Wednesday, October 16, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Council members, City Manager discuss limits on policy directives

Two attempts at dealing with a pending city crackdown on ornamentation of gravesites in city-owned cemeteries forced Council members Tuesday into a wider discussion over the limits of their purview when it comes to directions for City Manager Marc Ott.


At immediate issue is a proposed delay in the enforcement of city rules that would mandate removal of a host of graveside ornamentation, from benches to solar lights. Maintenance staff with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department suggests that the additions hinder their ability to service the cemeteries.


However, sometime before Council’s Tuesday discussion, city staff expressed concern over language in an item from Council Members Kathie Tovo and Mike Martinez that instructs Ott to, among other things, “not…allow the removal of items placed on burial plots.” The concern prompted them to place another, differently worded item on Thursday’s agenda.


They did not remove the original resolution. Martinez told his colleagues Tuesday that he left the item on the agenda so that he, his colleagues, and city staff could have an open discussion about the concerns raised by the original language.


Ott indulged him. “There have been times in the past – there are still times – when I have the same kind of concern with respect to IFCs, to be quite frank with you, where I do believe – and the City Attorney’s office believes – that the language, the directive language in resolutions, IFCs, goes beyond policy direction,” he said. “That’s no secret. I probably said that for the first time back in 2008, when I first arrived here, so it’s no secret.”


Martinez wondered what the difference is between the original language of the cemetery resolution and an item such as that which instructed Ott to not sell Rainey Street’s Lot 64 – something passed unanimously by Council in recent months. Ott offered his take.


“In regard to the sale of property on Rainey Street, I guess I see that as different in the sense that, ultimately, the sale of property is a matter that ultimately has to come before Council,” Ott said.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole suggested that both staff and Council should be flexible with the boundaries associated with direction. “A lot of times, we all have crossed the line one way or the other in terms of not doing policy, but actually suggesting implementation and management,” she offered. “And sometimes management crosses the line and starts to suggest some policy issues too. I think we have to give each other a little bit of wiggle room on that.”


As for the cemetery issue, Ott told Council members that he would be more comfortable with the replacement language offered in the second resolution. He also offered additional understanding that appeared to satisfy Martinez and Tovo.


The concern over how Items from Council work in a Council-Manager form of government was not ultimately addressed.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Council-Manager government: Austin has a council-manager form of government. Under this system the elected city council is responsible for the legislative portion of our government. The city council-appointed city manager carries hires staff and is responsible for implementation of city ordinances.

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