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Morrison points to change in dynamics of City Hall politics in during 2011

Friday, January 6, 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. Today is the final installment.



When prompted with a question about the big stories of last year, Council Member Laura Morrison points to the 2011 Council elections first. And though she notes that she was “of course, pleased to be reelected,” she’s not necessarily talking about her race.


“More poignantly, I think (the election) has shifted the dynamics that we have on the Council,” she said.


In Fact Daily readers will no doubt remember that Morrison and her Place 1 colleague Chris Riley each cruised to re-election this past May. Their former dais-mate Randi Shade wasn’t so fortunate. Morrison says Shade’s defeat at the hands of former planning commissioner Kathie Tovo changed the way city hall business is conducted. “(It) provided opportunities for new partnerships and fresh perspectives,” Morrison continues. “It’s a change, no doubt…It feels different at City Hall.”


Morrison didn’t linger too long on Tovo’s victory. She continued on to highlight other major issues of the past year. For her, those included the on-off-now-on Formula 1 race, the passing of the city’s budget, and Austin’s affordability. She also looked ahead to coming discussions about public safety and offered some insight about the changed dynamic offered by questions that emerged early in the year about possible violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act.


Morrison, who served up one of two no votes on the city’s endorsement of the Formula 1 race, remains opposed to the use of taxpayer dollars for the event. Though the city did not directly contribute local money to the project, state Comptroller Susan Combs committed $25 million of Texas money to help draw the event.


“My opposition, of course, was based on just the overall ‘This is not the way we should be spending tax payer dollars in this time of great need,’” she said. “For me, it’s about where we should be spending our tax dollars, who are we here to serve, what is good for the city, what we should be promoting.”


Morrison raises the specter of a Formula 1 race in New Jersey that was assembled at the same time as Austin’s, without government investment. “Now that we are where we are,” she continued, “and we’ve seen what happened in New Jersey…to me that just really raises some pretty significant questions about what we needed to even be entertaining a deal that cost a quarter of a billion dollars. It seems like we got a bum deal.”


On the Council’s passage of the city’s fiscal year 2012 budget: “The budget is always a big story – every year,” she said. This year brought concerns for Morrison over what she called a “trend” of turning to fees to pay for city services.


Here she cited a move by the city to make its swimming pools revenue neutral. “Here’s my thought,” she said. “We pay our taxes to keep our pools open, that’s one of the fundamental services. Our neighborhood pools are absolutely a character-defining element of this city, if you ask me. I’m just concerned about moving more and more things to be fee-based when I think that they really need to be considered part of our core services.”


For Morrison, this applies to the hotly debated issue of downtown parking meters as well. “That folds in to it,” she said. “Staff is looking everywhere they can to identify places that we can start getting revenue through fees. Fees are very regressive and they’re going to be having impacts on who can avail themselves of the services that are fee-based services. That’s a trend that concerns me and I don’t think that’s the city we want to be.”


Affordability was another concern for Morrison in 2011. “Affordable housing…is a huge key issue in the city,” she said. “I do think there are some structural shifts that we are getting into place – and I don’t want to say that we’ve done them. The fact that we are looking at shifting away from CURE (zoning) to downtown density bonus program is very significant.”


That move was confirmed on Dec. 8, when the Council affirmed its new downtown plan. Part of those deliberations included an amendment from Council Member Bill Spelman that took the city away from the CURE model, which was designed with the intention of providing more affordable housing in downtown Austin.


Morrison found herself behind another Spelman issue, this time the council members attempt to fractionally reduce the city’s ratio of police officers to citizens. She called the proposal “very interesting.” Though the initiative failed at this year’s budget hearing, Morrison predicts that it will be back.


“I do think that it’s going to come back up,” she says. “I think it’s imperative—we have to talk about that. I was very supportive of him getting it out there on the table…That’s an area of expertise for him, and I think we’re very fortunate to have that.”

Morrison continued on to say that she was “really pleased” that Council Member Mike Martinez and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole were also interested in conducting a dialog about the issue. Though many council members derive a significant amount of support from the city’s public safety unions, Martinez—a former fire fighter—is closely associated with those organizations.


As for those dynamics, Morrison also observed some changes delivered to city hall courtesy of an investigation into possible violations of the State of Texas’ Open Meetings act by Travis County Attorney David Escamilla. “There are some important things that have shifted because of that, in terms of having our work sessions,” she said. “I think those are good for the city.”


Though she wouldn’t say that she and her colleagues were constrained by the new atmosphere, Morrison admitted that she was more aware of the constraints that are in place.

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