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Council wraps up orientation, plans policy review

Friday, January 16, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

With their first full meeting less than two weeks away, members of the new City Council laid out a plan Thursday to study up on city policy.

As a starting point, Council members were asked to consider a plan that had policy workshops taking place once or twice a week, with the last workshop being held at the end of April. In the end, Council members agreed on a more condensed schedule and plan to meet over one or two days in the near future.

Council briefly entertained a schedule that would involve meeting two or three days a week in order to work its way through all of the tentatively proposed 22 policy points. But Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who is the only returning member of the Council, said that might not be a practical solution.

“Right now it looks like a lot of Tuesdays before the Council meeting, we would, in essence, be meeting all day — meeting at the work session agenda at part of the day, and meeting in the afternoon to look at policy. That cuts into preparation for our Council meetings,” said Tovo.

Tovo also forwarded the notion of adopting a “TED Talks model” for the presentations, which would offer “a lot of information, very quickly, in a short format,” with time for questions and dialogue among Council members. That proposal was embraced.

Council members also expressed a desire to tackle whichever issues are most pressing first. Council will hold its first full meeting Jan. 29. Members were told that all of the zoning items on the agenda could be postponed except for two. Those two items concern the Garza Ranch.

The Garza tract has long been a source of conflict — and litigation — between the landowners and the city. In the 1990s, the owners sued the city over the application of the Save Our Springs Ordinance to the land. The city lost that lawsuit, as well as an appeal. In 2007, zoning for the land was approved, with a limited number of trips. And as recently as last year, the city approved a settlement under the threat of looming legislative action.

Now, Council is being asked to consider the number of vehicular trips that will be allowed on the property. At the behest of the Austin Sierra Club, the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Save Barton Creek Association, the previous Council postponed the item. All three environmental groups oppose the change in vehicle trips. The Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods supports the project.

Though Mayor Steve Adler steered the discussion to include goals of “team building” and finding the overlap in the Venn diagram between Council members’ goals in order to forge a new way forward, there were some minor points of contention.

Noting that she didn’t want to “muddy the waters,” Council Member Delia Garza questioned the role that staff would be playing in the policy workshops.

“As the new 10-1 Council, we are supposed to be the ones driving the policy decisions and deciding what the conversation is … I’m a little concerned about staff leading the discussion, as opposed to us having that discussion,” said Garza. She suggested that a Council member-led discussion could be another way of having the policy point conversation.

City Manager Marc Ott made it clear that they had no intention — or desire — of presenting information in which Council members were not interested.

“We have to do it together,” said Ott. “These conversations, these deep dives, we have to build them together.”

At the beginning of the discussion, Adler described the sessions as an opportunity to engage as a group and have a discussion about policy. He explained that, to that end, it would be helpful to have staff present on the policy areas, as well as “other voices.”

Adler said that invitations to talk about various city topics were beginning to roll into his office, and it would be helpful to have a schedule laid out for policy discussions. That way, he said, it would be possible to invite people to take part in specific discussions.

“The purposes of these policy conversations are not to decide anything — we aren’t going to be taking votes, we aren’t going to be trying to come to a consensus of opinions,” said Adler. “It’s more issue identification. It’s more being able to engage, even to the point of inviting the speaker who is espousing the idea that very few other people agree to, or agree with.”

The preliminary topics of the policy workshops, as outlined by a draft distributed during the orientation, covered 22 aspects of policy. Those are (in the order they were proposed to be considered): Zoning, CodeNEXT, Land Use; City as Employer (Labor Relations, Pensions, Civil Service, Fire Department, etc.); Public Safety; Parks and Open Space; Imagine Austin; Resource Recovery; Water (supply and future business model); Transportation and Mobility (including Capital Metro); Economic Development; Factors Community relations with Council/officials, city staff and service; Housing; Austin Energy; Resiliency; City Budget and Financing; “Quality of Life” and “Silos vs. Shared Solutions”; Education Support; Neighborhood Issues (e.g. code, short-term rentals, stealth dorms); Permitting Process; Health Care and Delivery; Innovation Zone; Watershed Protection; and factors affecting the cost of living in Austin.

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