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Whispers

Friday, April 28, 2017 by Sommer Brugal

Updates for Environmental Commission focus on three bills

The Environmental Commission received a legislative update at its meeting Wednesday evening. The update focused primarily on legislation related to the Watershed Protection Department. According to Chuck Lesniak, the department’s environmental officer, Watershed Protection is tracking approximately 115 bills at the Texas State Legislature, with about a dozen of those bills being looked at with a closer eye. “We keep a top three list (and) we share them with our government relations office and our lobby team to help us track (of them),” explained Lesniak. The top three bills of concern – while the list changes on a weekly basis, he said – are House Bill 2851, HB 898, and HB 1135/Senate Bill 1385. SB 1385, which requires that more than 55 percent of a property remain undeveloped, is the only bill of the three to have a Senate companion. The regular session ends May 29.


Friday, April 28, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Anti-linkage fee bill on the move

Legislation that would prevent the city of Austin, or other cities, from adopting fees linked to new construction for the purpose of funding subsidized housing is on its way to the Texas House of Representatives floor. House Bill 1449 by state Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) won unanimous approval from the House Ways and Means Committee earlier this month and is set for the House calendar on Tuesday. Senate Bill 852, a companion piece of legislation by state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), is in the Senate Committee Business & Commerce, where the House bill is likely to go after it wins full House approval. Although City Council had merely discussed the possibility of enacting a linkage fee, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo expressed frustration that a tool they had merely thought about using would be removed from their toolbox. The Simmons legislation specifically excludes density bonuses, which the city uses on a regular basis.


Friday, April 28, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Texas House approves “sanctuary cities” bill

The Texas House of Representatives’ debate on the state’s “sanctuary cities” bill – Senate Bill 4 – raged on well into Wednesday night. After fending off hordes of amendments, Republicans were able to pass the proposal punishing jurisdictions that choose to limit cooperation with federal immigration officials yesterday. The final vote was 94-53. In a conference call Thursday, the ACLU of Texas condemned the “draconian state legislation” that it said would increase instances of racial profiling, damage public safety and tie law enforcement hands. City Council Member Greg Casar added, “The Legislature is attempting to blackmail cities into violating our residents’ constitutional rights. We must not comply with this unconstitutional, discriminatory and dangerous mandate. We will fight this bill to the end — at City Hall, in the courts, and protesting in the streets.” On Wednesday, Mayor Steve Adler, who was in Washington, D.C., earlier this week, said he was told by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that Austin isn’t technically a “sanctionable” city by federal standards. Adler also said he suspected the law, if passed, would quickly draw a legal challenge.


Friday, April 28, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

City begins search for new music program manager

The search for the next Don Pitts is on. That was the common refrain in Austin music circles this week when word got out that the city of Austin has posted the job opening and description for the position akin to the one Pitts held until earlier this year when he resigned as manager of the city’s Music and Entertainment Division. His resignation came after he was put on administrative leave over a convoluted investigation into his failure to report and discipline an employee who was found to have received $2,500 in city funds for her own benefit. The listing for the new music program manager makes the position seem largely business and strategy focused. Its pay structure for candidates with mid-level qualifications puts it at almost $93,000 annually, which is just below the $95,180 Pitts was scheduled to earn prior to his resignation, which goes into effect today.


Thursday, April 27, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

School bus seat belt law advances at the Lege

Amid the flurry of activity at the Capitol this week, yesterday the Texas Senate approved SB 693, which would require that new school buses are outfitted with three-point seat belts. The provision comes courtesy of state Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), and now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration. Garcia’s office pointed out in a Wednesday press release that the law simply holds buses to the same standards as “all motor coaches nationwide.” Furthermore, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends all school buses be equipped with the 30-year-old technology. “New buses equipped with seat belts will save lives,” Garcia said. “We can’t wait any longer.”


Thursday, April 27, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

How Monitors spend their free time, revealed

Occasionally we here at the Austin Monitor get to put down the notebook and keyboard and play expert for an hour or so. Make that expert/referee, sometimes, since on Tuesday I moderated a panel assembled by the city of Austin’s Music and Entertainment Division that looked at the pros and cons of a pair of city policies that will affect the local live music scene: the so-called “agent of change” policy and a proposed entertainment license required of all music venues in Austin. This is an issue I’ve been covering closely for the Monitor, along with other policies and pressures that are making life tough for venue operators and the musicians playing for them. With guests Kim Levinson (vice president of Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association), composer and Music Commissioner Graham Reynolds, and venue co-owner Will Bridges, we spent an hour looking at the new rules from the view of music enthusiasts and wonks alike. You can watch the session here and participate in a series of upcoming presentations on the issues scheduled to take place throughout May.


