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Reporter’s Notebook: Cheating? Deals? Numbers?

Monday, December 5, 2016 by Austin Monitor

Cheating or just honest mistakes?… On Thursday, the first day of early voting for the Dec. 13 runoff elections for City Council District 10 and two places for the Austin Community College Board of Trustees, the Austin Monitor received a complaint from Jeremi Suri, the husband of Alison Alter, who is running against Council Member Sheri Gallo. Suri wrote in an email, “(Gallo) parked her car with signs directly in front of the voting place at (Old Quarry Library), well within 20 feet restriction. She also was campaigning inside voting area. The kind people at the voting location had to tell her to move. Sheri has been through many elections before. She knows the rules. This is cheating.” A spokeswoman for Travis County confirmed that Gallo did park her car within the prohibited 100-foot radius of the polling place. She said as soon as the judge noticed that the car was parked in the wrong spot, she asked Gallo to move it. “Ms. Gallo was very polite, and she immediately moved her car. The exchange was pleasant and polite and professional,” she said. She added that the judge didn’t see Gallo personally campaigning too close, other than the signs on the car. The Old Quarry Library is by far the most popular place to vote for this runoff. Travis County reported a total of 4,383 votes cast as of Saturday night, including in person and by mail. Old Quarry had the highest vote tally for each of the three days, with 1,132 ballots cast there. The Howson Branch Library had the second-highest number of votes with 807 as of Saturday night. Suri’s claim that Gallo was “cheating” and parking too close to the polls may overstate the case. However, Gallo’s claim in a mailer that she had had Alter removed from the city’s volunteer Parks and Recreation Board for missing too many meetings was at odds with what she said at the time. The claim earned a rating of “Pants on Fire” from Politifact, which Alter pointed out in an email to supporters asking for contributions on Sunday.

A sign of things to come?… In January 2016, City Council tackled the perennial issue of digital billboards and whether to allow a number of existing, analog billboards to be converted to digital. Though the public conversation at City Hall has been quiet since it was sent off to a public stakeholder process that was completed earlier this year, there has been a lot of chatter about the proposition, especially between opposing groups SignOnAustin and Scenic Austin. (Check out these battling TribTalk pieces for a quick primer on the debate in favor of updating local laws and the argument against digital billboards.) And, although Austin’s Third Court of Appeals struck down portions of the Texas Highway Beautification Act in August in a ruling that could definitely have implications for Austin’s billboard regulations, there has been little visible movement on proposed changes. Until last week, that is, when Council Member Don Zimmerman posted his try at a draft resolution on the matter, asking that an ordinance amendment come before Council no later than Feb. 2 (after Zimmerman’s term has ended). Under Zimmerman’s resolution, which does not appear to yet have co-sponsors, the prohibition of digital off-site billboards would be lifted, regulations on how far apart those billboards must be would be changed, and regulations about size and brightness would be established.

Does this mean we can make plans on Tuesday night?… On Sunday, just days before the special called Council meeting about the Grove at Shoal Creek PUD rezoning, the wonky side of social media lit up with news that a deal had been struck during the ongoing mediation between developer ARG Bull Creek Ltd. and neighbors unhappy with the presented plan (specifically, the Bull Creek Road Coalition). Later in the afternoon, statements from the developer and BCRC were released with particulars about the deal (which will, of course, ultimately require Council approval). According to the statement, the new proposal will retain 1,515 residential units “with a 25 percent increase in the number of on-site affordable for-sale and rental units and support for alternative City funding in place of impact fee waivers to help in providing that additional affordable housing”; caps of 185,000 square feet of office space, 140,000 square feet of retail and a reduction of cocktail lounge entitlements; elimination of the Jackson Avenue connection; about $1.3 million in neighborhood traffic mitigation and safety improvements; 14.48 acres of parkland; and an outdoor amplified noise cutoff of 9 p.m. during the week and 9:30 p.m. on weekends, among many, many other things.

A cut too far… Mayor Steve Adler has staked out his position in the upcoming battle over revenue caps in the 85th Texas Legislature. In a release sent out last week, Adler derided the loss of local control that could restrict cities’ ability to adjust property tax rates that are so crucial to revenues. “We should not risk police, fire fighting, EMS, parks, safety nets, and transportation projects – all to save homeowners only $2.69 a month. It’s risky and not real tax relief,” Adler said in his statement. If that stance seems awkward, chalk it up to Adler’s full-throated support of a 20 percent homestead exemption. In the 2014 campaign that brought him into office, Adler promised to ease affordability concerns in Austin by delivering on that large tax cut. Although he has yet been unable to deliver it in full, he has helped to ratchet the exemption up to 8 percent, which will cost an estimated $15.3 million in Fiscal Year 2016-2017, according to a city spokesperson. Thanks to that cut, and at the expense of various city programs and departments (such as, say, police, firefighting, EMS, parks, safety nets and transportation projects), the median homeowner will save slightly less than $2 per month.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jo Clifton, Caleb Pritchard and Elizabeth Pagano.

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