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Rapidly developing winter storm catches city officials off guard

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 by Michael Kanin

A relatively quick and unexpected change in weather conditions early Tuesday morning resulted in a considerable scheduling confusion in the Central Texas region. Among other changes, Austin City Council members found themselves suddenly without a work session Tuesday morning. Travis County Commissioners, meanwhile, delayed the start of their proceedings until 10:30am.


City employees are supposed to receive notification of any weather-related scheduling changes by 5am. Indeed, city officials issued an email blast at 4:11am that read, “All City offices, including Community Court and Municipal Court, are open for normal business today, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.”


Still, sometime around 8am, city officials changed their minds. At first Mayor Lee Leffingwell rescheduled the start of the Council work session from 9am to 10:30am. But at 8:18am, he announced that the work session was canceled. Just before that, at 7:57am, Council Member Mike Martinez offered his concerns via Twitter: “Meeting at 3am today and the decision to remain open was made. We need to figure out what lead to this poor decision,” he wrote.


Some noted that the fact that the city waited so long to make a decision to open late meant that many employees were already on icy roads by the time word began to circulate just after 8am. That would seem to mitigate the intended outcome of a delayed opening: Keep the roads clear for safety’s sake.


Meanwhile, Martinez told the Monitor that the tweet he fired off in the wake of the city’s late call to open at noon was not intended to be critical, only to raise the question. He said that as late as 3am Tuesday, decision makers were still under the impression that the weather event would not be serious enough to warrant a delayed opening. 


However, just before dawn, conditions had changed. With ice coating roads, nearly all local school districts gave students the day off – after initial announcements had many enjoying only a delayed opening. The University of Texas, too, called off classes after initially announcing that it would be open for the day.


Leffingwell said the city and other governmental entities were making decisions based on weather reports. “At 3am everything was fine. . . At 6:30 or so, the precipitation started.” He pointed out that the school district at first thought everything was all right also, then postponed school for three hours and then cancelled classes. He said he is confident city management did the best they could with the information they had. The Mayor added that it was his decision to cancel the Council work session, which he did after once postponing it from 9am to 10:30am. ”Maybe we should investigate the weathercasters,” he concluded with a laugh.


Council will not reschedule its work session. The City’s Parks board also canceled last night’s meeting. All systems seemed go, however, for a Planning Commission meeting where that body was still set Tuesday to debate the heated topic of lowering the city’s occupancy levels for unrelated persons in single-family housing


Monitor Editor Jo Clifton contributed to this report.

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