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Council: Follow the Props and the Money

It's a full docket as council tries to set November's bond election

By Michael King, Fri., Aug. 17, 2012

Raise your hand if you want a second weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival – C3 Presents has put the proposition before the council.
Raise your hand if you want a second weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival – C3 Presents has put the proposition before the council.
Photo by John Anderson

The ball is still rolling toward a November city charter election, and though several of the thornier questions – e.g., geographic districting, future election dates, civil service for city employees – have been resolved (for ballot purposes), a couple are still hanging fire, and need to be settled soon – officially by Aug. 20, if the ballot is to be prepared in time for the election. The shrinking schedule means, for example, that some items were posted for action at last week's council work session – making for instant controversy over whether, for example, geographic districting had received sufficient public debate – and a few more were taken up for action this week, with some still to be confirmed today (Thursday).

Still undecided were Austin Energy items: whether the ballot should include1) an authorization to form an independent board to govern the energy utility, and 2) an authorization for council to lease or sell utility property (potentially, the city's interest in the coal-burning Fayette power plant). In the discussion thus far (both at the Aug. 2 regular meeting and at the work session), council members appeared evenly split on both, and in the absence of Bill Spelman (ill and on indefinite leave; see "Headlines" ), it seemed possible that both these proposals may stalemate. On Tuesday, after a quick discussion, only Mayor Lee Lef­fing­well still supported putting the "lease or sell" proposition on the ballot; his argument that the utility needs that management flexibility in a volatile energy market did not persuade his colleagues, who voted 5-1 to shelve the proposition.

Last week, Mike Martinez argued that even if council eventually decides not to create an AE board, it should at least be authorized, just in case (and perhaps to convince the Public Utility Commission that the city takes seriously the pending AE rate case). Public Citizen's Tom "Smitty" Smith (and others) countered that the experience with San Antonio's CPS Energy's independent board has been mostly negative – less transparency, less public input – so council members appear to be cooling even to the notion of putting it to a public vote. At Tuesday's work session, Chris Riley said he doesn't think this proposal has either adequate preparation or sufficient public support to be on the ballot – the wind appears to be blowing against approval.

If those vexing questions are put to rest – or to ballot – council still needs to decide what bond propositions need to be placed on that same ballot, and has not yet agreed on what the final bond items should be. Lef­fing­well has pushed hard to keep the total at $385 million – not necessitating a tax increase – and council consensus slowly came to support that limit, but the group has yet to decide just which projects will make the final cut. On Tuesday morning, Martinez proposed a list of cuts (an APD substation, some parks funding) and additions (Austin Studios, Violet Crown Trail, Barton Springs bathhouse, a homeless women and children's shelter, etc.), and other members countered with their own proposals. After much juggling and number-crunching at the work sessions, a tentative first vote meant special-called meetings this weekend.

Beyond the bond tinkering – once again, a list that needs to be finalized by Aug. 20 – Austin Interfaith and northeast neighborhood groups had been organizing against a request by Speedy Stop for waiver of the no-alcohol-sales rule within 300 feet of a school (Reagan High), for the company's Exxon station at Cameron Road and US 290 East. (A similar request for a station on Oltorf, near Travis High, was withdrawn due to neighborhood opposition; and indeed, at press time comes word that this item has been withdrawn as well.)

Then there are a couple of less somber but potentially contested items: The Austin City Limits Music Festival (i.e., C3 Pre­sents) has asked to extend its event to a second weekend (presumably beginning in 2013), and Circuit of the Americas had requested that it be permitted to hold a music event at Auditorium Shores during the weekend of its first Formula One race, Nov. 16-18. The popular ACL fest may carry sufficient good will to override local neighborhood misgivings; not so for Formula One, which has run smack up against the Junior League of Austin's "A Christmas Affair," a multi-event charity fundraiser held that same weekend at Palmer Events Center. Earlier this week, Junior League President Cathy McHorse told the Chron­icle that while the League has no larger objections to Formula One or its events, it is "opposed to permitting the [Auditorium Shores] event, because we are concerned about the risk to our annual fundraising event, that generates significant dollars for our community." McHorse cited the League's long record of supporting local causes ("for the most vulnerable people in our community"), and said that conversations with the city and the Circuit had not produced a resolution. On Wednesday, the mayor withdrew the item.

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