Aquifer district trustee home from hospital
Craig Smith, a member of the board of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, was hospitalized on Saturday, over fears that he had suffered a “small heart attack.” Mary Ann Neely said Smith had gone to the Barton Springs pool, where he swims daily, but was in too much pain to swim and drove himself to the St. David’s Hospital in South Austin. He was released from the hospital Sunday evening. Smith is also an assistant county attorney for Travis County. Neely advises friends to call before visiting.
Austin Interfaith news conference today
Members of Austin Interfaith will hold a news conference today at 9 a.m., just before City Council’s budget session begins, in order to “address the injustice of the proposed budget.” A statement from the group explains that the proposed budget is “an immoral document that does not reflect the values and priorities of our great city.” In that same release, Austin Interfaith criticizes the amount of money spent on public safety instead of child poverty. A list of budget priorities for next year penned by the organization identified just under $130 million in funding for social service contracts and city departments. The news conference will be held at 721 Barton Springs Road.
AFA to bring city’s ‘best offer’ to rank & file
In an email sent to union members, Austin Firefighters Association head Bob Nicks said this week that he is disappointed in the latest contract offer from city management, saying the terms of the offer would mean an “erosion of our professional standards.” Nicks is referring to a potential new contract for the city’s firefighters. The city and the firefighters union have been negotiating a new agreement since June, when Austin and the U.S. Department of Justice settled a lawsuit over the city fire department’s minority hiring practices. Nicks said, “Based on the recent membership survey results and the AFA’s commitment to abide by the will of the membership, we have agreed to forward the management team’s ‘final and best offer’ to the membership for review and vote.” Nicks said the vote will happen online between Sept. 23 and 25.
Saldaña kicks off AISD trustee campaign
Paul Saldaña kicked off his campaign for Place 6 on the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees Thursday at the Serranos Southpark. The native East Austinite and community organizer told his supporters, “I am passionate about public education, which is a driving variable that impacts our quality of life, and it’s absolutely important that we elect leaders that will serve as a strong voice for our children, families, teachers and neighborhood.” AISD is the fifth-largest school district in Texas, serving approximately 87,000 students at 129 schools. AISD District 6 includes 18 AISD campuses in South Austin. Saldaña has more than 20 years of experience in civic and governmental affairs and owns his own public relations firm, Saldaña Public Relations.
District 3 keeps Ethics Commission busy
This time, it’s District 3 candidate Fred McGhee who is the subject of a formal ethics complaint. The complaint, filed by fellow District 3 candidate Shaun Ireland, alleges that McGhee has violated city code “by printing and mailing a postcard for the purpose of political advertising, without a required disclosure notice.” The postcard in question is an advertisement for McGhee’s book, History of Montopolis. McGhee’s campaign logo and information about his campaign Facebook page are included on the postcard by way of a return address. In a news release, Ireland expressed respect for his opponent. “I would like to consider this lack of disclosure an honest mistake, but Dr. McGhee has run for other offices,” wrote Ireland. “I am sure he is well aware of the requirements of city code and state law.” McGhee told the Monitor that the purpose of the mailers was to promote his book, not his campaign. “It’s a relatively minor matter,” said McGhee. “There are many, many more important things for the 12 candidates in District 3 to be talking about.”
Almanza ethics complaint set for review
The Ethics Review Commission will consider a complaint against District 3 City Council candidate Susana Almanza this evening at a specially called meeting. The complaint, filed by Montopolis resident Stefan Wray, alleges Almanza did not include information about the employers of 23 donors who contributed $200 or more to her campaign, as is required by city code. Almanza has stated that the mistake was unintentional and has already been corrected. She also has pointed out that the mistake is a common one made by several other candidates running for office in Districts 1, 2, 8, 9 and 10. The commission will meet at 6 p.m. at One Texas Center. Almanza has waived a personal appearance at the hearing and is not expected to attend.
ACLU wants single-sex schools investigated
The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation of Texas have filed a civil rights complaint against the Austin Independent School District over the opening of a pair of two single-sex middle schools, the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Academy and the Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy. The civil rights organizations want an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education into whether the new schools discriminate against students based on sex and race. The district transformed Pearce and Garcia middle schools into the single-sex campuses. Both schools’ student bodies are mainly Hispanic and African-American. The ACLU claims that Pearce and Garcia were two of AISD’s poorest-performing schools. As of Wednesday, AISD officials said they had not seen the complaint.
