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City Council faced some 2011 challenges, but made progress on key issues

Tuesday, January 3, 2012 by Michael Kanin

This week, In Fact Daily is running its annual Year in Review, examining the issues and events that shaped Austin politics in 2011. From a scandal over Council members’ emails to the construction of Water Treatment Plant 4 and the on-off-on again saga of Formula 1, the issues facing the people elected or hired to run the City of Austin and Travis County were numerous and often contentious. Today through Friday, we present a series of articles examining those issues through the eyes of the people who shaped policy in 2011.



The year started with the sort of bang that the members of Austin’s City Council could probably do without. In late February, hundreds of emails were released under a Freedom of Information request. Some contained embarrassing – and insulting – conversations. They also brought on an investigation from Travis County Attorney David Escamilla that seeks to determine if Council members violated the Open Meetings Act.


Escamilla was looking into allegations made by Austin activist Brian Rodgers of that the Council has violated the Open Meetings Act by meeting with one another in less than a quorum to discuss city business. A request from Escamilla to the city produced about 80 boxes of records containing emails from current and former Council members.


As of late December, Escamilla had not issued a final report on his investigation.


Several of the emails turned out to contain messages that were critical of other Council members, city staff or constituents, causing political embarrassment and criticism, particularly for former Council Member Randi Shade.


Ultimately, the episode cast a shadow over the length of the Council’s 2011 business. Most notably, it spelled the beginning of the end for Shade, whose sometimes glib correspondence played a key role in her runoff loss to former Planning Commissioner Kathie Tovo.


Still, the body managed to get plenty done. The city moved ahead with construction of its long-debated Water Treatment Plant 4 project; it passed a trim budget that caused neither layoffs or damage to its AAA bond rating; and it began discussions on a number of key plans that could guide the city’s continued growth.


In the coming year, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Council Members Bill Spelman and Mike Martinez, and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole will all seek reelection. Voters may also have major decisions to make about urban rail, and how their city government is constructed.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell


In a conversation with In Fact Daily, Leffingwell highlighted what he saw as the city’s major accomplishments. He started with the Water Treatment Plant. “I think we can finally say it’s over, but I’ve said that before,” he said. “I think there will be continuing efforts with law suits and things like that to try and stop it—and who knows how that process will work—but I feel fairly confident that it’s going to work its way through to successful completion.


Leffingwell noted that many City Hall observers classified Tovo’s May victory as something of a game changer. He disagreed. “I have found Kathie Tovo to be a very thoughtful person,” he said. “She’s not tied to any strict party line, is open-minded, and is willing to talk about things on the dais.”


As for the email scandal and its aftermath, Leffingwell pointed to the many public changes that came as a direct result. Though he wouldn’t comment on what may have changed behind the scenes, sometimes confusing on-the-dais bartering on what used to be a much more streamlined budget process pointed to some slack in the proverbial machine.


On the budget, Leffingwell pointed out that the city had managed to construct its finances in a way that both preserved its bond rating and refrained from any layoffs. He also briefly mentioned Council Member Bill Spelman’s attempt to consider a change in the way the city calculates its police officer-population ratio—the most heated discussion of the year between Leffingwell and Spelman. Look for that conversation to happen again in 2012.


Toward the end of this year, Council began tangling with the city’s Downtown Plan. Much of the discussion focused around density bonuses designed to promote the construction of affordable housing in the city’s center. “From my perspective, we all support funding affordable housing,” Leffingwell said. “But I want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing—that we don’t, in actual fact, discourage construction and hurt affordable housing by prohibiting a way to facilitate construction, generate more tax dollars, et cetera.”


“A lot of people present that as, you have two options – you have CURE zoning, and you have density bonus,” he continued. “I’ve always said there’s a third option too, called the no build option. Somebody might make the decision, ‘If I have to do density bonus, my project is not feasible, so I won’t do it.’”


In addition to the Election-Day issues that will dominate much of next year’s discussion, the city’s electric utility, Austin Energy, is set to raise its rates for the first time in nearly two decades. That effort is expected to bring a challenge from non-City of Austin rate payers that will result in a case before the state’s Public Utility Commission. “That’s going to be a major, major issue,” he said. “I remember a previous city manager telling me that there was a reason they hadn’t had a rate case since 1994 because it’s very divisive and very bloody, and politically dangerous –all  of those things.  But we just can’t go any longer without addressing the problem.”


In Fact Daily’s Year in Review continues tomorrow.

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