Let the redistricting begin to begin!
Amid the Sturm und Drang that is now everyday life, it’s understandable if one has lost sight of the fact that Austin’s first City Council redistricting is fast approaching. Following the 2012 charter amendment that created the current single-member district system, an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission drew the first (and current) Council districts. Now it’s time to redraw those boundaries for the 2022 election. As a first step, the city auditor will randomly select three people to serve on the Applicant Review Panel, which oversees the formation of the ICRC. The random drawing will take place next Thursday, Oct. 1, at 9 a.m., and will be livestreamed on Facebook and ATXN. Find a list of the qualified applicants and more information about the process here.
Environmental groups unite in favor of Project Connect
More than a dozen environmental advocacy groups have voiced their support for Proposition A and Project Connect, citing reductions in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as top reasons to support the mass transit plan. “We’re literally at a crossroads in so many different ways in our nation and our community, and this is one big thing we can do that we can work together and feel better about,” said Tom Smith of Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance, during a Zoom web panel hosted by Bay Scoggin of Texas Public Interest Research Group. Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza also joined the discussion, with warnings of climate catastrophe already underway and disproportionately impacting marginalized communities. “Melting ice caps, hurricanes, droughts … all these things are happening right now … and doing nothing will only make things worse,” Garza said. “Fighting climate change is a matter of racial justice; it is a matter of true equity. And voting for Prop A and Project Connect is one of the most consequential things you can do to fight climate change.” In a post Thursday, Catherine Fraser of Environment Texas, a project of Environment America, wrote that the added local transit options could “avert 109 million vehicle miles of travel annually, reducing smog-forming pollution by 30 tons and global warming pollution by 43 tons every year.” David Foster of Clean Water Action also noted the historic $300 million investment in anti-displacement included in Prop A, which he said was a major reason the organization decided to endorse the plan. “It’s the right thing to do for traffic congestion, it’s the right thing to do for affordability and equity, and not least, it’s the right thing to do for the environment,” Foster said.
City pools to open Saturday
In welcome though slightly unseasonable news, public pools will be opening for fall, beginning Saturday, Sept. 26. A press release from the city explains, after “careful consideration of the local characteristics of the virus and related community priorities,” that it has “been determined that these re-openings may proceed safely during Stage 3: Covid-19: Risk-Based Guidelines.” As risk stages decrease, more parks facilities could open. And if virus activity increases, amenities and facilities could close again. A city FAQ explains the new, modified pool operations, and the initial opening schedules are below.
Celebrate nature despite pandemic
We humans may be dealing with a global pandemic amid uncertain political times, but monarch butterflies still migrate and trees still grow upward toward the sunlight. In other words, nature marches onward despite humankind’s upheavals. Those who want to celebrate this wondrous fact in person might feel somewhat thwarted this year, but Austin’s Roots & Wings Festival, a combined celebration of Monarch Appreciation Day and Arbor Day, will still take place, just in a somewhat different format than years past. Festival organizers have brainstormed many creative ways to celebrate pollinators, trees and other living beings “through live virtual programming and hands-on activities you can do from your home, yard or nearby nature.” The festival will take place Oct. 24 to Nov. 7. Check the city’s Nature in the City page for updates on the festival, as well as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
Central Health to community: Get your flu shot
Public health officials across the land are desperately trying to publicize the unhappy fact that the highly contagious influenza virus and the highly contagious virus that causes Covid-19 will be spreading at the same time as the seasons change and cooler temps arrive. Both flu and Covid spread through the air via droplets that are expelled when we talk, sing, cough or sneeze. The symptoms of both viruses are also similar. Fortunately, there is something we can do to lessen the risk of getting sick – get a flu shot. Dr. Alan Schalscha, chief medical officer for CommUnityCare Health Centers, said in a news release, “Getting a flu vaccine has never been more important. A severe flu season in the midst of a deadly coronavirus pandemic could overwhelm our health care system. Flu vaccines and face masks are two proven defenses that all of us need to embrace, especially as people start gathering indoors during the fall and winter and during the holiday season.” CommUnityCare will be preparing about 30,000 vaccines in the coming weeks for its patients – a number based on last season’s total vaccinations. Central Health President & CEO Mike Geeslin added, “We’ve come so far slowing the spread of Covid-19, now is not the time to let down our guard. All of us need to get a flu vaccine and (continue to) practice healthy habits meaning always wearing a mask in public, washing our hands often, and avoiding crowded indoor gatherings. Protecting yourself, your family and our entire community could give hospitals the space they may need to treat patients with coronavirus when we experience another surge.”