Commissioners fund new family court
Caught between a critical need for an additional judge for family court and a promise to hold the line on tax increases, Travis County Commissioners voted Wednesday to allocate $424,000 for a new court to hear child protection cases. Earlier in the budget process, District Judge Lora Livingston told the commissioners that children and parents involved in abuse and neglect cases get an average of only 10 minutes to present their case, while most needed at least 30 minutes. She also said that caseloads were so high, they had to hire private attorneys to represent some of their clients. (See Austin Monitor, Aug. 25.) Livingston told the commissioners during their budget markup session Wednesday that it had been almost 20 years since the county had given the civil courts a new associate judge, but during that time their child protective services caseload had grown exponentially. Despite the apparent lack of available funds, Commissioner Bruce Todd said they had to find a way to make it happen. If we don’t fund this, I can’t say we’ve had a successful budget. Not only is it legally mandated, but it’s morally mandated,” he said. “I would not be embarrassed to tell anyone I raised their taxes to pay for this.” Judge Sam Biscoe said they would likely fund an additional associate judge and three staffers through a one-time expenditure from reserves, meaning they will have to find the funds again in the next budget cycle. Commissioners approved the budget addition, 3-0-2, with Commissioners Margaret Gomez and Ron Davis abstaining.
Candidate Martinez calls news conference
City Council Member Mike Martinez will hold a press conference today where he will, according to a news release, “take on Steve Adler’s so-called tax ‘plan’ that will force the average middle class renter to pay for expensive tax breaks for millionaires.” The event will take place at 11:30 a.m. at the Austin City Hall Plaza, 301 West Second St.
Travis County employees get a raise
Travis County Commissioners granted rank-and-file employees a flat $1,000 a year raise, and granted peace officers such as sheriff’s deputies and park rangers a one-step increase in their pay scale. The raises, which are limited to employees who make less than $100,000, will cost the county about $5 million. Commissioner Ron Davis objected to spending that much, because it exceeded the $4.3 million reserve fund budgeted for next year. He wanted the raises limited to $750 per employee, but ended up on the short end of the 4-1 vote. For some peace officers, it’s the first pay increase in five years.
Stonewall Dems to hold 2nd endorsement session
Stonewall Democrats of Austin will hold a meeting tonight to consider endorsements for five races for City Council. Starting at 6 p.m., the group will hear from candidates for mayor and for Districts 2, 3, 7 and 9. The group will meet at Smith Auditorium of the Congregation Beth Israel, 3901 Shoal Creek Blvd. This is their second endorsement meeting. They have already endorsed in Districts 1, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10.
First city candidate forum takes place today
The District 1 City of Austin candidate forum will be held tonight, at the Asian-American Resource Center. The forum is the first of a series that will be held by the city’s Ethics Review Commission and Austin’s League of Women Voters. The forum will take place at 6 p.m. at 8401 Cameron Road.
Travis County health care bill over budget
Travis County Commissioners received a large and unexpected health care bill Tuesday. According to Jessica Rio of the county Planning and Budget office, they needed an additional $4 million for the rest of the fiscal year to cover the cost of claims for county employees. Travis County is self-insured, meaning that it directly pays the costs of its employees’ medical claims. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said that despite putting in an additional $7 million for health insurance in 2014, they are exceeding the budget. “If we’re not taking on this health care thing the way that we need to as an entity, then we’re just going to continue to watch it escalate to the point that we really can’t get our arms around it,” he said. “When you talk about our current payout actually being $52.87 million, and last year’s total was $52.32 million. And with five weeks left, we’re averaging about a million dollars a week.” Daugherty added that the number of claims above $25,000 has grown to 167 this year compared to 147 for all of last year. Commissioners, who approved the extra funds, have contracted with a new administrator for FY 2015 in hopes of keeping costs down without having to cut benefits to the county’s 5,000 employees.
New food trailer court gets go-ahead
Plans for a new food trailer court in South Austin cleared the Planning Commission last week, despite concerns from its most immediate neighbor. Contractor Ray Yates was representing the landowner, James Samon, and explained that they were seeking a change from Limited Office (LO) zoning to Commercial (CS) Zoning in order to build a food trailer court on the land. Samon also owns the adjacent GNS Lounge and lots along South First Street, for a total of six adjacent lots. Yates said that Samon wanted to get all of those lots zoned uniformly, in order not to inadvertently run afoul of code by parking a trailer on the wrong lot. “There’s no future development plan. He’s an original Austinite, and he’s kept this property in the family. I don’t see any future development other than food court trailers,” said Yates. Jesse Saletan, who owns the property to the west, said his land was zoned LO but used as single-family residences. He said he was very concerned about the prospect of the property changing over to CS zoning, though he supported the idea of food trailers on the land. Saletan said he would support CS zoning for the land along South First Street but not the land immediately adjacent to his own. In the end, the Planning Commission approved CS zoning for tract 1, Limited Retail (LR) zoning for tract 2 and Limited Office (LO) zoning for tract 3, as was recommended by staff.
