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Reporter’s Notebook: Council gets a big send-off

Monday, December 15, 2014 by Austin Monitor

What was wrong with David Bowie’s “Ch-Ch-Changes”? … Thursday was the last meeting of the current City Council. Maybe it was a case of managed expectations, but given the length of the agenda, when the meeting ended at just past 1 a.m., it seemed almost reasonable. The meeting ended with a burst of good cheer and the Planning and Development Review Department’s Jerry Rusthoven thanking Council members for their service and saying goodbye with REM’s “It’s the End of the World” (despite some copyright concerns). His boss, director Greg Guernsey, was less effusive, and yelled “zoning matters!” before quickly leaving chambers. On Tuesday, the city will find out who will replace them on the dais, and then the new City Council will have just over a month to pick its entry theme song. Suggestions?

It goes in circles and takes you for a ride …  With Council’s overstuffed agenda at its final meeting last week, it’s understandable if you missed its consent approval of a new carousel for the city. Council Member Kathie Tovo sponsored the item, which allows the city to contract with a vendor and use the revenue generated by the ride for youth programming, park improvements and the United Way’s School Readiness Plan in the city. As of yet, there is no specified location for the carousel, but the resolution says it should “be located downtown and that both public and private properties be among the sites given serious consideration.” It will fall to the new Council to consider the carousel options by June of next year.

Barton Springs Spillway goes to the dogs … Some of Council’s final moments on the dais were spent discussing dog poop. More specifically, Council members tackled the issue of dog poop in the Barton Springs Spillway, and whether there was enough of it in the water to warrant concern. In the end, they opted to allow both human and dog swimming in the water, despite concerns from Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley. “Quite frankly, when you have humans in the same water that you have dogs, and you have high bacteria counts, it is not recommended,” said Hensley. “There are issues.” Chris Herrington of the city’s Watershed Protection Department studied the water quality in the area. He explained that there was no way to tell whether the bacteria in the water was coming from dogs or people or another animal. “What we can tell is the bacteria is always higher in that area than it is exiting the pool, and it’s higher than what it is in the lake, and it’s higher than it is upstream,” said Herrington. Austinite Robert Corbin was more direct. “There are serious issues. I’m talking about things like dog poop floating around in the water. Hundreds of dog poops all around the area … probably thousands of dog poops accumulated,” said Corbin. “It’s a cesspool.” Mayor Lee Leffingwell said that he couldn’t officially endorse “swimming in what we know to be a contaminated area.” Council Member Mike Martinez said that it didn’t make sense to allow people to swim in the water but not dogs, and pointed out that people were swimming at their own risk. Council Member Chris Riley clarified that during less busy times, the water was within safe bacteria levels, though Herrington said that on the weekends, the bacteria counts could be more than seven times the safe level. The city plans to post signs warning that the water quality level fluctuates. “I don’t think that really tells the story,” said Leffingwell. “If I saw a sign that said, ‘water quality fluctuates,’ I don’t think that would give me what I needed to know.” At the time, Hensley suggested “varies” instead of “fluctuates” but promised to work on it, perhaps including language that indicated what times had the highest bacterial levels. Previously, the area was not an off-leash area and swimming was not allowed, though neither of those things was enforced. Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman voted against the plan to open swimming to both dogs and people.

Book ’em, Travis! City, county finally settle on jail agreement … Travis County officials heaved a sigh of relief last week after finally reaching an agreement with the City of Austin over providing booking services for the Austin Police Department. Commissioners approved the deal Monday morning, and the city manager gave his approval later in the day. The interlocal agreement between the city and the county over use of the central booking facilities at the Travis County Jail had been in limbo since Oct. 1, and the county was sweating whether it would get paid its first installment of about $1.6 million in January. The problem — which has been simmering for some time — was over Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s policy of cooperating with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities program, in which the county put an immigration hold on some inmates after they completed their sentence or posted bond. Hamilton said he would participate in the program despite protests and political pressure, and even after courts ruled that it was not mandatory for local officials to do so. However, once the city started looking at other ways to handle those suspects arrested by Austin Police, it also began seeing ways to save money over its 17-year-old arrangement with the county. In September, the city floated the idea of booking its own suspects, but it never really got any traction. What finally brought the two sides back together was word that part of President Obama’s recent executive orders on immigration was to put an end to the controversial Secure Communities program. Part of the new agreement was a pledge by the Sheriff’s Office that it would not hold prisoners any longer than state law allows. With the federal government’s immigration policies in flux — particularly with a Republican majority in the new Congress — the whole thing is likely to come up again next year.

(This week’s Reporter’s Notebook items were contributed by reporters Elizabeth Pagano and Mark Richardson.)

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