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Council delays return of Comprehensive Plan to citizen’s task force

Friday, October 7, 2011 by Michael Kanin

An effort by Austin City Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo to return the city’s Comprehensive Plan to the citizens’ task force set up to watch over it was delayed on Thursday. That move came in the wake of concerns by Council Member Chris Riley that the resolution – specifically its lack of inclusion of the city’s Planning Commission – would run counter to the city charter.


As had been previewed well in advance of the meeting, Morrison moved to withdraw the item. It could be a month before it returns.


Despite the punt, Council members were offered an earful from interested parties who were deeply critical of the citizen involvement portion of the plan. They were subsequently urged by representatives from across the gamut of Austin politics—from the Austin Neighborhoods Council to the Real Estate Council of Austin—to return the plan to the citizens’ task force.


Citizen testimony largely painted a collective picture of a dysfunctional process that featured disrespect from city staff and consultants, and left public concerns largely in the dust. And though the resolution from Morrison and Tovo would give the task force another swipe at the plan, it wasn’t enough for a deeply critical group of concerned citizens.


Rebecca Melançon served on the citizen’s task force charged with guiding the planning process. She told the Council that she wished Morrison and Tovo’s resolution had more teeth. “What I would like to see…is a much stronger resolution,” she said.


Task force member Mark Lind echoed those comments. “I really think that the task force needs to be put in control of the process, at long last, and city staff be directed to assist us in that,” he said.


Neighborhood activist Joan Bartz listed specific concerns, including her allegations that the city refused to provide data requested by citizens, failed to consider task force recommendations, and “used condescending language” when addressing task force members.


In a rare bit of agreement between neighborhoods and developers, the Real Estate Council of Austin’s Jeff Howard said that his organization is also in favor of the bulk of Tovo and Morrison’s resolution. “I…think that the citizens’ task force is ideally suited to take this plan and start processing it,” he said.


The delay will give the city’s Planning Commission a chance to weigh in on the issue before the Council again tackles Morrison and Tovo’s resolution. Coming into the Council meeting, Riley, a former Planning Commission chair, was concerned that language in the charter specifically reserved the review of the comprehensive plan for that body.


Riley added that he was confident that city staff and stakeholders would be able to tackle issues with the plan. He gently nudged his colleagues forward. “I want to encourage everybody to stay focused on that goal of establishing a process where the citizens can work cooperatively to cover all of this ground and get it figured out,” he said.


“This comprehensive plan is an opportunity for all of us to come together and develop our own work-product as a community,” Riley continued, “and to the extent that we fail at that it is a failure on our part as a community.”

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