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Smith tapped to work out differences between warring county departments

Monday, October 6, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Last week, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe broke the deadlock on the county downtown master plan by appointing recently retired Planning and Budget Office Director Christian Smith to devote himself full-time to getting past the current in-house impasse.


The Planning and Budget Office and Facilities Management have been at odds over the plans for the county’s downtown plans since March. At Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, Biscoe presented the court with a memo suggesting that the current compromise – a team of three executive managers that included PBO, Facilities Management and Executive Manager Alicia Perez – be replaced with a single point person to get the project on track again.


“After looking at the situation, it looks like one person at the top is probably better,” Biscoe admitted when he introduced the item yesterday. “Our recommendation is that the one person be Christian Smith.”


Smith recently retired from the county as executive director of PBO. He currently is serving in a part-time consultant capacity to the county.


In his memo, Biscoe listed the advantages a single person who could devote full-time effort to the project, as well as a single liaison to the court and a single person to coordinate the work flow of the project. One person also avoids the issue of duplication of efforts when it comes to meetings and memos, Biscoe wrote.


Staff from various departments – some on the sidelines, with PBO and Facilities Management in the main ring – have been trying to thrash out logical steps on moving the downtown complex idea forward. That complex would include county offices, as well as the county’s new proposed civil courthouse building.


That suggestion met with little opposition from commissioners or staff. Commissioner Margaret Gomez, however, offered some stern words about how seriously she wanted to see this project succeed.


“I think it’s worth mentioning again that I want a project that is problem free, or as problem free as possible,” Gomez said. “I know anytime we get a lot of human beings involved, we’re going to have issues. But I want a project that is on time, on budget with no lawsuits. A lot of the problems we had with the criminal courts building could have been prevented on the front end, so I want to see plenty of planning so that we don’t see that situation repeated again.”


Commissioners are reviewed every four years – at the ballot box – and Gomez said she wanted her next review to include the statement that she had learned from the troublesome criminal courthouse project.


Smith appeared to approach the project with gusto, saying he would have the current request for proposals on the downtown complex and the proposed scope of work delivered to the commissioners’ offices for review the following day. Smith gave his word the process would move as smoothly as possible.


The project will require 10 departments to coordinate on scope and budgeting needs. Smith said friction might not be eliminated from the project, but it would be reduced so that the process could move forward.


Smith promised Gomez and the court monthly meetings on the progress. This week’s paperwork also will include a revised timeline for the project.

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