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Spelman wants to leave city in good shape for new 10-1 Council

Tuesday, January 7, 2014 by Michael Kanin

For his part, Council Member Bill Spelman likes Council Member Chris Riley’s “clearing the decks” metaphor for the past year in Council activity. “I like the frame of clearing the decks,” he began. “It’s something that’s been on my mind – I think it’s something that’s been on all of our minds in the last year especially: The world is going to change and we’re not sure how. But one thing that I’m pretty sure of is that with nine new Council members, maybe 10, maybe 11, there’s going to be a lot of confusion.”


Spelman turned to his own experience in the 2012 elections to inform that characterization. “The vast majority of Council members will have never been Council members before. They may have been Board or Commission members, they may have had some contact with the city before – on the other hand I ran against six people who had never been on a city board, commission, task force, anything. They virtually knew nothing about the city except for what they read in the newspaper, maybe heard from their friends,” he said.


“So I think it’s possible that we’re going to have a substantial number of Council members who have a very limited knowledge of how the city works. And that means there’s going to be a year – maybe two years – where they’re thrashing around, trying to get some purchase on complicated problems. I think…we’ve tried to take some of those problems and sort of tried to deal with them.”


Spelman also sees many of the same actions that Riley cited as a part of that action. He lists changes in the Land Development Code, transportation issues – particularly rail – the passage of $65 million in Affordable Housing bond funding, and social service contracting reconfiguration as part of that effort.


In contrast to Riley’s thoughts about the matter, however, Spelman sees Council’s failure to establish an independent governing body for Austin Energy as an area where he and his colleagues could have done more. “Regardless of how good an idea it is to have a committee of the whole governing Austin Energy for us, it’s not going to be as good an idea for a 10-1 Council, at least not in the beginning,” Spelman says.


But for Spelman one larger issue appears to overshadow the 2013 year: The relationship between Council and City Manager Marc Ott. “What was the phrase from Billy Jack?” Spelman asked rhetorically about the well-known line, which was actually from the movie Cool Hand Luke. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”


Spelman talked about the recent fracas over where City Auditor Ken Mory will sit in a post-10-1 world, noting the importance of Mory’s in-house closeness to Council members. “The auditors are kind of our eyes and ears,” he summed. “We (a majority of the sitting Council) believe that the public’s interests are best served if they are close by. The manager feels differently.”


Spelman believes, “The question is who is in charge. If this is purely an administrative issue about where somebody sits then, of course, the Manager is in charge; that’s part of what you do when you are delegating authority to administer the city to the City Manager. And you have to delegate a lot of authority to the Manager (in order) to manage the city.”


Spelman conceded that “if the City Council starts interfering in lots of little decisions…then the Manager’s job becomes untenable.” However, he added that “on the other hand, for big basic issues, the people who are accountable to the public need to be able to do what they need to do to exercise their responsibilities.”


Spelman put the lack of conversation with Ott – he says Ott has not spoken with his office in a year-and-a-half – in the context of Council’s newfound, but now institutionalized inability to communicate with each other. “One of the strange fallouts of the Open Meetings issue is that not only are we not meeting with each other…but we’re also not meeting with the Manager. (This) has nothing to do with the Open Meetings Act but it’s just one of the things that happened at the same time that we stopped meeting with each other.


“That means we don’t have the same opportunities on a reliable basis to call each other out on places where we have overstepped or misunderstood the boundaries between the Council-Manager relationships, so things build up,” he said.


Spelman is not eligible to run for any of the newly created geographic districts. He has repeatedly told this outlet – and others – that he remains uninterested in the 2014 Mayor’s race.

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