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Environmentalists split over amendments

Thursday, December 8, 2005 by

New Charter proposals raise red flags for some

Austin’s environmental community, often perceived as monolithic in its defense of Barton Springs, the Edwards Aquifer, and other parts of Central Texas, appears to be developing a split over a campaign by the Save our Springs Alliance to put a pair of Charter Amendments on the next city ballot.

The rift over the plans became apparent at a meeting this week of the Save Barton Creek Association, when a presentation on the amendments by SOS’s Bill Bunch drew pointed criticism from several prominent individuals in the Austin environmental community. A discussion of the plan escalated into sharp disagreement and strong language between Bunch and several others at the meeting.

Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions said parts of the two proposals were simply too vague. “I have no problem with the intent of what you’re doing here,” he told Bunch. “But I don’t want the Austin City Charter to end up looking like the Texas Constitution. There are too many terms in here that are not defined, leaving it open to interpretation. It seems to me that this thing is just not ready for prime time.”

The petition drive to get the amendments on the ballot was announced last month. If approved by voters, the charter amendments would make it the official policy of the City of Austin to protect water quality in Barton Springs and the aquifer, and would attempt to open up city government by requiring most city business to be carried out online and in “real time.”

The petition drive to get the amendments on the ballot was announced last month. Petitioners must gather the signatures of 20,000 voters to put each amendment on the ballot. Clean Water Action, which regularly campaigns for such issues, is not participating because its leader, David Foster, did not agree with the language of the amendments.

According to Bunch, people are being told they are signing a petition for “clean water and clean government.”

He said the “Save Our Springs” amendment has four major elements:

• It would re cognize a policy paper written in 1997 by more than 35 Central Texas scientists, environmental engineers and policy planners as the basis for the city’s actions to protect the aquifer;

• It would require the city to direct development to the east and downstream of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer and its recharge zone;

• It would prohibit tax abatements or other incentives going to companies and their affiliates who seek to build over the aquifer; and

• It would tightens the cit y’s definition of “grandfathered development” and regulate how such determinations are made.

The “Open Government Online” amendment also has four main elements:

• It would require the city to use internet technology to manage permitting, contracting and public information disclosures;

• It would force the city to make information available online and in real time to assure accountability of both elected officials and city staff;

• It would allow interested citizens access to the decision making process in the city by balancing lobbyist access with citizen access to elected officials and top management; • It would force disclosure of virtually all communications with commercial interests and require all “corporate welfare” or tax-incentive packages to be negotiated in public.

Bunch characterized the need for the amendments by saying that too much building is going on over the aquifer and too many deals are being made behind closed doors, such as the AMD office building and the Samsung incentives package.

“The pollution in the Springs usually means that there’s pollution in government, too” he said. “Too much is happening outside the public eye. Deals are being developed to a point where there’s too much momentum by the time they come to the public’s attention. They‘re too far down the tracks by that time that even when people say ‘Hey, wait a minute,’ they can’t be stopped.”

City officials are concerned about the potential cost of implementing the Charter Amendments if they are approved. City Manager Toby Futrell has ordered a cost analysis of the proposals. It is expected to be very costly.

Some of the criticism came in the form of a comparison of the 1992 campaign to get the original SOS Ordinance approved by getting a Charter Amendment put on the ballot. While Bunch sees parallels between then and now, others see major differences.

“I’m proud to have been a member of the original group who put together the charter amendment for the SOS Ordinance” said attorney Craig Smith, who now sits on the board of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. “We only undertook that action because it was clear that the entire City Council was tone deaf to our concerns. We did it only as a last resort.” He said he failed to see what in the current situation could not be controlled through the normal processes.

Bunch cited what he calls the city staff’s loose interpretation of grandfathering, and claimed that it hides behind a so-called “245 Committee” that meets in private and makes that determination.

But Smith persisted; questioning the need to amend the charter with a document that contained what he said was a number of vague and undefined terms, and nebulous goals. That brought Bunch’s strongest comments of the evening.

“If AMD can pull this off, others will follow,” he said, referring to the chip maker’s plan to build a new office campus in Southwest Austin. City staff has said the SOS Ordinance does not apply because of Chapter 245 and a settlement agreement with Stratus Properties. “It is a definite turning point for this watershed. We spent all those years and all that money to get companies to stay away from the ****ing watershed, and you don’t see a problem? They’re ready to build five more Circle C’s, and we don’t have to money or the ability to buy up the land before they can do it. These guys can’t defy the whole community. We’ve got to get this on the ballot.”

The give-and-take continued, and Bunch agreed that there could be parts of the proposed amendments that may need work before the package is put before voters. But the battle lines appear to have been drawn by several in the environmental community that will make SOS’s job of selling the amendment tougher than they might have planned.

Charter amendment language

Here are some of the “details” that concern critics of the SOS Alliance’s two proposed Charter Amendments. Each item is taken directly from a section of the two proposals, followed with comments by local environmentalists. The amendments are labeled Clean Water and Clean Government, respectively.

