Friday, May 11, 2018 by Jack Craver

Council rejects attempt to remove Planning commissioners

Following an occasionally heated debate, City Council voted down a proposal Thursday that would have declared the current membership of the Planning Commission to be in violation of the city charter.

At issue is a provision of the charter, approved by voters in 1994, that calls for no more than one-third of the Planning Commission members to be “directly or indirectly connected with real estate or land development.”

Anti-CodeNEXT activists have argued that the commission currently has more than four members with real estate links. On Thursday they urged Council to remove at least three of the seven members of the commission who work in real estate and approve a measure proposed by Council Member Alison Alter that specified a range of professionals who would not be considered laypeople, including builders, real estate financiers, real estate agents, construction engineers, architects, real estate attorneys or those who own rental properties.

“You may disagree with this policy choice, but it was made by the voters,” said Fred Lewis, an attorney and leader of the anti-CodeNEXT group, Community Not Commodity.

Susana Almanza, who was a member of the task force that recommended the change to the charter in 1994, said the intent of the provision was to “make sure it wasn’t special interests dominating the commission.”

Alter’s measure called for the city auditor to determine which current members of the Planning Commissioner are laypeople. If the auditor determined that more than one-third of the members are not laypeople, then the necessary number would be removed on a “last-in, first-out” basis.

However, after Alter pushed to approve the resolution, Council Member Ann Kitchen introduced a substitute motion that did not include any language defining a layperson or any process for removing current commissioners.

Kitchen’s motion did not specify any way for applicants to be disqualified except for the appointing Council member to review a questionnaire provided by applicants to the city clerk and potentially reconsider appointing a commissioner deemed to not be a layperson.

Finally, Kitchen’s motion asked city staff to report back to Council on June 14 with a proposed process for removing Planning commissioners, which staff has said currently does not exist. It also asks staff to craft a charter amendment creating a process, if necessary.

Council Member Alison Alter argued that Kitchen and others were making the issue far more complicated than it need be. It is clear, she said, that the Planning Commission, which includes four architects, two construction engineers and one employee of Habitat for Humanity, is in violation of the charter.

“We can split hairs on grammar all we want, but the community is telling us that our Planning Commission is unlawfully constituted, and that is the question that we need to address today,” said Alter.

Alter dismissed claims by the city legal department that there was currently no mechanism for Council to remove members of the commission, pointing out, among other things, that she was removed from the Parks and Recreation Board in 2016 after she declared her plans to challenge the Council member who had appointed her to the seat, Sheri Gallo, for re-election.

Alter listed a number of scenarios that would presumably prompt Council to boot a Planning commissioner, such as if the commissioner was not showing up to meetings or was a “proven sexual offender.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan in turn accused Alter of “grandstanding” and of “comparing architects on the Planning Commission to rapists and sexual offenders.”

“I am not okay with every decision on this dais being a proxy vote for CodeNEXT,” he said. “And that’s what’s happening right now.”

Flannigan concluded his remarks by thanking Kitchen for offering a “reasonable first step.”

Kitchen sought to soothe the divisions, emphasizing that it was a “difficult issue” and that she believed there were “legitimate disagreements about how the charter may be interpreted.”

“I am coming from a place where I respect every member of this dais,” she said, later adding that she believed it would likely take another charter amendment to provide the necessary clarity on the Planning Commission membership.

Kitchen’s motion was ultimately approved, 6-4, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair absent. Joining Alter in opposition were Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Leslie Pool and Ora Houston.

Video still from ATXN.

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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 charter: The city’s written grant to govern

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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