Sick leave under fire
House Bill 222 is one that proponents of Austin’s paid sick leave policy will be watching and opposing when the Texas Legislature convenes early next year. That bill, filed by Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth on Monday, targets the paid sick leave policies recently passed in Austin and San Antonio and would prevent municipalities from requiring a business to give its employees paid sick leave. Austin passed its sick leave policy in February, but it was put on hold by state courts almost immediately. There was heated debate locally over the city ordinance, which would have required companies with 16 or more workers to provide 64 hours of sick leave per year. That total was adjusted down to 48 hours annually per employee for businesses with fewer than 16 employees.
For those tracking every turn of the speculative screw in Amazon’s quest to identify a new site for its second headquarters, it’s been a busy 10 days. News broke the day before the midterm elections that the e-commerce giant has altered its initial plan in favor of splitting more than 50,000 employees between two cities, in part because of concerns over being able to find enough talent in a single location. Austin, at various points rumored to be among the top three contenders for HQ2, now appears to have fallen back in the pack while the Queens borough of New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, are reportedly in advanced talks to finalize deals for the multibillion-dollar projects. The components of Austin’s bid to land HQ2 (or should we call it HQ3 now?) have been closely guarded by the Austin Chamber of Commerce, which has led the bid process since the competition opened last year. A final decision from the company is expected before the end of the year.
The city’s plan to move Austin Municipal Court – currently located on East Seventh Street – has seen a shift that could see the eventual landing spot changed slightly from its assumed new location while the city saves more than $1 million over a 10-year lease. The Austin Business Journal reports that last month City Council approved a resolution opening up negotiations with the owners of Bergstrom Tech Center, located on Burleson Road almost adjacent to MetCenter II, whose owners appear to have secured the court relocation deal in May. The fate of the municipal court has become something of an odyssey over more than a decade, during which time the city has purchased multiple parcels for the explicit purpose of building a combination facility for the court and a police substation in Northeast Austin. Meanwhile, concern has grown over the court’s current location because of structural and safety problems and a lack of parking.
Parks and Rec shares its vision for Givens District Park
Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department is holding an open house to share information and seek input from the public on the proposal for improvements for Givens District Park in East Austin. Informational exhibits and maps of the planned developments will be on view. At three previous community meetings held this summer and fall, Parks and Rec staffers introduced the master plan project and discussed the 40-acre park’s history and the current state of its facilities. Residents were also invited to share their ideas for improvements to the park. The open house will be held at Givens Recreation Center on Tuesday, Dec. 4, from 6-8 p.m.
Veterans Day, observed
Today, the Austin Monitor will be joining most of the city in observing Veterans Day. See you Tuesday!
Hot tempers at City Hall over Jeff Sessions dismissal
On Thursday, Nov. 8, the front plaza of City Hall was packed with protesters, calling for President Trump to reconsider his decision to push Jeff Sessions out of his position as attorney general. A speaker orating to the crowd was barely audible above the roar of cheers and horns honking. What began at 5 p.m. lasted for hours as dozens and dozens of Austinites cheered, shouting their opinions so loudly their voices could be heard echoing inside the walls of City Hall. The protest was organized by MoveOn.org in conjunction with other groups around the country. Austin resident Roger May said that the intent of the demonstrations was to keep Trump from “firing his way to safety.” May explained that pushing Sessions out of office was “crossing a line,” and that he hopes the protests will help to persuade the government to keep the Mueller investigation going. A few followers of the far-right conspiracy website InfoWars made an appearance at the rally to share their views about why they support the status quo.
Ethics Commission rejects complaint
The Texas Ethics Commission has rejected a complaint filed against District 1 candidate Natasha Harper-Madison, but the attorney who filed the complaint indicated Thursday that he would rewrite his complaint and submit it to the commission next week. Harper-Madison will face Mariana Salazar in a Dec. 11 runoff to represent the Northeast Austin district. The commission notified attorney Matt Tynan by mail that his allegations against Harper-Madison were insufficient and encouraged him to re-file the complaint with additional information. The commission wrote that one of the allegations Tynan made against Harper-Madison, as well as against another District 1 candidate, Vince Harding, were not violations. According to the commission’s letter, “Your complaint alleges the respondent did not properly disclose political contributions or the total amount of political contributions accepted during a reporting period in violation of (the Election Code) … . However, the Commission filing software automatically applies the un-itemized contribution total to the A1 subtotal on Cover Sheet Page 3. When that software feature is accounted for, there is no discrepancy.” Tynan said Thursday, “At this point there’s still information missing. And ultimately it comes down to just one single issue, and that is where the contributions are.” While Tynan acknowledged that there may not be a problem with Harper-Madison’s filings, he is still not convinced they are accurate. Tynan said he has not yet received a letter from the commission concerning a similar complaint he filed against Harding. However, it seems likely that the software issue also caused confusion with Harding’s filings.
