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Charter amendment petitions filed

Tuesday, February 14, 2006 by

Benedict files ethics complaint against petitioners

A coalition led by the Save Our Springs Alliance filed petitions with more than 20,000 signatures with the Austin City Clerk Monday to put a charter amendment on the May 13 ballot attempting to strengthen the city’s regulations protecting Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer.

However, similar petitions for a companion charter amendment—aimed at making city government more transparent—have not yet been turned in. Also on Monday, the chair of the Travis County Libertarian Party filed a complaint against SOS with the Texas Ethics Commission for not properly reporting its fundraising activities in connection with the charter amendments.

The Save Our Springs charter amendment would make it official city policy to steer urban development to the east and downstream of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer. It would also prohibit subsidies to private developers, or affiliated companies, building in the watershed; call on major employers to locate outside of the watershed and in the Desired Development Zone; require the city to undertake an environmental, social and economic study before supporting any major highway expansions in the Barton Springs zone; and limit the city’s authority to recognize “grandfathering” claims from developers. It also states that “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.” (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 8, 2005.)

SOS Director Bill Bunch delivered the petitions to the city Monday afternoon after a late morning negotiation with Council Member Lee Leffingwell, City Manager Toby Futrell and other city officials ended without an agreement. Those talks were a continuation of negotiations over the two charter amendments that began last week.

Bunch said they could not reach an agreement on the second amendment, called the Open Government amendment.

“They (city officials) had promised to come top the table with a redline of the changes they wanted,” he said. “They didn’t do that, and in our eyes that was rather bad faith.”

The Open Government amendment was designed to force city officials to conduct business on the Internet, with all information available on line and in “real time.” Officials estimated that could cost the city about $36 million in the first year. Bunch said he plans to wait before filing the petitions for amendment. City Clerk Shirley Gentry advised Bunch last week that she could only count the signatures on one petition at a time and estimated that it would take six working days to verify each petition.

Bunch said, “We want to communicate with other Council members to see if they are interested,” he said. “We are holding them back for a few more days … to see if there is any good faith among any of the other Council Members.”

Leffingwell had a different take on the talks.

“We had high hopes but we weren't overly optimistic,” about the chances of reaching an agreement with SOS, he said. He said he personally spent a lot of time, along with the Law Department and City Manager Toby Futrell in trying to figure out how to accommodate the wishes of those who signed the Save Our Springs petition.

He said the city “tried to do something reasonable that could be done without violating state law” with regard to the Save Our Springs amendment. In addition, he said the city might try to make government information more accessible to the public in response to the proposed Open Government amendment. However, Leffingwell said that would likely not involve a charter change.

Meanwhile, Libertarian Wes Benedict filed a complaint alleging that SOS has not reported its contributions and expenditures in connection with its charter amendment petitions. The complaint also alleges that neither SOS, nor an associated political action committee, has a proper treasurer appointment on file with the City of Austin. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 13, 2006)

"The rules are clear,” Benedict says. “SOS has obviously been raising and spending money to get these measures on the ballot, and that money needed to be reported. I find it ironic that SOS, which claims to support clean government, has not brought its own finances out for public view."

Bunch told In Fact Daily that SOS was not yet required to file.

“We have not yet filed a PAC,” he said. “But we will do that today or tomorrow. There hasn’t been anything to file on, actually, until it (the amendment) is certified for the ballot.”

At least two groups, the Committee for Austin’s Future and the Small Business Group of Central Texas, have come out against the proposed amendments.

“Our group strongly opposes both charter amendments as they are currently written,” said Greg Hartman, treasurer for the Committee for Austin’s Future. “Both amendments are … full of vague language that we believe would ultimately jeopardize the privacy of anyone who has dealings with the City of Austin including just asking a question. It will cost local taxpayers tens of millions dollars, send the City to court indefinitely, and lead the Texas Legislature to weaken not strengthen our ability to protect local water quality.” The committee is a specific purpose PAC formed to oppose the charter amendments.

The Small Business Group said it is too expensive and goes too far.

“There is a fine line between open government and recklessly invasive government,” said Paul Silver, founding member of SBG. “As written, this charter amendment would expose everyday communication between average citizens and their city government, to include revealing confidential sources that report such things as code violations to appropriate enforcement entities. We value the basic rights of whistle-blowers—this amendment would have a chilling effect on such communication.”

The City Clerk’s office must now verify that the petitions submitted by SOS have enough valid signatures to place the charter amendment on the May 13 ballot.

Wal-Mart zoning moves forward

Company would preserve land in exchange for expanding

With little fanfare, members of the Zoning and Platting Commission have recommended a zoning change in the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs Recharge Zone that will allow a current big box retail store to expand in exchange for preserving most of a different site in the area as open space.

Wal Mart is proposing to turn a large portion of a 34-acre site at 5000 W Slaughter Lane—on which it originally planned to build the superstore—into a land preserve, and instead, expand the current Wal-Mart store at 5009 US 290 into a 190,000 square foot Superstore.

Attorney Richard Suttle, representing Wal-Mart, said the company is requesting that both tracts of land be zoned for Planned Unit Developments. The Slaughter tract, called the Deer Park at Maple Run development, currently has an approved existing site plan and for some 200,000 square feet of development and a settlement agreement that allows 65 percent impervious cover. According to city staff, it also contains two critical environmental features, a pair of caves that will be preserved.

