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City seeks charter deal with SOS

Thursday, February 9, 2006 by

Cost of open government amendment estimated at $36 million

Fearing the fiscal implications of two proposed City Charter amendments, the City of Austin is attempting to negotiate an agreement with the SOS Alliance that would forestall the filing of two petitions to change the charter. Instead, the city proposes to come up with compromise language, to be approved by the City Council, for voters to decide on the May 13 ballot.

Although the amendments are quite lengthy, their intent is to further limit development over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, to limit incentives for businesses and to force the city to do much of its business “online and in real time."

SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch, accompanied by political consultant Glen Maxey, brought a box of petitions to the city clerk's office Wednesday afternoon. Bunch and Maxey then had a meeting with City Manager Toby Futrell, Council Member Lee Leffingwell, City Clerk Shirley Gentry and City Attorney David Smith, among others. The news media was excluded from the meeting.

After the meeting, Bunch, still carrying the box, said he was taking the petitions home but would return to City Hall this morning. "We're trying to work this out cooperatively and make sure there are no legal disputes about their having adequate time to count “ the signatures, Bunch said. "They want a shot at coming up with something that the Council might sponsor to put before the voters," he said.

Leffingwell said Bunch would be coming back "to see if we could agree on conditions under which they would be willing to delay their filing for a week or so.” He said the purpose of the delay was to allow the city to come up with compromise ballot language that both sides could agree upon. Asked why the city would make such a proposal, Leffingwell said, “Because we figure it's possible to reduce the cost of the charter amendments if some things are left or changed.”

Maxey said they were confident that they had enough signatures to ensure that both amendments would be eligible for the ballot. Gentry said she would try to come up with a "best estimate" for the length of time needed to verify the signatures.

She said the petitions Bunch showed her yesterday were " in excellent condition, and we've worked with Glen before and he's very professional." She said Bunch would come to the clerk's office this morning and “he’ll either like the letter or file the petition, I guess."

Leffingwell said that if SOS accepted the changes it might be possible to reduce the cost of the proposed “open government” amendment. The city has estimated that implementation of that amendment would cost $36 million the first year and $11.6 million the second year. The lion’s share of costs would be in hardware, software and consulting services, according to the memo from the city’s Chief Information Officer, Peter Collins.

The city has not provided costs for the other proposed amendment, designated the Save Our Springs amendment. It relates to limitations on incentives for businesses which have do business over the aquifer and preventing city staff from recognizing grandfathering claims under Ch 245 of the Texas Local Government Code without a two-thirds affirmative vote of the City Council, among other things.

The open government amendment can be found at http://www.cleanwater-cleangovernment.org/ogo_amendment.cfm. The SOS Charter amendment language can be found at http://www.cleanwater-cleangovernment.org/sos_amendment.cfm .

Smoking ban dominates candidate forum

Bar and nightclub owners do not consider the city-wide smoking ban to be a settled issue, if the questions posed at Tuesday’s candidate forum sponsored by the Small Business Group and the Building Owners and Managers Association are any indication. Candidates for Place 2 and Place 6 split on whether they would vote to repeal or modify the voter-approved measure if they are elected to the Council.

The Council is not allowed to change or revoke the ordinance until the spring of 2007. But that will fall within the three-year term of any Council member elected this spring. Moderator Carl Tepper, filling in for Kirk Watson (who was unable to attend due to a death in the family), asked candidates, “Will you support a more flexible law that accommodates those that are willing to be exposed to smoke, such as exempting private clubs and bars?”

Some candidates took a strong stand against tampering with the results of the 2005 city-wide election. “As a City Council Member, I don’t think its good government for us to go back and circumvent . . the judgment of the voters,” said Place 2 Candidate DeWayne Lofton. “What I would like to see is more research, because I’ve looked at California when they passed a similar ordinance…and there is no long-term negative effect of having a smoking ban.” The other Place 6 candidates, Darrell Pierce and Sheryl Cole, both said they would be willing to re-visit the issue. “I’m certainly open to the small businesses that are having problems,” said Cole, “and I have heard from some of them in East Austin because of the smoking ban. I know that we have to be sympathetic to their cause.”

In Place 2, candidate Mike Martinez said he would be willing to discuss the issue, but did not indicate which way he would vote. “I think it is going to be something that we’re asked to look at,” he said. “What we need, though, is true compelling data that shows that our small businesses are being harmed. If the data is that compelling, I certainly would be open to looking at it. But I would also be concerned about what naming a private club does to our businesses and to our tourists, and how we define what a private club is. So I think we need to engage in this conversation.”

Both Hector Uribe and Eliza May pointed to the referendum process or the courts as the best ways to amend or repeal the ordinance. “We are faced with a legal challenge currently,” said May, “and depending upon what the outcome is in the courts, Council would, of course, have to take a look at doing what it needs to do. But I will tell you that if citizens have the opportunity and there is an effort to do another petition drive, certainly the will of our community should be moved forward and I would support that.”

Uribe also predicted that any Council action would only be limited to technical adjustments mandated by a federal judge. “I think the only other way we can get this matter before the Austin City Council is through another referendum,” he said. “So get your petitions together, get your signatures together, get back to the City Council and I can assure you that the Council will be a lot more deliberative in its decision making.”

After dealing with questions from the debate organizers, candidates were given the opportunity question each other. Mike Martinez posed an open-ended question for fellow Place 5 candidate Eliza May, asking “What do you think is going to be the highest priority for Council over the next three years?”

