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Martinez seeks study of Council districts

Thursday, July 13, 2006 by

Council Member Mike Martinez says he plans to ask his colleagues to help set up a community task force to look at the way City Council members are elected. "What I envision is both at-large and geographic districts," he said.

"I don't want to call it single-member districts. There's more to it than that," Martinez said, adding that he has yet to come up with the appropriate name for the community group which would study possible changes to the way that some or all Council members are elected.

The newly-elected Council member noted that citizens have a two-year time frame for proposing changes to the City Charter. Such changes require voter approval. Martinez knows that Austin voters have rejected single-member districts five times in the past, beginning in 1973 and most recently in 2002. (See In Fact Daily, May 6, 2002.) He acknowledges that there will be some opposition to formation of the task force simply because the public has rejected single-member districts so many times in the past.

Although the push for greater representation is strongest within the Hispanic community, Martinez said he had heard support for a change in the way Council members are elected from neighborhood groups to business people and those with more conservative values than currently sit on the Council. He said he had heard about aspirations for greater representation "literally multiple times in multiple settings."

"I would like to see how the community is feeling," Martinez said. The charter cannot be amended before 2008 and Martinez said the next two years could be used to study charter change proposals.

Council Member Sheryl Cole was surprised to hear that Martinez was thinking about pushing for the task force at this point. She said single-member districts pose a difficult problem because of the wide dispersal of the African-American community. However, she said she was not opposed to creation of the task force.

Council Member Brewster McCracken did not agree. "Of the Council Members in Austin—when they serve on the Council—the vast majority of us have come to the conclusion that single-member districts would be terrible for Austin. Single-member districts would produce ward politics," he said, producing a Council dominated by "parochial interests…. Such a system would cause the voters of Austin to be disenfranchised in six of seven seats."

McCracken said he supported single-member districts when he was first elected but has come to believe that the at-large system is superior.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley responded cautiously, saying that while she has supported single-member districts in the past she is currently opposed to the idea. "It's his right to suggest it, " she said, adding that she would not be against studying a change in the way Council members are elected. Like Cole, however, she alluded to the difficulty of creating districts in which a majority of voters are African-American.

Dunkerley said she likes the current system because, "We all have the same constituents. We have to respond equally to everyone." She noted that there would be one advantage to single-member districts—elections would be cheaper.

City demographer Ryan Robinson is excited about the prospect of working on the district representation question again since it involves the types of studies that use his expertise. He notes that the most recent census data comes from 2000 and new data will not be available until after the 2010 census. But he has some educated guesses about what has happened to the population based on historical data. Robinson said in 1995 about 22 percent of the population was Hispanic, while today a conservative estimate is 35 percent. The Asian population grew from about 2 percent to about 6 percent and the African-American share has diminished to less than 10 percent. Whatever the city proposes must win approval from the US Department of Justice under the federal Voting Rights Act.

In general, Robinson said, while minorities make up a larger percentage of the population, they are more dispersed throughout the city than in the past. That is not true for the Dove Springs area, in southeast Austin, he said, where the Hispanic population’s percentage has increased from 90 percent in 2000 to a higher percentage now.

"It will be more difficult," than it was the last time the city tried to draw districts that complied with the Voting Rights Act. "How much more difficult we don’t know," he said.

And while the population has become less Anglo, the voting population has not changed in the same way. The areas of heaviest vote turnout were almost entirely west of MoPac, creating a new term—the western crescent. Although only about 30 percent of the population lives west of MoPac, the area contains 40 percent of the registered voters and half of those who cast ballots in the May election, he said.

Auditor urges city to unify planning efforts

Members of the Planning Commission say the city may have plenty of valid goals in neighborhood plans, but that information is not being integrated into the overarching city planning efforts in a meaningful way or incorporated into the decisions of city staff when it comes time to spend money on Capital Improvement Projects.

