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Reporter’s Notebook: Same as it ever was

Tuesday, September 6, 2016 by Austin Monitor

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Remember your dais voice… City Council members and city management are increasingly pushing back on Council Member Don Zimmerman’s tirades against city staff. It started at a Council budget work session Wednesday, when the cantankerous conservative expressed outrage that a staff presentation on the city’s future financial situation was based on the assumption that city employee wages would rise 2.4 percent annually. While Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo explained that he was simply using the 10-year average, Zimmerman said it was an example of city staff hoisting a policy upon the city without Council’s approval. When Mayor Steve Adler gently pushed back, asking Zimmerman what number he, “as a data-driven engineer,” would use instead, Zimmerman responded that he would use “data that is not manufactured by the people who stand to profit from exaggerating the salary increases.” City Manager Marc Ott pushed back not so gently, telling Zimmerman that his “constant berating” of city staff was “inappropriate.” Zimmerman was hardly humbled by the sermon, saying that he was just standing up for “the people paying the bills.” Nor did he change his tune the following day during a Council meeting, when his aggressive interrogation of a city staffer prompted an interjection from Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo: “Remember, we’re on sort of a new path in terms of how we interact here at our Council meetings.” Shortly thereafter, Zimmerman accused city staff of requesting more money than necessary for city contracts (or “sandbagging”) in order to divert the leftover money to other uses and was served with yet another rebuke, this time from Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, who refuted the allegation and asked that Council “not assign characterizations to the questions they’re asking” of city staff. Zimmerman responded by reiterating his arguments about fiscal discipline until being cut off by the mayor: “You’ve made the point,” said Adler.

… In related news, a protest Thursday at City Hall supporting the inclusion of workers’ protections in a new expedited permit review featured a familiar face in piñata form. For those who missed it, we took a picture.

Oh say say say… One of the few certainties about the $720 million transportation bond that City Council voted to put on the November ballot is that many of the details regarding how the money will be spent remain uncertain. Nonetheless, a political action committee has been organized to sell voters on the general idea of pouring an unprecedented amount of money into mobility projects large and small. As to be expected, the Move Austin Forward PAC is sparing no opportunity for exuberantly characterizing the proposal’s transformative potential. The group’s website, in fact, features a large banner that includes the logo and a basic illustration of Austin’s road networks. Highlighted in green are roads and corridors targeted for some level of funding from the bond package. The generous emerald tracings across roads that have not undergone the corridor improvement study process – i.e., those that aren’t Burnet Road, far North Lamar Boulevard, South Lamar Boulevard, Airport Boulevard, the Drag, East Riverside Drive and FM 969 – might leave the unknowing observer believing that the bond proposition will deliver heretofore untold bounties, especially to South Austin. Alas, while Council made special provisions for Baja Ben White, the scope and scale seemingly promised in Move Austin Forward’s map is not what it seems. The majority of the corridors it highlights will receive enough funding only to undergo their own respective studies, setting up the decisions about whether to fund future improvement plans on those roads for some distant bond election. Plan your next two decades accordingly.

Quote of the Day… City Council Member Ora Houston empathized with concerns voiced by cemetery activist Sharon Blythe over Halloween celebrants invading the Oakwood Cemetery dressed up as skeletons and zombies. But there probably wasn’t much the city could do about it, she conceded. “I’m not sure who the zombies are that come through there,” she said. Later, she added, “I’m not sure how we would manage keeping zombies out.”

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notes of Caleb Pritchard, Jack Craver and the terrible phone photography of Elizabeth Pagano.

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