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Environmental Commission discusses its role in political advocacy

Monday, January 25, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

The Jan. 20 meeting of the Environmental Commission addressed a resolution that would support the city’s 87th State Legislative Agenda, a City Council resolution that passed in September of last year.

According to the city, the agenda – which has no formal policy directives or fiscal impact – “is used to communicate (local interests) to the general public, city staff, members of the Texas Legislature, and Austin’s state contract consultants.”

This year’s agenda includes dozens of areas of support and opposition that pertain to things like tax reform, wastewater, environmental sustainability, health, animal services, infrastructure, homelessness, government transparency, and transit, to name a few. An overarching theme of the agenda can be found on page four, where the document states the goal of protecting “Austin residents’ right to govern themselves and work with their city government to adopt and enforce ordinances that address the health, safety and public welfare of the community.”

In the discussion about endorsing the agenda, Environmental Commissioner Kevin Ramberg recited the resolution in its entirety, which explained the commission’s reasoning in supporting a Legislative Agenda that in large part revolves around the city maintaining legislative autonomy.

According to the resolution, “in recent years, the Texas Legislature has attempted to pass legislation that negatively impacts the city through preemption or limiting the ability to advocate.” The resolution goes on to state that “a prohibition on community advocacy is detrimental to a representative democracy where all Austinites and Texans have equal opportunities to voice their opinions.”

Commission Chair Linda Guerrero moved to vote on the resolution, but Commissioner Andrew Creel interjected to request more discussion. His primary concern kicked off a dialogue about the scope of issues that the Environmental Commission should weigh in on.

Creel said, “There’s a lot of good stuff in the Legislative Agenda – a lot of stuff that I agree with and there’s a handful of things that I don’t agree with … I don’t think it’s our position as a board to just completely confirm and affirm everything that City Council’s doing. I think our prerogative is very much tied to the environment and many of these things have nothing to do with our prerogative as environmental commissioners.”

Commissioner Wendy Gordon weighed in to agree with Creel, saying she felt “somewhat uncomfortable just rubber-stamping a widespread agenda” that covers so many policy issues that don’t have direct ties to the environment.

However, Gordon extended an olive branch by going on to say, “If we want a resolution that supports, say, the environmental portion of (the city’s agenda), that’s fine. But I agree (with Creel.) I don’t feel comfortable about voting on a whole bunch of other issues that are not in our purview.”

Commissioner Pam Thompson offered some perspective about how adopting the resolution could be beneficial in helping create a sense of cohesion among various city departments, and in turn, help the city carry out its larger agenda.

She said, “I, on the other hand, appreciated the effort to include us with things like homelessness, parks and the other things. I assumed that (City Council) would know what our interests were and that we felt like supporting the overall effort (of the city’s legislative goals).”

Guerrero weighed in, appealing to a sense of pragmatism. She said, “We never know what (legislative issues) could bubble up out of the blue. So I feel like when we join in this effort, it’s because we’re protecting a lot of different issues” that relate to the quality of life in Austin.

After the discussion, the resolution passed with seven votes in favor. Creel voted against and Gordon abstained from voting.

Photo by Wing-Chi Poon, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.

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