2014: An Austin Monitor review
Monday, December 29, 2014 by Michael Kanin
This past year was a dynamic one in Austin, and though the future promises to be just as interesting, at the close of 2014 we invite you to take a trip back over the past 12 months. Though a lot went on in the city and this list is far from comprehensive, from our ever-particular perspective, these are some of the stories that we found most significant.
This year, the biggest story in Austin was unquestionably the historic City Council election, which marked the city’s switch from seven at-large members to 10 district representatives and one at-large mayor. That alone would have made it an election worth noting, but things got even more interesting (and unmanageable) once all of the 78 candidates started their campaigns.
Local media (like us) worked out complex battle plans in an attempt to give Mary Catherine Krenek, Todd Phelps, Ronald Culver, Mike Martinez, Randall Stephens, Sheryl Cole, David Orshalick, Steve Adler, George Hindman, Sam Osemene, Christopher Hutchins, DeWayne Lofton, Valerie Menard, Norman A. Jacobson, Michael Cargill, Ora Houston, Andrew Bucknall, Edward “Wally” Reyes, John C. Sheppard, Delia Garza, Mike Owen, Ricardo Turullols-Bonilla, Kent Phillips, Christopher Hoerster, Shaun Ireland, Mario Cantu, Jose Quintero Sr., Dr. Fred L. McGhee, Jose Valera, Eric J. Rangel, Susana R. Almanza, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Julian Limon Fernandez, Roberto Perez Jr., Louis C. Herrin III, Sharon E. Mays, Monica A. Guzmán, Marco Mancillas, Gregorio “Greg” Casar, Katrina Daniel, Laura Pressley, Jason Denny, Dave Floyd, Mike Rodriguez, Ann Kitchen, CarolAnneRose Kennedy, Dave Senecal, Dan Buda, James “Jimmy” Flannigan, Lloyd “Pete” Phillips, Don Zimmerman, Jay Wiley, Matt Stillwell, Mackenzie Kelly, J.E. “Jeb” Boyt, Zack Ingraham, Melissa Zone, Ed English, Darryl R. Wittle, Jimmy Paver, Leslie Pool, Pete A. Salazar Jr., Ellen Troxclair, Ed Scruggs, Becky Bray, Darrell Pierce, Eliza May, Erin McGann, Kathie Tovo, Chris Riley, Matt Lamon, Bill Worsham, Tina Cannon, Margie Burciaga, Robert Thomas, Sheri Gallo, Mandy Dealey and Jason Meeker all reasonably equal coverage.
It was exhausting, but it was also fascinating. Though a city board drew the districts the previous year, it was through the election that the character of each district began to emerge. How is District 4 different from District 5, anyway? What issues are most important in that area? While those answers are hardly set in stone, paying attention to any of the endless forums started to shed light on the topic. In addition to being the most revolutionary and most crowded election in Austin’s history, this year’s election was also the most expensive. That, the increased role of political action committees, the shift to a more-popular November ticket from May, and the role of partisan groups (and rhetoric) in an ostensibly, officially nonpartisan election really marked Austin’s entrance into the “big time” and was a distinct shift from City Council elections of years past.
Though few City Council races were decided outright in November, Austin’s $1 billion bond proposition, which would have dedicated $600 million toward an urban rail line, was soundly defeated. Voters shot down the proposition by about 14 percent, much to the delight of anti-tax activists who loudly protested the proposed plan. This year, the expected anti-rail activists were also joined by the group AURA, whose members stressed that they were not anti-rail, but anti-this-plan at public meetings and through social media. Rail supporters worry that the defeat could mean a serious delay for any other rail plans, and in the wake of the defeat, old plans have been dusted off and new plans proposed. However, for now the city’s public transportation future remains a bit murky.
The debate over city Generation Plan
City Council members took a bold step to increase the amount of renewable energy purchased wholesale by its municipal electric utility, Austin Energy. Initially, the move played out as a chaotic, confusing finish, with giddy supporters looking on and Austin Energy officials — who, along with Council Member Bill Spelman, were under the impression that the meeting would end before discussion of the item — not in the building.
There were concerns about the plan, as it was circled around affordability and the feasibility of replacing gas generation with upward of 500 megawatts of solar power. Though the item passed, it also found its way to Council’s all-member Austin Energy super committee. There, utility officials presented something of a counteroffer, one that utility officials could apparently live with, given the positions of all sides.
That brought on further discussion. It all culminated with representatives from the Sierra Club and the utility signing on to a proposal that Council approved in its waning hours. Though not free of controversy — both from solar advocates who opposed a cut in the portfolio renewable percentage from 65 to 55 percent, as well as others (including some on the dais) who worried that a study aimed at the feasibility of replacing the gas plant included in the final plan would not be balanced — the plan was nonetheless approved.
