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CAMPO delays vote to ditch Joint Powers Agreement

Tuesday, August 11, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Chair Sen. Kirk Watson was ready to tackle CAMPO’s joint powers agreement head on at last night’s meeting of the 20-member Transportation Policy Board.

Travis County? No so much.

The Federal Highway Administration, in its certification review of CAMPO, encouraged the metropolitan planning organization to ditch its joint powers agreement. After some rather delicate negotiations – intended to soothe the nerves of those who originally organized CAMPO – Watson was ready to ditch the agreement in favor of memorializing its intention in new by-laws.

“In the last couple of weeks, we’ve had some good recommendations, some good proposed changes, to the by-laws that would allow for a protection of those entities that were the original signatories to the CAMPO agreement,” Watson said.

Executive Director Joe Cantalupo suggested, during the discussion, that the joint powers agreement really was quite different from the by-laws. And he would be right. But if it came right down to a secret ballot on which document to ditch, history would suggest a strong leaning to keep the JPA and toss the by-laws. Where power has resided in CAMPO has been more important to members than how the group functioned. And the tension between rural and urban continues to exist.

CAMPO’s joint powers agreement has continued to operate – when other MPOs have tossed such documents – because of the underlying fear that surrounds the balance of power in Central Texas. The most important issue in reworking any set of by-laws for CAMPO has been who controls the power, whether it was Austin versus not-Austin; or small city versus rural; or county versus city.

Watson, a former Austin mayor, understood the tension between the two documents and attempted to craft amendments to the proposed by-laws that could satisfy existing CAMPO stakeholders. So in the by-laws Watson chose to shore up the power of existing signatories by guaranteeing the entities a spot on CAMPO’s executive committee, which has rarely been used for decision-making.

Any changes in the make-up of the executive committee would require a super-majority vote of the current board, which the committee agreed would be three-fourths of the current members, rather than the typical majority, or even two-thirds.

Watson, mindful of those who had far less representation than Austin or Travis County, also proposed revisions to the by-laws that would stop the executive committee from freezing out any sub-set of the committee from final decisions.

Even though three of the five members of Travis County’s Commissioners Court currently sit on the CAMPO board, County Judge Sam Biscoe told his colleagues he didn’t want to vote to support the end of the joint powers agreement without some type of hearing before his full board. He wanted a court vote before a CAMPO vote.

“I feel uneasy doing that in a cavalier manner,” said Biscoe, later adding. “Even if we’re supportive, and there are three of us here, I couldn’t go back and say, ‘This is what we voted for, and you better support it, like it or not.’ I have tried not to do business like that… That’s why all of my commissioners like me so much.”

Biscoe’s quip drew laughter from the dais.

While Watson considered the issue vetted, and the interests of the county protected, he did agree he could see Biscoe’s point. He was, of course, the former mayor of Austin. Yes, any change approved by the CAMPO board would have to be approved by the joint powers agreement signatories, but Watson said he recognized how county leaders who might have to approve it would view it.

CAMPO Vice Chair Cynthia Long, a Williamson County commissioner, ended up conceding and supporting Biscoe’s point, but also noting she would prefer to take some type of document back for her Commissioners Court.

Trying to pull in some sort of consensus on the document, Watson did try an informal poll as to whether everyone agreed to the content. Trying to send out one document for three different county reviews would hardly be fruitful. Nor was Watson particularly eager to start the two-year process over with new amendments.

In general, the board appeared satisfied with the proposed document. Commissioner Karen Huber, however, had to admit she was not 100 percent in accord with the document, and might vote against it, but that it did give her something that could be presented to colleagues and constituents.

Asked how soon the document could make it onto the county agenda, Biscoe said August 18. That would give plenty of time before CAMPO’s September meeting.

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