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Reporter’s Notebook: Use your judgment

Monday, July 24, 2017 by Austin Monitor

Judge judging the judge… It seems not everyone is a fan of County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s iron-fisted management of Travis County Commissioners Court meetings. Her refusal last week to allow Commissioner Jeff Travillion to interject a question in the middle of a briefing on the DNA lab fallout led to the Precinct 1 representative’s brief self-ejection from the meeting. On Thursday, former County Judge Bill Aleshire shared with the Austin Monitor a short note he had sent Eckhardt that morning. It read, “FYI. You need to check yourself. I’ll never claim I ran the Commissioners Court for 12 years perfectly, but never, not once, did I tell a fellow member of the Court that they could not ask questions or tell them what they could or could not say in the Court meeting. That behavior is outrageous, pompous, rude, and most significantly undemocratic.” When asked to comment on the note from Aleshire – who left office in 1998 – Eckhardt’s office unsurprisingly demurred.

How soon is now?… Curious whether our memories were being impacted by a hazy glow of city manager search nostalgia, the Monitor took a minute to fact check our own grumbling this weekend. As it turns out, from the moment former City Manager Toby Futrell announced her retirement to the time former City Manager Marc Ott appeared on the City Council dais, six months and two days had passed. (Ott was hired before Futrell’s last official day, so there was no interim city manager that time.) This process, under a new 10-1 system, has been quite a bit slower. Almost a year has passed since Ott announced in August he would be stepping down from his post at the city. And, according to information at the most recent meeting of the City Manager Search Advisory Task Force, we are now looking at a hopeful January 2018 start date for the (yet-theoretical) new city manager. As Russell Reynolds Associates’ Stephen Newton explained: “We would like to think that by mid- to late-September the candidates would have been interviewed by City Council. … We would like to hope that we are able to lock it down by the end of September-ish/October. What that means, though, just from a human-capital point-of-view, is you may be selecting someone who will start Jan. 1, who may have to commute because of family issues. … We just won’t know that until we get further down.” Task force Chair Laura Huffman took the opportunity to make a plea for a reasonable timeline, especially in terms of offering answers to a curious public. “Right now I would like us not to appear to be behind schedule,” she said. “Especially because we control what that means.” At any rate, if a new city manager were to start at the beginning of the year, that would be over 16 months since Ott announced his departure.

Nobody told us… After a half-hour drive through downtown rush-hour traffic, a Monitor reporter pulled into the parking garage at Austin Energy headquarters on Barton Springs Drive just on time for last week’s 6 p.m. meeting of the Electric Utility Commission. Lest he miss the commission’s approval of the minutes from the previous meeting, he bounded towards the Shudde Fath Conference Room. It turned out that the gallon of gas spent on the drive and the quart of sweat lost during the 50-yard dash to the building from the parking lot in the July heat were for naught: The meeting was canceled. There weren’t enough commissioners for a quorum because too many of them were on vacation.

A New Hope for CodeNEXT… In late June, Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Zoning Department broke the news to City Council that the next draft of CodeNEXT would use different terms to describe zones. “R” would signify residential areas, with a number following it to indicate the number of units allowed on a parcel, such as R1 or R2. There would be further categorization, however, noted Rusthoven. And city staff, he said, was “committed to developing a zone called R2D2.” Rusthoven’s “Star Wars”-themed rib-tickler was greeted with unanimous laughter, suggesting that there may be a way to bridge the divide between density proponents and neighborhood preservationists.

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

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