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Zimmerman appointments given a rough ride

Friday, April 17, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Following their rejection of two of Council Member Don Zimmerman’s nominees to city commissions, City Council members narrowly approved his appointment to the Historic Landmark Commission Thursday.

However, they did not have to go through the painful process of removing Zimmerman’s most controversial appointment, Rebecca Forest, to the Commission on Immigrant Affairs. Forest sent a letter late Wednesday saying that she would decline the appointment made two weeks ago, “as it is clear the City Council will not honor it.”

On her way out the door, Forest made more inflammatory comments similar to those reported in the Monitor Wednesday. She wrote, “It is unacceptable that the leadership in Austin is knowingly aiding and abetting criminal activity through policies that act as a magnet to draw dangerous criminals into our communities — especially into our local immigrant communities.”

Council Member Greg Casar had gathered ample support to remove Forest from the commission after learning of what he called her intolerant comments about Hispanic legislators, immigrants and Muslims.

On Thursday, Casar told his colleagues since he started on his quest to remove her from the commission set up to help immigrants, he had learned even more about her opinions. Casar noted that Zimmerman had said if they would only get to know Forest better, they would perhaps change their minds about her appointment.

On the contrary, he said, “the last few days the more shocked and honestly disgusted I’ve been. And her comments regarding Hispanic legislators were clearly only the tip of the iceberg. Her statements that have come out recently were effectively endorsements of persecution and discrimination against minority communities, which we find unacceptable. We certainly will continue to fight for inclusion and respect for all people.”

Mayor Steve Adler indicated that he would have supported Casar’s resolution, noting that he was absent during Tuesday’s work session when the matter was discussed because he was at the legislature testifying for Austin Energy.

At the end of that discussion, Zimmerman said, “I appreciate all the civil discussion and I don’t think I’m being over scrutinized. But everyone is now open to scrutiny. As long as we all play by the same rules, I think it’s fine.” Two other Zimmerman appointments, Matt Stillwell to the Arts Commission, and Naveed Mahmood to the Electric Utility Commission, sailed through without questions.

Civility was not a problem for Zimmerman’s appointment to the Historic Landmark Commission. However, civil rights attorney Arif Panju got the bare minimum — six votes — for an appointment to the commission where he has already made several appearances. Panju lives in the Bluebonnet Hills area of Travis Heights and has been fighting an attempt by some of his neighbors to have the area declared a local historic district.

Panju voluntarily appeared before the Council Thursday to tell them how he would make sure that the city follows its own rules as well as open records and public information laws. However, he did not say that he supported the city goal of promoting historic preservation.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Leslie Pool said they would be voting against Panju’s appointment. Both said people working in the historic preservation community who opposed Panju’s appointment contacted them.

Council Member Delia Garza said, “I regret that it’s come to this, for I thought that this was the one area where we could defer to Council members. I wanted to thank those of Council Member Zimmerman’s appointments that have decided to step up and serve the city, but because of a previous appointment that I believe is not going to be an issue anymore by somebody who made some extremely offensive and intolerant and comments, I need to abstain from all of Council Member Zimmerman’s appointments.”

Council member Ora Houston then said,” I certainly appreciate Council Member Zimmerman’s desire to have people that represent some of folks in his district on some of the boards and commissions.” However, Panju lives in Tovo’s district, not Zimmerman’s.

Houston said it was important to her to appoint people to the commission who realize that historic preservation had not been taken seriously in some parts of Austin, notably East Austin. “It’s not about the process. It is about the soul and the ability of the community to connect with that need for preservation in areas that are fast becoming extinct. So because of that I will abstain from that nomination.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen said that she too would be abstaining.

The vote on Panju was 6-2 with 3 abstentions. Council approved all other appointments unanimously.

Zimmerman’s other appointee who ran into problems two weeks ago was Sharon Blythe, whose appointment to the Parks and Recreation Board was effectively rejected by a postponement approved by the whole Council, save Zimmerman. Blythe had numerous run-ins with city staff before Council postponed her nomination.

On Thursday, Blythe spoke at citizens’ communications, criticizing the Parks and Recreation Department and two people who quoted in the Monitor criticizing her.

Blythe said the Cemetery Master Plan is “flawed and needs correction. The Parks Department is not cooperative even though we offered a compromise on the master plan suggesting only that the historical record be correct.”

She also complained that, “there is no voice for the elderly who cannot attend meetings easily or families who have entrusted their loved ones to the care of the city of Austin. The cemeteries are unprotected today. So please understand that by silencing the people affected by the Cemetery Master Plan, the city’s management has effectively ignored the wishes of many, many people.”

Photo by Dave Gough under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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