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Mayor’s absence causes Council headaches

Friday, June 10, 2016 by Jack Craver

City Council can conduct its business without the mayor and two Council members. But a tedious morning session on Thursday proved that it’s not necessarily easy.

The absence of Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Delia Garza and Ann Kitchen, all of whom are in Washington, D.C., giving a presentation relating to Austin’s bid for the federal Smart Cities grant, made it difficult for Council to approve a number of measures that would normally pass easily.

Typically, Council begins each meeting by approving the consent agenda, which consists of dozens of noncontroversial measures. Members who wish to vote against or abstain from an item on the consent agenda can request that it be pulled for discussion and voted on separately, but often, in the interest of time, they will vote to approve the consent agenda as a whole but request that they be marked down as opposing or abstaining for certain measures on it.

Most Council members don’t often make such requests, but Council’s two most conservative members, Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair, frequently ask to be shown as opposing various spending measures. At the majority of meetings of the 11-member body, those two “nay” votes don’t pose a problem.

On Thursday, however, Council Member Sheri Gallo announced that she would be abstaining from any items that authorized spending from the General Fund. She cited a recent decision by Council to withdraw several hundred thousand dollars from the city’s budget stabilization fund to pay for city lifeguards. As a result, the stabilization fund no longer amounted to 12 percent of the total city budget, as called for in the city’s financial policy.

Six votes are required to approve any item, no matter how many Council members are present. With the likely opposition of Zimmerman, Troxclair and Gallo to certain spending measures, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who was presiding over the meeting, suggested that Council address each of the consent items individually, rather than voting on them as a package.

Tovo also suggested that Council members move to postpone items that appeared unlikely to pass. However, that strategy would work only if those opposed to the item agreed to vote in favor of postponement, knowing that by doing so the item would be approved upon the return of Adler, Garza and Kitchen.

Alas, not only did Zimmerman, Troxclair and Gallo signal that they would not support a $210,000 funding increase for the Austin Shelter for Women and Children, but they did not vote in favor of a motion by Council Member Greg Casar, one of the measure’s chief backers, to postpone it. Specifically, Zimmerman voted against and Gallo and Troxclair abstained.

Tovo, Council’s longest-serving member, urged those opposed to “contemplate postponing out of courtesy and respect” for their out-of-town colleagues. A discussion with city attorneys over what would happen if Council voted down the item left some members uneasy about whether they’d be able to get the measure on the agenda and approved for next week’s meeting.

Zimmerman dismissed those concerns, saying that getting it on the agenda for the following week would be a “trivial matter.”

In an unusual move, Council simply moved on from the item, meaning it will be taken up at its meeting next week.

It was not just the conservative bloc, however, that frustrated the process. A measure to create the Hays County Emergency Services District No. 9 also failed to get six votes in support, with Troxclair opposed and Council members Pio Renteria and Ora Houston abstaining.

All of the other items ended up passing, many unanimously. But the potential for close votes still led Council to spend an hour voting on items that would usually have been adopted in a matter of minutes.

Casar, who has frequently expressed frustration with what he sees as Council’s inefficient use of time, summed up his thoughts on Twitter: “for those of you watching … well this is fun.”

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