Friday, May 11, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Municipal Court move to Met Center OK’d

Although Council Member Ora Houston made numerous arguments against a 120-month lease for Austin’s Municipal Court at the Met Center in Southeast Austin, only Council Member Pio Renteria joined her during Thursday’s Council meeting in voting against authorizing city staff to negotiate and execute a $31 million contract with Zydeco Development. Council Member Leslie Pool abstained, and Council Member Ellen Troxclair was absent.

Both Houston and Renteria criticized Zydeco for a satirical map the company had posted on its website that labeled part of East Austin where many Latino residents live as “Tortilla Canyon.” Parts of North Austin were labeled the “Sea of Sameness,” but the tortilla reference was the only apparent ethnic slur.

Renteria said the map particularly insulted Latino people in his district “and we’re not going to tolerate that … I love my court staff that we have there – but you know we are in a period right now with what’s going on nationwide – and we need to send a message that were not going to tolerate this.”

Pool said she was abstaining for the same reasons. “I think civil discourse has gotten really low lately, and I think the folks who put that map up thought that it was cute. And I think they need to think really long and hard about how people would have received that message. It was disrespectful of all parts of the city.”

The company took down the map and apologized for its error in judgment. Zydeco’s lobbyist, Trey Salinas, apologized on the company’s behalf once again at the meeting. He said, “The company moved as quickly as they could and they feel horrible. There’s no excuses.”

He then started to talk about how the company would reach out to the community around the Met Center to try to “take this very unfortunate situation” and “bring some positive benefit to the community.”

But Houston wanted to know about sensitivity training for the developer’s staff. Salinas told her the entire staff will be undergoing “sensitivity training, and we’re identifying the groups that are going to come in and put everybody through it, and we’re looking forward to it.”

The main building for court staff, judges, prosecutors and the citizens who have business before the court was built in 1953. The building at 700 E. Seventh St. is badly in need of repair.

According to a staff report, the downtown building “has deteriorated to the point that systems failure could cause a long term closure of the facility at any time. Severe building conditions include leaking roof, poor distribution of heat and air-conditioning, basement flooding, frequent mildew, cracked flooring, mechanical/engineering failures and a disintegrated sewer line. Repair and maintenance issues are frequent and difficult to address due to the asbestos-containing materials located throughout the building.”

Houston said she agreed that the conditions at Municipal Court are deplorable, and her bond proposal will put a high priority on funding a new court building. However, she said the city has done “such a poor job on infrastructure,” that some of the buildings in her district not only lack restroom facilities, “they don’t even have Porta Potties.”

She said she understood that people were calling the situation an emergency, “but I think this is one of those Taj Mahal kinds of things that we could’ve gotten something better if we’d had the ability to put another call out.”

Voters approved money for building a new Municipal Court building in 2006. However, the city eventually found that the money approved in that bond package was insufficient to build all the public safety items listed in that proposal. Houston asked Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart how much money was left for the court from that proposition, and Hart promised to send a memo on that matter on Friday.

Interim Real Estate Officer Alex Gale told Council that it would be possible to get out of the 10-year lease in the seventh year if the city found a better alternative.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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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.

Austin Municipal Court: This city department is the judicial branch of the City of Austin. The courts adjudicate Class C misdemeanor cases and has four divisions: Judicary, Court Operations, Support Services, and the Downtown Austin Community Court.

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