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Reporter’s Notebook: Passes and postponements

Monday, May 23, 2016 by Austin Monitor

Official solicited, got free SXSW passes… Rondella Hawkins, who oversees the city’s Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs, requested and received three complimentary badges for 2016’s SXSWi, the interactive portion of the famous festival that Austin hosts, from festival director Hugh Forrest. Pinaki Ghosh, a former member of the city’s volunteer Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission, uncovered emails between Hawkins and Forrest dated Feb. 11, 2015. Ghosh forwarded emails showing that Hawkins requested “3 complimentary or significantly discounted tickets to SXSWi. This would include myself and my digital inclusion team members?” Forrest responded, “Thanks for reaching out. And, thanks for hosting me at the commission tonight. Do you have budge(sic) to purchase one badge for Interactive at the early bird rate ($825)?” The next email, sent on Nov. 19, 2015, from Hawkins to Forrest, said, “I registered for the conference at the $1,025 rate,” noting that she missed the early bird rate deadline. Hawkins then thanked Forrest for sending three complimentary badges for the upcoming event. Ghosh has also filed a complaint against Lemuel Williams, chair of the technology commission, and that complaint is scheduled for a hearing before the Ethics Review Commission in June. In an Austin-American Statesman story about that complaint, a city spokesperson is quoted as saying that neither the commission nor the department that Hawkins oversees regulate SXSW in any way. However, there are portions of the city code that prohibit city officials from accepting or soliciting any gift or favor and says, “(N)o salaried City official or employee shall use his official position to secure a special privilege or exemption for himself or others.” Attorney Fred Lewis told the Austin Monitor, “Whether it’s unlawful or not, it’s an exceedingly bad practice. As a lawyer, (I think) red flags should be going up,” said Lewis. Ghosh has sent a copy of the emails to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. On Sunday night, Hawkins told the Monitor, “I believe (Ghosh’s) complaint is taken out of context. I negotiated a discounted registration fee for my employees and think I saved taxpayer dollars. Otherwise we could’ve spent several thousand in registration fees; my office has nothing to do with SXSW regulatory or fees. I do not know of any City ordinance that I violated.” Forrest could not be reached for comment.

Get into the Grove… The Grove at Shoal Creek Planned Unit Development is still hung up at the very start of the boards and commissions process. But, like the months and months of postponements before this month’s postponements, that hasn’t stopped the lively conversations surrounding the PUD in the slightest. Way back on May 9, the directors of the Transportation Department and the Development Services Department wrote a memo about the project’s Traffic Impact Analysis. City Council Member Leslie Pool annotated that memo with comments (which can be read here). And just this past Friday, Pool posted word on the message board that the Bull Creek Road Coalition also had a response to that memo, in the form of a letter that is available online here. We at the Monitor advise anyone interested to study up. After all, though the project was postponed at the Zoning and Platting and Environmental commissions this past week, that can’t possibly go on forever … can it? (As it stands now, it’s been more than a year since the case was filed, and representatives from the developer assured the Zoning and Platting Commission that it would be heard by both bodies next week. However, the Planning and Development Review Department’s Jerry Rusthoven said the future was less clear and requested and received an indefinite postponement for the case, though he was careful to point out that that didn’t necessarily mean that it would be a long time before the case was ready.)

ZAP steers away from getting zapped… Will there be a transportation bond in November? No one knows, but recommendations from the city’s boards and commissions are trickling in nonetheless. Last week, the Zoning and Platting Commission stayed late to make sure that its members’ voices on the topic would be heard. Chair Thomas Weber explained that three members had taken it upon themselves to weigh in on a potential transportation bond, using a template “plagiarized from the Planning Commission.” That resolution (available in its entirety here) advises City Council to emphasize projects that work with “adopted and future land use plans,” incorporate funding partnerships and “result from inter-departmental coordination and identification in the Long-Range Capital Improvement Program Strategic Plan.” The resolution (which was approved unanimously with one abstention) also sparked a small discussion about rail, led by Commissioner Gabriel Rojas, who encouraged the commission to include “a little more specificity.” He noted the recent unanimous endorsement of rail by the Urban Transportation Commission, saying, “The idea has been around since the ’70s and, in a lot of people’s minds, it’s just well past time to get it through the adoption process.” However, given the fact that the meeting had run past midnight at that point, the commission decided to keep the resolution largely as is, adding only the words “including the consideration of rail” to one of the whereas clauses. “I don’t think we want to touch the third rail of rail,” one commissioner was heard muttering.

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

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