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WTP 4 Audit: Good news, bad news

Friday, November 3, 2006 by

Garza asks that GIS data be analyzed again

City staff may have provided false information to a member of the Environmental Board during the site selection process for Water Treatment Plant 4, according to a report released this week by the City Auditor. The report, however, says the city’s consultant did not mislead the Council about the possibility of alternative site for the plant since its existence was disclosed during the Aug. 24 Council meeting.

The Auditor’s investigation and report was the result of information received anonymously from an Austin Water Utility employee, who claimed that, in addition, a consultant gave the same false information to City Council, and that he (the employee) had been directed to dispose of records verifying the alternative site. Neither the name of the employee making the claim, nor the names of any of the other staff members involved in the investigation, was released.

The site, which the consultant rejected, is located in the southern section of the Cortaña tract. (The preferred site was on the northern portion of Cortaña, a part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. Travis County rejected that site.)

The report does highlight, once again, the communication failures that marked WTP 4 as a case study of how to raise hackles on city commissions. Rumors circulated around City Hall and amongst county commissioners for weeks about the existence of a “third site,” with the presumption being that such a site would solve the environmental problems associated with both Cortaña and the Bull Creek macrosite—where the plant is currently slated for construction.

But Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza, who took over as Assistant City Manager briefly duties this summer during the time period in question, said of the second Cortaña site: “We just found it really lacking. Environmentally it didn’t make any sense, and because of its proximity to neighborhoods.” Garza said that because of the distance from the intake structure locating the plant on the site would cause a great deal of habitat fragmentation. “Damage to the environment would be significantly higher,” he said. “Our biologists were very strong in their opinion.”

The report states that Board Member Karin Ascot was told there were no other viable sites for the plant within the Cortaña tract when such a site apparently existed. Auditor Stephen Morgan said his investigation found that, at the time Ascot asked the “WTP4 team” in a written memo to identify alternative sites within the Cortaña tract, the staff had identified such a tract. The report states that staff had identified a 52-acre tract on the southern portion of the Cortaña site that met the preliminary screening data for an alternative site, but failed to disclose the information.

The report is most recent volley in a year-long battle by members of the Environmental Board, including Ascot, to force the city to find a site for WTP4 in a less environmentally sensitive location. During the process, several members of the board say requests for information regarding the project were at best delayed and at other times never delivered. Board members claimed that a consultant’s report on possible alternative sites for the plant was withheld from the board for several months after it was completed.

Garza said he does not believe that Ascot was misled. “At that moment when we responded, we were still of the opinion that site did not meet the preliminary criterion,” he said. “We had been arguing (about the tract). The consultant insisted there was not enough space; the employee insisted it did.”

The auditor’s report notes that the consultant’s original alternative site evaluation (ASE) was performed in 2005, but that the focus shifted to the Green Water Treatment Plant, so the ASE report was not presented to the Council. In mid-2006 the focus shifted back to WTP4 and a report was made to Council.

In the period between renewed focus on WTP4 and the ASE report to the Council, the report states, a city employee and other staff conducted a GIS analysis and identified a second tract within the Cortaña site. Based on that discovery, the employee contacted the auditor out of concern that the ASE was not reporting all of the viable alternative sites.

In a memo to Council Members, Garza said city staff members took all requests for information about the project very seriously, and said they considered all information available.

“There was a minimum of four discussions, initiated by the supervisor, between the site selection consultant and the inquiring employee about whether or not the southern site was large enough,” he wrote. “There were at least three additional team discussions about the site. Finally, at the supervisor’s request, I facilitated yet another meeting on this topic with a second consultant. In the end, we assumed it was large enough and tested it against the technical criteria used for all sites that met the initial size criteria. The southern site failed this test.”

As for an additional charge that employee was told to dispose of records that would have identified the southern Cortaña tract, the Auditor’s report stated that it could “nor confirm or refute” those allegations.

“The (auditor) interviewed both parties involved and obtained conflicting testimony from each,” the report said. “In addition, no third party witnesses were identified that could have provided testimony in the matter.”

