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Morrison says campaign colored Council in 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 by Michael Kanin

City Council Member Laura Morrison decided in March that she would not run for mayor. That, of course, did not mean that the decisions by four of her colleagues to seek elected office in 2014 played out far from Morrison’s seat on the dais.

Indeed, Morrison told the Monitor that the opposite was true. “For me, what jumped out right away was that it was the year of the campaign, because the fact that there was a campaign impacted what happened. I think nobody would argue about that,” she said.

Morrison turned to what she’d heard passed along from some staff about the situation: “Apparently, deep in the bowels of the city, some staff had an acronym, CBR — campaigning by resolution,” she said. “Obviously there was a flurry of a lot of resolutions touching on a lot of different things — and a lot of them were great. Some of them I was really opposed to.”

She cited two examples. The first, she said, was a positive development: The deeper vetting of the Project Duration Ordinance, a set of guidelines put in place after it became clear that then-current Austin grandfathering rules would face legal and potentially legislative challenges.

“Part of what I remember about that besides my brain getting twisted into knots and having to work really hard is that, basically, we were presented with a wish list of changes [from real estate interests],” she argued. “In another time, that wish list might have gone through, and it didn’t.”

When the Monitor noted a certain amount of pride carried by Morrison over the depth of the conversation and the result produced, she offered a deeper view of her position. “You know, people want to define their legacies. Sometimes, in my dark days, I feel like, ‘Laura Morrison: She made things less bad.’ Those are just the dark days.”

Morrison’s second example was the long discussion over and eventual legalization of Transportation Network companies such as Lyft and Uber. “I think the timing on the very contentious TNC discussion may have had a lot to do with campaigning,” she offered. “I think there were campaign rallies going on during the meetings, and stuff like that.”

Electioneering, suggests Morrison, wasn’t the only ballot-related item to directly impact the Council’s agendas in 2014. Indeed, she says that, with so many Council members reaching the end of their respective terms, pressure may have been on for them to complete certain efforts. While considering this, she walked back some of her earlier comments.

“People tried to do big things,” she said. “And I don’t blame them. I tried to do some things because it was my last year, and it’s not fair to be cynical and say, ‘Candidates just do things because they’re candidates,’ because I don’t think they do. People have to do things because they believe in them.”

Another impact of the election, Morrison says, was what she characterized as increasing questions raised as the year went on over whether the current Council should make some key decisions, or let the next body weigh in on certain topics. “Everything this past fall, but especially on [the last Council meeting of the year] Dec. 11 — everything we had on the agenda really deserved a question of should this be us or should it be them.”

She noted that there are several topics the next Council could choose to address when it takes office in January. Among those are microunits, a topic she said could be revisited with an eye toward the current lack of neighborhood opt-in or -out and commercial short-term rentals.

As for the Austin Energy Generation Plan, widely cited as a key moment in 2014, Morrison says she is “concerned.”

“[Staff] wanted to make it clear that, as far as they were concerned, Council was adopting a plan with the gas plant.”

Morrison also noted “the absence of something” — many economic development incentives agreements in 2014 — as a key topic. She cited a quote from Forbes naming Austin “the top-of-our-game city in America” and said, “There were questions about why would we [award economic development incentives deals] now, and the answer was, ‘Well, you need to do it when you are at the top of your game.’ I feel like those … conversations that we had, and the public distaste for it, all came together,” she said.

“I’ve noticed that we haven’t had any more brought to us. Maybe it’s just become much more accepted in this town that it’s really not the right time for that,” she said.

As for the future, Morrison did not directly address her plans. She did, however, suggest that the new Council couldn’t keep up the pace set by the current body with regard to Council-generated agenda items. “They can’t keep that up,” she said. “The new Council’s going to have to put some … you know, nobody wants to control themselves. You’ve been elected, you’re here to serve your constituents, and you shouldn’t have things getting in the way of you doing that. So there’s that independence and responsibility aspect, versus if you had seven of us doing this, can you imagine what happens when 10 do?”

When asked to consider as a private citizen whether she was concerned about the relative inexperience of the incoming Council, Morrison noted that she was “sort of schizophrenic about this.”

“Sometimes I think about, wow, there’s so much that I’ve learned about how to make things happen at the city, and how to work with staff, and how to work productively — and how things work inside. So you think, oh, there’s a lot to learn for the new Council,” she said. “But, at the other end of the spectrum, it’s: Have we just become too accepting of forces, and pressures, and constraints — and don’t we need that fresh look to say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ That’s not happening on my watch.”

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