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Reporter’s Notebook: Late nights and postponements

Monday, February 1, 2016 by Austin Monitor

Late meeting, again… Early in its tenure, the new City Council took pains to promise the public that the era of late Council meetings was over. A year later, that promise has not come to fruition, and Thursday some Council members took a minute to air their frustration with the current state of things. During the discussion on changes to the PUD amendment, Council Member Sheri Gallo said, “We made a promise to the citizens of Austin that we would not have late-night meetings, and I think the majority of our meetings have extended past 10 p.m. That, at that point, is a 12-hour meeting, and many of our meetings have gone past midnight. I really think it is a disservice to our community, it is a disservice to city staff, it’s a disservice to Council members. … We just need to figure out another way to handle this,” said Gallo. “This is not what we promised the community.” Council Member Ann Kitchen said she “wholeheartedly” agreed with Gallo and made a “pledge that this is the last meeting we do like this.” In June, the Austin Monitor reported that systems implemented under the new Council made for many more meetings. While that trend has continued, the more frequent meetings have also started to run very late on a regular basis. On Jan. 28, 2016, the Council meeting adjourned at 2:18 a.m., and the previous meeting ended at 1:33 a.m. When Mayor Steve Adler spoke to the Monitor in June, he remained optimistic about the new process  — despite the longer meeting times — saying, “I like the process. I like meeting more frequently and not as late. It troubled me when Council was meeting until midnight and 3 o’clock in the morning. … I’m also encouraged at the Council doing less policymaking on the dais — less work when an issue comes up, and people are pulling out their pens and trying to imagine what might be a good solution. Because I think that leads to decisions that are not vetted and wise. I think if you look and compare where we were before, you have to look at not only the number of meetings, but how long they last and how things are vetted before they actually get to us.”

Winnebago Lane land sale postponed… At the urging of Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, City Council postponed approval of the sale of property at 4711 Winnebago Lane, which is owned by Austin Resource Recovery. Tovo is interested in using the land for another purpose, perhaps for local artists. In response to a question from Mayor Steve Adler, ARR Director Bob Gedert said a one-week postponement of the sale would not derail the underlying project, building the [re]Manufacturing Hub – a center for various companies to recycle and process recycled materials. Gedert wants to sell the Winnebago Lane property for $1.45 million to Jimmy Nassour, who has agreed to buy the property. The money from the sale would help provide funds for the $7.5 million project, Gedert explained. Tovo said she opposes the sale of the property but supports the [re]Manufacturing Hub. Among those opposing the center is Bob Gregory, owner and CEO of Texas Disposal Systems, who sees the proposed facility as a competitive threat to his business. Tovo asked Gedert to talk to city budget staff before next Thursday, when the item will come up again, to see whether it can figure out another financing option. The city has a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to partially fund the project. However, Gedert explained, under that grant the city must begin construction on the project by July. Every delay endangers that deadline, he said, but he told Council on Thursday that he would be talking to the EDA this week. The [re]Manufacturing Hub has been part of the city’s solid waste master plan since 2011, but at that time it was called an “eco-industrial park.” When Council originally approved building the center, ARR planned to finance it through certificates of obligation. However, it later learned that it would not be legal to do so, so it decided to sell the Winnebago Lane property. Gedert told the Zero Waste Advisory Commission that the city has received letters from enough potential tenants of the site to fill it entirely and perhaps another one also. The city would receive rental income from those tenants, but Gedert is concerned that if ARR has to borrow money from another city fund, it will mean increased costs for garbage and recycling customers.

Another way to look at it… Last week, the Robert E. Lee Elementary School’s Campus Advisory Council voted in favor of changing the name of the school, which was named after the Confederate general in 1939. While the Austin Independent School District will ultimately have to make that change, another side of the debate was raised at the most recent meeting of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission. During citizen communication, Angela Temple pointed out that the building is a “beautiful example of New Deal architecture” designed by Roy L. Thomas early in his career. She noted that any name change would also impact the design elements of the building. “They want to remove the sign, which is a beautiful art deco lettering similar to the (Seaholm) power plant. To me, it’s a defining feature of the building, and a valuable feature,” said Temple, who suggested creation of a task force to review AISD’s plan. “I mean, you wouldn’t take down the lettering on the Scarborough Building. I think it’s the same level of importance,” said Temple. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said the commission would not be informed of any plans to take down the sign.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jo Clifton and Elizabeth Pagano.

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