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Ott defends staff, city manager government

Friday, September 16, 2016 by Jo Clifton

After 20 months in office, City Council Member Don Zimmerman still struggles to acknowledge that it is the duty of city staff to make budget decisions, among other things, and he lashes out at them on a regular basis. As an elected official whose priorities are frequently at odds with those of other members of Council, Zimmerman often stands alone in his conservative corner.

He also has made no secret of his disdain for City Manager Marc Ott. It is clear that the feeling is mutual.

As a rule, Zimmerman directs his frustration primarily at city staff, rather than arguing with his colleagues who have set in motion the policies that bring those staff members to Council for approval of various policies. Many of those initiatives imply future expenditures. That was evident once again this week as Council labored to put its final stamp on the $3.7 billion city budget.

Ott rarely makes speeches but obviously was pushed this week by Zimmerman’s attacks on staff and on the city-manager form of government. So, he reminded Zimmerman of the nature of Austin’s government, and then he went on to assure Council that its fingerprints are all over the budget.

Close to the beginning of Monday’s meeting, Zimmerman stated that he would not be voting for the budget, regardless of additions or subtractions his colleagues might make. His arguments were not new, nor were his attempts to eliminate budget items that most of his colleagues had already indicated they favored.

On Tuesday, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo proposed to eliminate $70,000 for the Austin Technology Council to go into classrooms to tutor children in East Austin, called the Einstein Project. Kevin Johns, director of the Economic Development Department, said the program was to mobilize tech professionals from 280 companies to interact with children in the fourth through eighth grades in Title 1 schools. He said the project was “to try to move a whole generation of kids out of poverty and into high-end jobs,” and he quoted economist Jon Hockenyos, who, he said, predicted a great return on the investment.

Zimmerman said, “We have to stop this, and I object to this one-sided lobbying coming in to the Council. ‘Gotta’ spend the money, ‘gotta’ spend the money. ‘Return on investment.’ It’s sales talk, Mr. Mayor. I don’t see any balance in what we get from the other side of the dais. If we had a balanced view, I think this Council would easily strike down this money.”

The vote was 5-5, with Tovo, Zimmerman and Council members Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool voting to eliminate the funding and Mayor Steve Adler, Council members Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, Greg Casar and Sheri Gallo voting to keep the program.

Zimmerman then tried to remove another item from the budget, $118,750 for the Austin Technology Incubator to work on biotech innovation at the University of Texas. That measure also failed.

Houston said that she would second Zimmerman’s motion so he could have the conversation but went on to say, “I need everybody to understand that this is getting very tedious.” She said she was frustrated by dealing with the small amounts of money on a piece-by-piece basis. Houston later said she felt that they were no longer talking about equity.

Adler said his perception was different, and in a later news release he outlined many of the things this budget does to address inequity.

Zimmerman then said, “I think the word Council Member Houston was looking for is ‘powerless.’ We have voters in this community who elect City Council members with the presumption that we will have spending authority and that we can set the priorities in the city. And here we are scraping the barrel to get $70,000, $100,000. Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent by the unelected city staff.”

He continued, “Frankly, I think it makes this Council look weak and impotent. It’s an embarrassment to the community.” Zimmerman said he would like to return savings to taxpayers, “but if my Council members want to spend the money in other ways, that’s their prerogative. We’re elected by the people, (but) we have no spending authority here.”

Ott said, “In regard to those comments, I would simply say this is a Council-manager form of government.”

He then directed comments to the whole Council. “You all have been in office for about a year and a half. When you arrived, the circumstances under which this government was operating” had been in motion for many years under different councils.

Ott said he understood that the new Council brought values that were different from previous councils and, working on last year’s budget, he told them, “You made progress.” He reminded them that the city is operating under the very first budget that the current Council was involved in, and he said, “Your imprint is on this budget.”

Ott reminded them that they were under various fiscal constraints, including additional spending they had approved in the middle of the year. In addition, he reminded Council members that if they “really” looked at the budget recommendation in front of them, they would find $14 million to $15 million worth of things that they had put in it. “This budget came to you reflecting those things that we heard you say during your budget retreat,” he said. “But it’s also going to take some time for the budget to reflect your values.”

Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart, who will be interim city manager, has promised a budget retreat this fall.

Ott also reminded Council that it did not have the budget surpluses that the city is accustomed to dealing with because of things that it had put in motion, including the homestead exemption and the exemption for the elderly and the disabled.

“And you’re feeling those pressures now,” he said. “Those pressures will continue into upcoming years, and that’s why (Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo) is being so careful” to make sure that Council understands that its decisions this year will continue to have an impact in 2018 and 2019.

“It is going to take time,” Ott said, to shape the city budget in the way that the Council members all wish, but they’ve been in office for only a year and a half. He concluded that they had significantly impacted this year’s budget but that the revenue was simply not there to do all the things that they would like to do.

Adler sent out a news release after the passage of the budget saying, “We are by no means done with the work that needs to be done or the mission we’ve undertaken to redress historical inequities along our Eastern Crescent. What this budget shows, however, is that we heard the community loud and clear on what they need, and today they got some real results.”

“The budget also begins to address historical inequities by funding $13.7 million in items connected to the Spirit of East Austin Initiative,” he said in the release.

These include $4 million worth of improvements to Jain Lane, which were part of a 1984 municipal bond election; the measure was approved with 67 percent voter approval. Construction began 30 years ago but was never completed due to multiple pipeline ruptures from the adjoining East Austin Tank Farm. As a result, tank farm mitigation within the proposed right-of-way prevented the completion of the final section of Jain Lane. Remediation was finally completed in December 2007, according to the mayor’s spokesman, Jason Stanford.

Stanford said via email that Jain Lane is a bottleneck and impedes two-way travel, creating a community safety hazard. The safety issues, he said, include the lack of adequate pedestrian options – especially the lack of safe routes to schools (Ortega Elementary and Eastside Memorial High) that have caused generations of students to create the improvised, 50-year-old La Loma trails.

Photo by Jim Allen, modified under a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City Manager Marc Ott: Ott was hired by Council members in 2008 and served in that position until his 2016 departure.

Council-Manager government: Austin has a council-manager form of government. Under this system the elected city council is responsible for the legislative portion of our government. The city council-appointed city manager carries hires staff and is responsible for implementation of city ordinances.

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