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Friday, January 27, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Flannigan commission appointee stirs controversy

Although City Council approved the appointments of nearly 100 new and returning members of city boards and commissions Thursday, it declined to accept the appointment of nuclear engineer Rick Jacobi, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan’s nominee to the Environmental Commission.

After several environmentalists spoke against Jacobi’s appointment because of his involvement with the nuclear waste industry, Council Member Leslie Pool made a motion to approve all the other nominees but postpone consideration of Jacobi.

Council Member Pio Renteria told his colleagues they should simply vote rather than postponing the matter. “It’s his nomination. I don’t think anything good’s going to come out of this, and it’s not going to get us (anywhere). … If we don’t want this person, we should just vote him up or down.”

Flannigan warned his colleagues that he would not accept a postponement but would instead select a new appointee to that panel. Council members Renteria, Ellen Troxclair and Ora Houston expressed confidence in Flannigan’s decision to select Jacobi, and voted against the postponement.

Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, sent an email to Flannigan with copies to the rest of Council stating her opposition to the appointment because of Jacobi’s ties to the nuclear industry. Environmental activists Lauren Ross and Roy Waley appeared at Council to speak against the appointment.

Ross, an engineer who fought against putting nuclear waste at the Sierra Blanca nuclear waste site in the 1990s, told Council that Jacobi worked for the nuclear industry to put the waste at the site, which she described as a poor, mostly minority community. Ross also said that she had heard he was prepared to purchase the low-level nuclear waste site in Andrews, Texas.

According to his company’s website, “Jacobi Consulting is a full-service environmental consulting company specializing in technical and regulatory assistance related to nuclear facilities and radioactive materials.”

Flannigan said of Jacobi, “I know that he is very smart and thoughtful and will be a steward for the environment for my district.”

Jacobi was not at the Council meeting. He told the Austin Monitor he was in Dallas on business but had watched the discussion of his appointment.

“In the end, the state Legislature drew a box around Sierra Blanca and said, ‘Find a low-level nuclear waste facility in this box.’ … We did what the state required us to do. … Some did oppose it,” he said. “But there were many in the community (who) saw it as a chance for some jobs in an otherwise stark part of the state. I presume there is lingering animosity in the environmental community for that.”

However, Jacobi said he would make a good member of the Environmental Commission. “I have 40 years in the environmental business. I work on air quality, water quality, endangered species, (and) I believe climate change is real. I support the city of Austin policy on climate change and alternative energy. I think it was an unfortunate thing that there was not more knowledge on the Council about my philosophy.”

In addition to the many appointments approved Thursday, Council approved the removal of four members of boards and commissions, including controversial Historic Landmark Commissioner Arif Panju. Flannigan asked for the removal of Panju, and Council Member Alison Alter sought removal of Susan Harris from the Zoning and Platting Commission. Council appointed Jim Duncan, the chair of the CodeNEXT Citizen Advisory Group, to fill the slot on the ZAP.

Council also approved the removal of Roger Borgelt and Guy Dudley from the CodeNEXT CAG. Alter appointed architect Chris Allen of the Rosedale Neighborhood Association, and Flannigan appointed Eric Schultz. Schultz is a design professional who co-authored a book on Austin’s permitting process.

Duncan said Borgelt and Dudley have been great members of the CAG. “I can’t say enough positive things about them,” he said. However, he said he was also looking forward to working with Allen and Schultz.

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated Council Member Greg Casar voted against the postponement, when in fact he voted in favor.

Photo by Bécs 219 made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

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