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Mayor’s foundation moves quickly to Council vote

Tuesday, February 10, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Mayor Steve Adler’s plan to increase staff through a nonprofit foundation will be up for a vote this Thursday. The shift promises to be a radical one that could change how business is done at City Hall.

Though the details of the plan will be released today, Adler spoke with the Monitor about the foundation and what purpose it will serve at City Hall.

“It’s to make sure that we actually do stuff,” said Adler.

Stuff, he explained, includes things like transportation, water, education and permitting.

“I think that the need for it is ever-greater, because of the shift to 10-1 and because of the Council’s decision to expand the number of committees and the work that the committees will be doing. This will be, in part, support for these committees,” said Adler.

Unlike other staff increases, this one won’t be financed through taxes or fees. Instead, Adler’s plan will use the Mayor’s Better Austin Foundation, which is a nonprofit that then-Mayor Kirk Watson formed in 2000.

Since then, the Austin Foundation has funded public initiatives, albeit ones that are more humble than what is being proposed today. For example, the foundation was used to fund the Mayor’s Task Force on Aging.

“It is a way for the capacity of the government to be increased at no salary or benefit cost. We are trying to do ours in a way that is ours uniquely and, I think, exceptionally transparent, accountable, open and ethical,” Adler said.

“I think that’s important,” he continued. “For a long time there have been people that become advisors to people in government. And you never really know about it, and you never really see it.

“What we are doing is something that is very different. I’ve never seen volunteers and people that have donated services to the city that have agreed to the same financial disclosure, ethical policies and conflict-of-interest rules. I think this makes us really unique and very Austin,” said Adler.

The resolution on City Council’s agenda references language from the Austin Foundation’s existing by-laws, which are intended to ensure transparency and public accountability.

Specifically, the by-laws restrict donations. The foundation is prohibited from accepting donations from those who have more than a 5 percent stake in companies that have pending bids with the city, or had contracts with the city in the past year; people (and their attorneys) who have pending or recent litigation against the city; lobbyists and employers of lobbyists; and individuals, entities or officers of entities who own more than 5 percent of a property that has a zoning case pending or had one recently completed.

Additionally, the public will be able to read about all donations the foundation accepts.

The Monitor also spoke with attorney Jim Cousar, who just stepped down as board chair. He said that Adler had already appointed a new board. Kerry Tate, who was already a member of the board, will remain. Joining her are Travis County District Judge Darlene Byrne and Cookie Ruiz, executive director of Ballet Austin.

Other cities have employed this tactic as well. Adler’s resolution singles out two — the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City.

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