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Council members challenge mayor on privately-funded staff positions

Friday, February 13, 2015 by Kara Nuzback

Austin’s new mayor is proposing to hire additional staffers to at no cost to taxpayers. But the idea doesn’t sit well with some council members, who voiced concern over paying for city employees using private funds, as well as the implication that more staffers for the major would shift the balance of power in his direction.

Last night, the Austin City Council unanimously voted to postpone a resolution that would authorize the City Manager to form a contract with The Mayor’s Better Austin Foundation Inc.. That contract would allow the mayor’s foundation to accept donated staff in order to assist the new Council committees and provide other policy support. The foundation is a nonprofit that has historically funded smaller public initiatives for the mayor’s office, such as the Mayor’s Task Force on Aging.

Mayor Steve Adler, the primary sponsor of the resolution, said the small neighborhood projects the foundation funded in the past are not enough anymore.

“The challenges we face with this city are significant,” he said. Adler referenced Austin’s traffic congestion, gentrification and affordability problems as evidence that City Council needs help to tackle the issues past City Councils were never able to outpace.

“We can’t continue nibbling at the edges of our most significant problems,” he said. Adler added the number of constituent queries that come to council’s offices are “mind-boggling,” and new issues appear on city council’s meeting agendas every week.

“We need additional staff,” he said. Adler said cities like New York and Los Angeles  employ staff using similar foundation funds.

Though Adler spoke at length in defense of his proposal, almost everyone else on the dais expressed apprehension.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she had heard concerns from constituents about the “dramatic” proposed expansion of the mayor’s staff and how it might affect the balance of power on City Council.

“This is really potentially moving us in a new direction,” she said. To emphasize that point, Tovo noted that New York and Los Angeles have strong mayor forms of government, unlike Austin.

Council Member Delia Garza said she was concerned about the use of private funds to hire city staff. She said if some Council members have the ability to raise money to pay for more staff, but others don’t, then all Council members would not have equal resources and — potentially — equal influence.

“10-1 was about everyone having equal voices on this dais,” she said. “I can’t see myself supporting this.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said her biggest concern is that the new staffers would dilute the voice of the 10 Council members representing specific districts in the city.

Council Member Pio Renteria said he was concerned the new staffers would not be subject to open meeting laws. He also said City Council should be able to vote on the new hires.

Resident David King, the only member of the public to speak on the issue, said Council should look for other ways to fund the new staff positions, including taking money currently allocated for Opportunity Austin or the Chamber of Commerce, or reducing incentives to corporations.

Council Member Don Zimmerman suggested the city identify eight of its existing 12,000 employees to dedicate to the mayor.

Council Member Greg Casar, who co-sponsored the resolution, said if the foundation funds the new hires, it should do so on a project basis, and set a timeline for their duty with the city.

Adler said he has taken steps to make the foundation more transparent — he would require the new hires, including volunteers, complete financial disclosure statements, and they would all be subject to public information laws.

“All of these people would be subject to the Open Meetings Act,” he said.

Adler also said he did not care whether the new positions were taxpayer-funded or privately funded. “I am only concerning with making sure we have the resources to be able to do the job I think we’re asked to do,” he said. “The old way was insufficient for what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“I am not trying to take away anyone’s voice,” he added.

Adler made the motion to postpone a vote on the resolution for two weeks. The motion passed unanimously.

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