In a final attempt to clear up the matter, Garza said he asked Carollo Engineering to perform an analysis of the entire five -mile radius of the original study area using a GIS data set with the highest possible resolution to determine any and all potential sites. He said the results would be released on Monday.

Council retreat planned at pricey spa

Leffingwell objects to two-day 'group therapy' meeting

The Austin City Council plans a facilitated retreat at the Crossings next Thursday and Friday. The approximate cost of the meeting, including an overnight stay for members of the City Council, one staff member each, and members of city management, is about $16,000, according to Chief of Staff Kristen Vassallo. The Crossings advertises itself as a "progressive learning center, meeting place and wellness spa" ( http://www.thecrossingsaustin.com).

Friday is a city holiday in observance of Veterans Day and not everyone is pleased about a meeting nearly 22 miles from City Hall on a day when children will be out of school. Council Member Lee Leffingwell, for one, thinks the retreat is "silly." He said he is especially concerned about staff members who are required to attend even though they may have child care problems because of the school holiday. Those required to attend will receive an alternate day off.

In an e-mail to fellow Council members, Leffingwell wrote: "While I realize it may be late to reschedule, I personally would not object to postponing the event. If that can't be done, maybe the agenda could be arranged so that those who do have family/holiday conflicts could be excused from Friday's deliberations/group therapy (whatever)."

Leffingwell is not alone in his discomfort with the process, but he is the most outspoken opponent. Council Member Jennifer Kim, on the other hand, is a strong believer in retreats.

Last November, Kim hired communications consultant Kelly Vidovic to facilitate a retreat for the Council Member and her three-member staff. The city paid Vidovic $1,500 for the one-day retreat, which included giving a personality test known as the I-Speak Assessment. That retreat was also held at The Crossings, which provided overnight accommodations for Kim and two staff members for a total of $636.

Vidovic later joined Kim’s staff on a part-time basis. Kim held another staff retreat recently at Zilker Botanical Garden, a city facility. The garden center is fee-free for city events. Kim said she finds the retreats so useful that she hopes to hold at least two a year for her own staff.

The city has agreed to pay University of Kansas trainers Carol and John Nalbandian $11,000, including travel expenses, for next week’s day-and-a-half team-building exercises and discussions. That will likely include leading discussions on strategic goals, setting priorities and better communication amongst Council members, according to a proposed agenda submitted by the facilitators last summer. The meetings are open to the public.

Council OKs test period for traffic cameras

Austin drivers may begin noticing new cameras at some of the city’s most dangerous intersections beginning in February, now that the Austin City Council has approved a pilot program to test cameras designed to catch people running red lights. During a 60-day test period, the city will evaluate the systems offered by different vendors. After that, the Council could choose a firm for a five-year contract to install cameras at 15 intersections with a history of deadly red-light collisions.

“We are going out on a competitive process that will ask all vendors that supply these services to come forward and present their proposals to us. We will go through a typical, thorough, and aggressive competitive process,” said City Manager Toby Futrell.

“This is not the final decision on implementing cameras, but it does allow us to proceed in that manner,” said Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza. During the test phase, the city will not use the cameras to issue civil citations. But the Council did adopt a new ordinance allowing for a $75 civil penalty once that test period is over. That penalty is separate from the criminal charge for running a red light, and the ordinance still allows a police officer to issue a traffic citation for that offense. “If an officer cites an individual for running a red light, that takes precedent over any type of civil penalty,” said Assistant City Attorney Randy Stoneroad.

The difference between the civil and criminal penalties, said Debbie Russell of the ACLU, is one reason why the civil-liberties group is opposing the red-light camera program. “This is actually a criminal justice issue,” she told the Council. “To drop it to a civil offense, we feel that it’s just obvious that the entities that are passing these programs are just trying to get away with not abiding by all of the government restrictions that apply when you’re enforcing criminal law.”