ATA makes a change
The Austin Tech Alliance announced the departure of founding executive director David Edmonson yesterday and has launched a search to fill the position. Edmonson will remain in the role until Nov. 23, when ATA program manager Sarah Ortiz Shields will serve as interim director. In a press release about the change, ATA co-founder Dan Graham said, “We’re thankful for David’s dedication and energy, and we know we’ll find an executive director who will continue to drive ATA’s growth and impact. … Dynamic candidates who are excited to lead a growing nonprofit that sits at the intersection of tech, policy and civic engagement should reach out and apply.” More information on the executive director position is available here.
Gordon loses AISD seat
Last night’s election saw a number of upsets, including that of Austin Independent School District’s District 1 rep, Ted Gordon. Parent and elder caregiver LaTisha Anderson beat Gordon with 61 percent of the vote. She will join Kristin Ashy, who was running to fill the open District 4 seat, as a new AISD trustee. The third open seat remains unclaimed. The at-large position vacated by former board President Kendall Pace is headed for a runoff between Carmen Tilton, who won 40 percent of the vote, and Arati Singh, who got 36 percent. Gordon, who has been outspoken about inequalities at AISD during his tenure serving the East Austin district, released a statement following his defeat. It read, in part, “I am proud of the fact that I was able to create a district-wide and community-wide discussion about equity in AISD. Particularly as it relates to the wide academic achievement gaps of low socio-economic status black and brown students. This discussion has gone on for far too long and immediate action is required because all students deserve access to high-quality and equitable education opportunities.” Anderson’s campaign also highlighted the need to address disparities across the district.
Levinski ends campaign
District 8 saw one of the closest races Tuesday night, with the final results not coming in until well after 1:00 a.m. So it makes sense that candidate Bobby Levinski’s statement didn’t arrive in our mailbox until Wednesday morning. In his campaign wrap-up missive, Levinski wrote, “Congratulations to Paige Ellis and Frank Ward for making it into the runoff. It was a very close election, and the results – as we suspected throughout – show we had four qualified and credible candidates. I will be meeting with each of Paige and Frank over the next couple days to personally congratulate them. District 8 voters will make a choice this December between two great people, who I have enjoyed getting to know over the last few months.” After thanking supporters (and the media!), Levinski continued, “From the unions and workers rights organizations to the environmental groups, I appreciate so much the trust you gave me with your endorsements and efforts. I regret that I won’t be able to continue to carry on our joint missions into the runoff, but I will be emphasizing the priorities I heard from you to the remaining candidates.”
Looking at the numbers in Austin’s vote
According to unofficial results released by County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir early Wednesday morning, Mayor Steve Adler won re-election with more than 59 percent of the vote. There were 297,687 votes cast for all mayoral candidates. And yet, Propositions J and K, even though they were at the bottom of the ballot, attracted considerably more voters. The anti-CodeNEXT proposal, Prop J, attracted a total of 337,837 voters, with more than 52 percent voting no. Proposition K would have required a citywide audit and cost the city an estimated $1 million-$5 million. Although Prop K seemed to attract more paid publicity, most Democratic groups urged their members to reject it, and 57.71 percent of those voting did, with a total of 299,399 voters making a selection on the last item on the ballot. The Austin Monitor asked Peck Young, director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College, to explain why more people voted on those propositions than voted in the mayor’s race, which was at the top of the city ballot. He explained that most people thought Adler would easily win, making that race considerably less interesting than the propositions. We also observed that more people voted for District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen (29,230) than voted in Districts 1 and 3, even though Kitchen was running unopposed. District 5 includes a broad swath of South Austin. In 2010, the year of the last census, 19 percent of people in the district were under age 18. At the same time, about 22 percent of residents of District 3 were under age 18 and approximately 27 percent of District 1 residents were under voting age. In District 9, incumbent Council Member Kathie Tovo easily won re-election with 36,885 voters casting ballots, making the central city district the one with the highest number of votes. Looking at the 2010 demographic profile for that district, it’s obvious that the central city has considerably fewer children – less than 8 percent at the time of the last census – so even though the total number of people in each district was roughly equivalent when the district maps were drawn up, some districts, 9 in particular, have more voters. Young, who was a political consultant for many years and worked on the city’s district maps, said Wednesday that Austin would not have new maps until 2021, “or possibly as late as 2022,” because of all the things that have to happen before Austin can redraw its maps.
