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African American Advisory Commission membership raises questions at Audit and Finance

Tuesday, December 22, 2015 by Jack Craver

The Audit and Finance Committee spent just under an hour trying to resolve a dispute over membership on the African American Resource Advisory Commission at its Dec. 14 meeting.

At issue were the six seats on the 17-member commission reserved for members appointed by six civic organizations: the Austin Revitalization Authority, the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, the NAACP, the Austin Area Urban League, the African American Cultural Heritage District Community Advisory Board and the George Washington Carver Ambassadors.

The problem is that those seats have not yet been filled since the new City Council came into office in January. One organization – the African American Cultural Heritage District – has declined to appoint a member, and the nominations from the other groups were voted down by the commission at a Dec. 2 meeting. Current ordinance requires the commission to OK representatives of the civic groups, who are then approved by Council.

But some members of the commission don’t want to approve the nominations at all. They want to change the commission’s composition by either reducing or eliminating the appointees from civic groups. At a meeting on Dec. 2, the commission voted on a proposal to get rid of them entirely, as well as a proposal to make them nonvoting ex officio members. Although both motions were supported by seven of the 11 members present, they failed because they did not receive the necessary nine votes that constitute a majority of the 17-member panel. A motion to eliminate the cultural heritage district seat similarly failed.

Michael Lee, a commission member appointed by Council Member Don Zimmerman, urged the Audit and Finance Committee to recommend reducing the size of the commission, saying that the vacant seats make it hard to get a quorum or a majority vote on proposals.

“We want to do business,” he said. “We believe it would be easier to do business if a quorum was constituted of six instead of nine.

“The problem we have with 17,” Lee added, “is you’re counting six vacant chairs as human beings. On a certain level, I have a problem with being equated to a vacant chair.”

He further argued that the civic appointees were unnecessary – that the mission of the commission could be carried out by the 11 members appointed by Council.

Others argued that Council should change the ordinance so that it would appoint the nominees to the commission rather than waiting on the latter to approve them.

Nelson Linder, chair of the commission and president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, told the committee that appointment of the nominees was the solution to the problem Lee was describing. Eliminating the role of the civic groups, he said, would subvert the purpose of the commission, which he argued was created as a way for community groups to develop solutions to the problems they saw daily.

“You want a quorum? Make the appointments, and we’ll go to work,” Linder said. “But the idea that we’re even having this conversation, to us, is an insult.”

The movement to change the commission is the product of “hostilities against community-based organizations,” he said. He argued that such groups are the best positioned to form policy on the racial disparities they work to solve every day.

Gregory Smith, the CEO of the Austin Revitalization Authority and the past chair of the commission, similarly spoke against attempts to reduce the influence of community groups, saying it would be “against the spirit of 10-1.”

Former Council Member Sheryl Cole also spoke in favor of maintaining the role of such groups in the process, saying that they were the groups consistently working on issues important to the black community during her time on Council.

Council Member Ora Houston, who is not a member of the Audit and Finance Committee but was attending the meeting, said that her concern was the nine votes necessary to obtain a majority on the commission and that she planned on drafting an ordinance to reduce the number of seats on the panel.

“This would be the only city commission with 17 members on it, which creates an undue burden … on the ability of them to do work,” Houston said. But she added that she was comfortable keeping the four groups that were named as part of the commission in the 2006 ordinance that created the commission: the Austin Revitalization Authority, the NAACP, the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce and the Austin Area Urban League.

The committee ultimately followed Houston’s advice, unanimously recommending changing the ordinance so that the nominations from those four groups go straight to Council. It also recommended changing the commission’s rules to allow approval of items if at least two-thirds of those present vote in favor, even if the supporters do not amount to a majority of the full commission’s membership.

A previous motion supported by Council Member Leslie Pool and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo to approve all five nominations was defeated, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair voting no and Council Member Pio Renteria abstaining.

Afterward, Lee told the Austin Monitor that the opposition to changing the commission membership was little more than Linder wanting to keep his position. “He just wants a permanent seat,” he said.

Linder dismissed the debate as a “waste of time” orchestrated by commissioners with “hidden agendas.”

“You got Zimmerman, who’s a Republican, who doesn’t even believe in social organizations, making an appointment, and he’s going to challenge our work,” he said, adding that he was disappointed that Houston was “sending mixed signals” on the issue.

Photo by reynermedia made available through a Creative Commons license.

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