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Council debates city’s state legislative policies

Wednesday, May 13, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

With the 84th session of the Texas Legislature set to end June 1, the city’s Government Relations Office has kicked its lobbying efforts into overdrive. At the same time, City Council has opened a discussion about how the city determines its legislative program and makes decisions on which bills to support or oppose.

A legislative briefing took a turn Tuesday when Council Member Don Zimmerman noted that he had signed up to testify at the Legislature in favor of Senate Bill 1639, which Interim Intergovernmental Relations Officer Karen Kennard said the city has “vigorously opposed.” City representatives, she pointed out, have testified against it and its companion, House Bill 2221.

Kennard said the bill would “totally change the way that cities do annexation” by requiring that citizens of an area with more than 200 residents vote in favor of annexation before the process can move forward. Citizens of areas with fewer than 200 residents, she said, would be able to file a petition requesting such a vote.

Zimmerman explained why he was unable to attend an April 30 public hearing on the bill in the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee. “I signed up to testify, but I had to catch a plane, so that’s why I wasn’t there to testify in favor of (SB) 1639,” he said.

However, Zimmerman noted that Joe Petronis, his chief of staff, did attend and testified in favor of the bill. A video of the hearing shows that Petronis identified himself as president of the Wells Branch Municipal Utility District and not as a city employee. Wells Branch falls within the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, meaning that the city is authorized to annex it.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo sought clarification on Zimmerman’s intentions. “When you are testifying in favor of bills that the City of Austin is officially opposed to, are you doing so as an individual and making that clear … or are you identifying yourself as a Council member?” she asked.

“I’m doing so on behalf of District 6 constituents,” Zimmerman responded. “I’m a Council member from District 6, I’m representing District 6 and District 6 is strongly in favor of this bill.”

Tovo appeared troubled by the revelation. “I have grave concerns about individual Council members testifying down at the Capitol on positions and representing positions that are contrary to the adopted City of Austin positions and doing so in their official capacity,” she said.

Despite Tovo’s apprehension, city staff told the Austin Monitor that there is no known city ordinance or policy that would prevent a sitting Council member from speaking on behalf of his or her district in dissent of a formal recommendation of the Council or the city.

The Senate bill, authored by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), passed out of committee Monday and is on the Senate’s intent calendar for possible action today. The House bill, authored by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), passed out of committee April 16 and is on the House general state calendar for possible action today as well.

After further exchanges between Zimmerman and Tovo, Mayor Steve Adler put the conversation on hold, stating it is “worthwhile” and suggesting that Council discuss it at a future work session.

The issue of how the city develops its stances on bills in the Legislature and how Council is involved, however, came up several times throughout the briefing.

“I don’t remember us voting on which ones we were for and which ones we were against,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen.

Kennard noted that the previous Council adopted its state legislative program for the current session on Nov. 20 and Government Relations Office staff uses it to determine the city’s positions on various bills. Maintaining local control, she added, is a major guideline.

Though it goes into detail on certain issues, the program states broadly that Austin “supports legislation that enhances the city’s ability to solve problems and improve the quality of life for its citizens” and “opposes legislation that reduces the city’s authority, increases the city’s costs or otherwise erodes the city’s ability to govern its own local affairs.”

Zimmerman called the current process “completely backward.”

Council Member Leslie Pool pointed out that the last legislative briefing took place in late March and that staff emails a brief weekly legislative update to Council.

Aside from that, Pool said, “we have not engaged in any kind of a conversation to understand why the city would be taking whatever stance it did and to fully vet it ourselves so that we could, in fact, maybe participate in the support or the opposition.”

Pool also requested that Council receive a legislative briefing from staff at every Tuesday work session remaining in the month.

Kennard stepped down from her previous position as city attorney ahead of the legislative session to take her current position on an interim basis. She noted that the Government Relations Office is currently in a state of flux and that she is working to improve the process and pass those improvements on to whomever permanently takes her position.

Adler commented on the current system and suggested a path for improvements. “I think that the Council has given real direction to our legislative team, because they’ve been specifically directed by Council to defend what we do, our policies, our ordinances, and it’s been specifically directed to do what’s necessary to try to preserve local prerogative,” he said.

“I think we need more real-time reporting, so that if a policy issue is being defended that this Council believes (should be different), it will give rise to that policy conversation,” Adler continued. “It will give any one of us an outlet to be able to raise those issues if we disagree with a position that either the city has previously taken or that is being defended.”

Photo courtesy of Wing-Chi Poon (Texas State Capitol building, Austin, Texas, USA) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.


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