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Holly residents reject contact team for neighborhood

Tuesday, June 2, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Residents, renters and stakeholders in the Holly neighborhood in near East Austin last night voted to reject by-laws that would have established a Holly Neighborhood Plan Contact Team. Several disgruntled and passionate neighborhood residents ended up curtailing a number of agenda items discussing the Neighborhood Plan and the actual by-laws themselves.


Greg Guernsey, Director of Neighborhood Planning and Zoning, began a presentation introducing the concept of a Contact Team, telling the nearly 200 people gathered that it “gives you one more voice to let the City Council know of things you want to and don’t want to do.” The contact team is a group of residents that make recommendations on the neighborhood plan to city council. He admitted that there had been three prior attempts to vote on a contact team all of which ended in a rejection of the idea.


Since last September the city has held 13 meetings with 190-200 people participating, Guernsey said. Addressing concerns that people outside the neighborhood would try to “influence” the voting, Guernsey said the city had made sure everyone voting had proof of residence in the neighborhood. “If the vote on the Contact Team is denied, we won’t be discussing election of officers,” he said to a round of applause. Attempting to pass his microphone off to planner Margaret Valenti, the room broke into shouting, primarily orchestrated by El Concilio members Gavino Fernandez and Jose Perez.


“No! No! No!” rang out in unison and random citizens shouted, “We don’t want the process!” and “This neighborhood needs to stay the way it is!” “Are you from here? How long have you been living here?!” some demanded of Guernsey and others. “Who are you to come here and change things?!”


Guernsey’s reaction was mild. “I thought the process we had tonight was certainly fair,” he said dismissing any thoughts of intimidation. “It was a civil meeting as far as I can see,” he told In Fact Daily.


Eventually, the crowd cowed Valenti, with Neighborhood Planning and Zoning, and Guernsey into speaking for just five minutes, for which Valenti dutifully timed herself. She swiftly went through what she called, “pretty simple, straightforward, not complicated by-laws.”  It wasn’t long before people were interrupting her to complain about the lack of translation services.


Valenti, told In Fact Daily, “As people checked in, we asked people — if it was obvious they might have needed translation… we pointed them to Ben Maya who was our translator and they would’ve gotten a headset they could put into their ear,” and Maya would translate over a wireless headset. She estimated half a dozen people asked for such services. She didn’t comment as to whether she thought the translation issues were a valid complaint.


Ballots, by-laws and other material were printed in Spanish and English and city staff quickly acquiesced to a vote ahead of schedule. Perez and Fernandez helped to gather the votes and another El Concilio member, Frances Martinez, and others were invited to observe the count. Ultimately the by-laws were rejected 81 to 52.


Perez was particularly agitated, rallying the crowd into chants and cheers along with Fernandez. “A lot of things are changing in Austin and a lot is changing on the east side,” he told In Fact Daily. “If there’s going to be any changes we want to make the changes, la raza, not city hall not some developer that comes in.” He explained his role in the community, “A lot of people I talk to they don’t speak English. They told me, would you talk for us? And this is what I did.” Perez said people were frustrated with gentrification in their community among other concerns.


He said, “If you have by-laws coming here, the next thing you know you have more developers coming here and then you’re going to have more city ordinances and stuff. And then we’re going to have the neighborhood association come in here – this is almost the only neighborhood that’s pure in Austin that hasn’t been touched. We’ve seen the changes; we’ve seen the houses… but we don’t want those big changes, we like the way the east side is. We want to keep it that way.” He said there was a “chain reaction” that would start if they by-laws were accepted. Perez said “this is the third fourth time now, they should’ve gotten the picture a long time ago. Next time there’s not going to be 80 of us, there’s going to be a thousand of us.”


Several citizens voiced a concern that the by-laws were somehow a mechanism for Council Member Mike Martinez to serve unstated purposes. Others complained about the city requiring permits for car ports, sidewalks and bike lanes taking up private property, the lack of signage at parks warning about children at play and the lack of funds from the decommissioned Holly power plant “going back into the community.”


Martinez, who was attending another East Austin meeting, showed up at the Holly meeting after the vote was counted. “I think the community has spoken. This is a democratic process to elect a neighborhood contact team and this particular neighborhood chose not to have one. We’ll move forward. It doesn’t mean that the neighborhood plan can’t stay in place but what I think it does mean is that there will be limited information to the neighborhood when changes are made to the plan.”


He said currently only registered neighborhood associations are notified if there are changes to the neighborhood plans. As for conspiracy theories he said, “Everyone has to have a place to hang their hat and sometimes they choose to hang it on Mike Martinez. I didn’t adopt this neighborhood plan; this was something that went through a full public process for them to say I have some kind of ulterior motive, it speaks for itself I think.”


Mike Haberman a Holly resident for “just over a year” told In Fact Daily, the proceedings were “entertaining. There wasn’t a lot of real discussion, obviously.” He said the final tally was closer than he thought it would be, and that he wasn’t surprised at the results. Guernsey said there was a discussion. “I think having the by-laws and having staff send them out in advance people have the opportunity to read them in advance in both Spanish and English. If they came in here, this is a democracy… Either way, we’re just listening to the community.”


Guernsey, talking to reporters after the event said he thought order was maintained, “I think it was actually pretty good.” He said that Fernandez had related three objections to him – terms of office, number of meetings and when the by-laws could be amended.” He conceded that there may have been “an indication of something beyond the technical parts of the by-laws.”

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