Russell also warned that turning over duties normally considered government responsibilities, such as the enforcement of traffic laws, to a private company could create a new set of problems. “I think we just have to be very careful when we meet with lobbyists and they tell us they have a quick and easy fix that’s not going to have any costs to the city,” she said. “I think we do need to look at what the costs are going to be when we have to track down people who aren’t paying their fines…or there’s a lot of lawsuits because people are wrongly being ticketed. I think we have to be really careful when we’re presented with things that are too good to be true.”

She also criticized Council members for meeting with potential contractors. One of the largest firms in the industry is currently under investigation in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The Canadian subsidiary of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) is suspected of trying to influence two of that city’s police officers in an effort to secure a 20-year contract to operate a red-light camera system.

Council Members took exception to Russell’s characterization that the decision to proceed with red-light cameras was financially motivated. “The assumptions that are being laid out that this is some kind of back-room deal with a lobbyist…I think it’s fairly short-sighted. To look at Council and say that we’ve only dealt with lobbyists and that we haven’t looked at all options, I don’t think you’ve been listening,” said Council Member Mike Martinez.

Council Member Jennifer Kim, who has also championed the use of red-light cameras, on Thursday called for several conditions on their use. Kim wants to make sure the city embarks on a public education campaign before the first citations are sent to drivers. She also wants to make sure that campaign is bilingual, and suggested that the outreach campaign would be an appropriate area for the vendor to use local sub-contractors. While the resolution approved by Council calls for targeting the 15 intersections in the city with the most red-light crashes for the red-light camera system, Kim would also like to see the city explore the possibility of installing cameras at intersections with a large number of near-miss incidents.

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

You're voting… Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said that vote totals have been steadily climbed toward what she expects to be a final flurry as voters rush to take advantage of the last day of Early Voting. Thursday totals were the largest yet, with 12,251 ballots cast. "Voting got off to a little slower start this election, but our workers are reporting lines in the polling places today (Thursday)," said DeBeauvoir. As of yesterday, 79,503 Travis County voters had cast a ballot in person or by mail, 14.31 percent of the 555,579 registered voters. DeBeauvoir advised that today is the final chance for new county residents to be eligible to cast a "limited" ballot. The limited ballot provision allows county residents who previously were registered to vote in another Texas county to vote on statewide races following a move to Travis County . . . Volunteering . . . The Council appointed Brian Thompson to the Human Rights Commission on Thursday. Thompson is the appointee of Place 3 Council Member Jennifer Kim. That left long-time Commission member Edward Sledge without a spot on the HRC, and he's eager to remain on board. He used the Citizens' Communication portion of Thursday's meeting to make his pitch to other members of the Council. "I would like to continue to serve if possible. I have a good attendance record and have been an active participant in HRC business and functions," he said. "As the only remaining member from the 2000 HRC, I believe I could also provide continuity and perspective." The City Clerk's web site shows one vacancy on the Commission, which is the position appointed by Austin Mayor Will Wynn . . . Center renamed . . . City Council has renamed its solid waste services center on Todd Lane after the late Kenneth Ray Gardner. Gardner, who worked almost 20 years for the department, was killed in a truck accident last month. Gardner was a frequent volunteer for both the city and the Red Cross during the recent hurricanes. Gardner is survived by wife Rosalind and three children, Alicia, Ashley and Amber, who were recognized at Thursday's Council meeting during resolutions and proclamations… ABIA traffic is up . . . Total activity at the city's airport was up 8 percent in September, compared to this time last year. Total passenger traffic was 683,301. Continental Airlines saw the greatest increase in traffic. Delta Airlines, US Airways and Northwest Airlines all saw decreases in passenger traffic. Cargo was down 2 percent in September, compared to last year at the same time last year . . . Meetings . . . The Water Conservation Task Force meets at 2:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . Condo protest . . . Reliable sources tell In Fact Daily that community activist Gavino Fernandez is planning a news conference today to protest the building of condominium complexes in East Austin. The process, called "gentrification," often raises property values in the area and forces low-income residents out of the homes because they cannot afford their taxes. Look for the results for the 6 o'clock news.

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