Firefighters announce three Council picks
The Austin Firefighters Association has made three City Council endorsements, according to the group’s president, Bob Nicks. Firefighters are supporting David Chincanchan in District 2 to take the seat currently held by Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza. They have also endorsed incumbent Council members Greg Casar and Leslie Pool. The group has not made a decision on an endorsement in District 6 or District 10, seats currently held by Jimmy Flannigan and Alison Alter.
Climate Equity Plan awaits your feedback
The Office of Sustainability is asking community members to offer feedback on the draft of the new Austin Climate Equity Plan, an update to the city’s 2015 Community Climate Plan. The equity plan, according to the announcement, “prioritizes actions that support low-income communities and communities of color,” which “have generally contributed the least to climate change but are the most negatively impacted by climate change.” The equity plan, which aims to curb emissions and achieve racial equity through climate action, is the result of 10 months of work by local experts, Austin residents and city staff members. View the draft plan on SpeakUpAustin, where you’ll have the opportunity to fill out a public comment survey to let the team know your thoughts on the plan’s goals and strategies. The Office of Sustainability will also be hosting a panel discussion on the plan on Thursday, Sept. 24, 6-7:30 p.m. Residents who participated in the process “will dig into topics related to the intersection of climate change and racial and environmental justice.” Register on Eventbrite.
PARD launches new season of artist program
The parks department’s Artist Access Program “provides free or low-cost rehearsal and production spaces to both emerging and established performance artists from the Austin area. Created to address the needs of local artists, participating organizations collaborate with the city of Austin’s cultural centers to produce professional performances for both local and visiting audiences.” PARD will be accepting applications for the Artist Access Program’s 2022 season from Oct. 2-Dec. 18. Participating artists and arts organizations enjoy expanded rehearsal hours as well as the chance to perform for the public in a free or reduced-fee space. “Additional benefits include marketing resources, assistance with event planning, and additional support from PARD’s arts staff.”
New Council endorsements announced
Austin Environmental Democrats announced its City Council endorsements Monday, after hearing from candidates at a virtual meeting on Friday. The group endorsed David Chincanchan, candidate for District 2, and incumbent Council members Greg Casar (District 4), Jimmy Flannigan (District 6), Leslie Pool (District 7), and Alison Alter (District 10). The group also endorsed Christy Williams, who is running for a seat on the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board of Directors. Williams is running against longtime board member Bob Larsen. Williams also won a nod from the local chapter of Clean Water Action. Chincanchan announced on his Facebook page that he had received an endorsement from the Laborers International Union of North America Local 1095, while opponent Vanessa Fuentes announced she had been endorsed by the political arm of the Austin-Travis County EMS Association. Selena Xie, president of the EMS union, said members of the association had also voted to endorse all of the incumbents running for reelection this year. Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, told the Austin Monitor that he expects his members to make a decision about their endorsements this week.
