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Who might be running for Mayor in 2009?

Monday, June 5, 2006 by

Last year, with the departure of longtime Council Members Jackie Goodman and Daryl Slusher, the city’s elected leadership changed radically, not so much because of who replaced them, but because of their newness to the city process.

Goodman, first elected in 1993, served 12 years. Slusher served nine. In 2002, both went through the onerous and difficult process of gathering signatures of 10 percent of the electorate in order to run for their four and third terms respectively. As the city’s population grows, the number of signatures required will only grow.

Faced with that alternative last fall, both Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez declined the daunting task, which was made considerably more difficult by the other charter amendments enacted in order to limit the power of lobbyists and incumbents. Thomas, of course, ran for Mayor, but he might have chosen an easy re-election instead had that been an option. But because of a change to the city charter, fewer Council members will even consider the signature option.

Last month, voters approved the charter amendment allowing Council Members to run for re-election twice after their initial election before gathering signatures. That means new Council Members Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez will not face the prospect of gathering signatures until each has served nine years—provided they are still in tune with the electorate in 2009 and 2012. (That also assumes that Cole and Martinez don’t get just plain tired of dealing with zoning battles, budgets, and myriad other problems that City Council members face.) And, because of another charter changed just approved by voters, they will be able to raise funds more easily. Voters saw the wisdom of raising the $100 limit per person contribution to $300. Of course, the same will be true for their opponents.

It will also be true for Brewster McCracken, who at this point is the only obvious candidate for Mayor in 2009. McCracken will have served six years in ’09 and he has made it clear that he is running for the top spot at that point.

Council Members Betty Dunkerley, Jennifer Kim and Lee Leffingwell all come to the end of their terms in two years. Dunkerley will not be able to run for her current seat in 2008, having served two terms, unless she wants to gather signatures. The charter amendment relating to term limits specifically excluded sitting Council Members from the less onerous requirements.

Dunkerley’s seat will be open in two years. Environmentalists, currently so fractured after the bruising battle over Propositions 1 and 2, must try to heal those wounds and find a standard bearer for that seat if they are serious about affecting the way the city does business. And if Hispanics are really serious about claiming two seats, they should see the 2008 election as an opportunity also.

Dunkerley, who has seniority, will likely be elected Mayor Pro Tem on June 20, the day new Council Members take the oath of office and Thomas and Alvarez retire. She has considerable energy for a person of 70, but seems comfortable in her role as the budget wizard, the Council member most likely to work behind the scenes to find a solution to problems involving numbers and dollar signs. In addition, running for Mayor is very expensive.

Dunkerley has not forgotten the debt she incurred to replace Beverly Griffith in 2002. In fact, she still owes herself $16,000 from that battle. As a city retiree, Dunkerley can afford to spend her time traveling and visiting her grandchildren. She could, of course, step down in 2008, rest for a few months, and then run for Mayor. But that seems highly unlikely.

Leffingwell, who is 66, could run for re-election in 2008 and then run for Mayor in 2009, if he is inclined to take the step. He has his pension from Delta Airlines and is an obvious candidate for those who are not firmly in the McCracken camp. However, he would have to resign his Council seat to do so. Under the Texas Constitution, any elected city official who declares his candidacy for another position automatically resigns the current seat if he/she still has one year left on his term. So, either Leffingwell or Kim would face the same dilemma and risk alienating the voters who just elected them to a second term.

Finally, McCracken has made himself a target for certain individuals and groups. The Austin Toll Party could not find anyone with a shred of knowledge about the city to run against him this year and it was the only group obviously recruiting. But three years is a very long time in City Council politics. They, or more likely someone else, will no doubt find one or more contenders willing to take him on should he ultimately decide to run for the top spot three years from now.

Austin planning for pandemic

Worldwide concern over a possible Bird Flu outbreak among humans is still just a concern, but at the request of federal and state public health officials, the City of Austin is developing a preparedness plan to deal with such an emergency.

David Lurie, director of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services, said the city is part of an international effort to deal with a potential Bird Flu pandemic.

“What we’re looking at is an overall preparedness plan for the city,” he said. “But with a pandemic flu it’s a bit more focused. Obviously a pandemic would be a major event for us, but its good work in the sense that if some other possible public health emergencies happen in the community, we’d be better prepared.”

Currently, there have only been sporadic cases of Bird Flu being transmitted between humans in parts of Asia and Eastern Europe, but officials with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Department of State Health Services say the virus is likely to mutate to humans at some point, and could begin spreading rapidly.

Lurie and his staff have been working with various city departments, as well as some private businesses, to develop an emergency preparedness plan that would not only halt or slow the progression of disease in a pandemic, but also keep critical services available to the public.

“Operationally, we’re working with hospitals around issues of surge capacity,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work around special needs sheltering, which actually ties back to the work we did with the hurricanes where we were setting up a different level of medical care for people in shelters. There might be large numbers of people who are ill and not able to take care of themselves at home but are not severely ill to the point of requiring hospitalization.”

He said the city is also looking at ways to handle large numbers of people who are potentially infectious, to encourage them to isolate themselves voluntarily at home. He said the city will need plans and systems to support individuals that need to stay home for a week or 10 days.

On the other end of the spectrum, Lurie said they city is working with the statewide officials around mortuary services for ways to handle bodies if there are a large number of deaths surrounding the pandemic.

“We’re also looking at some of the larger public policy issues, such as potentially canceling large public gatherings if you had a large outbreak,” he said. “We’ve had discussions with the public school district about the potential of closing schools, ad we’re doing work with the city around workplace issues, with an outbreak, encouraging people who have symptoms to stay home, look at teleworking options.”

