Council: Committee on Committees

City Council reorganizes, searches, ponders Saltillo

Last Thursday’s City Council meeting (Feb. 9) was not the most eventful – early 2017 agendas have been fairly light – but Council managed to fill the time with plenty of administrative business, including selecting a city manager search firm and reorganizing its own committee system. And then there’s zoning …

Third time's the charm

The choice of a city manager search firm was both confusing and at times comic, since it was clear at the outset that Council was basically satisfied that all three firms in the running were capable of doing the job of finding a permanent successor to departed city manager Marc Ott. In December, staff had recommended Ralph Andersen & Assoc. for the job, but Council postponed a decision, instructing staff instead to “cast a wider net” to firms with both private- and public-sector experience.

So Ralph Andersen returned to the list, accompanied this round by Russell Reynolds Associates and a joint team of GovHR USA and Transearch. There was no clear consensus on the dais, but District 4 Council Member Greg Casar jumped first with a motion to approve Russell Reynolds (seconded by D3 CM Pio Renteria), saying that in work session conversations Reynolds seemed the most flexible of the contenders, more open to the kind of “back and forth feedback” of working with a 10-1 Council. But Casar also emphasized that he found all three firms acceptable – a sentiment that ushered in a debate illustrating what the psychologists call “the paradox of choice.”

Or maybe, paralysis by analysis. At any rate, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo (echoed by D5 CM Ann Kitchen and D7 CM Leslie Pool) worried that Russell Reynolds hadn’t specifically performed a city manager search. “Diversity” arose as another standard – with D1 CM Ora Houston wondering if the diversity at Reynolds was simply an outgrowth of their global scale, and might the other firms have more “intentional” diversity. D10 CM Alison Alter weighed in, saying she had been favorably impressed with Reynolds’ work in academia – also a politically complicated context – and would be leaning in their direction.

But since the love was spreading everywhere, the difficulty became how best to make a selection. Mayor Steve Adler proposed that they vote on Reynolds and see what happened. But Tovo said she preferred not to “vote against” any one of the firms, D2 CM Delia Garza briefly made a substitute motion for Ralph Andersen – which never quite came to a vote – and that was followed by a flurry of straw polls and straw rankings that the mayor described as “progressive voting,” but which seemed only to deepen the confusion.

By the time the discussion ended, the mayor had inadvertently called D6 CM Jimmy Flannigan “Zimmerman” – to general hilarity – and Casar had tweeted plaintively: “Before any of the press corps makes fun of us: this is open government in action!” Perhaps so … but to judge only from the handful of slackers in the media seats, few in the audience could follow the voting on the dais. (“Zimmerman” also turns up elsewhere in the rush meeting transcript; repeated one more time, and Betelgeuse reappears.)

But the job finally got done, and it was Russell Reynolds, 7-4, with the winning tally including the mayor, Houston, Renteria, Casar, Flannigan, D8 CM Ellen Troxclair, and Alter. Ralph Andersen might feel they dodged a bullet, and if nothing else, the Russell Reynolds team should arrive with a foreboding sense of how things are done at City Hall.

Among other Council actions:

Commit Those Committees: After a lengthy debate only slightly less comical than the search firm search, Council cut back on the number of its own committees – i.e., too many meetings, and acknowledging that committee business eventually lands at the dais anyway.

Weaker Mayor? But some tension invaded the discussion, when it was suggested – as politely as possible – that the Council wants to rein in Mayor Adler’s initial 10-1 role of appointing Council committees, and some of his larger gestures. For example, Garza raised his impromptu appointment of a massive task force to address institutional racism which, because it includes city staff members, might run afoul of the City Charter’s separation of powers between Council and the City Manager. After several dilatory hours, Council punted both its committee system and its meeting organization back to staff, with some initial decisions but the direction to return with “best practices” or at least “good ideas” (that got a laugh).

El Saltillo Conundrum: The Plaza Saltillo zoning case – involving 11 acres in three tracts of Capital Metro land on East Fifth that Cap Metro selected the Endeavor firm to develop – was approved on first reading and with the public hearing remaining open, because there is plenty of grist left to chew. The outstanding issues include whether to approve more height on one tract that would allow more retail/office (and more revenue to Cap Metro and the city), and more importantly, what level of affordable housing would be included in the approximately 800 residential units. When Endeavor won the bid, the deal called for 25% affordability; but Cap Metro and the developer say that commitment always included 10% participation by the city. The argument was not quite resolved – landowners called it “a misunderstanding,” but Council members were skeptical. Tovo even cited 2014 Chronicle stories reporting the original deal. For the moment, the base zoning necessary for the project is approved, with the remainder hanging fire until it comes back for second and third readings (resuming this Thursday), while CM Renteria continues to try to broker a compromise among the various stakeholders.

Southside Villas: Also returning this week are the “Villas at Vinson Oak,” a townhouse/condo project on Vinson Drive, which the neighbors mostly don’t mind but fear will set a dire precedent for further inroads of less attractive projects into surrounding single-family neighborhoods. A valid-petition-against means there’s still work to be done (although the developer has current rights for a less agreeable project) – a vote was postponed in the hopes that a week will enable a solution.

And it was Troxclair’s birthday – over the weekend, but to her chagrin she couldn’t dodge Council’s ceremonial rendition of “Happy Birthday!”

On Thursday, several simmering zoning cases – including the contentious Austin Oaks PUD – return. For more on City Council, follow the Daily News and this week’s print edition.

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City Council 2017, Plaza Saltillo, Marc Ott

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