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Leffingwell pushes for labor peace at Cap Metro Board Member wants to solve problems caused by arms-length relationship with employees

Tuesday, December 12, 2006 by

A lifelong supporter of labor unions, Council Member Lee Leffingwell has made no secret of the fact that he is dissatisfied with the Capitol Metropolitan Transit Authority’s relationship with its drivers, most of whom work for StarTran, Inc.

StarTran is essentially a shell company created to allow Cap Metro to deal with the union for drivers and mechanics, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091, for legal reasons.

Now Leffingwell says he is “cautiously optimistic,” that fellow members of the board will agree to establish a study group “to identify the problems,” caused by outsourcing of driver and mechanic jobs “and move toward solutions of those problems.” He wants the board to move towards a meet and confer process that would eventually mean a unified workforce for Cap Metro.

On Wednesday, Leffingwell will be proposing a resolution to begin that process.

Leffingwell has been working for several months to get the rest of the board to consider a path that would eventually bring all of the agency’s employees under the direct management of Cap Metro. StarTran currently employs about 515 Cap Metro workers; First Transit, which provides drivers and mechanics on a contractual basis for the University of Texas shuttle bus service, and Veolia Transportation, have another approximately 200 employees, all of whom are represented by the same transit union. Veolia provides a services for certain short routes.

If that resolution wins approval, “future passenger rail operators and maintenance personnel would not be outsourced beyond a two-year period that would be allowed for training,” he said. After that, he said, they would become Cap Metro employees, “hopefully by then in the unified work force.”

This could be an important provision because even though the issue involves only 13 employees—eight rail drivers and five maintenance personnel—the union that represents all the drivers and mechanics, ATU Local 1091, could throw a wrench into plans to expand rail service if they feel Cap Metro has betrayed them. But the small number of workers means that “there’s really no financial issue,” Leffingwell said.

“In an ideal circumstance, we could make this moot by the time the commuter rail came on line in late 2008,” he said.

“In the meantime, while that meet and confer process is being effected, the rail personnel would be StarTran employees subject to the StarTran contract,” he said. That represents a shift from current policy, which proposed another outsource contract for Rapid Bus service, and yet another one for rail employees.

“Rapid Bus would be brought under a meet and confer umbrella if we can ever arrive at,” an agreement with to do that, he said.

Leffingwell said there are also fiscal reasons for bringing all employees under the Capital Metro umbrella. “I don’t see how we can possibly do any long term projections (of costs) with that kind of variability in the work force. I don’t see how you can control your costs,” he said.

Of course, any agreement would require agreement between all of the union people, but it turns out that since all have the same local, all have the same union president. But each group has a different wage and benefit scale and all have different contracts.

Leffingwell said he expects Cap Metro may have to bring in some extra legal help to unsnarl all the different complications caused by the many contracts.

Council Member Brewster McCracken said he “completely” supports Leffingwell’s proposal. He said multiple providers they’ve used “make it very difficult to understand realistic cost projections.” He added, “Both Lee and I are philosophically opposed to a public agency trying to cut costs by outsourcing jobs to avoid a troublesome union.”

Neighbors wary of Concordia redevelopment By Mark Richardson

If the discussion at last week’s Environmental Board meeting is any indication, the redevelopment of East Avenue should be a lively topic at tonight’s Planning Commission meeting, as well. More commonly known as the Concordia Redevelopment, the property owners want to make the 22 acres of prime inner city real estate into an urban community of condominiums, apartments, offices, and retail businesses.

But the neighborhoods surrounding the site have made it clear that they are not yet happy with many of the aspects of the redevelopment plan. At last week’s Environmental Board hearing, representatives of the Eastwoods, Hancock and other area neighborhoods who are currently negotiating with developers over the planned unit development said they were far apart on issues such as height, density, impervious cover, and green space.

Andy Sarwal and others in the development group want to build 1,400 apartments and condominiums, 300,000 square feet of office space, 400,000 square feet of retail and a 170-room hotel. Some of the buildings along the I-35 side are projected to about 20 stories – about 245 feet – tall. Buildings on the west side – closer to the neighborhoods – would be shorter, but could still be up to 90 feet tall.

Though the presentation at last week’s Environmental Board was done as a “courtesy,” the board sent its opinion of the project back to the Planning Commission anyway: no recommendation on the overall PUD proposal, but general approval of the developer’s plans for environmental enhancements to the project.

Neighbors who warned the Environmental Board to beware of plans without a commitment to put them in action are likely to be giving the same advice to the Planning Commission tonight.

Mary Ingall with the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Committee said she had great concern over the proposed PUD. “The neighborhoods have not been consulted by these people on what will be presented in the final plans,” she said. “There is an element of concern that we have been kept out of the loop.”

