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Council takes no action on move to remove Leffingwell from BCCP

Friday, June 27, 2014 by Jenny Blair

Activists opposed to State Highway 45 Southwest lost a battle at Thursday’s City Council meeting when a motion died to replace Mayor Lee Leffingwell as chair of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan’s Coordinating Committee.


Council Member Kathie Tovo moved to replace Leffingwell with Council Member Laura Morrison, but the motion died for lack of a second.


A Morrison aide told the Monitor it would have been inappropriate for Morrison to second her own nomination.


Roy Waley of the Austin Sierra Club urged the mayor to step down and spare the Council from having to “deal with this issue,” while Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance told the Council that the chair of the coordinating committee “serves at the pleasure of the council…typically for one-year terms.” Leffingwell has chaired the committee for all the eight years he has served on it.


Council Members Tovo and Morrison were uneasy that Leffingwell represents the City of Austin on the committee because he supports the highway, while the rest of the council opposes it. (See Austin Monitor, June 25)


The committee’s only other voting member is Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who made building SH45 SW the focus of his 2012 campaign. Either could bring the matter before the coordinating committee, which could then pass a motion stating that the Texas Department of Transportation can build the road without harming key environmental features.


Road opponents say that is not so. The Flint Ridge Cave has them particularly worried. The road’s right of way passes within 150 feet of the cave entrance and passes over parts of the cave itself. At least two invertebrates living there are considered Species of Concern.


At Tuesday’s Council Work Session, Leffingwell insisted he did not intend to put SH 45 SW on the committee agenda.


On Thursday morning, Daugherty sent an email to the Mayor and the City Council stating that he, too, did not intend to put an item calling for a vote of support of SH 45 SW on the agenda, according to aide Martin Zamzow. Citing legal concerns, Zamzow declined to forward the email to the Monitor.


Leffingwell said Tuesday that the highway did not come within the committee’s purview because it does not involve preserve lands.


SOS’s Bunch called that “obfuscation.”


“To say it’s not under the purview of the committee is absurd,” Bunch said. At SH 45 SW meetings attended by the committee’s secretary Willie Conrad, he said, the Flint Ridge Cave is often discussed.


The permit is crystal clear,” Bunch said. “It lists Flint Ridge Cave and says it has to be protected.”


The committee tried to get involved in 2012, when it consisted of Leffingwell and former Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber. It directed Secretary Conrad to ask TxDOT if it could be involved in the NEPA environmental process for the highway.


On Dec. 5, 2012, Conrad reported that TxDOT told him that the Federal Highway Administration had recommended the BCCP not be involved. Based on that recommendation, TxDOT decided not to include the committee in its NEPA process. Instead, TxDOT pledged simply to keep the committee informed.


A Leffingwell aide told the Monitor that that incident made the mayor think it was not in the committee’s purview.


The Council discussed postponing the item and the mayor pledged that he would not attend a committee meeting before August. Bunch read legal language stating that either member of the commission could force a meeting just by requesting one.


However, Leffingwell again pledged to neither call nor attend a committee meeting before the Aug. 7 meeting of the Council, giving everyone time to look into the issue and even giving Leffingwell a chance to step down from the committee should he choose to do so.


They were basically saying, ‘OK, Mayor, you’ve got a month to do the right thing,’” Bunch said.


The coordinating committee is set to meet next Aug. 14.

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