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Monday, March 13, 2006 by

Distrust, bitterness over AMD fuels amendments

Two sides disagree of facts as well as world view

Last week’s vocal confrontation between members of the City Council and the SOS Alliance over two citizen-initiated charter amendments was more than just a clash over the wording of the ballot language. The issues that led SOS to bring the amendments forward have been simmering for some time, and have recently boiled over into public bickering.

In Fact Daily recently talked outside of the heat of the Council’s public hearing with some of the players on both sides of the issues, and found that passions run deep, particularly on the SOS side of the equation.

SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch said bluntly, “There is too much that goes on behind closed doors.” He, and others with SOS, were particularly angered by the decision by Advanced Micro Devices to build its new company headquarters over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer; more so when it was learned that several City Council members had met with AMD officials about the move several months beforehand.

“One of the few ways I can imagine our reclaiming our democratic institutions is making it be completely open,” Bunch said. “The public should have the same information that public officials have. If they don’t, the public official always rationalizes in his mind that ‘If you knew what I knew, you’d understand that this was a really good deal. If you knew what I knew about AMD, you’d understand why I should just keep my gag on and let them move out over the aquifer.’ And they are. They are given this insider, confidential commercial information that creates this whole culture that you’re in the back room, and you’re privileged because you’re there.”

SOS contacted members of the Council last year to try to get them to put a resolution on the agenda saying they opposed the AMD move. At the time, Council members said there would be no point in doing so since the city’s legal department said AMD needed no permission from the Council to move forward. SOS has recently sued the city challenging its interpretation of the state’s grandfathering laws for the site.

SOS bills its charter measures as relatively simple. City officials disagree adamantly, saying that the amendments are poorly worded and would cause many unintended consequences. The SOS Amendment proposes to mandate that the city discourage development in the Barton Springs Watershed and prevents it from offering any tax incentives to companies who propose to build there. The city does not currently offer incentives outside the Desired Development Zone but under the amendment any company which has received incentives in the past would have to repay them if it or a spinoff located over the Barton Springs Zone. The Open Government amendment would mandate that top city officials conduct business online, archiving all emails and other communications online, and that officials post emails, calendars and phone logs on the web in real time. (See In Fact Daily, March 10, 2006)

Bunch said that the city’s development review system is currently set up so that “it’s the development and the city, and everybody else-especially neighborhoods– are outside the system and not important,” he said. ”And that’s really how the whole process works right now. You get the notice late. By the time you get involved, the city reviewers have been working stuff through and reaching agreement. So you’re coming to the party late. Even if you have good ideas, you’re too late. You’re treated as a second class citizen.”

Part of the rationale for the amendments, particularly the Open Government amendment, is the claim by SOS that City Council members are spending too much time with special-interest lobbyists, and not enough meeting with constituents.

As an example, SOS consultant Glen Maxey talked about a meeting in December where he and several other gay rights activists, met with Council Member Brewster McCracken, McCracken’s assistant and another Council aide and others to discuss a charter amendment on extending city benefits to same-sex partners.

“It was behind closed doors,” he said. “Wine was served, and a deal was made.”

McCracken, recalling the meeting, said that the meeting accomplished its purpose, but that might not have been the case under the Open Government amendment.

“I told Glen at the time that ‘If you get this open government amendment passed, everything we’re talking about today will be open,’” he said. He also said they drank Cokes, not wine, during lunch.

McCracken also disputed that when SOS Alliance requested copies of his meeting calendar, along with those of Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Lee Leffingwell, that large portions had been blacked out as claimed by Bunch.

“Neither of us (Leffingwell and McCracken) blacked out a single meeting,” he said. “I never heard from them there was anything problematic about my calendar.”

Both McCracken and Leffingwell dispute the charge that large portions of their time are taken with meeting with lobbyists.

“I met with SOS more last year than anybody else, including any developer,” he said. “We mainly meet with the neighborhood groups…and each other.”

In an email, Leffingwell noted that in the past week that he met 13 hours with citizens and staff, and only 1.5 hours with developers and lobbyists.

Maxey, also a former State Representative, said he was a co-sponsor of a measure in the Legislature several years ago to put all business online, and it has made a major difference.

“Used to be, someone would post a notice on a bulletin board outside the House chamber. We changed that,” he said. ”Now, that notice is not effective if it’s not online. The culture of how the Legislature operated changed because of that. As soon as we did it, everybody adjusted to it.”