New census outreach campaign launches today
A new campaign is determined to educate local communities about the critical importance of filling out the 2020 U.S Census. The 10-Day Countdown, which was launched yesterday, is the brainchild of the Austin-Travis County Complete Count Committee, which is co-chaired by state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt and Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “Every Central Texan is directly impacted by funding decisions that are made based on the Census count,” Eckhardt said in a news release. “If any residents are undercounted in 2020, every one of us will be negatively impacted for the next decade and beyond.” Adler added, “Taking 10 minutes to fill out the Census ensures we get funding for critical community needs. It helps determine how much federal dollars we get in the next 10 years for schools, emergency services, road, parks and more. With this pandemic affecting us all, completing this year’s Census is extremely important.” Residents and local organizations are encouraged to use the campaign’s free materials to help spread the word:
Calendar contest highlights preparedness
Attention Travis County second- through fifth-graders: Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management wants your artwork. Specifically, HSEM wants your artwork depicting “family emergency preparedness actions, severe weather conditions occurring in central Texas and manmade disasters.” Doesn’t that sound like fun? Contest winners will be featured in HSEM’s 2021 Emergency Preparedness Calendar – the first one to feature student artwork. So, start creating those images of an evacuation plan or emergency kit; a tornado, lightning storm or flood; a wildfire, terrorist attack – or even a pandemic. “Artwork should also contain a safety message about the specific hazard featured,” say the guidelines. All mediums are welcome, though no glitter, please. The deadline for submitting artwork is Oct. 18. There will be 14 winners selected: one for each of the 12 months, plus the front and back covers. Winners will receive trophies and prizes at an award ceremony! Find more information, artwork guidelines and a submission form at austintexas.gov/hsemcalendar.
APH adds Covid-19 testing rate dashboard
The city of Austin has added another Covid-19 dashboard to its roster, bringing the total to four. The newest, the Testing Rate Dashboard, will display weekly Covid-19 testing rates, with an emphasis on the areas seeing the most cases. The dashboard will be updated on Tuesdays by 6 p.m. As of last week, the highest increase was in ZIP code 78724; the highest percent of positive test results was in 78617; and the highest percent increase in new cases was in 78735. The city also has dashboards to measure key indicators for staging, to track infection rates in long-term care facilities and to collect general information about Covid-19.
Trash schedules are changing!
There is, to put it lightly, a lot going on this year. This week, about 4.5 percent of Austin Resource Recovery customers will also have to manage a changing trash schedule as part of a plan to “rebalance” existing routes. According to a press release from the city, “Customers affected by the upcoming service changes have been notified by letter, email, postcard and with reminder door tags during the last few weeks. Those who are signed up to receive collection schedule notifications from the online My Schedule tool or from the Austin Recycles App will also receive notifications of their service changes through these tools.” As a safety net, collection staff will collect on both the new and the old days for the four weeks following the change in schedule, placing reminder tags on carts set out on the incorrect day. Customers can find more information, including a customized collection schedule, by calling 311, visiting AustinRecycles.com or by downloading the Austin Recycles App.
Summit explores Hill Country conservation
The 2020 Hill Country Leadership Summit, which focuses on land conservation and stewardship, is going virtual for the first time. Spread out over the course of three days, the summit will include webinar panels and presentations by local and national experts on regenerative grazing, water quality, development, the aggregate industry, diversity and equity in conservation, and dark skies. This annual Hill Country Alliance event is designed to attract conservationists, community leaders and natural resource managers. Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2-4 p.m.; Thursday, Sept. 24, 10 a.m.-noon; and Friday, Sept. 25, 10 a.m.-noon. View a detailed agenda here, and register here.
Secretary of State pitches in for census effort
The Office of the Texas Secretary of State has awarded a contract to a San Antonio advertising agency with the aim of augmenting the state’s 2020 U.S. Census response and ensuring an accurate count of all Texans. The Atkins Group has created a campaign called Let’s Count Texas to engage more people to participate in the once-a-decade count of the nation’s population, which determines the allocation of billions in federal funding as well as congressional representation. According to the press release, the campaign “will target low-response areas to highlight the importance of participating in the 2020 Census, and will reach Texans through multiple channels, including broadcast, print, digital, and other creative messaging with the intent of informing the public and increasing response rates during the final stretch of the count.” If you haven’t participated yet, you can fill out the census questionnaire online; it takes just a few minutes.