“I believe that the biggest issue that’s coming up before Council in the next three years is the renegotiation of the firefighters’ contract,” May responded. The current contract with the firefighters union that was secured in October of 2005 through the meet-and-confer process will expire in 2008, meaning that the next union contract will be negotiated during the term of Council Members elected this year. “And as we all know,” May said, “65 percent at least of our current (general fund) budget is going into public safety. My question to you, Mike, is…as the firefighters’ union president, how will you distinguish your professional interests in protecting firefighters’ and their benefits from the greater good of the city?”

Martinez replied that he would be able to act in the interests of the entire city, but did not specifically concede May’s position that satisfying the union would have to come at the expense of the taxpayers.

“As a Council member, my role is going to be very different than being the president of the firefighters,” he said. “And you’re going to need someone on the Council who can look the firefighters and the police officers straight in the face and say ‘We’ve taken care of you, we’ve invested well with you, and now it’s time to invest in other parts of our city…equally as important.’ It’s going to take an individual like myself who’s been in there, been involved with those guys,” he said, “to get their commitment to stick to the values of creating the best city we can, and to let them know that we will continue to invest in them, but also to maintain the cost of public safety where it is today and reinvest in other parts of our city that are critically important.”

Candidates reject charter amendment

Place 2, 6 hopefuls call open government proposals too expensive

Members of the Save Our Springs Alliance won’t find much sympathy for their open government charter amendment drive among candidates for Austin City Council. At Tuesday’s candidate forum, all of the candidates for Place 2 and Place 6 took a stand against the proposal to require most city business to be conducted on-line (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 8, 2005).

“I’m a great supporter of open meetings and open records,” said Place 5 candidate Hector Uribe, “The question is, what’s it going to cost the city?” Uribe said he had not read the specific language of the proposed amendments, but would be concerned about any conflicts with state law and with the additional financial burden on city government. “There are those within the process at City Hall who are saying this may cost the city anywhere from $30 million to $55 million dollars to implement, and that would involve a three percent to five percent increase in the tax rate,” he said. “I want to see the final draft before I say any more.”

For Mike Martinez, the key issue was not the cost but rather the requirement that all scheduling documents and appointment calendars be posted on-line. “I absolutely support open government, and as a Council member my office is going to be open to the citizens of Austin at any time,” he said. “I’m just not sure that I’m willing to be that open in terms of having people know my private life. It specifically says in there lunches and happy hours. Who I have lunch with and who I go have a drink with after work, while it may be important to some, I don’t think it’s important and vital to the entire community. And we shouldn’t have to spend 36 million dollars in the first year alone to comply with open government.”

Eliza May said the state’s open records laws already provided extensive insight into government business. “If it’s not happening in a manner that’s good enough for the public here, then I think we should go to the legislature and require it of all cities, not just Austin,” she said. “It’s a bad policy, I wouldn’t support it, it’s too expensive, and it’s going to cripple government.”

All three Place 2 candidates voiced similar concerns, with DeWayne Lofton offering the most detailed criticism of the proposals. “I believe that ordinance is very over-reaching, and I’m in no fashion supportive,” he said, “because as businesses come to Austin and talk to our Council about re-locating here, all that information becomes public. So that could hurt their competitive edge and it could hurt our ability to attract a new employer to town.”

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

McMansion moratorium . . . The headliner of today’s Council meeting is expected to the public hearing over a possible moratorium on development regulations designed to control the size of structures in some inner-city neighborhoods. Known as “McMansions,” the oversize structures have been springing up after a small house on the property is removed. Council Member Betty Dunkerley is expected to propose a less stringent set of regulations than the original proposal, which would have limited structure increases to only 10 percent. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 7, 2006) Dunkerley’s proposal would change the limits to up to 2,500 square feet; up to 20 percent larger than the original structure; the average square footage of houses on the block; or a .4-to-1 floor-to-area ratio (FAR). Expect a long line of people planning to talk on both sides of the issue . . . Other hot topics on the agenda are in the Executive Session. Council members are expected to hear from the city legal staff on the moratorium on development and will hear a presentation on possible locations for the new Green Water Treatment Plant. Also on the agenda is the long-sought rezoning of the Maverick Miller House west of the UT campus to allow for a condominium complex. . . . Early voting . . . Only two more days left in early voting for the February 14 Special Election runoff for the District 48 House seat. Through Wednesday, 4,205 early votes had been cast, about 0.77 percent of the registered voters in the district. Democrat Donna Howard is facing Republican Ben Bentzin in the runoff . . . Nice try . . . An attempt by some members of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee to try to bring a solution to the longstanding case between Texas Disposal Systems and Penske/Zenith was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response from at least one of the parties. The case stems from a mid-1990s traffic accident on I-35 when a Penske-owned truck carrying Zenith picture tubes overturned, breaking most of the tubes. The mess was taken to the Texas Disposal Systems landfill near Creedmor where it was discovered that the tubes contained a toxic element. The area where the tubes had been buried was dug up and put in containers, where it has sat ever since and has been the subject of a long-running lawsuit. An attorney for Penske Truck Leasing wrote a very polite and lawyerly letter to the SWAC, declining its invitation to attend a meeting and discuss the issue . . . Endangered neighborhoods . . . Three Austin neighborhoods are listed among Texas’ Most Endangered Historic Sites. Pemberton Heights, Old West Austin and Tarrytown were among 14 historic neighborhoods listed by Preservation Texas that are being overwhelmed by new, larger structures (see above). The list was announced at State Capitol news conference Wednesday.

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