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CAMPO proposal could dilute voices of Austin and Travis County

Thursday, August 25, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt is pushing back against proposed reforms to a key part of regional transportation policy planning that could cost both the county and the city of Austin important seats at the table.

At issue is a proposal to rewrite the bylaws of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Technical Advisory Committee.

In February, CAMPO Transportation Policy Board Chairman Will Conley appointed Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long to head a subcommittee to streamline the TAC.

While CAMPO’s small full-time staff runs operations, it’s the TAC that reviews staff’s policy proposals and provides high-level guidance to Conley’s board, which ultimately determines the long-range mobility strategy for CAMPO’s six-county region.

In its current state, the TAC is composed of 33 technical experts involved with transportation and planning activities within CAMPO’s regional kaleidoscope of member entities. That includes six counties, 15 cities, the Texas Department of Transportation, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and several other agencies.

Each government or agency gets one appointee to the TAC except for Travis County and Austin, which each get four appointees.

Under the revised bylaws drafted by Long’s subcommittee, however, TAC membership would be reduced to 19. Travis County and Austin would send only one member each to the committee. The five other counties would also get one appointee each, and five other large cities – including Pflugerville, Cedar Park, Georgetown and Round Rock – would each appoint one TAC member.

Eckhardt pointed out in an Aug. 8 memo to the policy board that the changes would result in Williamson County communities having four votes on the TAC while Travis County communities would only have three.

“This seems an irrational result since Travis County is the most populous county in the MPO, representing more people than all the other counties combined and more than (double) the people of its closest rival,” Eckhardt wrote.

She provided a counter-proposal that would give two appointees to Austin and one to Round Rock, while each of the six counties could appoint a representative from a smaller city within its borders.

In her memo, Eckhardt also criticized Long’s draft as “vague in comparison with the original.” She also took aim at the apparent creation of one appointee to represent “business interests.”

At the Aug. 8 CAMPO board meeting, Long explained without elaboration that the “business interests” mentioned in her draft should have been “multimodal interests.” She also said that her subcommittee, which includes Eckhardt as a member, would review the Eckhardt’s memo before reporting back to the board at its Sept. 12 meeting.

In the meantime, Long’s proposal is taking heat from one of the creators of the 33-person version of the TAC that the Williamson County commissioner is looking to replace.

On Wednesday, former Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber said, “The TAC membership should be reflective of the CAMPO policy board. If it’s not representative of the membership of the board, then it’s a step backward.”

State law also presents another potential inconvenience for Travis County, the only CAMPO county with multiple members of its Commissioners Court serving on the policy board. Commissioners Brigid Shea and Gerald Daugherty join Eckhardt in the monthly meetings that determine which projects across the region will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.

If Long’s proposed changes are approved, the county’s sole TAC appointee would have to provide separate and repetitive consultations with the three court members in order to avoid running afoul of the rules regarding quorums spelled out in the Texas Open Meetings Act.

County Attorney David Escamilla said that the appointee would also have to be mindful of avoiding what he called “the cousin of a walking quorum.”

“They’d have to be careful not to be the conduit, the hub on the spokes of the wheel passing information between the commissioners,” Escamilla said.

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