Austin prepares for first-ever City Council redistricting
Once every decade, Austin residents participate in a process to redraw the boundaries of City Council districts. These boundaries impact city government and shape how Austinites will be represented by their leaders for the next 10 years, so this process matters – a lot. This is actually the first time in city history to redraw these maps, as the existing Council districts were drawn in 2013 and much has changed since then; for starters, the city is more populous and more diverse. To educate residents about this historic process and motivate some to get personally involved, Austin City Auditor Corrie Stokes and her staff will be holding an interactive virtual town hall, open to the entire community, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 18. “We hope you will join us as redistricting only occurs once every ten years and coincides with the census,” Stokes said in a news release. In addition to giving an overview, Stokes will describe two ways for residents to participate in the redistricting process: by joining the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which is tasked with redrawing the boundaries of the Council districts; or serving on the Applicant Review Panel, which selects the candidates for the redistricting commission. Besides Stokes, Deputy City Auditor Jason Hadavi, Senior Auditor Maria Stroth, Senior Auditor Eletu-Odibo Temitope and Senior Auditor Kelsey Thompson will be on hand and the town hall meeting will be moderated by Patricia Fraga. The meeting will be broadcast and livestreamed on ATXN and livestreamed on the Austin city auditor’s Facebook page. Have questions? The auditor’s office will be taking questions beginning Tuesday, June 16, on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, by email at email@example.com or by phone at 512-974-2805. But first, we suggest you check out RedistrictATX.org– the snazzy new website explains everything you’ll want to to know about redistricting and why it affects the next 10 years of life in Austin.
Travis County DA adds online form for excessive force complaints
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore announced Friday that her office has added an online form to report excessive use of force by police. The Use of Force Private Complaint Form is available on the DA’s Civil Rights Unit site. A press release from Moore explains that in addition to the new complaint form, the website offers “other helpful information including annual statistics about the cases handled by the unit, copies of declination letters issued in cases where prosecution is declined, a description of the special grand juries that are used specifically for civil rights cases, and a list of the community members who sit on the Civil Rights Advisory Council.” Moore explained, “We have always encouraged citizens to make independent reports to our office when they think they have been a victim of unlawful force by a public servant. But we are adding an electronic form to our website that will hopefully make the process easier for the public to access and use. It will also allow our prosecutors to review the complaints in a more efficient way.”
Public Safety Committee meets Thursday
This Thursday, City Council will hold its first meeting of the resurrected Public Safety Committee. Council voted to convert the existing Judicial Committee to the Public Safety Committee as part of a series of resolutions aimed at institutional reform of the Austin Police Department, following its violent response to protests against police brutality and racism. The committee will meet at 1 p.m. on June 18, and according to a post from Council Member Jimmy Flannigan’s office, “will include the opportunity to hear from and collaborate with the city manager’s office and executive leadership on how they intend to begin the implementation process for the resolutions passed last night. We intend to meet monthly through at least the end of the year, to continue the ongoing work that is essential to successfully accomplish the scale of reform we are contemplating.” All Council members may (and likely will) attend the meeting, which will presumably drill down into public safety budgets and policies, though an agenda has not yet been posted. The entire Council is not officially scheduled to meet again until July 23, when they will discuss the upcoming budget. With a proposed $100 million cut to the police budget, increased community needs due to the pandemic and questions surrounding new state tax caps, this year’s budget meetings promise to be quite interesting. (And given the overall tone and pace of this year, we certainly aren’t ruling out the possibility of the break being interrupted by something else.)
$1,000 relief grant for musicians extended
The city of Austin will give musicians more time to apply to the Austin Music Disaster Relief fund. The $1.5 million fund, which was established to aid local musicians experiencing economic hardship due to the pandemic, is intended to provide $1,000 grants to help the most hard-hit with immediate emergency needs. Applications will stay open until June 26, instead of closing on June 12 as originally planned. Find grant guidelines and applications at ATXrecovers.com and the MusiCares Foundation. “We extended the application deadline because our local musicians are juggling many priorities right now,” notes Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, acting director for the Economic Development Department, in a press release about the extension. “Musicians can quickly complete the online application from their phone or computer. The grant can be used for rent, groceries, bills, and many other personal or professional needs.” Soon after opening the application process, the city faced criticism about its requirements.