The US 290 location would be expanded by 60,500 square feet, and new development would occur over existing impervious cover.

“In fact, with the grass medians we plan to add in the parking lot, impervious cover will actually drop at the site, from 66 to 64 percent,” Suttle told the Environmental Board last week. “We will also retrofit the existing water quality ponds on the site to handle more water, and we estimate that the additional traffic to the site will be less than 350 trips per day.”

The Environmental Board also voted 5-1 to recommend the changes, conditional upon the applicant upgrading the pond on the US 290 site to SOS standard using bio-remediation. However, Suttle told members of the ZAP that after further investigation, they have determined that there was not enough room on the site.

The deal took some members of the Environmental Board by surprise. Vice-chair Karin Ascot, after hearing the proposal, commented that “hell must be freezing over somewhere.” Member John Dupni k voted against the plan, but later said it was because he felt that the staff proposal should have been passed without changes.

Suttle told the Environmental Board that the deal Wal-Mart had worked out with the owner of the land on Slaughter land was contingent on it getting through the city process in a relatively short time.

“He has issues with the city bureaucracy from past dealings,” Suttle said. “If we can’t get this done in about six weeks or so, he will likely back out of the deal.”

Under the PUD zoning, the Deer Park at Maple Run site would revert to SOS impervious cover limits of 15 percent, as opposed to 43 percent planned in the current site plan. All development will be clustered on the south portion of the tract, according to Suttle, who adds that the area will have about 9,000 fewer trips per day under the agreement.

Zoning and Platting Commission members voted 6-0 to approve the PUD zoning. It now goes to the Planning Commission for review tonight, and is expected to come before City Council in late February or early March.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

It’s Election Day . . . For those who live in House District 48, today is the day to cast ballots in the race between Republican Ben Bentzin and Democrat Donna Howard. Nearly 8 percent of the district’s registered voters took advantage of last week’s early voting period . . . LCRA to reconsider public input policy . . . In the past, the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Board of Directors has received input from the public during both committee and regular meetings. The new policy would eliminate public comment during committee meetings, which usually occur on the day before the regular meeting. Those who wish to address the committee would have to get permission from the chair or by a vote of the committee. The SOS Alliance has alerted its members of the change, urging them to contact the board and General Manager Joe Beal to protest. Part of the SOS’ criticism is relates to a board policy which says: Persons “may not distribute materials at the meeting or use visual or audio aids such as overhead projectors, large charts or video presentations without prior notification of the General Manager and approval by the presiding officer.” An email from SOS says, “Tell the Board that they shouldn’t be afraid of citizen input, power point slide shows, or large charts, and that citizens should not be required to get approval from Joe Beal to exercise free speech at LCRA’s (supposedly) public meetings.” LCRA’s Robert Cullick responded, “It has been LCRA policy for as long as anyone here can remember for people to ask the General Manager for time to speak at board meetings and for the General Manager to grant time. No change to board meetings is proposed. As for audio-visual aids, our Board likes to pay attention to what speakers are saying. Therefore, they like to review written documents ahead of time. Despite what SOS insinuates, we're not censors. We have forwarded tons of SOS documents to the Board over the last few years.” The LCRA board is scheduled to vote on the item on Wednesday . . . More rules changes. . . On a split vote, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board agreed last night to change the rules on public participation at meetings. Those who wish to speak at meetings on any item not on the agenda during the citizens’ communication must register in advance. No more than ten speakers will be able to address topics not on the agenda. Speakers may sign up during the previous week until the 10-speaker limit is reached . . . Voucher contributions noted. . . The Texas Freedom Network is reporting that San Antonio voucher proponent James Leininger and his wife has contributed up to $1.4 million to Republican challengers in the days leading up to the March 7 primary. That’s twice what Leininger has spent in any race during the last decade. Leininger has been tied to five challengers to Republican incumbents who oppose vouchers, including Rep. Carter Casteel (R-New Braunfels), former Comal County Judge . . . Meetings . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. Commissioners will conduct public hearings on the building moratorium approved by the City Council last week and will consider the Land Development Standards Agreement amendment between the city and AISD. . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am in the Pct 3 JP Courtroom on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown .. . Shoal Creek bike lanes . . . The Council’s Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee approved a striping plan for Shoal Creek Boulevard yesterday that will allow city staff to finally begin removing the notorious “curb islands” from the roadway. The panel approved a lane striping configuration that divides the road into four 10-foot-wide segments, with parking and bicycle traffic in the outside lanes, and moving traffic on the inner two lanes. The subcommittee will leave it up to city staff to test several different traffic-bicycle lane configurations on other roadways, and could change the Shoal Creek striping based on that at some future date. There has been a long and loud uproar by drivers and cyclists alike over the road’s curb islands since they were installed five years ago . . . Meals group honored. . . Charity Navigator has given Austin’s Meals on Wheels and More a 4-star rating for sound fiscal management. Only a quarter of the charities rated earn four stars, Charity Navigator’s highest rating. Meals on Wheels began in 1972 and today serves meals five days a week to 2,000 homebound, elderly and disabled people.

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