A postscript here: The city’s Electric Utility Commission, picking up on those concerns over the study, has convened its own working group to vet the scope of the study. This came about despite the fact that — as utility officials will likely remind incoming Council members who could revisit the subject — thanks to the current energy market setup in the state of Texas, generation decisions do not necessarily affect where Austin Energy gets its power.
The battle over Austin Water Utility rates
The city’s other municipally owned utility — the Austin Water Utility — continued to suffer from what some suggest is the new normal in water consumption; more accurately, the fall in rate-based revenues associated with conservation efforts.
In May, the Monitor reported that AWU officials proposed “meaty” cuts to offset the trouble. Still, it wasn’t enough. In addition, utility officials had to return to the city’s Water and Wastewater Commission and Council members with not one, but two separate rate adjustments designed to help with the issue.
The first proposed changed raised concerns with sitting Water and Wastewater Commissioner Mickey Fishbeck, who suggested that the change was misleading. The second was approved in November.
Aftermath of the Onion Creek Floods
Concerns over the Halloween 2013 Onion Creek flood continued in 2014 as it became clear that the city’s response to the event was deeply flawed. Council Member Mike Martinez offered a plan, supported by local legislators, to use city funds derived from drainage fees to back a series of bonds that would help the city complete a buyout program of homes in the Onion Creek floodplain.
Council members eventually approved the idea. However, a ruling from State District Judge Amy Clark Meachum complicated the issue. The court found that the city’s drainage fee is, as was reported by the Monitor, “unfair to people living in multifamily housing such as apartments or condominiums.”
Despite assurances that the ruling would not affect the fee, Austin Watershed officials presented a new drainage fee structure in December.
SH45 SW project gains momentum in 2014
Though construction of SH45 SW has been a topic of debate for decades, it has been all but off the radar for most people for a few years. That wasn’t the case this year, when plans for the road, which will extend the southwest portion of State Highway 45 from the south end of MoPac Boulevard to FM 1626, started moving forward again in earnest. The project will be a 3.5-mile-long toll road designed to take traffic moving north from Hays County out of South Austin neighborhoods.
At the end of last year, Travis County Commissioners endorsed construction, and in the spring, they voted to contribute $15 million toward funding the project. Hays County officials, who in June declared the road “a done deal,” joined Travis County and the Texas Department of Transportation in backing the $100 million roadway.
The progress had Austin environmental advocates scrambling in a battle over an environmental study and worries from the aquifer district and city alike about what impact construction would have on the environmentally sensitive area. That culminated in an uncomfortable discussion about Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s stance on the project and position as chair of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan’s Coordinating Committee. In October, Austin City Council seemed to remain opposed to the road — aside from Leffingwell — but the newly elected Council is made up of almost entirely new faces. Of particular significance — conservative City Council Member Ellen Troxclair won District 8 over vocal SH45 SW opponent Ed Scruggs in a close December runoff.
Travis County recently asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for “guidance” on how to deal with the sensitive Flint Ridge Cave, a karst formation in the road’s right of way that is home to several small invertebrates on the endangered species list. The county requested a meeting in January to deal with the issue, hoping to remove a major roadblock to starting construction on the proposed toll road. TxDOT officials have not yet released a date on which they expect to begin construction.
As if there were not enough going on this year, the city also tackled its rewrite of the Land Development Code. While everyone agreed that the code needs rewriting and is currently an unwieldy mess, it quickly became apparent that other areas of agreement might prove scarce in the years of work to come. Early on, a claim from Austin Neighborhood Council president Mary Ingle that Land Development Code Advisory Group member Melissa Neslund was a lobbyist and should not serve on the board showed just how contentious the rewrite process could be. While the Ethics Review Board dismissed Ingle’s allegations, Chair Austin Kaplan said it was one of the board’s most contentious cases up to that point.
Though CodeNEXT is still in the early stages, the first major decision point — which determined how extensively city-hired consultants Opticos Design should rewrite things — also proved divisive. To kick things off, the ANC asked that the decision be delayed until the new Council was seated. And in general, the topic proved to be a flashpoint for tensions over development in the city. Neighborhood groups are worried that the rewrite could be a means to diminish their power, and those in the development community are frustrated that neighborhood outcry could thwart and complicate the rewrite enough to render it ineffective. In the end, Council made a decision on an approach and tried to split the difference between the two sides. However, this story will be around for the next few years, and we at the Monitor are confident that there are plenty of disagreements on the horizon for the new Council to work through.
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