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LDC vote postponed due to COVID-19

Tuesday, March 17, 2020 by Jo Clifton

The new Land Development Code, which was moving toward final passage with the support of seven Council members just a few days ago, has now been relegated to the back burner as Mayor Steve Adler and City Council look at ways to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although Adler had written about scheduling public comment for two meetings, one on March 24 and one on March 28, on Monday he and other members of Council said those hearings would not be happening then. He told the Austin Monitor he was busy thinking about the coronavirus but would probably post something on the City Council Message Board Tuesday.

Adler wrote on the message board on March 12 that he was looking forward “to finishing our important work together to adopt a new Land Development Code.” He said he expected staff to publish the proposed text of the new code around March 20 to be considered for its third and final reading.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who has consistently opposed the new code, also wrote on the message board last month, “The changes we are making through the LDC rewrite have immense impact that will ripple through our city for decades to come. Through our public hearing procedures, we signal that we welcome direct, personal input on a matter of shared interest and concern. We all can appreciate the importance of nailing down these details well in advance of the March 28 public hearing.”

But all that changed this weekend with the realization that the virus is in our midst and that bringing people together anywhere, including in Council chambers, involves a serious risk.

Late Monday, the city’s Public Information Office put out a press release stating, “These are extraordinary times and public health is paramount. In response to the increasing concerns and fluidity of the COVID-19 situation, the city of Austin has decided to postpone meetings and action related to the Land Development Code revision,” starting with the March 24 meeting and continuing through a possible meeting date of April 7.

According to the statement, the city is continuing to discuss options on how to move the process forward. However, several Council members indicated that all of their focus is on how to prevent the spread of the virus.

People were also worried about how Council would carry on with its other important business in light of public health recommendations to limit public gatherings and practice social distancing. Council members sit close together on the dais for hours at a time over the course of a normal meeting, and the same is true of staffers and members of the public attending the meetings. A certain number of Council members can participate without being physically present, but Council Member Jimmy Flannigan told the Monitor he thought at least six members would have to be present under open meetings laws.

Flannigan along with Adler and Council members Greg Casar and Kathie Tovo all indicated that Council meetings in the near future would be brief and probably limited to the most important noncontroversial items.

Casar said, “I think we’re trying to figure out how to handle digital meetings, how to make sure they’re still transparent.” He said it was important for Council to “clear things off city staff’s plate so they can focus on the pandemic. I think … the Council needs to be there providing leadership on the pandemic,” and keeping the city running.

Toward the end of the day Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement notifying the public that he would allow local governments to have digital meetings without having everyone present in the same room.

According to the governor’s statement, both state and local government entities will be able to hold meetings through telephonic means or videoconference. In order to facilitate such meetings, Abbott suspended portions of the open meetings law requiring government officials and members of the public to be physically present at a specified location.

“Members of the public will be entitled to participate and address the governmental body during any telephonic or videoconference meeting. To hold a telephonic or videoconference meeting, a governmental body must post a written notice that gives the public a way to participate remotely, such as a toll-free dial-in number, and that includes an electronic copy of any agenda packet that officials will consider at the meeting,” the governor’s statement said.

Photo by John Flynn.

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