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Renteria sizes up new Council’s first year

Tuesday, December 29, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

The inaugural year of Austin’s brand-new single-member district City Council is getting high marks from at least one man on the inside.

“I would give it an A-minus,” Council Member Pio Renteria, who represents District 3, told the Austin Monitor recently at his office in City Hall. Looking back on 2015, Renteria dished on the steep learning curve, his biggest surprise and the big lesson he learned from a high-profile barbecue-flavored mistake.

The past year was the first in elected office for the soft-spoken former community activist, and it was the first on Council for nine of his fellow incoming Council members, including Mayor Steve Adler. Because of that inexperience, Renteria said things got off to a slow start.

“It took us about two months just to really get down with the committee structure and find out really how the committee structure was gonna operate,” he told the Monitor, referring to the issue-specific committees on which Council members serve. “And that’s a part that I’m not too happy about. There’s just too many (committees).”

Renteria complained that items that go through a committee hearing are often met with redundant questions once they make it before the full Council. He said, “It’s like going through the process all over again. It’s tying up our staff a lot, so you’re not as informed as you should be.”

Renteria said that an effort to improve the committee system was discussed but never gained traction. However, he’s optimistic that it will come back up in February and pointed out that there is indeed a committee looking into reforming the committees.

Streamlining the committee process should help alleviate what Renteria said was the his most surprising discovery on the dais: the long sausage-making process of turning a proposal into actual law. Noting that the usual procedure involves committee hearings, full Council hearings, directions to the city manager, more hearings at city commissions and boards, and then a return trip through full Council hearings again, Renteria said he was taken aback at how long it takes.

“And I also didn’t realize that we were going to have to deal with a lot of resolutions that got pushed past in 2014 (by the previous Council),” said Renteria. “Now they’re coming back as ordinance, and we’re having to deal with it, and we’re going, ‘Whoa. Now we have to slow down the process here because I don’t know what in the heck I’m voting on because I wasn’t here.’”

One major example he pointed to was the protracted battle over accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. Renteria ultimately supported that measure, which will free up restrictions on the construction of garage apartments, granny flats and similar housing units. His vote for ADUs was in line with his advocacy for more affordable housing options in Austin. He also claimed as one of his biggest victories the creation of new homestead preservation districts.

Renteria’s biggest disappointment, however, came with the blowback from his proposal to regulate restaurant smokestacks. The effort arose from public complaints about thick clouds of heavy smoke hanging over certain neighborhoods. Thanks to swift opposition from the likes of celebrity barbecue guru Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue, Renteria’s effort went viral and attracted national headlines.

“We tried to address that issue, and because of not really knowing how the committee structure worked, I tried to push it through the City Council instead of the committee,” Renteria explained.

Despite the embarrassment, Renteria said he is still having a good time on the dais. He disclosed that every Council member gets along with the others despite some obvious political differences. He saved his kindest words, however, for Adler.

“Regardless of how divided the Council is, he has a skill of being able to see the compromise,” Renteria beamed. “And he makes sure that after the vote, everybody feels real good about it. There’s just something about him.”

As for helping any of his colleagues in their re-election efforts, Renteria said he would likely stay out of those contests. At the first meeting of the new Council, he drew a black marble, which means he won’t be up for re-election until 2018. When asked if he has thought that far ahead yet, Renteria flashed his toothsome grin and said, “I’m gonna see how I feel. I’m gonna be 68. The side effect of this job is you gain a lot of weight.”

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