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Reporter’s Notebook: Ornithology edition

Monday, April 9, 2018 by Austin Monitor

Bird brains… After the Uber and Lyft fiasco of 2016 and the city’s crackdown against rogue bike-sharing companies in 2017, we have no idea why rent-a-scooter firm Bird figured it’d be a swell idea to try to elbow its way into town last week without the blessings of the Austin Transportation Department. Nonetheless, the day after ATD hosted its first community forum focused on the development of a dockless bike-sharing pilot, the California-based Bird dropped dozens of its electric scooters on South Congress, near Zilker Park, and in East Austin. A company official assured us that everything was on the legal up-and-up and, besides, Bird had been in talks with both ATD and several City Council offices. ATD, of course, denies it had any discussions with Bird other than a hastily arranged meeting on Thursday afternoon during which the department apparently denied the company’s legal arguments. On Friday, Bird announced that it had begun instructing riders to leave their scooters in legal on-street parking spaces rather than on sidewalks. Nonetheless, by that afternoon, the city confirmed to the Austin Monitor that it had confiscated seven scooters. The crackdown continued into Saturday according to at least one report from social media. As for Bird’s claim that it had been in contact with Council members, the evidence of that is light. The Monitor reached out to all 10 district offices and could only confirm that aides in one of them – Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s – had a face-to-face meeting with the company. An aide for Council Member Greg Casar did report that the District 4 office in March received an email from Bird expressing interest in launching in Austin. The Monitor also learned from that conversation that Casar had incidentally tested out one of the scooters near City Hall on Thursday and was so preoccupied with the gizmo that he ended up being late to a meeting.

Goose up affordable housing… Introduced as the “First Lady of District 3,” Lori Renteria, a longtime activist and the wife of Council Member Pio Renteria, kicked off an event at the Austin Convention Center to promote a series of affordable housing proposals with a story about how she and other housing activists in the 1980s considered kidnapping a black swan from Lake Travis and holding it hostage until the city agreed to build housing for the homeless. The story was hard for a Monitor reporter to follow, but what is clear was that the activists did not kidnap a swan, but instead purchased a goose, ultimately naming it “Homer the Homeless Goose.” Homer lived in the Renterias’ backyard for 27 years and his stuffed remains were present at the convention center for the housing event. The District 3 first lady then launched into a song in homage of the late waterfowl to the tune of “Home on the Range”: “Homer on the range / where that dear little gosling must pay / where often is heard / from the web-footed bird / save me, help the homeless today.”

Count on it… Last week, city demographer Ryan Robinson wrote a memo to the mayor and City Council, urging them to plan for the upcoming “high risk” 2020 census. Across the nation, people are concerned that the census will not paint an accurate picture of the country’s population, particularly low-income and minority households, due in part to the inclusion of a question that asks about respondents’ citizenship status. In Austin, the census results will be the basis for City Council districts, which will be redrawn in 2021, as well as appropriating federal funds. With this in mind, Robinson advocates for an outreach and education campaign by the city and county, a “complete count committee” comprising local officials, local organizations and the media. Robinson also suggests employing a special projects manager to head the campaign. “The Planning and Zoning department will include a funding request for FY19‐20 to support the campaign and will lead the City’s efforts in partnership with the County,” writes Robinson. “In summary, Census 2020 could be one of the most challenging decennial counts of this country’s population in modern history. More than ever, local support and energy for the effort will be absolutely critical to ensure the success of the operation. … Austin will have yet another chance to show other communities around the nation just how creative, strategic and hardworking it can be.”

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

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