Representatives of the City Auditor’s Office were on hand at a Planning Commission subcommittee meeting last night to discuss a May audit of the city’s long-term planning efforts. According to the audit, presented by Assistant City Auditor Corrie Stokes, the city would benefit by unifying various planning efforts – from Austin Tomorrow to Envision Central Texas – under one set of guidelines that could be used for the city staff in long-term planning decisions.

Stokes used Seattle as the example, saying the concept of "urban villages" drove many of the incremental planning decisions made by the city. Such an overarching concept directed both growth and the prioritization of public dollars for infrastructure to support that growth. Capital planning in Seattle emerged from long-term goals rather than special interests, as it often has in Austin, Stokes told the committee.

The audit, on line at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/auditor/reports.htm, outlined four recommendations for city staff:

• Develop a long-term strategic planning and vision process.

• Revisit the comprehensive plan based upon that vision.

• Make sure planning documents are more accessible to stakeholders.

• And provide centralized oversight that could make sure the vision, as well as the process, is implemented.

While the recommendations were consistent with past city task force recommendations, city staff disagreed with the audit recommendations, except for the third recommendation, which applied to better access to documents.

"We did not agree with all the findings of the audit," Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman, who was on hand at last night’s subcommittee meeting, told commissioners. "To some extent, that has to do with differences in how we view planning."

Huffman agreed that information could be presented in a clearer way but that the city’s overarching goal – a livable city – was a key component to every aspect of decision-making, from department priorities down to city employee evaluations. She vigorously defended the presence of a vision and a planning process in which long-range goals are a key component of mid-range and short-range endeavors.

While members of the Planning Commission didn’t argue whether the concept was there, they did question how the neighborhood planning information was being integrated into city planning documents and how often various departments used it to make decisions.

Sidewalks are a good example. Commissioner Chris Riley noted that the Planning Commission hears frequently from neighborhood leaders who want to know why a sidewalk was placed here, instead of there, in a neighborhood when the goal of where new sidewalks should be might be clearly outlined in the neighborhood plan. Both Huffman and Greg Guernsey, director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, agreed that neighborhood plans were expected to be a factor in such decisions by the Public Works Department but not always the overriding factor.

Huffman said projects across the city were, more often, prioritized on a "worst first" policy. For instance, in the case of sidewalks, the city’s decisions often have been driven by the needs under the Americans with Disabilities Act first, rather than neighborhood plans. The more limited the funding, the more limited the scope of projects.

While commissioners said they didn’t expect neighborhood plans to be the primary driver of city projects, they did want neighborhood priorities to be one factor under consideration. One way that could happen, Commissioner Mandy Dealey suggested, was to create a type of topographical map of the city that combined both city goals and the goals of neighborhood plans in one graphic image. Click on a neighborhood map – or the portion of a map – and various goals could be displayed.

Dealey suggested a "super plan" that incorporated all goals. She also suggested setting measurable outcomes for neighborhood plans, so that it’s clear when the city has or has not reached its goals in a particular neighborhood. Riley wanted to see plans laid out, end to end, to talk about the gaps that may occur in the city goals.

Huffman, while insisting the city had worked hard on its website to outline goals and priorities, did agree that the website often was difficult to navigate and that incorporating such information could be a consideration in the website redesign.

While some members – like Dealey, Riley and Dave Sullivan – were concerned about how content was being handled and incorporated into the decision-making process, Cid Galindo was more concerned with the long-range planning itself. Galindo said Austin could be adding up to one million people over the next 20 years, yet the city’s planning efforts failed as a long-term strategy to keep up with such demand.

Huffman disagreed, saying efforts such as transit-oriented development and the State Highway 130 corridor plan were intended to address expected growth patterns.

Two firms bid on Zero Waste program

At the current rate of waste disposal, it’s estimated that the City of Austin will run out of landfill space as early as 2016. While local officials are looking at ways to find new space for a landfill, they are also approaching the problem by planning programs that will cut down on the amount of solid waste generated by the city

Currently, city staff is evaluating the RFQ’s of two environmental firms to make a recommendation for a consultant to devise a Zero Waste program for the city. Solid Waste Services Director Willie Rhodes says he plans to take a recommendation for the program to the City Council in September.