City departments and other critical service agencies are developing continuity plans, he said.

“If you have 30 to 40 percent of your work force unavailable, how would you conduct business? What would be your critical services?” he said “We are encouraging these agencies to develop plans to be able to provide service continuity if we were to have a pandemic.”

The city is also developing an extensive communications plan, Lurie said.

“If you have a large-scale outbreak, much of it relates to what people can do for themselves to prevent potential exposure,” he said. “We need to be able to get out information to people as quickly as possible.”

The bottom line, Lurie said, is that in the event of a flu pandemic or any other natural or man-made disaster, that the city can deal with the public health challenge such an event would pose, and to continue to provide critical services with diminished resources.

Planning Commission OKs bar on West Fifth

A local businessman won the approval from the Planning Commission to open an outdoor bar at a site on West Fifth Street currently occupied by a used car lot. The site at 817 W. Fifth is zoned D-MU, and liquor sales are allowed within that zoning category with a conditional-use permit.

Businessman Andy Erwin plans to use the footprint of the existing 317 square-foot building for Harvey Bell Auto Sales as the base of operations for the “ Patio Bar” and provide seating outdoors on the lot in the space currently used to display used cars.

“What we really want to offer the community is an environment where they can feel relaxed and comfortable, not a ‘shot bar’ or anything like that,” said Erwin. “We really want to make it as beautiful as possible. We want people to look at it and say ‘it’s better than a used car lot’.” With the growing number of downtown condos, he said, the site was ideal for a neighborhood bar.

Property owner Jason Subt said that because the lot backs up to Shoal Creek, the development possibilities for the site are limited due to flood plain restrictions. He told the Commission that he and Irwin had met with their nearest neighbors, the Austin City Lofts, and had modified their proposal in accordance with the wishes of those residents. Specifically, they proposed to close the bar at midnight instead of 2am and to open earlier in the day to sell tea and juice to joggers and cyclists. “We listened to the Austin City Lofts community…we would like them to be our best customer,” he said. “We added their suggestions to our business model.”

But the condo owners of the Austin City Lofts at 800 W. Fifth were not entirely pleased with the idea of another bar in their neighborhood. “We think we have enough. We think we could use some other types of retail. Currently within two blocks we have six existing bars, one that’s almost ready to open, two pubs, and another pub that’s going to open next to us. We think that’s enough for our area,” said Ian Inglis, the current president of the Austin City Lofts Homeowners Association and longtime activist with the MoPAC Neighborhood Association Coalition. “We certainly are not against having a good, lively, mixed-use market district. I think that where we’re heading in our area runs the risk of being much like East Sixth Street.” Inglis said the primary concern of the homeowners association was with the potential for noise from the bar. “All we’re seeing developed lately are bars. A lot of them are outdoors because of the smoking ordinance,” he said. “They create noise problems.”

Commissioners discussed imposing an additional limitation on noise from the property beyond the limitations on noise from mechanical and air conditioning equipment, but eventually decided against it. “I am not the slightest bit worried about these guys,” Commission Chair Chris Riley said of the applicants. “The problem is that this conditional use permit is going to be out there for other users, and other users have not been as respectful of their neighbors.”

Other Commissioners were not as enthusiastic about requiring additional noise restrictions, and that proposal was not part of the final motion. The Commission unanimously voted to approve the conditional use permit and to limit the hours of operation for the bar to 7am to midnight.

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

Firefighters to choose new leader . . . Council Member-elect Mike Martinez has presided over his last meeting as president of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters. He will resign from the union on June 13 in preparation for assuming his new post. On that date, Senior Vice President Robert Garcia, will take over as president, as prescribed in the organization's bylaws. However, Martinez says Garcia does not want the position and would like to step aside in favor of a new president. Those eligible for the post are the four current vice presidents of the organization: Steven Truesdell, president of the Firefighters PAC, Doug Fowler, former president of the association, Cliff Alexander and Jeremy Burke. Fowler and Truesdell have expressed an interest in the job. Martinez said he has set in motion the process for a vote amongst the union membership to choose the new union leader . . . Meetings . . . The Music Commission meets at 6pm the in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Art in Public Places Panel meets at 6pm in Room 1027 at City Hall . . . The Austin Community College Board of Trustees meets at 6pm at the Highland Business Center, 5930 Middle Fiskville Road . . . McMansion Task Force report . . . The Development Regulations Task Force will make what may be its final presentation this week before its recommendations go to the City Council before a vote. The Planning Commission will reopen its previous public hearing on the so-called "McMansion" ordinance at 7pm Tuesday in room 325 at One Texas Center. Following the previous report and review by the planning commission (See In Fact Daily, May 18, 2006) A copy of the proposed changes is available at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/zoning/sf_regs.htm. The Council will hold a public hearing and is posted for possible action on the ordinance at 6pm Thursday . . . Redistricting ruling . . . Those watching the Texas redistricting case are on high alert on Monday. There are only a couple of more Mondays for the US Supreme Court to issue its decision. During the court's discussion, justices raised more questions about lines of particular districts than they did about the choice to do mid-decade redistricting. In the intervening months, the architect of the redistricting plan, the once-powerful House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, decided he would not run for another term in Congress . . . Cedar Park adopts logo . . . It was a shining example of democracy in action. The candidates were placed before the people, a vote was taken, and the City of Cedar Park has adopted a new official logo for the city. According to the Hill Country News, the Cedar Park City Council hired Zocalo Design for $8,700, appointed a citizens committee to review the process, and now they are printing up the new letterhead. The new logo contains-what else? A branch from a cedar tree on a two-color background. Look for it to appear over the next few weeks. Now, imagine what the process would be like if the City of Austin decided to develop a new logo.

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