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Council continues debate over short-term rentals prior to Thursday vote

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

After a month off, Austin City Council jumped back into the thick of things on Tuesday, and the controversial topic of short-term residential rentals continued to draw plenty of attention.


At Council’s work session, the source of dispute centered on whether a temporary misplacement of an affidavit of a public notice posting on Friday meant that Council should reschedule this Thursday’s vote on the plan that would allow non-owner-occupied (or “commercial”) short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods.


Council members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo, who oppose the planned short-term rental regulations, both argued the temporary confusion was reason enough to give the community another public hearing of the issue, while most other Council members disagreed.


At the work session, Planning and Development Review’s Jerry Rusthoven explained that though there were a few hours on Friday when his department believed they had not posted notice in The Austin American-Statesman, as required by law, the misunderstanding was cleared up by the end of the day.


However, word quickly spread that the item would be pushed back to the Aug. 23 City Council meeting from this Thursday. The item is slated for second and third readings, which are required for passage.


“We discovered that the filing system was not the best,” said Rusthoven. “This is embarrassing, quite frankly, to me. I’m sorry that someone cannot recall one of the many things we do every single day. It’s a two-inch by two-inch piece of paper… Our office has a lot of paper, it’s easy to misplace something.”


Morrison said: “This has just been a mess,” and she advocated a postponement until Aug. 23 to have a “clean debate” on what has been a controversial item.


Morrison also pressed to reopen the public hearing, given that neither side has had a chance to respond publicly to the compromise that City Council passed 5-2 in June on first reading.


Though the June 7 Council meeting ran late into the night, with both sides of the issue showing up in force to speak, Council ultimately devised its own compromise, which passed on first reading. When it returned on June 28, City Council, at the behest of Tovo and Morrison, decided to postpone final vote until Aug. 2.


“Obviously we had a long public hearing about it before. … My thought is if we reopen the public hearing it’s not like we have to hear all those arguments again, but to have some time for each side to comment on the proposal that actually passed on first reading,” Morrison said.


Tovo said: “I do think we’ve got considerable confusion out there in the community.” She argued that it was incumbent on Council to delay the case after the rash of weekend misinformation in the interest of transparency. “I hope I can get a consensus on that,” she said.


She did not get consensus. Council Members Bill Spelman, Mike Martinez and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole all indicated it was best to proceed as scheduled.


City Council subsequently, tentatively, agreed to a half-hour limitation on public comment this Thursday, given that the statutory requirement for a public hearing has already been fulfilled.


“There’s been plenty of discussion, and I doubt there’s confusion. People who care about this issue know exactly what’s going on,” Martinez said. “My concern isn’t getting public input. My concern is: are we going to limit the Council’s discussion on this as well? Because that’s going to take hours.”


Martinez went on to say that he knew there were multiple amendments in the works for Thursday. “My question is, will those Council members offering those amendments support this item if those amendments are adopted? If the answer is no, I’m not going to support amendments. I don’t appreciate those tactics.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell reminded Martinez that Council always had the option of calling the question. If this is done, discussion ceases, an immediate vote is held, and if there is a five- vote majority, then the item passes on second and third readings.


Tovo said that while she appreciated the reminder, she had a “slew of questions” that she would be asking on Thursday.

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