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Time running out for Charter amendments

Wednesday, February 8, 2006 by

SOS-backed ‘Clean Water, Clean Government’ petitions not yet filed with city

The Save Our Springs Alliance, which is seeking to amend the Austin City Charter, may have missed its chance to ensure that its “Clean Water, Clean Government” amendments have a spot on the May 13 ballot. Petitioners are still hoping to gather 20,000 signatures per proposed amendment but SOS spokesman Colin Clark said Tuesday that he is not sure when the petitions will be ready to be filed with the City Clerk’s Office.

City Clerk Shirley Gentry says that there is no absolute deadline for filing petitions in order to put charter amendments on the May ballot. However, Gentry said she told the group’s political consultant, Glen Maxey, that in order to guarantee enough time to validate the signatures on both petitions, they would have to be filed by Jan. 27.

“If they brought it in today, we would go through our normal process to validate,” the signatures,” Gentry said, “but we couldn’t guarantee it.” Because of the amount of work to be done in validating two separate petitions, the clerk said she would likely ask the petitioners to choose which set of signatures she should try to verify first.

Gentry estimated that employees could validate or reject about 200 signatures a day, but said it is difficult to say exactly how long it will take to complete the process because “there are huge variables.” Petitions that include voter registration numbers are much easier to verify, she said. Those that lack the registration numbers take up to five times as long to validate, she said.

The clerk’s office uses a random sampling method through which employees examine 25 percent of the signatures submitted. Gentry has already contracted with a statistician at the University of Texas to do the math involved in choosing which names to verify plus the work needed after the names are checked.

Assistant City Attorney Jenny Gilchrist explained that once the signatures have been verified, the Law Department needs time to prepare ballot language that would fairly summarize the proposed amendments. The City Council will be considering language for other amendments, she said, along with other ballot items on March 2.

The final date for setting items on the ballot is March 13, but the final Council meeting before that date is March 9. The Law Department has chosen March 2 to make sure there is no hitch that cannot be cured the following Thursday, Gilchrist said.

Council Member Brewster McCracken said this week that he expects the Council to approve at least two Charter amendment proposals for the May ballot. One proposal would allow city employees to place a family member or domestic partner on their health insurance. The second would change the term of Municipal Court judges from two years to four years.

If the charter is amended in May, the city will not be able to hold another charter amendment election for two years.

County faces threat from rare Asian moth

The discovery of a new kind of ecological threat to Travis County – the Asian gypsy moth – could lead to a full agricultural quarantine of the county if local and federal officials do not move quickly to address the threat.

George Nash of the US Department of Agriculture’s Plant Quarantine Division addressed Commissioners Court during citizens’ communications Tuesday. Nash reported that a single Asian gypsy moth had been captured in a trap three miles west of the Oak Hill Y on US 290 West, requiring a federal one-square mile eradication effort to stop the exotic pest from spreading. The area where the moth was found is populated primarily with live oak and cedar. Various varieties of oak are the main feeding source of the Asian gypsy moth.

Unlike the European gypsy moth, the female Asian gypsy moth can fly. Since eggs also can be carried by the wind, the fear is that any item – from lawn furniture to nursery plants – could carry the larvae to other areas of the county or state. The assumption is that for every moth trapped, there are eight that are likely to be located in the area.

The trapping of an Asian gypsy moth is rare. While European gypsy moths are common to the northeastern states, Asian gypsy moths are rarely seen in the south, or in Texas. The only other recently trapped Asian gypsy moth was in California, Nash said. Areas in Idaho, Oregon and Washington have been treated in the last year, primarily through the use of BT, an organic pesticide. The Department of Agriculture has chosen the organic approach to avoid disruptions in the area, known as habitat to the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo.

Every landowner within one square mile surrounding the trap must voluntarily agree to a three-time BT treatment or the area could face the threat of a quarantine from the US Department of Agriculture. That quarantine could impact the movement of plant species from the one-square-mile area where the moth was trapped, or even an area as large as Travis County.

Treatments would begin March 12. The US Department of Agriculture is holding an open house at the ACC-Pinnacle campus to discuss the Asian gypsy moth issue from 10am to noon on February 18. For more information, call the Texas Department of Agriculture, 475-1669.

Commissioners leave Sweetwater on hold

Unsettled by lingering issues on plans for the Sweetwater development, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to postpone indefinitely the phasing agreement and site plans for the subdivision.

Sweetwater is a two-phase 1,900-home subdivision off SH 71 near the Old Lockhart Highway. It has been the source of extended, and sometimes contentious, discussion and debate at a number of court meetings. Discussion at this week’s meeting was the shortest, and possibly the most inconclusive, as court members concluded they could not get past the issues that remain sticking points on the proposed community.

To postpone the subdivision plan – in fact, directing staff to come back with further answers on issues such as water, wastewater and roadways – was simply putting off the inevitable, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said. Daugherty said the issues were clear on Sweetwater, and it was time to take an “up” or “down” vote on the plans. The residents who came, week after week, deserved a vote, and so did the applicant, he said.

“I think the unfortunate thing is that we cannot arbitrarily pass this and not have the applicant go to the courthouse,” Daugherty told his colleagues and the audience, admitting he was exhausted by the endless debate. “I think it’s sad that this will take it out of our hands. A writ of mandamus seals this and sends it to the courthouse.”

