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Audit critical of city, neighborhood contact teams

Tuesday, November 15, 2016 by Jo Clifton

The city’s neighborhood planning processes “are inequitable, lack transparency, and may constitute a risk to fair housing choice,” according to an audit conducted by the Office of the City Auditor. Auditors presented their findings to the City Council Audit and Finance Committee on Monday.

The audit also concluded that the planning process does not have “robust or representative participation” and that the city has not required participation by all groups, particularly renters and business owners.

And some neighborhood planning contact teams — all volunteer organizations — require their members to belong to local neighborhood associations, which may charge a fee to join. This is one of several barriers to participation cited in the report.

But the major focus of the audit was on how good a job the neighborhood planning staff is doing to make sure the neighborhood contact teams are complying with various ordinances.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who chairs the committee, expressed concern about contact teams limiting participation. “It sounds like to me that it’s a violation of either one or two of our principles, and I’d like to know who it is,” Tovo said.

But City Auditor Corrie Stokes declined to identify which neighborhood plan teams are out of compliance.

Stokes said that she would not be releasing the names of specific neighborhood plan teams that may be limiting participation through their rules because she and members of the audit team believe “it’s an across-the-board issue.” The Austin Monitor has filed a public information request to try to get those names.

Stokes told the Monitor after the meeting, “Many, many contact teams are creating barriers to public engagement, either through their bylaws or through their practices, by not posting their meetings properly or having limitations on who can vote or who can be members.”

The audit found that at least two neighborhood plans do not have an associated contact team. But even when there is a contact team, participation by area residents may be extremely low.

The audit found that “only 13 of 30 neighborhood plans were approved by greater than 1 percent of the affected neighborhood’s current residents participating in a vote” and that the Planning and Zoning Department “could not provide voter counts for six plans when requested. Auditors also found that only 19 people participated in the vote on one neighborhood plan covering an area of nearly 13,000 residents.

“Furthermore, Austin residents would not have the opportunity to know about or attend a meeting of a contact team in 18 of the 31 neighborhoods with contact teams that auditors tested,” the audit noted. “The city’s community registry allows contact teams to provide information on meetings, but only five of 31 contact teams included complete information (i.e. date, time and place) about upcoming meetings. Meeting information for one contact team was complete but inaccurately directed interested community members to a public library for a meeting when the facility was closed.”

Auditors point out that in 1999, the city set a goal of completing 16 planning areas in less than six years. But the time it takes has grown considerably, and although it took as little as four months from initiation to adoption of earlier neighborhood plans, it now takes nearly six years for plan completion. Auditors concluded that at the current pace and with “no growth in the city’s land area, it would take an additional 81 years to complete neighborhood plans for the entire city.”

In addition, auditors quoted the Zucker Report from 2015, which concluded that a focus on central city neighborhoods has created “inequity among those areas with neighborhood plans and those without.” Stokes said, “For those people generally citywide, we have different processes for people who have neighborhood plans and those who do not, so that creates equity issues.”

But perhaps more importantly there are equity issues for people who live in areas with neighborhood plans who have no input on those plans. Council Member Pio Renteria pointed in particular to the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood as one where neighbors have struggled to work with the contact team.

Renteria authored a resolution in January that gives city staff the ability to resolve conflicts between contact teams and other members of the neighborhood, if there is a complaint. At the time, Renteria said, there were teams “that went like five or six years without elections.” Also, there were no standards for bylaws and no monitoring of the bylaws or the meetings, he said.

Although Renteria concurred with most of the audit findings and recommendations, Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey pointed out that he and his staff are still not allowed to take action unless they have a complaint from a member of the neighborhood. So, if neighborhood contact teams are not abiding by regulations related to transparency and participation, a person who feels that the team is not acting appropriately must contact the department.

So far, Guernsey said, although his department has had some inquiries, there have been no complaints, and they have not been able to act. Renteria said members of the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood have made complaints to his office. He said his office is telling people that they do not have to live in the neighborhood for five years — as the contact team previously said — in order to participate.

Renteria said that he expects some more changes in January, when there should be elections.

“It’s a struggle. People (on the contact team) out there don’t want to give up their power,” he said.

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