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Committee sends ‘meeting place question’ to full Council

Thursday, December 16, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Although they rejected the idea of changing the bylaws of three land use commissions to designate a specific meeting place, members of the City Council Audit & Finance Committee on Wednesday expressed their willingness to consider directing staff to hold the meetings at City Hall instead of at the new Permitting and Development Center (PDC) on Airport Boulevard.

Members of the Planning Commission, Zoning and Platting Commission, and the Board of Adjustment have expressed serious concern that moving to the PDC on Airport Boulevard will considerably dampen public participation. The three commissions took the unusual step of asking the committee to bless their request to designate City Hall as their meeting place in commission bylaws.

The committee voted unanimously to refer the question to the full Council for discussion and possible action on January 27. Mayor Steve Adler did not participate in the meeting, but sent questions via Council Member Alison Alter, who chairs the committee.

Council Member Kathie Tovo said she was convinced by what she had heard that these commissions should continue to meet at City Hall. She tried to include that direction in the motion to refer the matter to the full Council, but Assistant City Attorney Caroline Webster advised her that she could not do so because of the way the agenda was posted.

No committee member expressed support for moving the meetings away from their traditional location and none of those on the committee represent South Austin constituents. Alter noted that some commissions would stay at City Hall.

According to a memo to commissioners and Council from the directors of the Development Services Department and the Housing and Planning Department, moving the commissions “will reduce the reliance on the City Hall Council Chambers and the Boards and Commissions Room and reinforces the concept of the PDC serving as the city’s one-stop shop for all development and permitting related needs.”

This did not sit well with commissioners. As Jolene Kiolbassa, vice chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission, told the committee on Wednesday, “The development center is where developers get permits. It is not neutral ground. City Hall is designed for public engagement,” according to the city’s website. The memo, she said, “reinforces the idea that the permitting and development center is designed for the benefit of customers.”

Kiolbassa went on to explain that security and safety are paramount at City Hall, but that does not seem to be the case at the development center. These commissions meet in the evening. Kiolbassa pointed out that a number of those attending commission meetings arrive by bus. That’s easy to do at City Hall, which has its own bus stop. City Hall also has ample security and lighting, she noted.

Not so with the development center, she said. In order to reach the PDC from District 2, Kiolbassa said, a bus ride to the center takes 40 minutes and involves a transfer and then a walk down a street that is not well lighted and has very little pedestrian traffic.

She showed a picture from about 8:15 p.m., saying, “Here’s the PDC. No lighting, no sidewalks, no cars, no people.” She added that traveling to City Hall is generally against rush-hour traffic for South Austinites. Moving much farther north will make getting to meetings more difficult, since once a person moves past City Hall they are moving with rush-hour traffic, not against it, Kiolbassa said.

ZAP Commissioner Betsy Greenberg told Council members “the PDC multipurpose room was not designed for public hearings or specifically for the land use commissions. There is no dais. There’s an awkward layout. Basically, there are just movable tables and stackable chairs. There are no computers available … for us to look at our case material.” She also noted that the stackable chairs were not comfortable and it would be difficult to sit in them for an entire meeting. In response to that complaint, staff sent a memo on Wednesday saying that “DSD is researching the cost for cushioned chairs and will have an update on these costs by spring 2022.”

Jessica Cohen, chair of the Board of Adjustment, lives in Precinct 3. She told the committee she felt the location was an unsafe place to walk, noting that a pedestrian going to catch a bus would have to walk past “an adult nightclub.”

Todd Shaw, chair of the Planning Commission, told the committee that the commission passed a resolution asking the city clerk to move forward with scheduling their meetings at City Hall for 2022. But the clerk refused.

“Place matters,” he said, pointing out that commissioners spend many hours in City Hall and there are protests both outside the building and inside the building. City Hall, he said, is “a place the public comes to meet. A permitting center is not the place for that public engagement. We ask for your vote of approval … what we do is significant and this is the right place.”

After saying that some commissions would have to leave City Hall, but not saying which ones, Alter requested information on public participation, the average length of meetings and the most active neighborhood organizations participating in commission proceedings.  Andrew Rivera, liaison for the ZAP and Planning commissions, compiled information for the commissions showing that over the past five years the average duration of a Planning Commission meeting is four hours and the average number of public participants is 65. The five most active neighborhood organizations participating at the Planning Commission are Allandale Neighborhood Association, East MLK Combined Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, the South Congress Combined Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, and the Southeast Combined Neighborhood Plan Contact Team. The average number of participants in a ZAP Commission meeting is 38 and the average length of the meeting is 2.5 hours, according to Rivera’s numbers.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to clarify how the information about commission meetings was collected.

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