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Reporter’s Notebook: Controversy

Monday, November 20, 2017 by Austin Monitor

Out of order… It’s no secret – thanks to our reporting – that Capital Metro’s Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee isn’t the most influential government-appointed group of citizens in town. But on Wednesday, the committee’s staff liaison let the Capital Metro board of directors know exactly how the committee felt about the largest reorganization of Austin’s bus network in its history. “They reiterated their support for Connections 2025 as well as June 2018 service changes, with the caveat of having staff continue to look at the mobility innovation zones,” Capital Metro’s Sam Sargent reported to the board regarding the committee’s latest meeting. The only problem was that Sargent’s report came half an hour after the board had already approved the June 2018 service changes on a 6-2 vote. Typically, briefings on the most recent meeting of the Customer Satisfaction Advisory Committee and its sister body, the Access Advisory Committee, come in the early part of the board meetings, but Chair Wade Cooper decided to flip the script last week. An agency spokesperson pointed out that the staff-recorded minutes of the committee meetings were included in the board members’ materials ahead of their big vote. “Also, 93 members of the public came and spoke directly to the board at the two public hearings and board meeting in November,” Mariette Hummel said, referring to two public hearings at which the board – whose eight members are themselves not regular bus riders, whereas the CSAC and AAC members are – faced overwhelming criticism over the proposed changes.

Silent Lee… Scores of Austinites showed up to last week’s Capital Metro board of directors meeting, most of them to weigh in on the proposed bus network realignment due to take effect next June. But one guest threatened to overpower everyone’s voice. Unfortunately, former Mayor Lee Leffingwell was apparently in attendance only for the swearing-in of the newest board member, Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion. Leffingwell and two associates had front-row seats for the affair and left shortly after Travillion took his oath of office. Despite having staked out several distinct opinions about Austin transportation in the past, Leffingwell did not offer any public judgment on the June 2018 service changes that the board ultimately approved, over Travillion’s dissent.

A chairless commission… At the second meeting of the city’s Charter Review Commission, the panel was told last week that it had to pick a chair. Commissioner Roger Borgelt quickly nominated Commissioner Fred Lewis, who has been intimately involved in the matters before the commission for decades. Lewis immediately declined, explaining that he was going to be involved in “so many controversial things” in his role as an anti-CodeNEXT activist. “I don’t want my controversies to fall on top of the commission,” he said. When nobody else seemed interested in being chair, members wondered whether there could be two vice-chairs or even a rotating chairmanship. In the end, they did the easy thing and postponed the decision until the next meeting.

A conflict over conflicts… As if to prove his claim that he is too controversial to chair the Charter Review Commission, Commissioner Fred Lewis drew the ire of fellow Commissioner Matt Hersh at last week’s meeting by suggesting to him that he shouldn’t take part in one of the commission’s key charges – making changes to city campaign finance rules – due to conflicts of interest. Hersh’s work on various political campaigns amount to a conflict, said Lewis. “I don’t think you want to go there,” replied Hersh, saying that he hadn’t done paid political work in a long time. “Well, I don’t know if you’re paid, but some people in this room are paid,” replied Lewis, referring to other commissioners who had worked on campaigns. Hersh responded that another subject the commission would be broaching would be its rules relating to petitions and referenda, noting Lewis’ involvement in a petition to make CodeNEXT subject to voter approval. “So if you want to talk about conflicts of interest, we can have that conversation,” said Hersh. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied Lewis. “I don’t have a conflict. I don’t get paid to do petitions. But there are two people in the room who get paid to run campaigns.” Hersh dared Lewis to file a complaint. “I’m not trying to file a complaint – I just raised the issue,” said Lewis. The conversation then moved on to other matters.

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

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