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ZAP votes to replace chair, barely

Thursday, April 21, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

The election of commission officers is usually a rote affair. But that was not the case at Tuesday night’s Zoning and Platting Commission meeting, where a long discussion preceded the ousting of Chair Gabriel Rojas in favor of a “reluctant” new chair, Thomas Weber.

As the Austin Monitor reported earlier this month, a push to replace Rojas followed a March meeting of the commission at which some members of the community felt that they had not been heard on the topic of the Austin Oaks planned unit development. Rojas apologized for the slight, but the incident nonetheless led to a push from Commissioner Jackie Goodman to rotate the commission’s elected positions on a regular basis. That approach is a major departure from past practice, given that prior to Rojas’ election as chair, Betty Baker had served as chair since the commission’s inception.

In the end, it was a close vote that elected Weber. Commissioners Betsy Greenberg, Dustin Breithaupt, Ann Denkler and Jolene Kiolbassa joined Weber and Goodman in voting for Weber. Voting for Rojas were commissioners Bruce Evans, Yvette Flores, Susan Harris, Sunil Lavani and Rojas.

Kiolbassa said that she liked the idea of rotating chairs, given City Council’s recent switch to single-member districts and the drafting of new bylaws. She then nominated Weber for the position.

“This seems like a new age for us,” said Kiolbassa. “Also it seems like it would be a perfect legacy for Commissioner Goodman to leave us with.”

It was a move seconded by Greenberg, who acknowledged that prior to her appointment two months ago, she had attended only one meeting of the commission, though she was very familiar with other commissions and Council.

“I was surprised by the way this commission functions,” said Greenberg. “And in just two months I find that this commission is subject to public information requests for our emails, a lawsuit is filed against the commission, and citizens email and show up to complain about our process.”

Greenberg said that new rules and a new chair would give the commission “a fresh start.”

Rojas explained that he had served on the commission for the past five years and looked forward to seeing through some of the work he had been doing to establish joint committees with the city’s other land-use commission, the Planning Commission. He also said that the way land use has been managed in the past has helped lead the city to traffic congestion and unaffordability, and the decisions the commission is making now will help shape the future and how Austin grows.

“I’ve tried to move us away from car-dependent development and the diaspora that creates. I’ve just been trying to turn this ship and where I’ve seen it going for the past 60 years. It’s a big ship to turn, but that’s been my focus,” said Rojas. “With every incremental decision we make, I think we can move the ball.”

Weber said that he was “reluctant” to take on the role of chair and didn’t see the past few months as a reason to switch board chairs. “If it’s the will of this body, then I would,” said Weber. He said that he liked the notion of changing chairs every year or so, but he noted that Rojas had been chair only since July.

“I’m not going to get into all my philosophy,” said Weber. “I will say I look at things on the merits of individual cases, and I don’t like to try to put myself in one box or another.”

Harris said that she appreciated the institutional memory and experience that Rojas brought to the position, noting that when he assumed the role of chair only he and former Council Member Goodman had any experience. “I really do think that we could all still benefit from that experience,” she said.

Harris was backed by Evans, who said he had enjoyed Rojas’ direction and that, if anything, he had “gone overboard” in listening to public comment. Goodman clearly was of a different mind.

“It’s not as simple as saying how you act as chair. It’s how you are perceived. And we want nobody to offer the impression to citizens that come here that there is in any way a bias or a preclusion or a disinterest,” said Goodman. “Lately, there have been some cases (in which that has occurred).”

“There’s nothing personal in what I’m saying. We all make mistakes,” said Goodman. She also urged her fellow commissioners not to nominate her for vice chair. Goodman is leaving her current position to work in Council Member Delia Garza’s office, and Tuesday’s meeting was her last.

Rojas denied the allegations that he had not been a neutral chair or that he had dismissed public input. He said he had received numerous letters thanking the commission for allowing people to feel heard over the past few months and that it was “a little disconcerting” to hear otherwise from his colleagues.

Commissioners voted to elect Rojas as vice chair, unanimously. Though he initially attempted to turn down the nomination in order to take a position that would allow him to be less neutral, he was ultimately persuaded by his colleagues to accept the nomination and continue the work that he had started from that seat.

Photo by M.Fitzsimmons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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