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After a year at City Hall, Zimmerman reflects

Wednesday, December 30, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

For City Council Member Don Zimmerman, 2015 was a year of some triumph and a great deal of frustration with city staff.

During an interview with the Austin Monitor about his first year on Council, it became clear that Zimmerman’s biggest sources of agitation seem to be the way the city is run and the role that city management and city staff play. “Staff runs the city, not your City Council,” said Zimmerman.

“I expected that the power in the city was dominated by unelected city management that has no term limits. I expected that, but I think that there’s even more power concentrated in staff than I imagined,” said Zimmerman.

This is, of course, a frustration that came to light almost immediately upon his taking office. Zimmerman reminded the Monitor that one of his first postings on the City Council Message Board was a resolution that would force the city manager and city attorney to sit in the audience instead of on the dais during Council meetings “because (they) are not elected member(s).”

“The Council was afraid to act on it,” said Zimmerman. “I think they are intimidated by the power of the city staff. That’s my opinion. … Because it’s intimidating to work around here with 13,000 city employees that don’t have to do anything you say.”

“I campaigned on a change in our city management. So did a bunch of other candidates, until they won. Then I heard nothing,” he said.

During the interview Zimmerman held up a thick binder of backup for the next Council meeting and noted that “maybe 5 percent” of the items came from Council. “You’re basically put in a position where you can’t possibly investigate thoroughly what you are being asked to vote on. You are being put in a position where you have to trust staff or else, as I do, on many of these big-ticket items, I’m forced to abstain.”

He said that although the reformed Council committee system was intended to help better inform Council members, “the power still resides with staff.”

Zimmerman’s office is currently working on a resolution that would impose a greater level of scrutiny on contracts over a certain dollar amount. He told the Monitor that it was still investigating what the threshold for that would be, but the idea was to separate out the “negotiate and execute” in contracts and allow a Council committee to examine what was negotiated before contracts are executed instead of doing it all at once, with a single Council vote.

Looking forward, Zimmerman also hopes to change the city’s budget process. He told the Monitor that next year, he’d like to “see if we can get City Council back in charge of the budget.”

“We get manipulated as an elected City Council because the staff is in charge of everything. They control the money. They control the policy. They control the research,” said Zimmerman. “There’s no time for Council to make really substantive budget decisions, because everything is already built in and the clock’s ticking.”

He said that the past year’s model was backward. Instead of looking at a staff-penned budget forecast in April, then taking up the budget in earnest “two weeks before it’s time to vote on it” in September, he thinks Council should be in charge of high-level budgeting in the spring and staff should be consulted if there needs to be “tweaks” at the end.

Zimmerman would also like to take a closer look at whether the recommendations released last March in the Zucker Report have been implemented. He is worried that those recommendations “are being swept under the rug.”

“Part of it is our fault, as a Council. We could have made them implement the Zucker Report recommendations, and we, the Council, we didn’t. The mayor didn’t follow my advice,” said Zimmerman.

In looking back on the past year, Zimmerman first singled out his resolution that asked Travis County to relocate the planned downtown civil and family courthouse to an East Side location as a highlight, as well as the “defeat of the courthouse bond as a statement from our voters that we’re fed up with the taxes.”

“I think I have a reputation on the Council as being a fiscal conservative,” said Zimmerman. “Maybe that’s an understatement.”

Zimmerman says that his resolution “absolutely” had an impact on November’s bond election, despite the fact that it stalled out in the Audit and Finance Committee and never made it to the full Council. In his opinion, the resolution and bond defeat show that “people want to cooperate for a lower-cost solution for something that the entire community is eventually going to need.”

Zimmerman told the Monitor that the resolution had been updated based on November’s election results and will be heard in committee in January. “I don’t think the government understands how aggravated people are about the congestion and lack of parking downtown,” he said. “It’s a huge issue.”

As another highlight, Zimmerman points to the vote on an 83-acre parcel in Northern Travis County just south of the intersection of Old Lampasas Trail and Talleyran Drive. Annexation of the parcel was strongly opposed by residents and ultimately denied by Council, though Zimmerman points out that the city has been imposing annexation on land despite the will of residents “for decades, if not generations.”

“We can’t find any prior Council to ever vote down an annexation,” said Zimmerman. “This is really important because it was in the context of flooding and the city’s liability … and the responsibility for flood problems that may happen because of Austin’s development.”

Zimmerman said that he expected to be in the minority on many issues “as a fiscal conservative in the most expensive city in Texas.”

“I recognize I’m in a Republican state but in a Democrat-leaning city. So I should expect to lose most of the votes,” said Zimmerman. “And I do.”

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