New Southeast Austin test site opening
Next Tuesday, Sept. 22, Austin Public Health will be opening an additional neighborhood Covid-19 testing site at the old Montopolis neighborhood center at 1416 Montopolis Drive. (Health officials caution community members not to confuse it with the new Montopolis Recreation Center, which is not a testing site!) The test site will be in operation Tuesdays 9 a.m.-1 p.m., Thursdays 3-7 p.m. and Saturdays 4-7 p.m. While arriving in a car is not necessary, there are a limited number of slots available without an appointment, so APH encourages people to sign up for an appointment in advance. Stephanie Hayden, APH director, said in a news release, “The 78741 ZIP code is among the hardest hit by Covid-19 in Austin-Travis County.” This Montopolis testing site gives APH “another opportunity to reach people where they are and to ensure we are making testing available for all community members.”
Rizer to help with convention center expansion
Former Austin real estate officer Lauraine Rizer, who worked for the city for 30 years and retired in April 2018, is preparing to help the city negotiate a contract to purchase two pieces of property for the westward expansion of the convention center. The item on today’s City Council agenda asks Council to authorize the contract with Rizer for real estate consulting services “for up to three years for a total contract amount not to exceed $200,000.” Another item on the agenda seeks authorization for the city to enter into a nondisclosure agreement for the purchase of blocks 16 and 32, across the street from the convention center. The city is hoping to do a public-private partnership to finance at least part of the cost of expansion. According to the Austin Business Journal, Manifold Development has planned to build a 47-story tower on Block 16, the current home of several restaurants including P.F. Chang’s. Rizer said the agreement would stop progress on the tower. Council is expected to authorize the agreement, which includes paying $6.3 million in earnest money.
Downtown Commission adds seat for Public Safety commissioner
The Downtown Commission is amending its bylaws to add a member of the new Public Safety Commission to its roster. The Downtown Commission actually voted for this change in July, originally intending for the Public Safety commissioner to fill the long-empty seat set aside for a representative of the Music Commission, but the motion did not make it to City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee. In the two months since the July meeting, Downtown Commission Chair August Harris spoke with Music Commission Chair Gavin Garcia, who voiced concerns over representation removal just as the downtown live music scene is being impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The new motion keeps the seat reserved for a Music commissioner, “even though they haven’t participated in more than three years,” Harris said. Commissioner Jennifer Bristol motioned for the new change at the Sept. 16 meeting and the motion carried unanimously after being seconded by Commissioner Christopher Lehman.
Nonpartisan webinars help voters prepare for election
The League of Women Voters of Texas is celebrating National Voter Registration Day with two new Zoom webinars that aim to help voters prepare for the upcoming November election. The first webinar, Tuesday, Sept. 22, at noon, will tackle the ins and outs of safe voting. League President Grace Chimene and Christina Adkins, the legal director of the Elections Division at the Texas secretary of state’s office, “will discuss everything you need to know about vote-by-mail in Texas and all about safer options for in-person voting and making sure your vote is counted.” The second webinar, Tuesday, Oct. 6, at noon, asks the question, “Who else is on the ballot (after the president)?” Panelists Brandon Draper, Susan Redford and Sherri Greenberg will discuss “the responsibilities of down-ballot offices” like school board, county commissioner and judges, “and how the elected officials impact the communities they serve.” The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan volunteer organization that “never supports or opposes candidates or parties, instead they encourage every eligible Texan to Be a Texas Voter. Their mission is: Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy.”
City reopens relief grants for nonprofits
The Economic Development Department will be reopening the city’s Non-Profit Relief Grant – a $6.35 million fund providing up to $20,000 grants – on Sept. 21 in an attempt “to reach additional Austin nonprofit organizations facing hardships due to the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.” Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, acting director of the EDD, said in an announcement, “We have revised eligibility based on lessons learned and review of applications from the first round to ensure grant guidelines accommodate more successful applications. The reopening of the Austin Non-Profit Relief Grant will ensure the $6.35 million that (the) mayor and City Council allocated will support our local nonprofit organizations who are critical to the recovery of our community.” Visit the Austin Non-Profit Relief Grant Program Dashboard for grant details.