McCracken said that while there are some ways the city could be more open, the SOS amendment is too costly for what it will accomplish. “I believe there are things we could do to be better,” he said. “We could be more efficient, (but) not because there is endemic corruption. If you cost this out, it comes to $96 million (if you do it like bonds). You provide the cost of the bonds issued over that period. Say there is $100 million on the ballot over 6 years, so you give a lump sum total over a 6-year period. If we were to do it the same way, it would be $36 million the first year and $12 million for five years after that.”

Bunch disagrees with those numbers, saying that the city is not calculating any cost savings by going online into its figures. See Whispers below for more on the amendments. .

Downtown neighbors seek sidewalk pledge

ZAP recommends Great Streets participation

The Zoning and Platting Commission last week endorsed a zoning change for an existing office building at 515 W. 15th Street downtown from office to Central Business District (CBD-CO). While neighbors did not object to the upzoning, they did ask the ZAP to require the property owner to upgrade the sidewalks in front of the property sooner rather than later.

The lot currently has a one-story office building, but agent Ron Thrower told the ZAP that the owner, Jimmy Nassour, had plans for a mixed-use project containing residential and retail that could be between 60 and 90 feet tall. Thrower said there was not a specific site plan for the project at this time.

Neighbors did not object to the increased height or density on the lot, but did have concerns about the schedule for improving the streetscape. “When you grant CBD zoning, you need to have a streetscape that will match the pedestrian activity,” said Richard Hardin. “A four-foot sidewalk won’t do it. Yes, there are sidewalks, but they’re not adequate.” Hardin requested that the city require the developer to install sidewalks in compliance with the Great Streets standard before the finished project received a certificate of occupancy.

Thrower countered that it would be more efficient to do the entire block at the same time, rather than just improving the sidewalk in front of his client’s lot. “It’s not a question of will we do it; our only issue is when,” he said. “There’s a greater economy of scale in dealing with a block by block basis rather than dealing with a smaller area.”

Commissioner Keith Jackson moved to support the CBD-CO zoning request with the stipulation that the property owner participate in the Great Streets program by putting money into an escrow account when the project is built, or upgrade to the Great Streets standard on their own. That will give the developers the flexibility to wait and improve the sidewalk when other properties on the same street are redeveloped. The conditional overlay will limit the property to 2,000 vehicle trips per day. The ZAP also recommended prohibiting several uses as requested by neighbors, including convenience storage, equipment sales, transitional housing, pawn shops, commercial off-street parking, and automotive sales and service.

Golf course headed for historic question

Some in community want ACC course to be zoned for historic preservation

Attorney Wayne Gronquist has the support of the Austin golfing community and three former mayors in his efforts to zone the ACC-Riverside golf course historic.

Gronquist made a presentation on his efforts at a recent Austin Neighborhoods Council meeting. Gronquist said the golf course, which he has dubbed the “Perry Maxwell-Harvey Penick” in honor of its designer and most famous golf pro, is significant in terms of its design and history as the original golf course for the Austin Country Club.

Restoring the golf course would require reclaiming parking lots from the Austin Community College so that five holes could be restored to the course, Gronquist said. The Austin Community College System is opposed to the plan. Gronquist is suggesting that the golf community or the City of Austin purchase the acreage, which local neighborhoods also would like to see added to green space along Riverside Drive.

Maintaining the golf course as green space, rather than a potential location for additional campus space for ACC, is important to the neighborhood associations in the southeast quadrant of the city, Gronquist said. The 150-acre golf course, added to the existing Colorado River Park, could provide an important amenity to the neighborhoods.

“Just as Barton Springs anchors Zilker Park, this golf course anchors the Colorado River Park,” Gronquist said. “If any of you were at the celebration for the ground-breaking of Town Lake Park, then you need to realize that this park is just as important to us.”

The original Austin Country Club golf course, built in 1948, didn’t open until 1950, Gronquist said. Maxwell, who assisted in the design of Augusta National, was architect on the course. Penick served as the course’s golf pro for 34 years. Austin Country Club relocated from Riverside Drive in 1982.

Possible plans to use the golf course as space to enlarge the ACC-Riverside campus has alarmed local neighborhoods. Linda Young, special assistant to the president to ACC, spoke to ANC on behalf of the college district. She said the college system had hired an outside consultant to go through the normal master-planning process. That consultant will look at demographics and projections and report back to trustees on potential expansions.

ACC purchased the Austin Country Club golf course in 1984 after it lay fallow for two years, Young said. Young stressed the college system had no current plans for the course, but she did not want to tie the hands of a publicly elected board that must make decisions in the best interests of the college.

“The board of trustees has no immediate plans to do anything other than use it at its current purpose,” Young said. “We have a long-term lease with a golf management company with eight years on its lease. So it’s still under contract.”

