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2012: A year of change

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 by Charles Boisseau

In 2012, Austin experienced a quiet revolution at the ballot box.


Since 1973, Austin voters six times rejected plans to create some form of geographic representation for their City Council. But 2012 was different. Many voters who had never cast a ballot on the question before decided the time had come to elect City Council by district representation.


The year 2012 provided Austin with some historic changes. Take a look: The first Formula 1 U.S Grand Prix; the first Austin Energy rate hike in 18 years, and the groundbreaking of what will be the city’s largest hotel as well as historic agreements to redevelop long dormant city-owned properties. 


Our staff asked the seven Austin Council members for their reflections on the year, and in the next few days, we will share their thoughts on 2012 and their aspirations for 2013.


Today we present our admittedly subjective list of Austin’s top 10 stories, informed by our own day-to-day reporting and the opinions of our elected representatives. 


1. Voters approved single-member districts and an overhaul the way we elect Council. In a year of big stories arguably the biggest was the passage of the proposition to change the city’s charter to expand Council to seven members from 10 and have all the members elected in a defined geographic area, with the exception of status quo for the at-large mayor. 


Those who spearheaded the effort to gather signatures to place the item on the ballot, Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), deserve a lot of the credit for this change. But it was not their underfunded grassroots campaign to support Prop. 3 that won the day. It was simply that people decided the time had come.


Both the 10-1 format and the competing 8-2-1 concept (eight single-member districts, and two at large council members and an at-large mayor) received “yes” on more than 50 percent of the ballots cast, but 10-1 ruled the day by getting more votes.


Austinites will not know until at least 2015, after the first members of a 10-1 Council are elected and sworn in, how this new form of government is going to work. There is already speculation around City Hall that it will lead to increased powers for the mayor, maybe a strong mayor form of government. But that’s for another year. 


As the year drew to a close, Austin City Auditor Kenneth Mory held a meeting with the public to draw attention to the need for qualified Austinites to serve on independent committees that will draw up the boundaries for the new districts.


2. The inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix took over Austin and local governmental officials scrambled to make sure the city was ready for greatly increased traffic and thousands of extra visitors.


3.  Austin Energy’s rate hike was completed and hand-wringing started over changing the utility’s governance.


4. Travis County and Austin approved economic development incentive deals with Apple and other major companies, and crafted economic development policies for future deals. Austin will continue to work on the policy but an $11 per hour floor (or prevailing wage) seems a near certainty for those seeking City of Austin incentives.


5. Central Health won a bond election designed to transform medical care and lead to the development of a University of Texas medical school.


6. Council members agreed to settle with County Attorney David Escamilla  over Open Meetings allegations.


7. Downtown development continued to flourish, including redevelopment of Seaholm and site of former Green water treatment facility, causing a backlog for city planners and reviewers.


8. Short-term rental ordinance approved, then quickly overhauled.


9. Waller Creek project got underway to transform a swath of eastern downtown.


10. After two years, countless hours and about $3 million, City Council unanimously approved the sprawling 250-page Imagine Austin plan. Intended to guide development in the city, implementation remains an ongoing process, but an overhaul of the Land Development Code has already started.


Honorable mentions

  • Voters approved $300 million in general obligation bonds to fund parks, libraries, public safety needs and more. Left out: Affordable housing.
  • Charter amendments were also approved. In addition to changing Austin’s election format, these will bring Austin’s its first civil service system for rank-and-file employees.
  • County Commissioner Karen Huber lost her rematch with ex-commissioner Gerald Daugherty.
  • Council approved $15 million more to finish Water Treatment Plant No. 4.
  • Travis County approved a new courthouse building.
  • City Council status quo: Mayor Lee Leffingwell won re-election over Brigid Shea, while Council Members Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman retained their seats.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed protection for four Central Texas salamanders.
  • Travis Commissioners OK’d steep pay hikes for employees.

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