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Friday, August 31, 2018 by Jack Craver

Council reluctantly approves Fred McGhee to commission

City Council on Thursday voted to approve the appointment of local activist Fred McGhee to the Community Development Commission but also condemned McGhee for sexually charged comments he made to a city staffer as a member of the commission last year.

McGhee was elected to the position by members of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team. Montopolis is one of eight low-income areas in Austin designated by Council that get a representative on the CDC, which is responsible for overseeing the use of grants the city receives through two federal programs: the Community Development Block Grant and the Community Service Block Grant.

Federal law requires the city to set up a Community Development Commission composed partially of members appointed by City Council and partially of members who are “democratically elected” by low-income areas. It is up to Council to designate a community organization – usually a neighborhood association – to elect that member. Council cannot reject the person elected by the organization.

“If I was allowed to vote no, in this case I would vote no,” said Council Member Greg Casar, speaking about McGhee’s election to the board.

However, Casar did offer an amendment to the resolution approving McGhee to the commission that essentially censured McGhee for remarks he made during a CDC meeting in May of 2017. At that meeting, then-Assistant Director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Rebecca Giello said that there needed to be public engagement before a project that McGhee supported could go through. Addressing Giello, McGhee said that the city often neglects community engagement, but “all of a sudden now you getting warm and moist about it.”

In a Twitter exchange Tuesday, McGhee said that he was not addressing Giello specifically with the “warm and moist” remark, but rather addressing city staff in general. He has used that expression on Twitter at least two other times when criticizing opponents. In those two occasions he was not specifically addressing a woman.

Casar, alluding to an article in the Austin Monitor earlier this week, noted that “there has not been much remorse for those comments” from McGhee.

Council Member Delia Garza said she regretted that “in a time when women are finding a voice when it comes to harassment,” Council was forced to accept a commissioner “who made some very inappropriate remarks in a public meeting and has a history of doing that.”

“I hope this appointee has learned from this situation and conducts himself in a much more professional manner,” said Garza.

It’s very possible, however, that McGhee’s tenure on the commission could be short-lived. Shortly after voting to seat McGhee, Council also approved new rules for the commission that will allow the commission to remove its own members by a majority vote.

The removal provision was only part of an overhaul of the rules prompted by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which told the city that the appointed members of the commission needed to be chosen by Council, not the mayor, as has been the case for the last three years. Under the new system, a Council committee will nominate seven members – five will be elected officials and two from the business or nonprofit world – and the full Council will vote on the nominations. During the meeting Mayor Steve Adler unsuccessfully proposed that he nominate the members for Council to approve.

McGhee was the only person who spoke to Council about the proposed new rules. Although he signed up in support of the proposal, McGhee said he was concerned that the removal provision was intended to silence “poor people and their advocates” who question Council or city staff.

“You’re saying that they need to be kept on a shorter leash than members of the Planning Commission, the Board of Adjustment or other sovereign boards,” said McGhee.

In his statement to Council, McGhee did not address the criticism that Council members had levied at him, but he later described their remarks in an interview with the Monitor as “character assassination.”

“None of them have talked to me. Not one of them. I could have given them my side of the story, but they didn’t bother to reach out to me,” he said.

He predicted that the commission would vote to remove him at the first meeting he attends in September. Seven of the 15 members of the commission are appointed by Council, and therefore will do as Council wants, he said.

“They’ve essentially MeTooed me, more or less,” he said of Council. “Through a whisper campaign, no due process, no nothing. You know, the typical MeToo. You’re sort of convicted before you’re even accused.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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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.

Community Development Commission: A nonprofit community-based entity founded with aims to revitalize the neighborhood or area that it serves.

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