The City Council and staff are without authority to recognize any ‘grandfather’ claim . . .where any applicant or permit holder in the series of applications has filed for bankruptcy protection under Federal bankruptcy laws.

Daryl Slusher, former City Council Member: “How can you forbid the city to do business with someone who, at some point in their life, took advantage of a law such as the bankruptcy law? You can’t do it.”

The City is without authority to enter into any economic development agreement providing tax abatements or other subsidies to assist development outside the Barton Springs watershed where any subsidiary, parent, spin-off, or close affiliate of the beneficiary of the proposed recipient company has built, is currently building or seeks to build or occupy a major employment center in the Barton Springs watershed.

Within one year of the date this Amendment takes effect, applications and proposals for any permit or contract of significant value must be provided to the City in an electronic format.

Mike Blizzard points out that many terms contained in the two proposed amendments are so vague as to be meaningless, or open to interpretation. “Many of these terms could have had definitions, but they don’t,” he said. “What is significant value? How do you define a close affiliate? We’re casting the net so broad that these terms could mean anything.”

These calendars and logs must contain the time, date, subject matter, and persons involved in all meetings and telephone calls involving City business. These calendars must be used to schedule and record all past and future meetings that occur after the implementation date of this section. . . . Calendars and logs must be posted online in real time and be accessible to the public.

Slusher: “This is going to put an enormous burden on city officials and the citizens who interact with them . . . Again, it’s too vague. What constitutes a meeting? A brief conversation in the check-out line? And who would be responsible for putting that information online?”

The citizens of Austin respectfully request that major employers, including Advanced Micro Devices, locate major employment centers outside the Barton Springs watershed . . . “

Several people point out that to “respectfully request” is improper language for a Charter Amendment. “Generally, you are more direct,” Blizzard said. “It should be in the form of a directive, not a request.”

The City’s actions to make public information accessible should be integrated with a move to carry out city business online, so that the processes of managing and governing the city and of public disclosure become one and the same.

Jack Goodman of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District : “It’s just not clear to me how these people are going to know what it is they are supporting,” he said. “If this is for the people to understand, that’s going to be difficult. It’s too complicated for the average person to understand. It needs to be short and simple.”

Schroeder sues city

Fired officer says other officers barred from talking with attorney

Fired Austin police officer Julie Schroeder has filed suit against the city claiming APD is preventing other police officers from talking to her attorney. Schroeder, who was indefinitely suspended after she shot and killed Daniel Rocha last summer, is seeking an injunction against the city and Police Chief Stan Knee.

Schroeder has appealed the suspension. According to the petition, Schroeder's attorney, Tom Stribling, " has sought to informally interview potential witnesses employed by APD. Although the witnesses contacted on behalf of plaintiff Schroeder are willing to be interviewed, defendants have ordered such witnesses not to speak with (Stribling) or anyone else representing plaintiff concerning the facts related to plaintiff’s suspension so as not to ‘compromise’ the city's case. "

Stribling is seeking to interview officers in the internal affairs and homicide divisions of APD who were directly involved in investigating Rocha’s death. Generally, the attorneys for disciplined officers are allowed to interview other officers who have information related to the case on appeal.

According to Schroeder's petition, any officer who disobeys the chief's order not to talk to Stribling could be disciplined for insubordination. Even if the judge orders the city to allow officers to meet with Schroeder's attorney, some officers may feel that their cooperation could negatively impact their future in the department.

No date has been set for hearing on the request for injunction.

Bond panel wants $221M for transportation, drainage

Trimming about $80 million worth of projects from its final proposal, the Transportation and Drainage Subcommittee of the Bond Election Advisory Committee will recommend $98.9 million for transportation projects and $122.1 million for drainage and flood control projects to the full committee.

The group met Tuesday night to go over the funding amounts for various categories of projects in order to get the total recommended amount for transportation and drainage from $309 million down to $221 million. Other subcommittees are going through a similar process in order for the full committee to be able to recommend a bond package to the City Council of no more than $614 million.

For transportation, the subcommittee agreed to reduce the amounts recommended for street reconstruction projects, traffic signals, sidewalks, and traffic calming measures. That brought the total recommended amount down from $116 million to hit the target of $98.9 million. The panel was able to reach that number without proposing to trim funding for bikeways, which will remain at $2 million under its proposal.

In the drainage category, the group went through the same exercise to trim proposed spending on flood and erosion control, storm drains, and other projects to drop the total amount from $193 million to $122.1 million.

The subcommittee is recommending against putting funding for the Waller Creek Tunnel in the final bond package. The flood control project for the eastern end of downtown has been the subject of much discussion so far during committee meetings, and Andrew Clements of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association attended the subcommittee meeting to remind the panelists of the benefits the project would bring to downtown.

“Since the voters supported it once, they should at least be given the option to support it again,” Clements said, urging the panel to recommend putting it in the bond proposal as a stand-alone item. Voters approved approximately $25 million for the project in 1998, but the actual minimum cost for the project would be closer to $50 million, leaving the project stalled.