Austin joins the circular economy
Austin now has a new circular economy incubator, making it one of three in the country. So it’s understandable that the concept might need some illumination. A joint press release from the city’s Economic Development Department and Austin Resource Recovery announcing the partnership with the Austin Technology Incubator explains the concept: “The incubator will support entrepreneurs and startups whose mission is to provide solutions that contribute to a zero-waste world and solve global challenges in design and reuse. … The Circular Economy Incubator will work to maximize the lifecycle of products and materials by revolutionizing manufacturing processes to ensure the possibility of reuse and recycling.” Mitch Jacobson, director of the Austin Technology Incubator at the University of Texas at Austin, further explained, “We’re doubling down on deep tech, which involves trying to solve big problems with big solutions. That can be clear air, clean water, drugs around cancer or new carbon capture technology. Now, we add circular economy to that impactful list.” For more information, there’s a website.
Kitchen could not lose
Even though Council colleagues Pio Renteria and Mayor Steve Adler faced a number of opponents in their respective campaigns for re-election, and there was a spirited fight in Districts 1 and 8, where the incumbents are retiring, District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen ran unopposed in Tuesday’s election. She told the Austin Monitor she was excited to start her second term. “It’s really been an honor to represent District 5 and so I’m looking forward to continuing to work with all the wonderful people in District 5 and continue the work we’ve been doing on affordability and transportation and health care,” she said. Kitchen was first elected to Council in 2014. In 2016, supporters of transportation networking companies, angry about Austin’s regulations and Kitchen’s role in writing those regulations, gathered signatures on petitions to recall her. However, the city clerk deemed the petitions “insufficient” because the political action committee behind the recall effort failed to get the petitions notarized. This year, an inept, would-be opponent gathered signatures on a petition to have his name placed on the ballot, but some of those signatures came from people outside of Austin and some were duplicates. In the end, he did not have enough signatures to get his name on the ballot and no one else in District 5 wanted to run against Kitchen.
Austin EMS launches new electronic patient care records system
Nov. 5 was the day Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services launched its new patient record software, which is intended to provide quicker and easier data access and streamline communications between EMS medics who take notes on the scene and medical professionals in the hospitals. “Hopefully this will (be) an avenue to look at those patient records more easily,” said ATCEMS Chief of Staff Jasper Brown at the Nov. 5 Public Safety Commission meeting. From now until Feb. 4, the ATCEMS department will authorize 35 “super users” on the system to explore the software and test it for any issues. After this soft launch period, the new system, which includes brand-new tablets, will be rolled out to all medics on staff. The system, according to Brown, will be completely new and will not have any imported records from the software the department is currently using. Medics will still be able to read the old records, but the two systems will not be merged together. Commissioner Daniela Nuñez expressed her concern about potential data breaches in light of growing awareness of the issue nationwide. Brown assured her that the department is using the latest encryption code and that only a “super sleuth” could access the records without authorization. Eventually, the EMS department hopes to share the same system as the Fire Department, since firefighters are often the first responders on the scene. However, at this point, a software migration for the Fire Department is not approved in the budget. Still, “It certainly seems that you should have the same system,” said Chair Rebecca Webber.
Election Day is finally here!
For football fanatics, the Super Bowl is the best day of the year; for political junkies, it’s election day. According to Travis County Clerk Dana De Beauvoir, more than 47 percent of the county’s registered voters cast ballots during the early voting period. So one of the big questions to be answered tonight is, how many of those other registered voters will come out to vote on election day? The clerk’s office has promised to release the results of early voting at 7 p.m. or just a few minutes after. Those results should give everyone a clear indication of how the rest of the evening will go. The races most likely to result in runoffs are in District 1 and District 8, on opposite ends of the city, and maybe in District 9. Council Member Ora Houston is retiring after one term representing that part of East Austin and Council Member Ellen Troxclair is stepping down after one term representing Southwest Austin. Houston endorsed Vincent Harding and the smart money says Harding will be in a runoff. People who have been following that race say the most likely candidates to be in the December 11 runoff appear to be Mariana Salazar and Natasha Harper-Madison. District 8 is much harder to predict, although since Republican Frank Ward entered the race there has been an assumption that he would make it into a runoff. Bobby Levinski and Rich DePalma each have won numerous endorsements, but this year more voters may choose the third Democrat in the race, Paige Ellis, because they want a woman to represent them. In District 3, incumbent Council Member Pio Renteria has run a strong race and could win outright. If not, he could face either his sister, Susana Almanza, or James Valadez in a runoff. District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen is the only Council member on the ballot who faces no opposition, so the Austin Monitor can predict with great confidence that she will be re-elected. Mayor Steve Adler has run a strong race, garnering both paid and free publicity far outweighing any publicity his chief rival, former Council Member Laura Morrison, has received. The other candidates in the race have gotten no traction, including the lone Republican, Todd Phelps. In District 9, Council Member Kathie Tovo, who serves as mayor pro tem, is facing a strong challenge from engineer Danielle Skidmore. Tovo has strong support from single-family neighborhoods while Skidmore has strong support from pro-density, new urbanist groups. Tovo defeated Council Member Randi Shade in 2011 and Council Member Chris Riley in 2014, but it’s hard to know what mood District 9 is in now. And it’s anyone’s guess how voters will react to Propositions J and K.
