Council: Rosewood Moves Forward

Nondiscrimination ordinance stalls

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo postponed a resolution to review the city's non-discrimination policies until March 24.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo postponed a resolution to review the city's non-discrimination policies until March 24. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After a hiatus last week, City Council returned to its regular Thursday (Feb. 25) session late in the day yesterday, spending the majority of the morning hours in their monthly Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee meeting.

They capped that off with an a resolution directing staff to evaluate what impact decreasing Austin Energy’s General Fund transfers would have on the overall budget. The actual meeting didn’t get rolling until about 3:30pm, leading Mayor Steve Adler to quip, “It’s Feb. 25 – still,” netting a few chuckles.

A discussion and eventual approval to initiate historic zoning for East Austin’s Rosewood Courts, which was the first African-American public housing project in the nation, took up the largest portion of Council energy. In a 8-0-3 vote (Council Members Don Zimmerman, Pio Renteria, and Sheri Gallo abstaining), Council accepted CM Ora Houston’s proposal to move forward with the designation process.

The session also featured a notable postponement and withdrawal: Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo postponed a resolution that would have directed the city manager to review the city's non-discrimination employment policies and practices, and return to Council by May 1 with recommendations on how to improve employee protections. It also requests that the Director of Human Resources initiate amendments to the Municipal Civil Service rules. The resolution, spurred in part by pushback from last spring’s eye-rollingly sexist “Women Leading in Local Government” presentation, is based off suggestions offered by the Human Rights Commission in November.

From the dais, Tovo thanked the several “courageous” women who contacted her office (anonymously and not) to vocalize support and a deep need for changes to the city’s non-discrimination policy, considered an ineffective channel for recourse by many. “A lot of individuals within the city community are very eager to see this resolution move forward, and I want to assure you that it will,” said Tovo. Already delayed from the Feb. 4 meeting, the resolution is expected to resurface during the March 24 session.

So, what gives? While not mentioned directly by Tovo, the postponement likely has something to do with intense hesitation from the HR department. In a city memo, obtained by the Chronicle, sent to the Audit and Finance Committee on Feb. 23, Joya Hayes, interim director of Human Resources and Civil Services writes that the HR department is “concerned with the potential impact” of Tovo’s resolution and has not had a “full opportunity” to evaluate the proposal. She lists five key concerns, including criticism of the proposal to allow a separate commission to provide a process for determination of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, saying that would “at a minimum, create undesirable confusion and complexity to future litigation” and increase the city’s liability. (So in other words, let’s not allow a commission to contradict the city’s findings so we don’t get sued.)

CM Ann Kitchen – facing a possible recall election led by those unhappy with her move to regulate transportation network companies (Uber, Lyft, etc.) – initially proposed, then withdrew, an ordinance that would have required fingerprint-based criminal background checks for chauffeurs.

Perhaps the sweetest moment in chambers came during a proclamation by CM Leslie Pool naming the day after retiring local Democratic Rep. Elliott Naishtat for his nearly 26 years of public service in the Texas House. Pool applauded the long-time health policy crusader’s 300 bills over 13 sessions, many of which helped working families, children, and the disabled. Naishtat offered these parting words of inspiration: “Stay involved, be political, and do what you can.”

Other items approved by your Council:

Item 16: Approved a resolution establishing a process for performance reviews of the City Manager, City Clerk, City Auditor, and Clerk of the Municipal Court. (You couldn’t help but feel this was a subtle dig at City Manager Marc Ott, whom many 10-1 candidates criticized while running for office. Attorney Fred Lewis called on Council to institute “rigorous metrics” and include the public’s input in the evaluation process. Zimmerman offered an amendment to cast a public light on the internal review process for managers with less than 1,000 employees and to take action on compensation and benefits in open session. A couple of CMs noted that nothing really stops them from doing that now; the amendment was defeated 10-1.)

Item 15: Approved $160,000 for child care services for families in the Passages Program, which assists homeless families with job training and childcare.

Item 23: Approved a 10-month extension to the interlocal agreement with UT for the U.S. Department of Justice grant-funded Restore Rundberg program.

Item 45: Approved a resolution to create a group of stakeholders who will develop a conceptual plan that identifies a vision for the area around the Downtown MetroRail Station.

Item 53: Authorized a five-year, $2.5 million agreement with the UT Center for Transportation Research for transpo research.

Item 21: Approved a Travis County contract to design and construct a multi-use trail, partially crossing the Onion Creek Wildlife Preserve.

Items 63 and 64: Granted floodplain variances to allow redevelopment of St. Catherine of Siena Church. (This required a site specific amendment to the Save Our Springs Initiative; the property is partially in the 25-year and 100-year floodplains of the Kincheon Branch, a tributary of Williamson Creek.)

Item 55: Directed the City Manager to develop a report with options for either reducing or completely eliminating the General Fund and Economic Development transfers from Austin Water in the next budget.

Item 13: Approved a process to secure a $3 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to finance the Family Business Loan Program, which seeks to revitalize disadvantaged areas and create jobs for the chronically unemployed or under-employed. “We have something that does that already – a bank. I’m confused as to why a city government would get involved in being a bank,” shot Zimmerman, who voted against the otherwise non-controversial measure. The Economic Development Department representative politely reminded Zimmerman the intent of the program is to benefit low- to moderate income residents (a demographic, might we interject, continually screwed over by big banks – subprime mortgage loan crisis, anyone?)

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