Council approves 25 mph speed program
Austin Transportation will begin phasing in speed limit reductions over the next few months as part of the comprehensive speed management program approved by City Council Thursday. The effort cuts speeds on residential and downtown streets to 25 mph, with exceptions for some wider, high-traffic corridors, and drops most arterials inside the urban core down to 35 mph or less. Although a large percentage of serious injuries and traffic fatalities happen on state-owned roads in Austin, these changes are intended to help reduce severe crashes and establish a more comfortable speed for all road users. “I really do hope that (this) will allow us to make some pretty big strides towards our Vision Zero goals,” Council Member Leslie Pool said before Thursday’s vote. Austin’s Vision Zero goal is to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025, but the city has not taken the necessary actions to meet that goal since adopting the target in October 2015. Traffic deaths have continued to climb in recent years, with 38 deaths so far this year, up from 34 at the same time last year. “Speeding is one of the top behaviors that leads to serious injuries and death on our roadways,” said Robert Spillar, director of Austin Transportation. “We believe changes like the proposed new speed limits will better reflect our safety goals and encourage drivers to be more cautious when driving in potentially high-pedestrian environments.” The department plans to continue evaluating arterials outside of the urban core when traffic conditions resume to normal and present speed modification recommendations to Council next spring. For now, the public can browse specific speed changes on the interactive map at the department’s website.
City confronts Covid-19 in Latinx community
Public health data indicates a disproportionate number of Covid-19 positive test cases in Austin’s Latinx community. Austin Public Health hopes to lower that number by doing outreach in the community. The effort is being launched with an interactive Facebook Live conversation that will be held in Spanish this Saturday, June 13, 10-11:30 a.m. “Representatives from Austin Public Health and the Latinx community will discuss the impact of Covid-19 in the Latinx community, share available resources and seek input from participants about how the city can make improvements.” The city is planning an additional online forum on Saturday, July 11, “to expand the conversation to all communities of color regarding the impact of Covid-19 and long-term public health challenges.”
County sends cash to neighboring cities
This week, small municipalities in the county will receive an official contract outlining the direct funds that Travis County will provide to help bolster an economy rattled by the Covid-19 pandemic. “They’re anxious to see the document,” Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said at the June 9 meeting of the Commissioners Court. Last week, the Commissioners Court allocated $7.3 million, or $55 per Travis County resident, in the surrounding municipalities, excluding Austin. At Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners finalized the interlocal agreement with the cities in order to provide them with direct relief, but limited the types of programming the funds are eligible to be used for. Municipalities will not be able to create rent, mortgage or utility assistance programs in order to avoid residents receiving aid both from the county and their respective city of residence. Commissioners explained that this limitation was to avoid a duplication of dollar expenditures as federal law prohibits aid dollars distributed under the CARES Act from being spent on duplicate programming. Small cities may, however, set up small business assistance programs as long as the cities do not grant financial relief to businesses that receive help from the county. “We don’t know everything that the local city mayors and management know about their local small business communities,” said Diana Ramirez, the director of the Economic Development Department. “As long as we coordinate, we think it’s going to work fine.”
Help your community: Be a poll worker
Travis County needs poll workers – more than 700 poll workers, to be exact – to staff election day voting sites. The Travis County Elections Coordinator has partnered with the League of Women Voters Austin Area and OpenAustin to beat the bushes and sign up election day poll workers for the upcoming primary runoff and special elections on July 14. If you’re a registered voter, you may sign up to be an election day poll worker. The gig pays $10-12 per hour and comes with the warm feeling of participating in the democratic process. Sign up here. The Travis County Clerk will contact you about scheduling an hourlong online training session. Find more information about other temporary election positions here.
