All This and Beer Too
Rumors of City Hall intrigue – and everybody goes home early
By Michael King,
9:00AM, Mon. Apr. 21, 2014
Last week’s City Council meeting began mysteriously, with postponements due to the absence of Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, due to an eye injury (reportedly a scratched cornea) that kept her off the dais. That also enabled withdrawals of “mid-year performance guidance” for four staff members, most notably City Manager Marc Ott.
The withdrawals – nestled quietly among Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s normally routine “changes and corrections” to the agenda – would have passed almost unnoticed, until Council Member Bill Spelman asked if the items couldn’t be postponed to May 1 instead of withdrawn. The mayor responded that annual staff evaluations are already scheduled for late June: “The reason I suggested withdrawal is we can take up those items then.” Spelman conceded, while noting that “some of us” might want to re-post the reviews (also including City Auditor, City Clerk, and Municipal Court Clerk) for earlier consideration.
How big a deal that exchange signals depends on your point of view. Ahead of the meeting, Alberta Phillips at the Statesman speculated (Viewpoint: “Is Ott on the Hot Seat?”) there was a mayoral move afoot to oust Ott, and was surprised to learn from Leffingwell that he hadn’t placed the reviews on the agenda. Afterward, the online Austin Monitor and KUT-FM reported that Spelman and CM Mike Martinez had done so, both council members saying they were simply pursuing a Council decision last August to provide formal staff feedback more often than once a year.
Presumably we’ll know more if the matter reappears on the May 1 agenda, although generally little info dribbles out of executive sessions. The Monitor suggested both Ott and Auditor Kenneth Mory are under scrutiny; Phillips surmised Ott is too “apolitical” for this Council (allegedly unlike predecessor Toby Futrell) – and then noted that Ott argued against spending the $14 million mid-year “surplus,” because he “wanted to save it for tax relief.” In fact, that wasn’t quite Ott’s argument – more precisely, he pointed out to Council that early budget estimates are just that, estimates. But it's worth noting that right or wrong, “tax relief” is very much a “political” position, and in any case, finally the Council’s purview.
Beyond this brief maneuvering, more postponements fell like dominoes. Several zoning cases were bumped, including the Baylor House historic landmark matter (to return May 1), sufficiently contentious that the current landowner doesn’t accept the “Baylor House” designation. Also returning May 1 will be the “vested development rights” (i.e., grandfathering) ordinance revision, which will likely require all seven votes on the dais to resolve. All the way to May 15 went two items on Lake Austin shoreline regulation, as staff and the relevant commissions have been trying to respond to new lakeshore developments without abandoning too much ground (and water) on environmental regs.
Council did manage initiating resolutions (staff to draft ordinances as necessary) on housing discrimination, non-retaliation policies protecting contractor employees, a race/gender equity pay initiative (also aimed at city contractors), a budget analysis that would work toward $11/hour minimum for all city employees (including part-timers), and declared “freedom from domestic violence” a fundamental human right.
Slightly more debatable was an amendment to the current Austin Regional Intelligence Center arrangements, allowing a group of small police agencies, including some school districts and colleges, to partner in the “fusion center’s” intelligence sharing. CM Laura Morrison asked for additional oversight as well as protections in the event of application by for-profit entities; her amendments passed unanimously.
The most discussed item of the day was in fact a consent item (i.e., ready for passage without discussion), as Leffingwell pointed out to would-be speakers, in vain. This was the housing non-discrimination resolution – to include “source of income” as a protected element. Plenty of people wanted to discuss it anyway (Austin Interfaith had held a press conference in support earlier, on the plaza), and so it took time in both the morning and afternoon sessions. Perhaps it was just as well, since the testimony offered plenty of evidence that the resolution is an attempt to address a substantial problem.
The purpose of the proposal (sponsored by Spelman, Cole, and Morrison) is to prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to prospective tenants on grounds of “source of income” – most often federal Housing and Urban Development “Section 8” vouchers, but also other types of housing assistance vouchers. According to a survey by the Austin Tenants Council, of nearly 80,000 affordable units in town (of complexes with 50 units or more) only about 10% will accept vouchers; several renters testified they find it very difficult to find adequate housing because of the refusals. Some landlords, the Austin Board of Realtors, and Austin Apartment Association, oppose the proposal, because they say Section 8 vouchers require too much red tape and give too much authority to HUD inspectors.
In the end, the testimony in favor was overwhelming – including the fact that similar provisions are common in other cities. The Council, already prepared to vote yes on consent, voted yes with little additional discussion – and the mayor pointing out that this is the beginning of the process, and an actual draft ordinance (presumably including protections advocated by some of the stakeholders) will return later in the year.
That was the major accomplishment of the day. With very little additional fuss, the formal meeting closed with the passage of an ordinance to allow (with some conditions) on-site beer and ale sales at local breweries, enabled by a change in state law last year. Council tweaked it a bit, but passed it quickly, 6-0.
Wanna guess which item led the local TV news on Friday night?
More detail on this meeting and Council's upcoming schedule is available here.