Council set to consider Bull Creek land sale
City Council members are set to conduct an executive session discussion of the potential sale of a swath of state-owned land at Bull Creek Road and 45th Street. This, of course, is the 75-acre TxDOT tract that’s drawn widespread attention and concern from neighbors in the area. Last week, the Statesman reported that Stratus Properties “is working with H-E-B to acquire the site.” The paper put the value of the tract at “almost $900,000 per acre.”
ANC president bans pair from meeting
Rumors of a dust-up at the most recent Austin Neighborhoods Council meeting reached the Austin Monitor‘s offices last week. Sources said that Realtor Frank Harren and developer David Whitworth had been “barred” from the meeting for speaking out against ANC President Mary Ingle at a recent CodeNEXT meeting. Both sides see the conflict as fallout from recent ethics allegations filed by Ingle against Land Development Code Revision Advisory Group member Melissa Neslund. (The city’s Ethics Review Commission dismissed the charges against Neslund last month.) Ingle told the Monitor that although the two had been prevented from attending the meeting, it was with good reason. “I wasn’t going to put up with any bad behavior,” said Ingle. She said that while Harren had attended meetings in the past, Whitworth had not. Ingle stressed that though ANC meetings are open to the public, they are not city-sponsored events. The situation could be rectified, Ingle added, if the two apologized in writing and promised to refrain from personal attacks.
Council committee to hear funding requests
The Council Health and Human Services Committee will hold a special called meeting this afternoon to hear briefings from the nonprofit Colorado River Alliance and from One Voice Central Texas. They will also hear from city staff on their recommendations on funding social service contact requests. One Voice is a group of social service agencies advocating for more spending for health and human services. They will be requesting that Council add $15 million to the HHS Department budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Today’s meeting is at 3:30 p.m. in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The full Council will meet at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to take public input and continue budget discussions, Last month’s HHS meeting was canceled.
Florance takes job at historic commission
Chris Florance is starting his new job today as director of communications for the Texas Historic Commission. Florance had worked for the City of Austin as a public information specialist for the past seven years. Members of the city’s public information staff may feel a little shorthanded with the departure of Florance and Reyne Telles, who last week announced he would be leaving the city to direct communications at the Austin Independent School District at the end of September.
Eastside Jazz Fest funding plan derailed
Plans for the revival of a jazz festival at Kenny Dorham’s Backyard are on hold after the majority of City Council members opted to shift funding to the budget process currently underway. Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley sponsored the item, which would have funded the event through $25,000 of Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue. Council Member Laura Morrison pulled the item, citing concerns that the event was bypassing the normal selection process to fund arts programs. “Thank you for catching that,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “I think we ought to be very judicious about the events that we select. Some would say that we already have too many. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have more, I just think that there ought to be a very careful process.” Martinez explained that the funding would revive what was once an ongoing event in East Austin, which was in line with the African-American Quality of Life Report and support of African-American cultural events. Martinez suggested that redirecting the item through the budget process was disingenuous and noted it would still fall outside of the normal process. “If you are going to make a motion that it go through the budget process, you should just make a substitute motion to deny it,” said Martinez. A motion to consider funding the festival through the budget process passed on a 5-2 vote, with Martinez and Riley opposed.
Council OKs Distracted Driving Ordinance
After a brief foray into the ins and outs of ham radio operation, Austin City Council passed its new Distracted Driving Ordinance on Thursday, despite persistent concerns that the law has too many loopholes. The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015, bans operators of motor vehicles and bicycles from using portable electronic devices. Those devices include phones, PDAs, music players, GPS devices and e-readers. City Council did allow an exception that will permit the use of cellphones while motorists and bicyclists are at a complete stop. Additionally, hands-free devices will be permitted. A bid to reduce the ordinance’s application to cyclists was rejected. Council also took the time to clarify that two-way radios used for business, FCC-approved devices and emergency communications will be allowed under the new law.