News Roundup: Butterflies, Buffoons, & Bastrop

Debacles over courthouses and task forces

Brandon Reed testifies at a Travis County Commissioners Court hearing regarding restoring face-to-face jail visits at the Travis County Jail, Sept. 22. The matter will be taken up again tomorrow, Tuesday, Sept. 29.
Brandon Reed testifies at a Travis County Commissioners Court hearing regarding restoring face-to-face jail visits at the Travis County Jail, Sept. 22. The matter will be taken up again tomorrow, Tuesday, Sept. 29. (Photo by John Anderson)

In this week's News Roundup: Council Member Don Zimmerman really, really doesn't want the new courthouse Downtown; a former Bastrop Sheriff's Deputy's murder trial ends in a mistrial; there is much wailing and gnashing at the Statesman after Council allowed a small task force to have closed meetings; and more.

Courthouse Collision: Last Wednesday, Sept. 23, District 6 City Council Member Don Zimmerman and D1 CM Ora Houston took to Council's Audit and Finance Committee their 11th-hour proposal to move the Civil & Family Courts Complex project out of Downtown and into the "Eastern Crescent" of the city, perhaps near Lake Walter Long in Houston’s District 1 and County Precinct 1. After years of planning, in August Travis County Commissioners Court placed the CFCC project on the ballot for a November 3 bond vote, and neither the city nor Council has any official role in building or administering the county courts. Zimmerman insists it would be cheaper to build outside Downtown (despite planners' arguments to the contrary) and Houston believes the CFCC would bring with it economic development for Northeast Austin. The committee did not welcome the proposal, which in fact amounts to a not very subtle attempt to kill the bond: The Zimmerman resolution itself is headed, "Oppose Nov. $287M Bond, relocate courthouse to East Austin." After brief public testimony that included a testy exchange between Houston and CFCC campaign director Genevieve Van Cleve, who defended the Downtown project – Houston told her, "On behalf of the citizens of District 1, I want to thank you for telling us what's best for us" – D8 CM Ellen Troxclair moved to bring the resolution to the full Council. The other committee members (D3 CM Sabino Renteria, D7 CM Leslie Pool, and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo) spoke in support of the CFCC project and against Troxclair's motion, which failed for lack of a second. – Michael King

Justice Delayed: A Bastrop jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict in the murder trial of Daniel Willis, who shot Yvette Smith twice after she stepped onto her porch in February 2014. She was unarmed. At the time of Smith's killing, Willis was a Bastrop County Sheriff's Deputy. The jury's inability to agree (they were apparently split 8-4, in favor of a guilty verdict) means that the case ends in a mistrial; however, the prosecutor has vowed to retry Willis for Smith's murder. For more on the history of the case, see "Willful Ignorance," Feb. 27. – Amy Kamp

Where’s My High Horse?: The editors hanging upside down in the Statesman Bat-Cave initiated yet another sanctimonious children's crusade last week, excoriating City Council for having exempted (after the fact) the appointed "Task Force for Community Engagement" from compliance with the state Open Meetings Act. "The Austin City Council erred in a big way last week when it revoked open meetings requirements for a city advisory commission," thundered the Statesman. "Not only did the council's action diminish transparency for a group tasked with improving community engagement, but council members also went back on their word that the Task Force for Community Engagement would operate in the sunshine. That sends the wrong message." ("Council sends bad message …," Sept. 22) Despite the editors' pearl-clutching and harrumphing, the Council actually "erred in a big way" when they first imposed the unnecessary open meetings process on an advisory commission – something the daily's reporters confirmed is essentially unheard of for a non-sovereign, advisory body. The Task Force volunteers soon realized that if they failed to report every conversation and interaction, used email or other online methods to collaborate, consulted in smaller groups, or even acted by consensus – they could run afoul of rules specifically designed for quorums of elected officials acting as a group. Accordingly, Task Force Chair (and former Chronicle city editor) Mike Clark-Madison returned to Council, which sensibly and unanimously agreed to relieve the Task Force of the open meetings requirements. While that action made the Statesman editors run for their fainting couches ("thwarted the public’s right to know" – oh, please), it will make the Task Force much more flexible and more effective at its appointed task: to research, review, and report to Council (which is subject to the Act) means and processes for stronger and broader community engagement in city affairs. Good for them. – M.K.

Save the Monarch: On Friday, Sept. 25, Mayor Steve Adler became the first Texas mayor to accept the National Wildlife Federation's Mayor’s Monarch Pledge, a commitment to take specific actions to help save the Monarch butterfly as well as other pollinators, endangered by loss of habitat across the country and in their Mexican winter habitat. Under the pledge, mayors commit to actions that can include creating a Monarch-friendly demonstration garden at City Hall, converting abandoned lots to Monarch habitat, changing mowing schedules to allow milkweed to grow unimpeded, and other methods to improve the butterflies' chances of long-term survival. Earlier this year, Council approved a resolution to support such efforts, and in a statement Mayor Adler said, "This is an effort to continue Austin's legacy as the No. 1 City for Wildlife, a recent designation given by the National Wildlife Federation. This challenge is an extension of our current efforts, and I'm pledging that the City of Austin will work to complete 16 of the specific action items in this challenge in our ongoing endeavors to continue to save the Monarch Butterfly." – M.K.

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