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Reporter’s Notebook: Oversights and overheads

Monday, January 25, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Mapgate: What we saw… There was little indication at the conclusion of last week’s meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission that Scott Gross, an engineer for the city’s Transportation Department, was in big trouble. After concluding a half-hour presentation on city transportation, he’d received gentle pushback from two commissioners for using a satirical map of Austin that characterizes the city’s neighborhoods based on cultural and ethnic stereotypes as a backdrop to one of his PowerPoint slides. But otherwise, the 40 minutes of questions and comments that followed Gross’ presentation were laudatory. “Mr. Gross, thank you very much for coming here this evening, and great presentation,” said Commission Chair Gabriel Rojas. Even the two commissioners who voiced distaste for the map’s use did not appear to dwell on the subject. “I was just wondering if there was really a neighborhood that was ‘overly practical gays,’” said Commissioner Jolene Kiolbassa, with a laugh, after telling Gross the map was likely inappropriate for a city presentation. On Friday, Kiolbassa declined to comment on City Manager Marc Ott’s decision to place Gross on administrative leave pending an investigation into the incident. But Commissioner Jackie Goodman, who had also criticized the map, told the Austin Monitor in an email that she didn’t believe Gross should lose his job over the matter, saying that she understood his intention to insert humor into an otherwise dry topic. “That’s actually a good idea, but the vehicle used wasn’t universally acceptable as a humorous interjection,” she said.

Bond oversight oversight… Despite City Council standing adjourned for the past month or so, there was a lot of talk about a bond election over the holiday break. In the meantime, the Bond Oversight Commission has yet to meet even once. The commission, which is tasked with overseeing the implementation of existing and future city bonds, did not have enough members to constitute a quorum until the end of October, and it is still awaiting its final four members. Council Member Leslie Pool has clarified that she submitted her appointment in January. Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Delia Garza still have appointments outstanding. As of yet, there has been no meeting scheduled for the commission, though an effort to organize a first meeting is underway. Council revived the Bond Oversight Commission in August after the previous City Council opted to phase it out as part of the Boards and Commissions transition to the new single-member district system.

Oh, IC… Last week, the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission met for the first time in a long time. Though the bulk of the brief meeting was taken up by the fairly mundane task of assigning newly annexed lands to City Council districts, the discussion about scheduling a July meeting did catch the Austin Monitor’s attention. In particular, some commissioners worried aloud that pending U.S. Supreme Court cases (especially a Texas challenge to the idea of basing districts on total population instead of the population of eligible voters) could cause trouble. Chair Magdalena Blanco said that, for now, they are “keeping it on the radar, for sure,” but there is really nothing to be done until a decision is issued. However, warned legal counsel David Richards, “It will be a can of worms if that case goes wrong. There’s no way to tell, but let’s just wait for that potential disaster.” He continued, “The only thing that could really happen that would cause problems is if the Supreme Court mandated … that redistricting be based on eligible voters, as opposed to strict population. I think, if anything, it would be more likely to say that a public body could decide to factor in, as one element in the redistricting process, eligible or registered voters. I can’t imagine they would mandate that would be the sole basis, but that’s just speculation.”

And, in your daily TNC news… On Saturday, Mayor Steve Adler posted to the City Council Message Board his official proposals for transportation network company regulations, which took the form of four ordinances and a long written speech. (Council Member Ann Kitchen has proposed a separate ordinance, to which Adler’s post provides a link.) For the full story, we encourage interested readers to head over there, but we note that Adler frames his proposal by writing, “I believe we need to act next week because the ordinance we passed in December takes effect otherwise on February 1, and that ordinance is not clear as to our intentions, most specifically related to whether or not fingerprint-augmented background checks should be mandatory. The December ordinance did not make such mandatory, but its language is at least ambiguous and may well be contradictory. I believe we need to either fix this or postpone the effective date of the December ordinance.” Adler also reaffirms his desire to retain TNCs in the city and to offer a choice to those who want fingerprinted drivers, essentially laying out his “Thumbs Up” proposition. He closes with, “FYI, Uber and Lyft have not yet indicated that they will participate in such a program. However, that does not mean this innovation cannot or should not move forward. Such a program, which would reward fingerprint volunteers in our city, would fare better (at least initially) with their participation, and we hope they do at some point. But this creative and innovative idea should move forward regardless.”

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notes of Jack Craver and Elizabeth Pagano.

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