Austin B-cycle launches e-bike pilot
In response to increasing demand for assisted mobility options, Austin’s public bike-share operator, Austin B-cycle, began a three-month e-bike pilot program today to test the idea with the public ahead of production models set to launch in spring 2019. The e-bikes are also being tested in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Madison and Fort Lauderdale through January 2019. For now, riders can find the docked e-bikes online at AustinBcycle.com by looking for the lightning bolt symbol on the map, and they will be able to see the locations on the B-cycle app as early as next week. Austin B-cycle is a city-owned system that purchases its bikes from BCycle LLC, which is making the e-bikes using Bosch pedal-assist technology. The e-bikes will add to the 550 bikes now available at 76 B-cycle stations in the downtown area.
The future of Brush Square could be in your hands
It’s arrived: The final online survey for the Brush Square Master Plan is here, and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department is looking for input from Austin residents. If you or someone you love has an opinion on Brush Square’s future, head over to the online survey before Dec. 2, 2018, when the survey will close.
LCRA to lower lakes in 2019
The Lower Colorado River Authority will lower lakes early next year in an ongoing effort to help those recovering from flooding along the Colorado and Llano rivers. According to an LCRA press release, the organization will draw down lakes LBJ and Marble Falls for eight weeks, from Dec. 30 to Feb. 23, making it easier for lakeside residents “to remove debris and maintain or repair docks, retaining walls and other infrastructure.” As for the specifics: “LCRA will lower Lake LBJ about 4 feet, from its normal operating range of 824.4 to 825 feet above mean sea level (feet msl) to a range of 820.2 to 820.8 feet msl. The lake will be lowered about 1 foot a day for four days beginning Dec. 30 … Lake Marble Falls will be lowered about 7 feet, from its normal operating range of 736.2 to 737 feet msl to a range of 729 to 730 feet msl. The lake will be lowered about 1 foot a day for seven days beginning Dec. 30.” More information, including details on what work is allowed during the drawdown, can be found online or by calling LCRA Water Quality Protection at 512-578-2324.
New fire chief named
On Friday, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk selected the new fire chief for the Austin Fire Department. Joel Baker comes to Austin from Atlanta, where he was chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. According to a press release about the potential hire, “Baker began his fire career with the East Point, Ga. Fire Department, an Atlanta suburb, in 1986. Two years later, he joined the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. During his career in Atlanta he served as Lieutenant in the Field Operations division and the fire training academy, Captain of the department’s Hazardous Material/Technical Rescue Unit, Deputy Fire Chief for Airport Operations, Assistant Chief to the Office of Support Services, and finally as fire chief. Baker served as a Marine before beginning his firefighting career. Additionally, he served for 10 years in the Navy Reserve. Baker has an Associate Degree in Applied Fire Science, Bachelor of Science in Human Resources Development, and Master of Public Administration.” Baker will be considered by City Council at its Nov. 15 meeting, and if confirmed, will begin work Dec. 10.
In remembrance of an ordinance passed
Austin’s Single-Use Bag Ordinance is no more, but city staff members press on. In a Friday memo, Austin Resource Recovery Interim Director Sam Angoori detailed the myriad ways that the city would continue to “honor the intent” of the ordinance. To that end, city staffers will: promote businesses that have (voluntarily) prohibited single-use plastics on city media; distribute a public survey on the topic; distribute reusable bags; launch an educational campaign; and offer a zero-waste business rebate. In addition, the city recently joined the “New Plastics Economy Global Commitment,” an initiative that strives to “eliminate plastic pollution at its source.”