AISD celebrates the class of 2020
Austin ISD will hold virtual graduation ceremonies for seniors on Monday, June 15, and Tuesday, June 16, aired on AISD.TV and the district’s Facebook page. A district news release promises that the virtual ceremonies “will showcase many of the same things as traditional graduation ceremonies including speeches from the principal, superintendent, valedictorian and salutatorian.” The real fun is on June 23-25 when graduates will get the opportunity to experience in-person graduation walks in caps and gowns, to collect their diplomas on an outdoor stage in front of families and friends. In observance of social distancing protocols, graduates will be assigned staggered times to arrive and each graduate may invite four guests from the same household. Find the location and schedule for in-person graduation walks here.
District launches student survey
Austin ISD officials are examining how effective remote learning is and how it can be improved for the 2020-21 school year. So the district has launched a survey for students in grades 6-11 in an effort to get feedback on this past spring semester. The 10-minute survey focuses on the “student experience,” and aims to find out what works and doesn’t work in the online classroom. Take the survey.
Check out the mobility bond progress report
Austinites who voted for the mobility bond in November 2016 may be curious to know what their $720 million has accomplished. The answer is, a lot. The bond’s Year Three Progress Report, now available as a PDF on the bond website, offers a detailed snapshot of all the work completed with mobility bond dollars over the past three years. More than 200 projects have been completed, and many of the biggest ones are beginning construction soon. Many of the projects have enabled kids to walk and bike to and from school more safely. And it’s the gift that keeps on giving, providing funding “for safety and mobility projects citywide, including major regional and corridor projects, bikeways projects, sidewalks, urban trails, and more.” Sounds like progress to us.
PARD offers free summer camps
Kids (and parents) who are looking at the prospect of a long hot summer stretching out in front of them may rejoice at this news: The Austin Parks and Recreation Department will be holding free summer programs starting July 6. A wide range of summer programming includes Stay Playful camps, Stay Creative camps, kayaking and biking, and family park activities. And for those reluctant to start in-person activities, the Austin Nature & Science Center has some online-only options weekdays in July. Since the summer camps are observing social distancing requirements, a lottery system will be used to select participants for weekly sessions. Austin residents may register online for the weekly lottery starting at 10 a.m. on June 15. Find more information about PARD’s summer camp programming, as well as registration details and schedules, here.
All Together ATX opens second round of grants
All Together Austin, the result of a partnership between Austin Community Foundation and United Way for Greater Austin, has opened applications for its second round of funding, which will distribute $1.5 million-$2 million to local projects. This round of funding for those impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic will go to those working on:
- Shelter and support for those experiencing domestic violence
- Closing the digital divide
- Mental health support
- Support for aging population
- Utility payment support
Grant applications and more information about the requirements can be found at AllTogetherATX.org/critical-needs-grants. Applications are due June 26 at 5 p.m. and grants will be distributed in early August. During the first round, the charity distributed $1.8 million to 97 local nonprofits to address immediate needs created by the pandemic.
CommUnityCare begins asymptomatic testing
CommUnityCare Health Centers is partnering with Quest Diagnostics and Centene Corporation to provide free Covid-19 testing for people who display no symptoms of coronavirus. Quest will provide CommUnityCare with up to 1,000 test kits each week. CommUnityCare CEO Jaeson Fournier explained in a news release, “The prevalence of asymptomatic carriers is one of the biggest challenges we are currently facing during this pandemic – especially for at-risk populations. A carrier of the disease who doesn’t know they have it is more likely to pass it to others without even knowing it. One of our strongest weapons in combating the coronavirus pandemic is increased testing.” Dr. Alan Schalscha, chief medical officer of CommUnityCare, said, “Knowing the status of anyone who comes in for testing helps us to identify positive cases and quarantine them so that the spread is contained. Most importantly we want to inform and educate our community of their status so that they may take actions to protect their families or others who they may come in contact with on a daily basis.” Insurance plans will cover the cost of the tests. Uninsured individuals will be tested free of charge. No appointment is required at drive-up test sites. To find a test site near you, call CommUnityCare’s Covid-19 hotline at 512-978-8775.