Thursday, April 27, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority queues up another big project

Work on the Mopac Improvement Project is slowly trudging to its long-delayed completion, but for many commuters in that part of town, construction-related delays will only shift to the north a few miles. On Wednesday, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Board of Directors voted unanimously to exercise its right to build the 183 North Mobility Project, which will add six new lanes to the eight-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 183 between Mopac Boulevard and R.M. 620. Four of the lanes will feature variable-priced tolling. Drivers will be able to access the other two lanes without paying a direct fee. The board’s vote came after CTRMA Director of Engineering Justin Word informed the directors that the Texas Department of Transportation had given them the green-light by issuing a Finding of No Significant Impact (also known as a FONSI) in response to the project’s environmental assessment. According to the project’s website, its preliminary construction cost is $650 million. As for the schedule, the site remains mum about specifics but says that the project will now enter the final design stage. It goes on to say, “Additional funding for final design and construction must be identified in order for the project to move forward.”


Thursday, April 27, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Austin ISD granted three early college high schools

Next year three Austin Independent School District high schools – Crockett, Eastside Memorial and Lanier – will be early college high schools, meaning students that attend those campuses can earn up to 60 hours of credit and the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree. The Texas Education Agency gave the OK for the three schools to participate in the partnership with Austin Community College, and the schools will each have a year to implement the plan. LBJ, Reagan and Travis high schools already went through that process, and were approved to continue on with the program.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017 by KUT News

Adler says Austin and Travis County don’t meet definition of ‘sanctuary city’

From KUT News: Austin and Travis County do not meet the definition of “sanctuary city” in the eyes of the federal government, Mayor Steve Adler said today after a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Washington, D.C. “I specifically asked the question, ‘Would a city that was not honoring voluntary detainers be a city that was sanctionable under the president’s order directed at sanctuary cities?'” Adler told KUT’s Nathan Bernier. “And I was told no.” KUT’s full story and interview with Adler are available online now. The Austin Monitor will be taking another look at the implications of this development and what’s going on at the state level later this week.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Talk to the Animal Services, learn their languages

If you are one of the many Austin residents that feels ill-informed about the community’s animal services, an upcoming series of meetings just may help you fill that void. The meetings, which will be held in various City Council districts from now until July “offer an opportunity for the public to learn the role of Animal Services, to ask questions and to hear how Animal Services can best meet the needs of residents,” according to a press release from the city. That release, which includes dates and times for upcoming meetings, is available online here.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Trail Foundation welcomes new executive director

The nonprofit that advocates for the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake announced this week a change in its leadership. Heidi Cohn will take over as the Trail Foundation‘s new executive director starting in June. She comes from the Hill Country Conservancy, where she’s worked since 2014. The trail already has an economic impact of $8.8 million annually, and Cohn is expected to oversee a period of substantial growth in the next five years. She’ll also oversee the completion of ongoing projects like “the new Trail Bridge at Congress Avenue, Trail-wide ecological restoration work” and other improvements.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017 by Sommer Brugal

Austin Energy gets Solar Ready-er

Austin Energy presented updates to the Solar Ready Amendments to the Energy Code at the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee Monday morning. According to Kurt Stogdill, Green Building and Sustainability manager at Austin Energy, the Solar Ready amendment addresses both new commercial and residential construction, and changes the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code. “What it’s meant to do during the design stage (of construction) is get designers to designate portions of the roof to be solar ready,” explained Stogdill. He said that includes designing a roof free from obstructions, like vents and air conditioning units. And while the amendment calls for appropriate roof orientation and electric panel space, it doesn’t require owners to actually install solar. Council Member Leslie Pool, the committee’s chair, compared the amendment to past changes seen in city codes. “What we’re looking at here is the (accommodation for) a new type of energy where people 50 years ago were retrofitting their bungalows to put in air conditioning.” While it was costly then, Pool said it’s now the norm. She said it simply “makes sense.” Stogdill said Austin Energy hopes the Solar Ready Amendment will come into effect in October 2017.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Smart phones, dumb scanners

Despite good ridership reports on the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s two MetroRapid lines, all is not well on its No. 801 and No. 803 buses. Riders who use the smart phone app to purchase tickets have probably noticed that the in-bus scanners don’t always work as they should, forcing the passengers to show their ticket to the driver, a mild affront to the benefit of MetroRapid’s all-door boarding. On Friday, the agency responded to an Austin Monitor inquiry about the scanners and acknowledged that something is amiss. According to spokeswoman Mariette Hummel, the phone scanner problem “is an issue that Capital Metro is and has been working on for a few weeks. When customers purchase a ticket, it can take up to 30 to 45 minutes for that ticket to be seen as valid by the validators. So, customers that have weekly or monthly tickets should not have an issue after their first usage of purchased tickets. Our contractor, Bytemark, is currently testing the repair, and if all goes well with testing, they should have the fixed version delivered to us after that, which is projected to be next week.”


