Council: What’ll We Do Without Zim?

First 2017 meeting hints new alignments

The new City Council, in its first meeting Jan. 26, can count one accomplishment immediately: adjournment a few minutes before 10pm, no extension motion necessary. Beyond that, in (slightly) altered composition, the members are feeling their way to new things to debate.

Don Zimmerman, last year's Santa (Photo by Michael King)

In the absence of defeated District 6 representative Don Zimmerman (and to a lesser extent, former D8 member Sheri Gallo), it was left to remnant Republican Ellen Troxclair (D8) to fuss at arbitrarily designated morning contracts. Troxclair chose a $500,000 ABIA project for a new bus shelter, inventively designed in shape of an illuminated guitar. Troxclair wanted to know why the expenditure was from the capital budget instead of dinging the Art in Public Places budget (a standard 2% of nearly all city capital construction, underwriting art commissions and installations). Staff responded that the shelter would in fact be a “capital asset” – they might also have pointed out that if architectural design elements became AIPP-by-default, there would soon be no AIPP …

Troxclair had the better (though equally unsuccessful) part of a later debate, when she defended new D6 CM Jimmy Flannigan’s nomination of Lawrence R. “Rick” Jacobi to the Environmental Commission. Jacobi is a prominent consultant on nuclear energy and nuclear waste, and Flannigan said “his perspective and experience in some very dangerous areas was an asset to the environmental commission.” Jacobi is abundantly qualified for a volunteer commission appointment, but he was also a consultant to and former general manager of the Texas Low-Level Waste Authority (responsible for creating and managing the nuclear waste site in Sierra Blanca, far West Texas).

That involvement was a flashpoint for local environmentalists, and D6 CM Leslie Pool said she was “emphatically opposed” to Jacobi’s appointment. (“We know nuclear energy is not safe,” she insisted, although low-level radioactive waste is not necessarily “nuclear.”) Environmental engineer Lauren Ross and Sierra Club spokesman Roy Waley spoke against approving Jacobi’s nomination, with Ross describing the appointment as violating Austin’s values of environmental protection, justice, and racial equity.

It was a fairly strident broadside – especially with the nominee not available to defend himself – and first Troxclair and then D1 CM Ora Houston pointed out that in the absence of compelling disqualifications, Council prefers a wide latitude on an individual member’s nominees. Troxclair also pointed out that “diversity” on the dais should also extend to diversity of opinion – but she didn’t audibly persuade her colleagues, beyond their offering a postponement to allow members to get fully up to speed on Jacobi.

Flannigan responded, without rancor, that he isn’t keen on postponements, and that he would consider a vote for one effectively a rejection of his nominee. That’s what happened, and Flannigan is presumably looking for an alternative to Jacobi. Afterward, Flannigan declined to prolong the debate, telling the Chronicle, “Mr. Jacobi, I had hoped, would bring much-needed expertise over many years of experience and multiple degrees in engineering. Moving forward, I know that District 6 has a deep well of talent that will serve the city with distinction.”

Another curious dust-up occurred over a seemingly anodyne resolution in support of abortion rights (part of a national effort to defend reproductive rights, under attack by the Trump administration, and to mark the 44th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade). Troxclair didn’t pursue the substance, but described the resolution as implying an Austin unanimity on an issue that is in fact highly contested. A bit more surprisingly, Houston said she supports Planned Parenthood and abortion rights, but thought the resolution too “in people’s faces,” of those who might disagree. The eventual vote to approve was 9-1-1, with Troxclair against and Houston abstaining.

Ora Houston (Photo by John Anderson)

Asked later what her specific objections to the resolution might have been (she was disappointed that she hadn’t been involved in the drafting), Houston told the Chronicle that she was uneasy with 11 mentions of “abortion” – in a resolution about abortion rights – and said she preferred a version adopted by Travis County Commissioners Court (which never mentions “abortion,” substituting the euphemism “termination of a pregnancy”).

Commented Houston: “My focus was to do [the resolution] in a civil, respectful way, realizing that not everybody in Austin supports Planned Parenthood, not everyone in Austin supports a woman’s Constitutional Right to have choices about what reproductive services best address the needs of the family.”

“I could not in good faith support the resolution as it was written,” continued Houston, “although I personally support Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose the reproductive services that are appropriate for her situation.”

In sum, given an opportunity to vote in support of her declared position supporting a woman’s right to choose … Houston abstained.

In other business, Council:

• Approved a pilot program (six months to a year, depending on the results) for extended hours in five Red River music clubs, over strenuous objections from neighboring hotels as well as near-north neighborhoods who say their houses persistently vibrate with music reverberating up Waller Creek (also, approved a related resolution supporting music and creative industries)

• Postponed to Thursday’s meeting a final decision on maintaining an Austin Resource Recovery contract for curbside recycling of textiles (and other resalable items) after hard lobbying by nonprofits that it will undermine their donations

• Approved a resolution supporting the “Austin Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights,” accepted the Parkland Events Task Force Report, and a related, grant-funded program to encourage outdoor recreation

• Directed staff to study current supply of market-priced affordable housing, with an eye to programs that would serve to maintain that housing

For more on City Council, including a preview of Thursday’s meeting, follow the Daily News and see this week’s print edition.

For more, check out our War on Women's Health page.

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City Council 2017, Ellen Troxclair, Ora Houston, Jimmy Flannigan, reproductive rights

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