Monday, January 14, 2019 by Austin Monitor

Reporter’s Notebook: The bonus no one wanted

Violations that make lawyers giggle… On Jan. 9, the Ethics Review Commission heard the preliminary case of DeShawn Scott, an administrative specialist in the Public Works Department, who used his city computer for purposes related to his own outside businesses: Texas Go Freezee, a shaved ice stand; and Taco Sweets, a truck that offers ice cream tacos. Scott had previously been asked to resign from the city in light of the allegations; his last day of work was Dec. 6, 2018. Scott’s violations of city code were discovered accidentally – the city was investigating allegations against his supervisor – but when investigators examined his laptop, “We found key business documents on Mr. Scott’s computer,” said Keith Salas, a senior investigator with the Office of the City Auditor. “All in all, we identified over 90 files on Mr. Scott’s city computer that were related to Taco Sweets and Texas Go Freezee.” Salas said there were over 100 other documents related to personal matters, including Scott’s fiancée’s resume. When he was interviewed by auditors, Scott said, “Honestly, I never thought I’d be called in … I kind of took advantage of it.” The commissioners sat with raised eyebrows as images of sugar-stuffed tacos flashed across the screen as evidence and voiced their surprise that such a straightforward case on the misuse of city resources had to be debated. “Unfortunately, we have to make two steps out of this deal,” said Commissioner Dennis Speight. The commission unanimously voted to proceed to a final hearing at its March convocation. Commissioners Brian Thompson, Peter Einhorn and J. Michael Ohueri were absent. Scott was also not in attendance. As they closed up the five-minute presentation of the facts, Chair Ben Stratmann said jokingly, “Separate and apart from this, I’m legitimately going to be a customer.”

CodeNEXTLEVEL… Indications from the most recent Planning Commission meeting suggest that commissioners may be ready to think way outside of the box when it comes to the redo of the land development code, previously known as CodeNEXT. At the end of the very short meeting, Commissioner Robert Schneider, who was appointed by Council Member Ann Kitchen, brought it up: “I’m sure you all saw the reports about Minneapolis’ ostensible elimination of single-family housing zoning. I thought it was interesting, and I thought we could get a little bit more information about that.” Schneider noted that there wasn’t a particular deadline, but his understanding was that city staff are starting to look into how the commission could hear from “someone who was on the ground up there” to better understand the process. Chair James Shieh suggested the conversation could go beyond Minneapolis to look at other cities’ current practices and accomplishments in land code revision. “There’s a lot of cities going through what we’re going through,” Shieh said. Austin’s land development code rewrite has been on hold since last year, but it is expected to return to City Council early this year.

Some bonus… During the discussion of the Small Area Plan Joint Committee, there was more interesting news from the city’s Planning Commission. Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson informed his fellow commissioners that a development bonus offering increased development entitlements in the East Riverside Corridor for things like affordable housing and open space has been less than successful. Much less. Reviewing the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan, he said, “I think the very surprising part – or maybe it wasn’t so surprising for some of us – is that nobody has taken advantage of the bonus in the entire time.” That’s a shocking statistic, but Thompson did note that the period in which people have been able to take advantage of the bonuses is only about two years, due to the length of the city’s site plan process. However, he noted, “even the stuff that’s in the development pipeline – no one is taking advantage of (the bonus) … I think there is a calibration issue there.”

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jessi Devenyns and Elizabeth Pagano.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Ethics Review Commission: The Ethics Review Commission is charged with review of, among other issues, ethics complaints leveled against City of Austin boards and commission members. They meet quarterly.

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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