Leffingwell clashes with Morrison, Tovo on his position on SH45 SW
A testy exchange between Mayor Lee Leffingwell and several members at Tuesday’s Austin City Council work session put deep divisions about the proposed State Highway 45 Southwest on full display.
Leffingwell found himself in the hot seat when colleagues asked him how he’d vote if the highway appeared on the agenda of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan’s Coordinating Committee, of which he is chair. They are weighing removing him from that body as the city’s representative because he favors building the road, a position that contradicts a majority of the Council.
“I think it would be appropriate if our representative on the BCCP coordinating committee shared the policy perspective of the super-majority of the council,” said Council Member Laura Morrison. “That would mean a change to our representative.”
Established in 1996, the conservation plan is a permit intended to both protect federally endangered species by preserves and allow development in those species’ habitats. As the two voting members of the coordinating committee, Leffingwell and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty comprise its governing body. Daugherty is an energetic supporter of SH 45 SW. Either man could put the matter on the committee agenda.
On May 15, the Council voted 6-1 to adopt a resolution opposing the road. Leffingwell explained his no vote by saying he respected the Travis and Hays County Commissioners’ Courts’ and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s approval of the road.
But Tuesday, Leffingwell bristled at what he saw as a slur on his environmental integrity.
“I think my commitment to that is pretty clear,” Leffingwell said. “If we want to get into the business of questioning the integrity of colleagues on the Council, which I take this to be, I think that crosses a line somewhere.”
The highway, he said, isn’t within either the city’s or the coordinating committee’s purview, and he doesn’t expect the topic to come before the committee because it deals with preserve lands only.
Though the proposed four-lane divided toll road wouldn’t run across officially designated preserve land, it would cross the Barton Springs recharge zone, home to an endangered salamander species. Environmental activists say it would degrade water quality in Barton Springs and put further pressure on not only animals but also water supplies.
Leffingwell rose to power in large part on his environmental chops, but he supports the road.
Council Member Kathie Tovo reminded the mayor that when he voted against the May 15 resolution, he cited respect for commissioners’ courts and CAMPO.
Should the issue come up, she asked, “will you respect those other bodies and their decisions, or do you feel that you can adequately represent the Council’s opposition to SH 45?”
“It kind of feels like I’m on the witness stand here, but I’ll stand on my previous statement that I don’t believe this is within the purview of the coordinating committee and I will not put it on the agenda,” Leffingwell said.
He added that he wouldn’t make any promises about what he would do if it were to appear on the agenda.
“There’s a larger principle involved here,” Leffingwell said. “Are we going to direct any member of the Council that might be part of an intergovernmental body to vote a certain way, or are we going to follow the typical representative government way and allow, once that member’s elected or appointed, to make that appropriate decision considering all the facts that are available?”
“I appreciate that,” Tovo replied, “(but) we don’t often get in a position where the policy perspectives are so differently aligned.”
Leffingwell said the Council seemed to want to direct members of other bodies to follow its direction. “I don’t think that’s appropriate in our system of government,” he said.
“Let me say I would not support any action that adversely affects an identified spot or an identified endangered species,” Leffingwell added. “(That’s) part of our job on the coordinating committee. I would seriously be resentful of the implication that I would brush that issue and that concern aside in the interests of some other political expediency.”
The coordinating committee meets quarterly and has two more meetings set this year.
The matter of approving and removing members of committees and intergovernmental bodies will make its usual appearance on this Thursday’s City Council meeting agenda.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
BCCP: The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan
Lee Leffingwell: Former mayor of the City of Austin
SH45SW: A controversial road project that supporters argue would ease traffic traveling through areas of far Southwest Travis and far Southeastern Hays County. Opponents argue that the environmental impact of the effort, which runs close to sensitive land, is not worth that risk. The debate over the issue goes back as far as the mid-1980s.