Committee Member Dave Sullivan sought help from the other members of the subcommittee to solicit financial support for the tunnel from Travis County. “There should be a committee that lobbies the county on creating a TIF (tax increment financing district) for the Waller Creek Tunnel. Our understanding is that the city is willing to do a TIF to do the tunnel, but they need agreement from the county, and the county is not interested.”

While Subcommittee Chair Jennifer McPhail was eager to express her public support for the project, other Committee Members stopped short of agreeing to lobby Travis County Commissioners on the issue. “I’m not sold on the fact that it’s something that we should be out there undertaking,” said DeWayne Lofton. “For us to do that goes beyond our obligation.” The group will likely include the TIF proposal in its policy recommendations accompanying its bond proposal recommendations to the Council.

City Budget Officer Greg Canally thanked the subcommittee members for their effort in trimming the initial list of proposed funding amounts submitted by the City Manager. “All your hard work has paid off. Going through the process, you’ve had to make some difficult choices,” he said. “But in the end, you’ve made a positive statement about what you wanted. I think that’s important. The staff working with you really appreciates the work that you’ve done.”

The full Bond Election Advisory Committee will likely make its final recommendations to the Council in January of 2006. The Committee is was scheduled to meet tonight for a public hearing on the different proposals. The hearing has been rescheduled because of bad weather.

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

Duncan honored . . . Austin Energy Deputy General Manager Roger Duncan has been named to Business Week’s list of 20 individuals worldwide who “stand out for their efforts to cut gases that cause global warming.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair leads the list; No. 2 is Franzjosef Schafhausen, German Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation & Nuclear Safety. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is No. 4. Duncan is No. 13 on the list. Business Week notes, “For the last three years, Austin Energy has topped all U.S. utilities in sales of renewable energy.” He is the only Texan on the Business Week list. Duncan, who served on the Austin City Council from 1981-1985, is scheduled to testify today at a hearing of the Energy Subcommittee of the US House Science Committee. He will talk about plug-in hybrid vehicles, a technology which would allow consumers to plug their vehicles into an electric outlet but allow for the flexibility of gas-powered travel on longer trips. Duncan will join Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy in reporting on the new technology to the committee. Local Congressmen Lamar Smith and Michael McCaul are expected to participate in the committee’s questions . . . In DC last week . . . Nancy McClintock and Mateo Scoggins testified along with Pete Van Metre of USGS on the city’s policy, research and technical information related to the banning of coal-tar based paving sealants. City employees did extensive research on the subject and scientists with the USGS supported their findings that coal-based sealants are toxic to aquatic life. Austin was the first city in the nation to ban such sealants . . . More awards. . . Austin is one of eight cities selected to receive the 2005 James C. Howland Award for Municipal Enrichment at the National League of Cities' Congress of Cities in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday. Austin is the Silver winner in the Population over 500,001 category for its R obert Mueller Municipal Airport Redevelopment Project. Director Sue Edwards, Project Manager Pam Hefner and Project Coordinator Mona Sanchez, all of the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, and Greg Weaver, Vice President of Catellus Commercial Development Corporation, will be in Charlotte to accept the award. . . Libertarian announces for Senate Dist. 14 . . . Robert "Rock" Howard has resigned as Chair of the Travis County Libertarian Party (TCLP) in order to file for the Libertarian Party nomination for State Senate in District 14. A software engineer, Howard is employed by AMD. His press release states that he "made the decision to move to Austin while attending a show at the late lamented Liberty Lunch. I will never forgive the people who failed to protect Austin's musical heritage. That is one reason that I felt compelled to run against former mayor Kirk Watson for the State Senate seat" . . . Watson endorsements. . . Kirk Watson, the only Democratic candidate in the race, reported yesterday that he had received endorsements of the Independent Bankers of Texas PAC and the Texas Hospital Association. . . . Kinky makes it official . . . If you are interested, Kinky Friedman plans to file his declaration of intent to run as an independent candidate for Governor with the Texas Secretary of State’s office at noon today. A rally is planned shortly afterward outside the SOS office at 10th and Brazos streets. . . . Meetings . . . Well, maybe. City officials canceled several meetings planned on Wednesday due to the potential for freezing precipitation. With the forecast for lows in the mid-20s tonight, we recommend you call before heading out to any scheduled meetings today. . . The Bond Election Advisory Committee plans the first of its final two public hearings. The meeting is planned for 7pm at Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Road. . . . The Design Commission meets in a special called meeting at 4pm with the Downtown Austin Alliance at 211 E. Seventh St. . . . The T ravis County Hospital District Board of Managers meets at 6:30pm tonight Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . Deadline extension . . . Keep Austin Beautiful has extended the deadline to December 23 for nominations for a person, school, organization, or business that should be recognized for loving Austin’s environment. Winners will be recognized at the 21st Annual Keep Austin Beautiful Awards Luncheon on February 8. For information, go to http://www.keepaustinbeautiful.org/nominations02.php.

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