Tuesday, April 25, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Austin celebrates World Tai Chi & Qigong Day

This weekend Austin will be just one participant in the worldwide Tai Chi & Quigong Day. More than 80 countries across the world take the day to “observe peace, health and the positive energy associated with” the Chinese martial arts. On Saturday, April 29, residents can take part in the festivities locally at the Asian American Resource Center, 8401 Cameron Road, from 9 a.m. until noon on the great lawn. The center is hosting a free event with instructors available to answer questions and demonstrate moves. They promise the mass tai chi at 10 a.m. will “send waves of energy to the next time zone,” which sounds pretty intense, if you ask us. Learn more on the World Tai Chi & Qigong Day Central Texas Facebook page.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Hearing on changes to bag ban today

The Texas House of Representatives Committee on Urban Affairs will hold a hearing today on HB 3482 by Austin Rep. Gina Hinojosa. The brief bill seeks to reaffirm that local governments can pass ordinances for the purpose of protecting quality of life, wildlife and local businesses, such as ranching, beach tourism and recycling. Members of the environmental community will hold a press conference at 9 a.m. to talk about their support for local single-use bag ordinances. Robin Schneider of Texas Campaign for the Environment explained that Hinojosa’s legislation was prompted by a court case, Laredo Merchants Association v. City of Laredo. In that case, the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio ruled that Laredo’s ban on single-use plastic bags violated state law because current law prevents municipalities from enacting bag and container ordinances for solid waste management. The case is currently on appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, but that court is not expected to decide whether to take the case until the Legislature has adjourned. Two fifth-graders from Houston will speak about how they gathered 2,000 signatures to present to the mayor of Houston asking for a plastic bag ban. In addition, costumed goat, cow and turtle activists will represent livestock and wildlife that can perish from plastic bag ingestion. Also expected are Kerry Getter, CEO of Balcones Resources in Austin, and Gil Saenz, a sheep rancher from Freer, Texas. The hearing is expected upon adjournment of the House.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Council approves new traffic cameras

Last week, City Council approved the purchase of new fish-eye traffic cameras that are equipped with a 360-degree view allowing them to see all four corners of an intersection. This vote by Council gives the Austin Transportation Department, which already owns 15 of the cameras, the go-ahead to buy 300 more of them over a three-year period. The department uses the cameras for vehicle detection, traffic counting and to make improvements to signal timing. Engineers can use data generated from the cameras hopefully to reduce delays – which is all anybody’s worried about, isn’t it?


Monday, April 24, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Airport pours one out for Earth Day

On Friday, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport debuted its first Pour It Out receptacle to mark Earth Day. The program is an effort to divert liquid from bottles and other containers before they are placed in recycle bins. Pouring out the liquid is a crucial part of the recycling process, because liquids ruin recyclable materials. In one day last November, the airport collected 334 pounds of drinking bottles that contained some kind of liquid. The airport believes the program could help divert 62 tons of waste from the landfill in a single year. Now, travelers going through Checkpoint 1 can take part in the pilot program by simply dumping leftover liquids in the Pour It Out bin before depositing their bottles in the recycling bin. Depending on the results, more receptacles could be installed going forward.


Monday, April 24, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Animal Services hosts District 4 community meeting

District 4 residents are invited to a meeting this week to give the Animal Services Department feedback on how effectively it serves the community. Animal Services leadership will be on hand to answer questions and take suggestions. There are already changes coming to the department – its chief, Tawny Hammond, announced her resignation earlier this month to take an advocacy job with the Best Friends Animal Society. The meeting takes place on Thursday, April 27, 6:30 p.m., in the Gus Garcia Recreation Center, 1201 Rundberg Lane. For more information, contact Belinda Hare at 512-978-0565.


Monday, April 24, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

No Refusal this weekend

The Austin Police Department continues its Weekend No Refusal DWI Initiative this weekend. It runs from Friday, April 28, all the way through Sunday, April 30, and is in effect from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. During these times, police will obtain search warrants for those suspected of driving while intoxicated and who refuse a breath or blood test. APD’s Lt. Blake Johnson said in a Friday press release that the program isn’t about making as many arrests as possible. “It is about keeping unsafe drivers off Austin roadways and keeping the public safe,” said Johnson, who works in the Highway Enforcement Unit. “No Refusal ensures that we have solid blood alcohol content evidence of every arrest and as such enhances our ability to prosecute people who drive drunk and put others in danger.” Find more information about sober rides on the city’s website.


Monday, April 24, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

City chooses first artist-in-residence

Congratulations to Rehab El Sadek, the painter, photographer, printmaker and installation artist chosen by the city’s Cultural Arts Division as its first-ever artist-in-residence. The program, part of the Office of Innovation’s Idea Accelerator Initiative, is aimed at using artists to help solve problems and engage the community in creative ways from inside the city itself. In this case, El Sadek will be embedded in the Watershed Protection Department, where she hopes to create artwork that will “engage the public around concepts of nature” and raise awareness about water conservation. The Austin-based El Sadek has worked in Africa, Pakistan and Dallas, and has had exhibitions in Amsterdam, London and Cairo galleries, to name a few.


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