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Board at odds with Solid Waste director

Monday, April 18, 2005 by

Downtown waste subject of controversy

Several members of the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission were visibly upset and angry last week when city staff made it clear that the board’s recommendations made little difference. Commission members spent almost two hours discussing and reviewing a Solid Waste Department plan to expand its downtown collection program into some areas served by private haulers, only to be told by Solid Waste Director Willie Rhodes that their recommendation would have no effect on what action the city will take.

Rhodes’ comments came after a long string of questions from board members about the plan. There was a particularly testy exchange in which Rhodes flatly disagreed with Chair Gerald Acuña over a proposed compromise to keep an expanded downtown collection area competitive. Acuna then said he would entertain a motion from the board to recommend or not recommend the plan to expand the collection area—known as the “ T”—to add a seven-block area, including five blocks of the warehouse district. Before the board could vote, or even make a motion, Rhodes said “This is going out to bid. Regardless of what you might decide, I will go to the City Council with this plan. “

Acuña asked Rhodes if he had understood him correctly, and Rhodes said yes. “I was asked by the City Manager to look into this, and I am going ahead to put this project out to bid,” he said.

Two motions to approve the plan—both made by Board Member Rosemary Wyman—died for lack of a second. Wyman said she made the motions because she felt the board needed to approve the project for the city to move ahead but after hearing Rhodes’ comments, changed her tune. “Well, it sounds like we’re not needed, after all,” she said.

Rhodes’ comments came after much discussion of the project, including input from Bill Bryce, director of security and maintenance with the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) and John Horton, a DAA member who owns property in the Warehouse District. Horton echoed the DAA’s position that having multiple trash haulers in the warehouse district was the primary cause of unacceptable condition in alleys behind several businesses, particularly in the Warehouse District. The expansion of the “T” has been discussed for several months, although the final plan only expands it by seven blocks instead of expanding it to take in most of the downtown area between Colorado and Lamar south of 11th St.

“There is a cleanliness problem in many of the alleys,” he said. “We were impressed with what we saw happening in the “T,” and it’s prompted us to seek this contract with the city.” Horton said the advantages of the city collection program are that there is 7-day pickup and a single point of contact. “In our area, some of the businesses do not purchase sufficient capacity, so there is an overflow problem. What we want is empty dumpsters, a clean alley, and one person to call with a problem.”

Private refuse haulers say the plan constitutes a taking of their business by the city. Texas Disposal Systems’ Dennis Hobbs said he sees it as a slippery slope. “The city expands its downtown area now, and next thing you know, they are taking over the Arboretum and everywhere else,” he said. “We’re afraid that SWS could eventually take over all the areas of the city we now serve.”

Several members of the board brought up the subject of stricter enforcement of the city’s health codes and other regulations as an alternative to eliminating competition, but Bryce said it’s strictly a matter of the best way to do business. “The city is terribly short of people who can enforce codes,” he said. “We have other code enforcement issues beyond trash hauling, and we get almost no action on those either. Our members pay a $1 million a year so that we (DAA) can perform services ( Downtown Rangers, alley inspections, etc.) that the city ought to be doing but doesn’t.”

Several of the board members seemed perplexed over Rhodes’ apparent snub, but Acuña suggested if they had concerns, they should contact the City Council member who appointed them. “These are the people who need to know if you are having problems on your commission,” Acuña said, noting after the meeting that he was “very frustrated” with Rhodes’ apparent disinterest in taking the commission’s advice. He declined further comment.

Panel hears proposed changes to sign rules

Commercial, retail design standards still continue to change

The Planning Commission last week postponed its discussion on the new Commercial Design Guidelines for two weeks, citing the need to have a final or near-final version of the regulations on the table before entering into a detailed review of the document. The Zoning and Platting Commission is scheduled to discuss the proposal at a committee meeting tonight, and there will likely be another stakeholders meeting during that same week to allow more public discussion of the guidelines.

"This still is very much a work in progress," said Commission Chair Chris Riley. "The reason we don't have a staff presentation tonight is because there are other meetings scheduled this week that are devoted to significant changes with the draft ordinance. It's not that people have been dragging their feet, it's been exactly the opposite," he said. "There have been a lot of eyes and a lot of communication focused on all these things."