It’s hot! Some pools are open
Austin is expected to see temperatures climb past the 100-degree mark today, so the opening of some city pools comes as welcome news. Today the city will open Barton Springs, Deep Eddy, Bartholomew, Walnut Creek, Garrison, Northwest and Mabel Davis pools, in a limited capacity due to the pandemic. Patrons must be screened before entering and must make reservations for a two-hour block of time. The reservations are free, and can be made at austintexas.gov/parksonline or by calling 512-974-9330 from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. In addition to that system, a handful of pools will be open for free, with no reservations required. Big Stacy, Rosewood, Shipe and Govalle pools will be opened and cleared every two hours for cleaning. Swimmers are asked to get in line to reenter the pool after cleaning procedures are completed.
Bike Austin petitions for extending bike lanes
Cycling is always popular in Austin, but in the past few months, bicycles have assumed major importance as more and more Austinites ditch their cars to run errands and enjoy socially distanced exercise on two wheels. On June 11, City Council will be consider approving the creation of temporary protected bike lanes on Congress Avenue north of Riverside Drive in order to enable safer bicycling during the pandemic. The advocacy group Bike Austin is all in favor of this plan, of course; it just wants to take it a little further. The group has launched a petition urging the city not to stop the bike lanes at Third Street, as planned, but to extend them all the way to the Capitol, creating a protected north-south bicycling corridor. As of press time, more than 1,000 people had signed the petition.
Texas Supreme Court blocks paid sick leave
Though approved by City Council in February 2018, Austin still has no paid sick leave ordinance. The Texas Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the city Friday, blocking the ordinance and upholding an earlier ruling that it conflicted with the Texas Minimum Wage Act and was therefore unconstitutional. Robert Henneke, general counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which filed the suit, released a victory statement: “The Texas Supreme Court’s denial of the city of Austin’s appeal leaves undisturbed the Third Court of Appeal’s opinion that the Austin paid sick leave ordinance is unconstitutional because it is preempted by state law. Once again, Texas courts are unanimous that cities in Texas lack the lawful power to mandate paid sick leave that interferes with the ability of employers and employees to negotiate wages and benefits.” Council Member Greg Casar, who was the lead sponsor of Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance, told the Austin Monitor, “This is a reprehensible act from the Supreme Court in the midst of the worst pandemic in 100 years. We will not rest until every Texan has the basic right to paid sick time, a right guaranteed in every other wealthy country in the world.”
Speak up about the city budget
There couldn’t be a better time to let city leaders know your thoughts on how Austin should spend its money. Luckily, there’s a way to do just that, by taking the budget survey on Speak Up Austin. The city of Austin is “committed to an inclusive and transparent budget development process that utilizes resident and stakeholder feedback to ensure budget priorities are being met.” So view the virtual Town Hall Budget Presentation first, if you prefer, and then log on to the survey to share your thoughts on what priorities are most important to you. The budget survey is open until July 1.
Austin Public Health asks protesters to get tested
In a response to “multiple large gatherings,” the city’s health authority is asking people who attended protests (and concerts?) to sign up for free Covid-19 tests. According to the city, “the Public Testing Enrollment Form’s requirements will be expanded to allow more individuals without symptoms to sign up for a testing date and time at APH’s drive-thru site. Individuals will still need to create an account at austintexas.gov/Covid19 and fill out the form before they can schedule a test.” More information about the testing process can be found here.
Fireproof your home
With summer just getting started, this is the time to prepare your home for the approaching wildfire season. The Austin Fire Department had to cancel its Wildfire Community Preparedness Symposium due to Covid-19, but it’s more important than ever that you take matters into your own hands and make your home fire-wise. (Besides, who among us doesn’t need a good weekend stay-at-home project?) Do you have an emergency plan for your family in case of fire? The city’s Ready Set Go! wildland fire action guide (en español) will help you make your home fire-resistant and includes a set of critical checklists. The National Fire Protection Association also has a page of resources for homeowners. The theme here is planning ahead. Wildfires are a fact of life in Central Texas, but if you use the tips and tools available to you, you can create a more firesafe environment for your family, your home and the firefighters who will be risking their lives to defend your property.