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Vote on Formula 1 funding deal postponed until next week

Friday, June 24, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

After exhaustive testimony on both sides of the issue, with only Mayor Lee Leffingwell dissenting, the City Council Thursday opted to delay a vote on Formula 1. The matter will be added to the agenda of a special called meeting on June 29.


Opponents and supporters crowded Council Chambers and spilled into the halls Thursday morning, with speaker after speaker addressing the Council. Despite a deal considerably sweeter than what was initially offered to the city, most opponents requested one thing: more time to consider the deal.


The Council heard that message. And perhaps they heard the message of political consultant David Butts, who advised Council Member-elect Kathie Tovo in her runoff victory over Randi Shade. 


This week, In Fact Daily asked Butts – who helped elect every current member of the Council except Shade – what the most important issues were in this spring’s campaign.


“The Number One thing is they (voters) are concerned about is their own financial survival and when they see the city giving away money to wealthy interests it rankles them. Its not that they’re opposed to Formula 1 coming here,” Butts said. “I think a lot of people think if you’re going to come here, come, but why should you be treated in a special way?”


Much of the opposition to the contract has been addressed over the past two weeks. The city is no longer shouldering the financial risk of seeding the Major Events Trust Fund with tax dollars, and will receive all tax revenue due the city generated by the event.


Though still in draft form, a term sheet of sustainability standards has been included in the agreement as a performance measure, as have standards for hiring minority contractors. Both, if not adhered to, could be grounds for termination of the contract.


Despite these changes, pleas to slow down the process of voting on a contract that remained unseen by the public, and, at times, appeared to be undergoing real-time revisions, did not fall on deaf ears.


“Frankly, I have heard loud and clear a lot of discomfort, and personally I have a significant amount of discomfort in terms of moving these documents forward in this way, today… I think it’s really the responsible thing, on our part, to take the time to do it right,” said Council Member Laura Morrison, who then moved for postponement.


The mayor, who stood alone in the decision to postpone approving the agreements, was resolute.


“Let me just say that I will not support the motion to postpone. I think it is fraught with risk. This potentially could kill this deal for the City of Austin. I think we’ve already created a great deal of uncertainty. We’ve had deliberations on this, and gone into the fine details of legal contracts to a degree, in my experience, unprecedented on this council.”


Armbrust and Brown attorney Richard Suttle, who represents Formula 1, agreed.


“While I know it seems trivial–four business days to the city – it is an immense problem for the project and the event to push it off today,” said Suttle.


“I can’t say it any more emphatically. We are now nervous on a daily basis. If you push it off, it gives us great trepidation on this thing pulling off. Because it’s not just the financing, it’s not just the trust fund, it’s the whole package, and it has to come together by the middle of July,” said Suttle.


Even though City Council voted definitively to postpone the item, it appeared that they supported the contract, in general.


“If we can return $25 million to the state of Texas, and the governor and all the legislators will let me write the memo about hiring teachers back and giving money for social services, I think that would seriously be on the table for me and all of my colleagues. But it just simply doesn’t work that way,” said Council Member Sheryl Cole.


“I do not believe that if we do not seriously entertain this offer that the State of Texas will, all of a sudden, adopt our values and do what we think that they should do with their funding,” said Cole.


Cole told the chamber that, as a body, the council was trying to put an imprint of Austin values on a deal that could, ultimately, help fund social services in the city.


“When you come next week, maybe, and talk about how we don’t need to do this, I’d also like to hear the answers of what we are going to do about revenue for that, because we simply cannot have it both ways,” said Cole


Suttle has said there are currently 1,000 workers at the southeast Travis County site constructing the venue. Several dozen of them—many wearing baseball caps with the Formula 1 logo — stood at the back of the Council chambers during the hearing.


Though it is doubtful that all of Formula 1’s critics will be mollified by the delay if the agreement ultimately passes, extra time may soften the strongest criticism. Susan Moffat, who spoke against the item, and advised City Council to put on the brakes, admitted as much.


“But, all of that said, if we’re going to go into this, which it certainly appears that we are going to, I just want to make sure the contract is buttoned-down, and does provide the city with all of the protections that the F1 representatives say it does,” said Moffat.

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