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RECA debate focuses on charter amendments,

Wednesday, April 19, 2006 by

Proposed city charter amendments dominated the discussion at Tuesday’s candidate debate sponsored by the Real Estate Council of Austin at the Four Seasons Hotel. Candidates answered questions from RECA members based on answers they gave to a written questionnaire. Each candidate was also allowed to ask one question of his or her opponent. In several instances, these questions lead to a comment on the Open Government and SOS charter amendment proposals on the May 13 ballot.

When the candidates for Place 6 were given the opportunity to question one another, DeWayne Lofton pressed Sheryl Cole for her position on AMD’s plans to build a new office complex in southwest Austin. The environmental groups opposed to that plan, such as the Save Our Springs Alliance, have made that opposition a key part of their campaign in support of Proposition 2. “I believe that AMD has an absolute legal right to do what they are doing,” said Cole. “I would love to have them build and expand somewhere else. I would have taken the same position as the Mayor when they said they were going to expand…and said ‘can we get you downtown, can we get you in East Austin?’ But when they say ‘no’ to that, and say their particular reasons for that, there’s nothing else that we can do. We have to respect that option.”

Mayor Will Wynn asked Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas whether he would be personally voting for or against Propositions 1 and 2. While Wynn has been vocal in his opposition, Thomas declined to say whether he would be supporting either of the ballot initiatives. Instead, he reminded Wynn of the right to a secret ballot. “I think everybody has their own voter’s rights,” he said. When May 13 arrives, “I will be supporting whatever I feel that day when I vote. I believe I have that right,” he concluded.

The third mayoral candidate, Jennifer Gale, said the most important issue in the race is health care for everyone. She criticized Thomas for his opposition to Proposition 6, which would overturn a previous charter amendment that prevents the city from allowing city employees to add their gay partners to health care plans.

The candidates for Place 5 sparred over Proposition 1. Kedron Touvell, who is challenging incumbent Council Member Brewster McCracken, has made his support of both Propositions 1 and 2 a focal point of his campaign. “You had over 20,000 citizens of Austin sign these petitions because they thought the City Council was not moving forward on these issues, such as increasing the transparency and accountability of government,” he said.

Touvell rejected the premise of a question submitted by a RECA member that the two propositions would subject the city to numerous lawsuits while weakening the city’s legal position. “Obviously, RECA does not support these amendments, and I would challenge the Council that if these do not pass, please show us something in terms of increasing the transparency or accountability of government.”

McCracken, who has been outspoken both on and off the dais about the propositions, warned the members of RECA that the “Open Government” would not have the positive impact that supporters have claimed, such as forcing the disclosure of alternate sites for the replacement for the Green Water Treatment Plant. “All it does require is private citizens’ e-mails to be compromised and revealed in this kind of Orwellian fashion. It requires the government report on every one of you who attended here today,” he said pointing to the provision that elected officials must record who they meet with during their luncheons and happy hours.

Touvell countered that McCracken’s example was little more than a scare tactic. “This is obviously not a function where we’re doing city business, so that would not be required under the charter amendment,” he said.

But McCracken offered an alternate interpretation of the charter amendment, noting that it requires records for “any meeting, even an informal meeting which a public official is present…that government business is discussed.” Since the candidate forum was focused on city issues, he said, “that would include the government reporting on this meeting and what we talked about.”

In Place 2, candidate Eliza May put the focus on public safety, attempting to paint rival Mike Martinez as a single-issue candidate. “I have lived in Austin since 1976, and I’ve had the opportunity to work in a variety of different employment and civic organizations,” she said. “I would submit to you that Place 2 demands, requires, and should have a representative that understands budgetary concerns, understands the broad breadth of issues and concerns that come before City Council. With all due respect to our firefighters, our EMS, and our public safety servants…they do a good job, but we demand more than a representative that can only bring those skills to the table.” She also pressed Martinez to state what he considered to be an acceptable percentage of the general fund budget to devote to public safety costs.

“I think to say that the public safety is only worth 40 percent or 60 percent of the budget is just an arbitrary number to, because you can’t base a percentage if you don’t know what your tax base is,” Martinez said. “I think what you have to do is work on the tax base and continue increasing the tax base.”