Linda Guerrero, a member of the team that has been negotiating over the property, advised the board to study the plans cautiously.

Steve Windhager of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, who has been retained as a consultant for the project, gave a lengthy presentation. Windhager presented preliminary plans by the developers to use a variety of “green” techniques to make the development as environmentally friendly as possible.

Included in those plans are more than one acre of green roofs; onsite detention and water quality ponds; a 1.4 million gallon rainfall collection system; collection and reuse of air conditioning condensate and laundry water; energy-efficiency levels of at least a 2-star rating on all buildings and structures designed to minimize light pollution.

Board Chair Dave Anderson echoed the concerns of the neighborhoods over the PUD.

“What mechanisms are there to assure that these enhancements will actually show up in the final plan?” he asked. “How do we make sure this happens?”

The East Avenue project is on an uncertain timeline, because the developers must wait for Concordia University to vacate the property and move to a new site on RM 620. Concordia officials say they plan to complete the move in about two years.

Council mulls big box options Neighbors deliver anti-Wal-Mart petitions

Members of Responsible Growth for Northcross (RG4N) delivered 3,500 signatures on a petition to members of the City Council on Monday. The group spent the weekend gathering those signatures to request that the Council suspend the site plan that had been administratively approved for the redevelopment of Northcross Mall. The petition also calls for an independent review of the documents to ensure the site plan complies with city regulations, which the neighborhood group disputes.

In their letter to the members of the City Council, members of RG4N point to the fact that the site plan references a “garden center”, which is a conditional use under GR zoning. That should have triggered a public hearing instead of an administrative review, they contend, and would have also triggered more extensive notification efforts.

Council Members Jennifer Kim, Brewster McCracken, and Sheryl Cole have sponsored an addendum to this Thursday’s meeting for a staff presentation to answer questions regarding the proposal. That agenda item also includes the option for the Council to provide direction to the City Manager regarding the project. “We will have a full public hearing,” said Council Member McCracken. “Based on what we learn, we will decide what kind of direction we will provide to management.”

Opponents of the proposal to build a new Wal-Mart at Northcross are pointing to an admitted failure by the city staff to follow the letter of the city code in providing notification. In a memo to Council Members, Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman writes that the city code “requires the notice to describe the procedure and requirements for becoming an interested party in an administrative decision process.”

The city’s practice, for the past ten years, has been to simply provide the contact information for the case manager for the project. While RG4N members describe this as a “serious procedural defect” in their letter to the Council, Huffman’s assessment is that “a deficiency in the notice given is not a deficiency in the application submitted and does not affect the validity of the director’s decision” to issue the site plan. The city’s legal staff is doing further research on the issue of whether the wording of the notice constitutes a fatal error that would provide grounds for revoking the site plan.

Based upon the information provided so far, Council Members have differing views over the likelihood that the site plan could be pulled. “We believe that would be illegal (to suspend the site plan permit). It would be a violation of an existing city ordinance that gives authority over site plans to the City Manager,” said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. “All of this does not preclude the developer from working directly with the neighborhood people to achieve whatever mitigation for traffic, etc. they might want.”

Kim and McCracken spoke with a Wal-Mart representative by phone yesterday. Kim said she particularly wanted to ask Wal-Mart to influence Lincoln Properties not to get a demolition permit over the Christmas holidays. She acknowledged that the choice would be Lincoln’s but said, “if Lincoln messes this up, they mess it up for Wal-Mart, too.” She said she also wanted to find out what plans Wal-Mart has for future stores in the Austin area.

McCracken is also calling on Wal-Mart to voluntarily change its plans to abide by neighborhood wishes, but admitted he is not optimistic about that possibility. During the phone call, McCracken said, he stressed that “this was not about no Wal-Mart, but about it not being the right size.” The company representative, said McCracken, “said they were not inclined to negotiate the size of the store.” As for the store’s design, McCracken said, “he didn’t seem to have the authority to promise very much.”

McCracken is of the opinion that the site plan filed by Lincoln Properties may be deficient enough to deserve suspension. “Staff has told us that a traffic impact that is so bad that the streets can’t handle it something like that is the basis for revoking the site plan or failing to issue it in the first place. What we don’t know is what the real-world traffic impact is,” he said. McCracken is requesting specific data from other Wal-Mart stores along with the company’s projections for traffic at the Northcross location at midnight, 2:00am, and 4:00am.

The traffic impact is one area that members of RG4N will likely focus on during any testimony on Thursday. If those traffic numbers do have to be re-worked, that would not necessarily require the new site plan to comply with any new rules for big-box retail development, which the Council is scheduled to take up this Thursday. Instead, the developers would likely be required to comply with the rules in place at the time their original site plan was filed.