Zero Waste is a concept that encourages ever-increasing rates of recycling for solid waste, composting of organic wastes, and minimizing the waste stream by cutting back on packaging.

"Right now, it’s still cheaper to bury the trash," said Rhodes. "But you have to start somewhere, and over time we will be making lasting changes in how to handle solid waste. Currently, we have a 75 percent rate recycling among households. We’re looking to increase that to between 80 and 90 percent."

Two firms submitted complete RFQs to the city for the project, R.W. Beck, a Seattle-based management consulting and engineering firm and Hill Country Environmental, an Austin-based environmental consulting firm.

The concept has the backing of the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, which began pushing the plan during discussion of a long-range solid waste plan last year. The SWAC subcommittee that is studying the long-range plan is advocating a regional approach to deal with solid waste, but has found little cooperation from county and regional governments. So for now, Austin will begin Zero Waste efforts on its own.

Zero Waste, according to the Web site ZeroWasteAmerica.org, is "the recycling of all materials back into nature or the marketplace in a manner that protects human health and the environment." While Austin is well on the way with "Pay as You Throw" refuse collection, curbside recycling and other programs, Zero Waste takes further steps to remove waste from the product cycle and turn what is now waste products into resources.

According to Eco-Cycle, other key elements of a Zero Waste program include: redesigning products and packaging for durability, reuse and recyclability; creating jobs from discarded materials; holding the producer of packaging responsible; and ending tax payer subsidies for wasteful and polluting industries.

Rhodes said the two candidate firms will be evaluated by a panel of city staff based on an evaluation matrix, and that he would present their recommendation to City Council in September. Rhodes said confidentiality agreements prevented him from revealing any information about the candidates’ proposals until a decision is made.

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

Futrell names new Assistant City Manager . . . City Manager Toby Futrell has named H. G. (Bert) Lumbreras of Waco as the newest member of the city's management team. Lumbreras, who has 24 years of management experience in Texas cities, will start his new job in mid August. He will "fill the position vacated by the retirement of Joe Canales," according to a memo Futrell sent to the Mayor and Council. Canales retired at the end of June as deputy city manager. Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza, who has been an interim Assistant City Manager, will return to his regular duties on September 1 . . . Barton Springs Board to meet . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board of Directors meets at 6pm at district headquarters 1124 Regal Row in Manchaca. Among other agenda items, the board will review possible changes in the implementation of new and revised drought management and related enforcement measures. The new rules would include criteria for mandatory conservation during drought that defines and prohibits excessive use, would outline specific fines for violations of mandatory drought measures, and other regulations. The board will also declare any changes in the aquifer’s current drought condition, if necessary . . . Edwards Board increases pumpage allowance . . . The Edwards Aquifer Authority has adopted rules to help it implement a two-tiered system of water rights under its "junior-senior" rules adopted in 2003. The new temporary rules, which are now set to expire Dec. 31, 2007, will allow pumping from the Edwards Aquifer above the 450,000 acre-foot per year limits currently contained in the Edwards Aquifer Act, a state law adopted in 1993. The pumpage allowance is designed to protect San Antonio’s water supply. EAA officials say the bifurcated pumping rules protect the aquifer from heavier pumping during "critical periods," which means during serious droughts. Critics—including the city of San Marcos and the Sierra Club—say the rules threaten the vitality of the Comal and San Marcos springs, and fails to protect downstream interests . . . TCEQ meeting set for Hutto . . . Texas Commission for Environmental Quality officials will meet with Hutto residents in a public meeting July 27 to discuss a permit request by Williamson County to expand a landfill near the city. A spokeswoman for the TCEQ said agency officials and county officials would be on hand to answer questions. Several Hutto residents have organized against expanding the landfill, which is called "Mount Hutto." They say the expansion would have a negative affect on the quality of life in the area. The spokeswoman said this is the third and final public meeting in the permit process, and the TCEQ could issue a final ruling on the permit 90 days after the meeting.

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