The commission heard from Bruce Shelton, a member of the Sign Review Board, who said that he had been working with other board members and staff in Council Member Brewster McCracken's office to fine-tune the regulations pertaining to signs. "We went over a number of issues and found a lot of little mistakes," he said, adding that the changes recommended by SRB members were being sent to the city's legal department for review. "I want to applaud this whole draft. I think it's incredible. I think it's wonderful, all the time that's been spent. I just don't want some little idiosyncrasy to get past that causes a problem later."

Some of the areas that need revision, Shelton said, pertain to the regulation of monument signs. "The intention here, I believe, is to go forth with having a nice monument sign look," he said. But proposed regulations for size of the base of a monument sign could have an unintended impact. "This would go back to the pole sign look, and we all agree that was a mistake." Other changes suggested by Shelton related to signs along highway corridors and lighting for certain types of ground signs.

Last week, the City Council postponed a public hearing on the new design standards until April 28. The Planning Commission will take up the issue again at its meeting on April 26.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Public information requests . . . Austin Toll Party founder Sal Costello has made a giant open records request of the City of Austin. Costello has asked for all emails from or to mayoral aide Matt Curtis from Jan. 1, 2005 to April 5, 2005. He has also asked for Curtis’ cell phone records for the same time period. Given the bad blood between Curtis and the group who tried to recall his boss, that’s not too surprising . . . Also requested . . . Attorney Tom Stribling has requested documents relating to “the appointment of and/or reappointment of each of the current members of the Volunteer Citizen's Panel which serves in conjunction with the Office of the Police Monitor” . . . Walkway dedication . . . The City of Austin and Parks and Recreation Department will be celebrating the contributions of Roberta Purvis Crenshaw this morning with a Walkway Dedication ceremony at 10am on the north side of the MoPac pedestrian bridge on the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail. Crenshaw campaigned for more than 60 years to preserve the parkland along Town Lake and helped to galvanize support for the hike and bike trail. Today, the trail is nationally recognized as an Austin landmark. The pedestrian bridge will be temporarily closed from 9am until the ceremonies are completed . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Office of the Police Monitor Citizen Review Panel will hold a special meeting beginning at 6pm tonight at the East Community Branch YMCA, 5315 Ed Bluestein Blvd . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission task force on commercial and retail design standards will meet at 5:30pm in Room 500 of One Texas Center. The Design Commission will hold a special called meeting at City Hall Room 2016 to talk about the same topic. That meeting begins at 5:45pm. This spawns a picture of city staff running frantically from one meeting to another . . . The Electric Utility Commission is scheduled to meet at 6pm at Town Lake Center . . . The Urban Transportation Commission will meet at 6pm in the 8th Floor Conference Room of One Texas Center . . . The Arts Commission will meet at 6pm in the Boards and Commissions Room of City Hall . . . Changes to arts funding . . . Last week the City Council approved suspending the arts funding application process for FY 2006. The Arts Commission recommended suspension of the process after holding a public hearing on the matter. Those groups already receiving funds will still be able to apply, but the commission is working on guidelines to apply to new groups.. . . 620 Corridor meeting . . . Williamson County’s RM 620 Corridor Study Team will conduct a public meeting to discuss its study, as well as the extension of O’Connor Boulevard south to SH 45. The meeting will be held at 6:30pm at the Brushy Creek Community Center, 16318 Great Oaks Drive in Round Rock. Williamson County, in cooperation with the Texas Department of Transportation, is conducting the study during the next four months to improve mobility and safety on RM 620 from SH 45 east to Deep Wood Drive. Call 314-5007 for more information. . . . Courthouse exhibits . . . Beginning Thursday, the Williamson County Historical Museum at 716 South Austin Avenue in Georgetown, will host two new exhibits. “T exas Courthouses” is a traveling exhibit from Preservation Texas, and “ Return to Splendor: The Courthouses of Williamson County” is an in-house generated exhibit documenting the unique history of the Williamson County courthouses. Along with the exhibits, Sharon Fleming, associate director of the T exas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, will speak at 7pm Thursday in the District Courtroom of the historic Williamson County Courthouse, 710 Main Street. Fleming serves as the grant administrator and architectural reviewer for several ongoing THCPP projects, including the Williamson County Courthouse Restoration project.

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