, “Thirty to forty bar owners have been talking, “ about the threat they see in an outright ban on smoking in bars. “This is going to be a wake up call for the rest of them.”

MACC faces changes, more delays

Oversight group frustrated by lack of progress

The Mexican-American Cultural Center’s advisory committee last night gave its reluctant blessing to a redesign of the MACC’s first phase that meets more of the community’s goals but delays the project another four months, pushing its completion to the end of 2006.

Council Member Raul Alvarez accompanied Project Manager Paul Medrano to explain the new challenge to the MACC Advisory Committee. Medrano explained that the center must be redesigned to fit within the budget constraints of the city.

East Austin resident Sabino Renteria, expressed his neighbors’ frustrations, saying he has waited 25 years for the MACC. Bonds for the center were approved back in 1998.

“There’s a lot of anger and a lot of rumors that you’re not going to build that facility,” said Renteria, pointing out that City Council members would soon change, leading to a delay or forgetting the project. “You’re coming back and saying, ‘We’re delaying this and we’re delaying that.’ You tell us, ‘We don’t have the operations money,’ and now you say, ‘We don’t have money to build the facility.’”

Medrano, who is shepherding the project through the process, says the city will not lose sight of the MACC project. Already, the city has spent $500,000 on utility relocation and street vacation to prepare for the impending changes.

The city has about $9 million to spend on the first phase of the center, Alvarez said. The first phase of the project is three elements: a crescent-shaped building with administration and classrooms; a multi-purpose area with a performance stage; and an exhibition area.

To get the project underway, the crescent-shaped building would need to be scaled back and redesigned, Medrano said. That portion of the project is expected to cost $7 million. Given the limited funds, the city could choose to pursue either the exhibit hall or the multi-purpose/performance space in the first phase of the facility.

The exhibit hall would cost $1.5 million. The multi-purpose/performance space is expected to cost $3 million. Alvarez’s recommendation is that the community would be more satisfied with the pursuit of a multi-purpose/performance space. That performance space is the “heart and soul” of the MACC, Alvarez said. It also would replace a warehouse that was demolished to make way for the MACC.

Cutting back the MACC did not sit well with Commissioner Martha Cotera, but Commissioner Stephen Parks said it was more of a decision to shift a portion of Phase I to Phase II. Chair Donato Rodriguez said the committee did not have much of a choice, if the MACC was to be built. Alvarez disagreed, saying that the city could still build both facilities if the city secured a federal economic development grant.

Alvarez did not express much hope for Cotera’s suggestion that the city might find a place in the upcoming bond issue for additional MACC funding.

Renteria asked whether site work could be completed while the redesign was being done. Medrano said such a choice would mean pulling the site work out into a separate bid package. Using a separate bid package and a separate contractor would probably make the work harder, not easier, Medrano said.

The redesign of the MACC’s first phase would take an extra four months. That would send the project out to bid in July. If the city can maintain its time schedule, the first phase of the MACC would be open by the end of the 2006. Additional phases of the $60 million project – which includes two theaters, a parking garage and art space – would be built in the future.

Commissioners approve fire code changes

It may have taken four weeks to hammer out a final accord with property owners, but Travis County Commissioners have finally adopted the International Fire Code (IFC). It provides more stringent fire-safety standards for buildings, and sets a general standard of protection that is equal across the county.

According to those supporting it, the IFC has a lot of pluses for Travis County, including being easier to understand and lowering premiums.

But moving to the new code does raise questions. County commissioners spent a number of executive sessions talking about the implications of the code. Assistant County Attorney Barbara Wilson set out some of the premises under the code:

• The definition of “existing buildings” means either the point of groundbreaking or the point at which time the final permit for construction is issued. The new code will not apply to buildings already under construction.

• New buildings will have to meet the new standards. The new standards also apply to buildings that are “substantially” enlarged, altered or repaired. The term “substantial” will mean that improvements are equal to or more than 50 percent of the appraised value or, in some cases, 50 percent of the space, as determined by external dimensions.

• The county will grant variances. The grounds for a variance, as set out under the code, are modeled on an ordinance recently adopted in Houston. Those criteria include the fact the new code would present a significant hardship, other than financial, to the owner. The variance also cannot endanger the welfare or safety of people.

A 5-member panel with an expertise in fire codes will review variances. The panel would review any denial of a variance made by the fire marshal. The code went into effect on Tuesday. Citations will begin on May 1 and the fund from fines will go to pay for the fire code implementation.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said it was important to have predictability and objectivity to the variance process. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who raised the initial concerns, said he was satisfied with the solutions and moved approval of the ordinance.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved Firefighters, city negotiators to meet today . . . Representatives of Austin firefighters and city management will begin collective bargaining sessions at 9am today. How that discussion will start is a matter of opinion. City Manager Toby Futrell says the parties need to reach agreement on contacting the City Council, which she says negotiators for the firefighters should not do. Austin Association of Professional Firefighters President Mike Martinez said his group and city management reached agreement on rules for the negotiations last week. He said that those rules do not address contacting the Council, so there is no such prohibition. Channel 6 will tape today’s meeting and all negotiation sessions. Futrell said city staff would work to get those on the air as soon after the meetings as possible . . . Brandt road case to be postponed . . . This week’s City Council agenda calls for final approval of annexation of the Brandt Road area, where neighbors have been arguing with the Ford Motor Company about the zoning, lighting, and traffic patterns, among other things. They have not resolved their differences, so the matter will apparently be postponed . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Environmental Board will meet at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. Water and Wastewater Commission will meet at 6pm in Waller Creek Plaza. The Art in Public Places panel will meet at 6pm in City Hall, room 2016. The city is looking for new members for this panel, which is composed of persons with visual arts backgrounds such as professional artists, designers, instructors and individuals with knowledge of contemporary art. For more information, contact Meghan Turner at 974-9314. The Travis County Hospital District Board of Managers meets at 6:30pm in the Granger Building, 314 W. 11th, to continue discussions from Monday on hiring a new executive director. . . . Jail expansion . . . Travis County will use the design-build option for the expansion of the jail facilities at the Del Valle Correctional Complex. Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes says the method, which picks a consultant who can design, supervise, and deliver the expansion project, is both quicker and more cost effective. Grimes said the jail expansion will be the first major “ design-build” project pursued by the county.

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