The Northcross Mall case has put an even brighter spotlight on the proposal to require big-box retail outlets larger than 100,000 to obtain a conditional use permit. That proposal is scheduled for a public hearing on Thursday at 6:00pm. Leffingwell said he is proposing that the use permit required for any big box would be combined with the zoning process. He said he expects the requirements for any retail store over 100,000 square feet to be identical to a conditional use permit, but if a zoning change is required then the developer would only have to go through permitting and zoning one time.

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

DANA supports Rio Grande high rise . . . The Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association is rallying its members to support the rezoning case Mike Blizzard and CLB Properties has before the Planning Commission tonight on the property at Seventh and Rio Grande. The project is for a high-rise condominium building with first floor retail. Said Blizzard: "…this project will add hundreds of residents to downtown along a major transit corridor and walking distance from jobs, the 2nd St. Retail District and numerous local businesses. This is an appropriate location for high-density residential and is consistent with numerous public planning efforts, including Envision Central Texas." The note to the membership encouraged members who cannot attend to e-mail Planning Commission members and encourage them to support Item No. 6 on tonight's agenda. . . Kim elected to NLC office . . . Austin City Council Member Jennifer Kim was elected to the National League of Cities Board of Directors during last week's Congress of Cities and Exposition in Reno, Nev. Twenty members of the NLC Board of Directors are elected to two-year terms during the League's annual business meeting. Kim has served on the NLC's Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Steering Committee since February 2006. Her responsibilities as a steering committee member have included developing policy to serve as the basis for NLC's advocacy efforts. . . . Trip, meeting cancelled . . . A planned Chamber of Commerce trip to Korea was abruptly cancelled last week when Samsung told city and chamber representatives that the timing was not right for their visit. Council Member Jennifer Kim said she and Mayor Will Wynn had meetings scheduled with other companies but that it seemed better not to go if they were not going to meet with Samsung. She said the meeting might be rescheduled in March . . . Meetings . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The City Council Audit and Finance Committee meets at 10am in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am in the County Annex on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . The Hays County Commissioners Court meets at 9am at the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos . . .. . . . Support for sidewalk project . . . The Design Commission, echoing many of the same concerns about cost and precedent, signed off on the use of Great Street funds to support the streetscape project around the Ballet Austin site yesterday. The funding will go to Council on Thursday's Council agenda. The lone "no" vote against the proposal came from Commissioner Girard Kinney, who supported the arts project but said he could not support using such a large portion of the city's overall Great Streets' budget to fund the program, especially on such short notice and with little review . . . Consultant makes the rounds . . . Retail visitor . . . Margaret "Midge" McCauley, the Downtown Austin Association's DC-based retail consultant, was in town this week to advance Economic Research Associates/DowntownWorks' findings for the advancement of retail on Congress Avenue and Sixth Street. McCauley and DAA staff members continue to meet with small groups of downtown property owners and DAA members. On Monday night, McCauley met with members of the Design, Historic and Downtown commissions to review a proposal to implement signage and storefront standards in downtown Austin . . . Getting up with fleas . . To honor all of the animals who will be homeless over the holidays, Austin Humane Society staff and volunteers will call the shelter home on Thursday and spend the night with the dogs and cats in the kennels. This event is part of a worldwide homeless pet adoption effort, 'IAMS Home 4 the Holidays (IH4TH),' that began in 1999 with a handful of shelters in California and has grown to almost 2,000 shelters participating worldwide. Last year, IH4TH set a world record of 328,000 adoptions and this year the goal is to find loving, lifelong homes for more than 350,000 orphaned pets. AHS is suggesting that people give Pet Adoption Certificates as holiday gifts . . . Mayor on the music scene . . . Matt Curtis may have moved from City Hall over to Cap Metro, but he still fronts for Mayor Will Wynn when it comes to his forays into Austin's music scene. We recently received this missive from Matt: "Mayor Will Wynn will introduce legendary Guy Clark at the Cactus Cafe Tuesday at 8p.m. 'I often boast that I know every word to every Guy Clark song ever recorded and challenge anyone to stump me. Good Luck,' said Mayor Wynn. A quick scan of the Mayor's website supports support his claim. An audio file of Guy Clark performing Texas Cookin' live in Wynn's own backyard is on the home page, and dig a little deeper and you'll find a radio interview in which Wynn does an impromptu recitation of Clark. "His lyrics speak to me like no other songwriter, author or poet ever has," said Wynn. As a college student, Wynn was such a Guy Clark fan, he drove eight hours on a whim to Monahans to leave a nickel on the train track, re-enacting the Clark song, 'Texas 1947'. "I often tell people that Guy Clark is the reason I moved to Austin. The Wagoneers are what kept me here, and the Derailers are why I'll never leave," he said.

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