This year’s debate was moderated by KTBC-TV reporter Mike Rosen, taking over for former moderator Dick Ellis, who left KTBC to join the media relations staff of State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn.

Four on Council back Prop 6

Coalition endorses health care for domestic partners

Mayor Will Wynn, Council Member Betty Dunkerley, Council Member Lee Leffingwell, and Council Member Brewster McCracken joined the Healthcare for Austin coalition on Tuesday in calling on voters to pass Proposition 6 on the city ballot. It would remove the language from the city charter prohibiting the city from offering health care for the domestic partners of city employees.

“We have four City Council races and eight potential charter amendments on the ballot,” said Mayor Wynn, who said he hoped the healthcare amendment would not be forgotten by voters. “Proposition 6 is important to me personally.”

When voters approved the current language in the city charter, it was part of an ongoing debate over gay rights. Supporters of the current proposition are not focusing on sexual orientation, but rather the need for city employees and their families to have good benefits. “Texas far and away leads the nation in uninsured citizens,” the Mayor said. “In a small way, what Proposition 6 will allow us to do is to have more citizens insured.”

In the years since the current language was placed into the charter, the national political climate surrounding domestic partners has changed. Many large employers now offer similar coverage for their employees’ immediate relatives or same-sex partners. “Half of the Fortune 500 companies offer some type of comprehensive coverage for their employees,” said Leffingwell, pointing to Dell, 3M, and Freescale as examples of local employers that offer similar coverage. “This is very important for the city to do this because we have an interest in competing in the marketplace for top-flight employees.”

For rank-and-file city employees, going without health insurance for their families can be a financial hardship. Assistant City Attorney Laurie Eiserloh said that when her partner of 17 years required some medical tests last year, the costs were significant “We have to pay $200 per month out of pocket for her insurance policy. It has a $5,000 deductible and no prescription drug benefits,” she said. “We ended up paying $3,500 out of pocket to get her the health care that she needed,” she said. “I’m one of many city employees who is affected by this. It’s very much my hope that the voters will see that the City of Austin is trying to be a good employer and provide for its employees.”

So far, there has not been an organized campaign against Proposition 6. Several members of the Austin Area Pastor's Council are signed up to speak on the issue at tomorrow’s Council meeting during citizens’ communications. Last fall, that group supported Proposition 2 on the Texas ballot, which defined marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman. .

ZAP OKs commercial change for Dessau Road

Neighbors complain of traffic, tree loss, configuration of access

Despite opposition from a large neighborhood contingent, the Zoning and Platting Commission voted to recommend commercial zoning on two tracts of land in a rapidly growing area of Northeast Austin last night.

The land, which sits north and south of the intersection of Shropshire Lane at Dessau Road, is currently undeveloped and sits in a natural area that forms a buffer between Dessau and the Copperfield Neighborhood. Developers want to put “neighborhood services” such a convenience store, restaurants, and a bank on the properties.

However, neighbors opposing the plan said the configuration of the roads in the area would actually block their access to the development, and would worsen already bad traffic conditions in the area.

“These tracts of land are unsuitable for retail use,” said Jeanette Klotz, president of the Northeast Growth Corridor Alliance. “This is a particularly dangerous section of the roadway with blind curves and changes in elevation. Retail stores would just make this stretch more dangerous.”

Ron Thrower, agent for the developers, told the commission that the area is experiencing rapid growth and has a need for the services.

But area neighbors continued to rail against the idea, showing pictures indicating that the slope on which the developer planned to build was too steep, noting that several 200-year-old trees might have to be cut down, and noted that the speed limit through the area was 50 but that traffic often moved faster than that.

“Because of the median in the road, when I leave my house in Pioneer West, I have to go all the way down the intersection of Shropshire and Dessau and do a u-turn in order to go south,” said Celeste Scarborough. “There are medians with no cuts in them going north and south on Dessau and West on Shropshire that would block access to the development. People would be making a lot of u-turns in order to get in there.”

Thrower countered the neighborhoods’ protests by saying recent growth in the area has created the need for the services, and convenience stores at the intersection of Dessau and Parmer Lane were not close enough to the neighborhood. He said the owner might be willing to dedicate some right-of-way towards turn lanes to ease traffic, but wasn’t sure that was the answer.

