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Council votes to limit Parks Departments’ administrative authority

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council voted to put the Parks and Recreation Department on a shorter leash last week, initiating a process that will have the department come before Council when making changes to spaces that do not have approved master plans, or in the case that the use is inconsistent with or unidentified on the current master plan.

 

Council Members Laura Morrison and Mike Martinez sponsored the resolution, which came on the heels of several controversial administrative decisions by the Parks and Recreation Department. One of the most high-profile chapters threatened the continued presence of The Austin Youth Hostel on park land, when the department opted not to extend their lease.

 

In that case, City Council intervened, and Thursday night approved a 10-year lease for the hostel in a vote of 7-0.

 

“Clearly, we don’t want to get in the way of every nitty-gritty little $10 change,” said Morrison, who explained that the intent of the resolution was to address problems that had occurred in the past, citing the removal of soccer fields at Zilker Park as an example.

                                                                            

“We want to be able to catch those things and make sure we have the appropriate level of discussion,” said Morrison. “It’s about changes in use, that we make sure that if it’s not already somehow approved through a plan, that it be an issue that comes to Council.

 

“We’re hearing a lot from the folks at Mabel Davis Park. It’s a big issue and that was something as well as, for example, disc golf at Guerrero Park. The citizens of Austin come to us and say, ‘Hey, you know, this is important to us. You’re the ones that are accountable to us.’ And it’s a policy decision,” said Morrison. “We also have the International Youth Hostel that is now coming to Council, and it was previously just a staff decision.”

 

Though it passed more quietly, on consent, City Council also approved a resolution that will require Council approval for changes to the existing use of Mabel Davis Park and Yett Creek Park.

 

In February, the Parks and Recreation Board approved a recommendation that the director move forward with off-leash areas at both parks, despite a lack of consensus from the neighborhood. The plans are not popular with the neighborhoods, and without the resolution, sponsored by Martinez, and co-sponsored by Morrison and Council Member Chris Riley, Council would not have the chance to weigh in on the changes.

 

Though there was some confusion on the dais, and by the Parks Department itself, the resolution does not call for the drawing up of more master plans for parks. It will simply develop more stringent guidelines in their absence.

 

“This is not an unfunded mandate; we are not directing anyone to master plan anything. What it actually says is, ‘where there is park land that is not in the current, existing master plan, that we create a public process if we are going to change that use, or change what goes on in that park. That’s all we are saying. We aren’t asking anyone to plan anything, we aren’t asking staff to do anything else,” said Martinez. “The only way anybody would have to work on something or spend funds is if they want to change a use in a park that is not in the master plan.”

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