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Reporter’s Notebook: The squirrel can’t help it

Monday, December 21, 2015 by Austin Monitor

Is this on?… He was upfront about recusing himself from the vote, but City Council Member Don Zimmerman didn’t sit quietly during the discussion of legal fees associated with the lawsuit he has filed against the city over campaign finance rules. In fact, it was Zimmerman who pulled the item for questions in the first place and asked how much of the money was going to pay for expert witnesses. This query didn’t sit well with Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who advised him that if he had recused himself on the case he should not participate in the discussion. Zimmerman asked for a legal opinion on the matter, and City Attorney Anne Morgan replied, “I would suggest, because you are going to recuse yourself, you might not want to ask the questions.” That wasn’t clear enough for Zimmerman, who then asked if he was entitled to ask questions. Morgan explained, “Ethics questions are always a matter of personal responsibility. I can certainly point you to the code. I would suggest if you are going to recuse yourself it would be better to not ask the questions.” Zimmerman then pointed out one more thing and told Council Member Ellen Troxclair, “You can ask.” Troxclair then asked about the original amount of the contract. The city has authorized up to $180,000 for legal services related to Donald Zimmerman v. City of Austin. Morgan explained that the amount had increased from the original $55,000 to include appellate costs “because this seems like a case that might have an appeal.” The increased contract passed in a vote of 9-1-1, with Troxclair voting in opposition and Zimmerman, of course, recused.

Not all trustees educated equally… In a relatively routine announcement last Monday, Austin Independent School District President Gina Hinojosa reviewed each trustee’s annually accrued continuing education credits, a state requirement for school board members. Continuing education courses can include team-building sessions, overviews on matters such as changes in Texas’ education code or clarification of matters such as the state’s open meeting laws, among other things. But while required hours vary depending on the number of years a trustee has served on the board, it was rather obvious who had been “hitting the books” this year and who had not. Hinojosa announced that District 4 Trustee Julie Cowan was the most educated trustee with 77.75 hours of accrued continuing education in 2015. (These hours are in addition to the considerable amount of time trustees spend in board meetings as well as subcommittee meetings.) District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias clocked in second with 61 hours. Other board members’ hours hovered around the 40s, 30s or 20s. Hinojosa trailed everyone with 14.5 hours, but District 1 Trustee Edmund Gordon was the only trustee who failed to hit the minimum number of hours required of him. Having accrued 17 hours, Gordon managed to fall short by four hours. Meanwhile, District 7 Trustee Yasmin Wagner, who has only been on the board since October, has already managed to hit 20 hours.

No wonder she hates acronyms… During a recent discussion about Parkland Dedication Fees, Council Member Ora Houston noticed that the closed captioning for the meeting was doing something that could make for a confusing transcript. “I just want to clarify that AURA is A-U-R-A, not O-R-A,” said Houston. “I just want to make sure when he speaks, he is speaking for his organization, AURA, and not for ORA.” AURA, of course, is a grassroots organization in the city, not an elected official.

Postscript… The Austin Monitor would like to get in on the distribution of squirrel-based re-enactments of city issues. For those who missed it, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo displayed some pictures during the transportation network company discussion, saying she would “love to know who the jokester is who keeps handing out pictures of squirrels on the dais.” Tovo explained, “We have one for (short-term rentals) and one for TNCs, of a squirrel in a car with a Barbie. If anyone can tell us who the citizen is who has handed those out, I would appreciate (it).”

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Courtney Griffin and Elizabeth Pagano.

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