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Morrison says her focus is on quality-of-life issues

Monday, January 7, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

For Laura Morrison, the inaugural Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix fits into a broader picture about what kind of Austin the community wants.


“You can hear all the benefits of F1 that people suggest. But also, I think it really raises the issue, for us, that is quality of life for people that live here,” Morrison said.


To her, there is a connection between the Formula 1 discussion and the conversation surrounding short-term rentals, which Morrison and other members of Austin City Council voted to regulate for the first time in 2012. Though a great deal was made of how to accommodate a surge in visitors, the other side of that is what detriment might come to current Austinites.


She reiterated a concern that Austin might be approaching a “tipping point” that could push tourists out of our good graces if we aren’t careful.


“We want to be able to enjoy visitors, and all the benefits that they might bring, like tax benefits, and share our city and the great things about our city. But if it gets to be such an imposition on the lives of people that live here … that’s a bad state to be in,” said Morrison. “There will be push back and it will negatively affect the tourism industry.”


That’s not to say that Morrison thinks Austin is at that point, or that there is nothing that can be done about approaching festival fatigue. She said she has reached out to others for advice. She found a discussion with the mayor of tourist-heavy Charleston, S.C., heartening, and convinced her that the key is getting people together to talk about solutions.


Morrison said that finding a balance between promoting tourism and keeping Austin “the great place that it is” has to happen. “This year has clarified that,” she said.


Another quality-of-life issue that Morrison sees as crucial is getting affordable housing on the ground, despite federal cuts and the voters failure in November to approved $78 million in general obligation bonds to fund affordable housing projects.


“My greatest fear is that Austin will become a city where the people that live here now and love Austin will be pushed out,” she said. “Their children won’t be able to live here and their grandchildren won’t be able to live here, and then what do we have? It’s somebody else’s city. We have to keep in mind that it’s our city.”


In terms of successes, Morrison pointed to the public participation in both the Austin Energy rate hike and the changes to the city’s water rates. She said both were good examples of “transparent and informed decision-making,” though each took slightly different tacks. The city-owned electric utility rate case featured many lengthy public hearings, and the Austin Water Utility rate case relied on extensive input from a joint subcommittee that was formed specifically to deal with rate changes.


“I think we need to do a lot more of that,” said Morrison. “It’s not just that they’re open, it’s that we get the information we need to really be able to make the policy decisions that we need.”


Morrison contrasted this process with the discussion that took place in early December over formation of the advisory committee that will participate in revisions to the Land Development Code. Morrison was alarmed by the suggestion that the advisory committee might not be subject to the Open Meetings Act. (It will.)


“I think the idea of rewriting our Land Development Code behind closed doors is pretty outrageous,” said Morrison, who was also surprised by the “robust discussion” about whether lobbyists could serve on the advisory board.


For her, the bigger element is “open and transparent government. We have got to maintain the highest standard for that,” she said. She stressed the importance of developing policies in the interests of the people of Austin “not people whose main driver is financial.”


Morrison also wanted to highlight strides made in leveraging technology to facilitate more open government. Specifically, she pointed to the forward movement on the open government resolution and funding for an innovation office.


She said she already saw a practical application for these developments, singling out new standards for contract management and monitoring that will prevent missteps like those seen in the Aramark Austin Convention Center contract, and monitoring Health and Human Service contracts.


Morrison explained that standard requirements for managing contracts have been established for each department, and training is under way. Additionally, a system that is currently in place for Public Works contracts will be expanded to cover all city contracts. Morrison said the system will allow people working on the contract and higher management to easily check established milestones.


“It allows for a higher level of accountability,” said Morrison. “It’s an example of leveraging technology that we have to do a better job. That’s what we hope the innovation office is going to be able to help us with all-around. Serving the public on the outside in a better way, but also internally managing our city government in a better way.”


Even fallout from the alleged Open Meetings violations that were resolved this summer has its upside with Morrison, who has grown to appreciate the now-standard Tuesday work sessions that take place prior to every Council Meeting. These work sessions came in an effort to eliminate what have been referred to as “walking quorums,” a series of potentially unlawful meetings and emails between Council members to discuss public issues.


“I think they are a really good tool for us as a Council,” Morrison said of the Tuesday work sessions. “If I have something on the agenda, to be able to talk about it with my colleagues at the work session is really important. … That’s significantly different than just throwing it out on the dais (at the regular Council meetings) on Thursday.”


She hopes that changes will continue to take place, and is supportive of a suggestion by Council Member Bill Spelman that executive sessions in the middle of meetings be scaled back.


Finally, Morrison said the long-in-the-making approval of Imagine Austin long-term plan proves successful.


“In the end, to be able to get a 7-0 vote was really important so that we got guidance in place for the next 30 years. I think the challenge we have is actually taking it as guidance and actually using it as a planning document. I hope that we do that,” said Morrison. “We have work to do to make sure we really integrate it into our governing.”

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