Commissioner Keith Jackson requested city staff to prepare a study of the traffic in the area, taking a look at where cuts in the median might improve traffic flow and eliminate the need for dangerous u-turns. He then moved to recommend that the tract north of Shropshire be zoned GR-CO, with only restaurant and financial services allowed. He also moved that the tract south of Shropshire be zoned LR-CO, which would put less intense commercial enterprises in the most heavily traveled part of Dessau.

Both motions passed 7-0 with Commissioners Joseph Martinez and Stephanie Hale absent.

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

More PAC papers come in . . . Healthcare for Austin, the political action committee supporting Proposition 6 on the May charter ballot, filed its report Monday. The group reported raising $950 for the most recent time period. According to a report, Assistant City Attorney Laurie Eiserloh contributed $750, while Gary Allman it and David Gainer each contributed $100. Celia Israel is the group's campaign treasurer . . . The City Clerk received a long and confusing contribution and expenditure report Tuesday from the Clean Water Clean Government PAC, which supports Propositions 1 and 2. CWCG reported receiving more than $93,500 in in-kind contributions from the SOS Alliance between February 13 and April 3 out of a total of $169,168.92 raised. The largest contributors after SOS were Kirk Mitchell ($30,000) and Jenny Clark ($16,500). (Mitchell’s grandfather was a Greek immigrant, which is relevant to the joke below.) City Clerk Shirley Gentry said the PAC mailed its papers on a timely basis, last Thursday. The post office did not issue a press release on the matter but some wag who goes by the moniker Seymour Email did sent out his own release purporting to quote Bunch, consultant Glen Maxey and SOS Communications Director Colin Clark. It reads in part, "Kirk Mitchell mailed this from his yacht that is anchored off a small Greek Island owned by his family," said Bill Bunch, executive director of SOS. "He had a servant postmark it before 5 PM Thurs. Greek time, which we believe fully complies with the law. People keep nitpicking our filings just like they keep nitpicking these amendments. We know what we meant when we filed and we know what we meant when we wrote these amendments. If people are confused that’s their problem." Colin Clark, communications director for SOS, suggested there might be more sinister motives behind the delay: "Our open government amendment will be a major move towards a more paperless society and of course the US Post Office fears that," said Clark, "and you need to remember that more houses over the aquifer means more mailboxes to deliver mail to, so Prop 2 is a problem for them as well." In Fact Daily readers know that Proposition 1 is the Open Government amendment and Proposition 2 is the SOS Amendment . . . Today’s forums . . The Austin Area Human Services Association is scheduled to meet at Nuevo Leon at 11:30am . . . Adapt, which lobbies for people with disabilities, will meet to hear from candidates at 6pm at Mary Lee Community Center at 1327 Lamar Square Drive, off South Lamar . . . Keep Austin Blue will allow candidates to address the crowd tonight at Mother Egan’s. . . . Meetings . . . The Downtown Austin Community Court Advisory Committee meets at 7:30am in the Boards and Commissions room at City Hall . . . The Downtown Commission meets at 5:30pm in the Board and Commissions room at City Hall . . . The Capital Metro Board of Directors meets at 4pm in Cap Metro Headquarters at 2910 East Fifth St. . . . Williamson comes “clean” . . . Williamson County Commissioners received a presentation this week on the Fiscal Year 2005 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) and Management Letter from Patillo, Brown & Hill, L.L.P. The firm gave an “unqualified” or “clean” opinion stating the audit was free of any material misstatements. The audit includes a review of all practices and procedures of all fee and or fine collecting offices of the county as well as internal controls . . . A point of emphasis . . . Betty Baker, the hard-working, no-nonsense chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission, got a little help from above last night while making a point during debate on a case. The commission had been discussing the merits of a proposal when Baker stopped the proceedings by stating emphatically: “We just don’t have enough information to proceed on this…” Just as Baker finished her statement, a loud clap of thunder emanated from a storm that had just moved over downtown. Several of the commissioners looked at each other with wide eyes. Then Commissioner Clark Hammond quipped “When Betty speaks, she thunders!.”

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