Attorney Michael Whellan, who is representing the developer, Forest City, declined to discuss whether his client intended to file legal action against the county. His presence, however, was an indication that the developer might be inclined to take his case to court.

“Forest City is disappointed that the Commissioners Court did not take action on the plans presented to them,” Whellan said after the vote. “Many people have worked hard to present a responsible plan that was acceptable to the county.”

Whellan also noted that issues surrounding SH 71 were within the jurisdiction of the Texas Department of Transportation and not the county.

The discussion on Sweetwater has required some back-and-forth between Forest City and the county. According to staff, the developer has met the basic standards set out by the county for a phasing agreement on a subdivision and made some additional concessions, such as decreasing density in the second phase of the development by 100 homes.

The recommendation of county staff has supported the current plans for the subdivision, saying the plans met all requirements of the county and revised plans for the first phase were significantly better than the plans approved in 2004. Joe Gieselman, executive director for Transportation and Natural Resources, also noted in discussions with the court that past, not interim, county development rules applied on the site plans.

Senate Bill 848, passed last session and dubbed the “cocktail napkin” bill, vested the developer with rights as soon as the site plans were filed, Gieselman said. That means that interim regulations – which give the county more latitude over post-construction water quality – would not apply in the case of Sweetwater, regardless of when amendments or revisions to the site plans were presented to the county.

Over the last few weeks, the court has had extensive discussion on issues where the court would have no control under past regulations but still wants input, such as the use of pump and haul wastewater measures in the subdivision. The court also has concerns about SH 71 improvements, both during and after construction.

Daugherty said the court had been an honest broker between the developer and local residents, attempting to hammer out guarantees on the property. Saying he did not see new information coming forward, Daugherty offered a motion for an “up” or “down” vote on the subdivision phasing agreement and site plans.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner seconded that motion, but said clearly that she would oppose the subdivision plans, adding that she had received a memo from the developer as late as Monday, stating new changes to the proposal. Sonleitner said too many permits and issues were up in the air—issues that could significantly alter the subdivision plans. She called the approval of the plans so early in the process a “piecemeal approach.”

“I am not yet satisfied that all the county requirements have been met,” Sonleitner said.

Commissioner Ron Davis made a substitute motion, which Commissioner Margaret Gomez seconded, that would postpone a decision on the subdivision until more information was known on permits and applications on the property, as well as agreements between the developer and the Texas Department of Transportation.

After an executive session on the Sweetwater issues, Sonleitner withdrew her second from Daugherty’s motion and supported the Davis-Gomez motion. She added a friendly amendment for additional clarification on the placement of the wastewater plant on the site and the use of spray irrigation, along with the other issues listed.

The final vote on the indefinite postponement was 4-1, with Daugherty opposed.

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

Judge dismisses claims . . . A federal civil suit stemming from a 2003 anti-war protest will go to the jury today. Several independent journalists, including community access TV producers Stefan Wray and Pam Thompson, had sued the city and individual Austin police officers for violating their First Amendment rights. Police used pepper spray to force demonstrators off of the Congress Avenue Bridge, and several members of the media were among those on the receiving end of the chemical blast. Federal District Judge Sam Sparks on Tuesday dismissed the City of Austin from the suit and also dismissed the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims. That means the jury will only decide whether officers used excessive force as they removed protestors from the bridge . . . Dems endorse . . . The South Austin Democrats met last night and issued a slate of endorsements for the upcoming Democratic Primary. With about 110 members voting, they will be backing the following candidates: Jason Earle, House District 47; Charlie Baird, 299th District Court Judge; Elena Diaz, County Court at Law 2 (runoff); Sarah Eckhardt, Pct. 2 Commissioner; and Margaret Gómez. Pct.4 Commissioner. . . Belated greetings . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken celebrated his 40th birthday yesterday. We don't think he looks a day over 29, but his driver's license doesn't lie. Happy Birthday! . . . Meetings . . . The Solid Waste Advisory Commission meets at 6:30pm at room 104 at the Waller Creek Plaza . . . The Telecommunications Commission meets at 7:30pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . . The Planning Commission Neighborhood Planning Committee meets at 5:30pm in room 500 at One Texas Center . . .The Historic Preservation Task Force meeting is cancelled . . . Early Voting continues . . . Just over 2,800 voters has cast ballots in the first two days of early voting in the runoff for the District 48 House seat. Republican Ben Bentzin and Democrat Donna Howard are running to fill the rest of the term vacated by Republican Todd Baxter in November. Early voting continues through Friday with Election Day on February 14. . . . Traffic study . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) will survey drivers along US 290 East for aTraffic and Revenue Study to determine how many people will drive the proposed toll road and how much toll revenue might be generated. The survey will gather information from motorists about their travel behavior. Drivers on US 290 between US 183 and FM 973 will be selected at random. The survey will take roughly three weeks . . . Registration begins Monday . . . Most of the campaigns are already well under way but next Monday is the first official day that candidates for the Austin City Council may begin filing for one of four positions on the May 13 ballot. The Mayor's job and three other Council spots — Places 2, 5 and 6 — are up for election. Deadline to apply for a ballot position is 5pm March 13. Those interested in a position on the ballot must pay a $500 filing fee or submit a petition of 294 valid signatures from Austin qualified voters to the City Clerk's Office. Candidates may file with the Office of the City Clerk, during regular business hours in room 1120 at City Hall. For more information, visit www.cityofaustin.org/election.

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