Young noted the layout and direction of the course had been changed. ACC has argued that the actual course went through the current college buildings on the property, making it impossible to restore it to the full 18-hole use. Restoring the golf course would mean removing the campus, say opponents. Gronquist argued that was not so, saying that the holes that ACC was referring to was simply the driving range.

ACC is also opposed to the historic designation on the course. The ACC board of trustees does not believe the golf course should be zoned historic. The parking on the adjoining parking lot also is critical to the ACC-Riverside campus.

“The board has made a statement, through our attorneys, that they do not feel the golf course is historic, partly because of the period of time that the property was not a golf course and, additionally, because it’s not in its original state. A portion of it is the same as it was in its original configuration, but their interpretation is that it’s not a historic site.”

ANC Vice President Jeff Jack noted that one of the neighborhood’s biggest concerns is that the land under the golf course was zoned commercial by interim owners in the 1980s, with the intent to build out the property as a commercial development. Rezoning the property, he noted, has certainly bumped the price of the property, making it difficult for the city to come up with a price for the property, if it intended to buy it.

Neighborhood groups spoke in favor of the historic zoning to preserve green space. Members of the ANC, however, were not comfortable passing a resolution on the measure given the limited information available to them on the site.

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

Last week, former Council Member Daryl Slusher sent out an email in which he said he agreed with the Save Our Springs Alliance that AMD should not locate its new facility over the Barton Springs zone. However, Slusher was critical of the SOS’s proposed charter amendments, saying the wording of the amendments make them inappropriate for placement in the city’s charter. (See Slusher’s comments.) In response to Slusher, the SOS has put forth a statement on its web site entitled “Political Insiders PAC Launches Attack Campaign Against Clean Water Clean Government Charter Amendments.” While members of the PAC may have circulated Slusher’s comments, the former Council member sent out the statement himself. It was then widely circulated and the Statesman, which also opposes the amendments, put up a link on its web site. The SOS response features the disclaimer “Paid political advertisement by Clean Water Clean Government PAC – Kathy Mitchell, Treasurer.” See . Members of the Save Barton Creek Association have yet to reach a consensus on whether to support the charter changes. The board will take up the matter again at tonight’s meeting. That portion of the meeting is not open to the public . . Campaign signs sprouting . . . Someone in the Mike Martinez campaign was busy in South Austin this weekend. Yard signs for the Place 2 candidate sprung up along Oltorf and nearby neighborhoods. Eliza May filed for the seat last week. Today is the last day to file in all the Council races . . . Candidate forums starting . . . The South Austin Democrats will hold an election endorsement meeting for candidates running for Council, AISD and ACC Tuesday night beginning at 6pm at the Gardner-Betts Center, 2515 S. Congress Avenue. Capital Area Democrats and Texas Environmental Democrats will be joining the SAD bunch to consider endorsements also . . . Next Sunday . . . The Capital City Young Democrats is hosting a City Council forum next Sunday, March 19, at the AFL-CIO building, 1106 Lavaca St., at 7pm . . . Demolition derby . . . It will be a busy—and perhaps harrowing—evening for the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association. The Historic Landmark Commission will hear five requests to demolish historic-aged homes in the area. There will also be a request for a second-story addition to another house and a hearing on a request to take down a garage and replace it. HLC will meet at 7pm in the Boards and Commissions Room . . . The Board of Adjustment will meet at 5:30pm in Council chambers . . . The CAMPO policy board will meet at 6pm . . . Tuesday meetings . . . The Planning Commission will meet at 6pm in Council chambers . . . Wednesday . . . The Environmental Board is set to meet at 6pm in Council chambers. The Downtown development committee of the Downtown Commission will meet at 4pm at Knight Real Estate, 307 East Second Street, for an update . . . Walk with the Sheriff . . . The Sheriff’s Office is continuing its fitness efforts by having another “Walk with the Sheriff” at 7:30am on Saturday. Those who want to walk will meet at RunTex on South 1st Street and Riverside Drive and will walk the Town Lake trail from South First to Lamar Blvd. and back. The distance is about 2 miles. The event will occur, rain or shine. Participants are encouraged to bring their own water or refreshments . . . Council appointments . . . At last Thursday’s meeting, several appointments were made to boards and commissions: Maureen Britton, Child Care Commission (reappointment); Parisa Fatehi, Council on Immigrant Affairs; Luis Zapata, Music Commission (reappointment); Jim Temple, Urban Forestry Board (appointment); and Joi Harden, Urban Transportation Commission (reappointment). . . Spring break . . . In Fact Daily will take the rest of this week off and will return next Monday.

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