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Reporter’s Notebook: The breakdown of wide-eyed, optimistic exuberance

Monday, February 10, 2020 by Austin Monitor

The trouble with working groups… At the Feb. 3 meeting of the Public Safety Commission, two agenda items required the appointment of commissioners to serve on working groups. These groups are tasked with assisting the city in determining the scope of work future consultants will need to complete for the APD systemic racism study and a study of the equity of EMS and fire dispatches in relationship to calls. Commissioners Chris Harris, Meghan Hollis and Rebecca Gonzales were appointed to serve on the APD Systemic Racism Study Scope-of-Work Working Group. Rebecca Webber, Kathleen Hausenfluck and Preston Tyree were appointed to serve on the ATCEMS/AFD Dispatch Equity Study Scope-of-Work Working Group. Before the commissioners’ appointments, however, members of the former APD Systemic Racism Study Scope-of-Work Working GroupSexual Assault Investigation Working Group debriefed the group on their experience. “We didn’t get to be a part of the process. We just got to sign off on it, really,” said Amanda Lewis, who serves on the Commission for Women and who was on on the working group alongside Public Safety commissioners. Commissioner Rebecca Webber said, “It became quite frustrating that the attitude we were getting was that we were immediately going to turn around and leak things.” She explained that due to confidentiality concerns, members of the working group were not allowed to take part in the panel that interviewed applicants, nor see the initial applications. Webber said that by the end of the term, commissioners experienced a “breakdown of our wide-eyed, optimistic exuberance.” The strictness of the confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements that the commissioners signed made it difficult to communicate with their respective Council members. While Webber said there was no indication that serving on a working group would be different in 2020, she did say she was willing to do it again. Commissioner Gonzales told other commissioners that if they were interested in serving, they were going to need to push to become involved. “I want anybody that’s going to do this to understand that it’s not going to come easy and not going to come directly to you,” she said.

Born-again variance… Variances from the Board of Adjustment have expiration dates, as the owners of 1016 Avondale Road learned at the Jan. 13 meeting of the Board of Adjustment when they came to request an identical variance to the one they were granted in August 2018. “We didn’t realize that the variance actually expires,” said homeowner Meredith Bradley. She explained to board members that when she and her husband originally obtained the variance, they were not quite ready to start constructing an addition to their home for their growing family. Now, she said, “We are finally at a place where we are looking to expand.” The project will entail the addition of a two-story living space on the same slab footprint that currently serves as a carport and has existed since 1968. As it stands, however, the slab encroaches past both the 25-foot front yard setback and the 10-foot rear yard setback that the city outlines in code. Despite already existing development, a remodel of the home outside the setback parameters requires a variance. Bradley told board members that neither the foundation footprint nor the amount of overall impervious cover will change. “It’s hard when your lot isn’t shaped like a normal (lot),” said Board Member Melissa Hawthorne. The board agreed and unanimously voted to approve the variance with the caveat that there needs to be a reduction in impervious cover on the overall lot, which the homeowners can accomplish by removing some steppingstone pavers in the yard. As Bradley left the podium, Chair Don Leighton-Burwell said, “You got your variance one more time. You got a year.”

Play it again, Graham… The last few meetings of the Music Commission have featured an ongoing discussion between local musicians and leaders of the city’s music community regarding fair or minimum pay standards for performing artists in local clubs. Commissioner and lauded composer Graham Reynolds has at several points cautioned the city against having any role in setting a floor or minimum compensation level for bands, for fear it could stifle creativity in favor of clubs booking acts that would play covers or familiar-sounding material. Comparing gigs early in his career that showcased his original material and were low paying because of sparse crowds, he recounted his time as a pianist in various local fine-dining restaurants: “I could practice scales. I could play the Darth Vader theme … I could do anything I wanted as long as I was just tinkling my piano in the background gently and I’d just be part of the wallpaper. That, I would expect a lot of money for, because the pride in that is tougher.” Music Venue Alliance President Rebecca Reynolds said the current conversation and ideas about how the city might deploy the portion of the Hotel Occupancy Tax allocated for live music has created hesitancy in some club owners. “I hope we can get past ‘We’re going to use this money to hold over the venues’ head.’ There’s a lot of info that (compensation) venue owners can bring to the table, but they’re reluctant because the atmosphere has been one that they are at fault somehow,” she said.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jessi Devenyns and Chad Swiatecki.

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