Council: Robert Rules, OK?

Plaza Saltillo inches forward, Capitol views move East, and tears flow

The national political context again shadowed City Council Thursday, Feb. 16, as tensions simmered over immigration, questions of “equity” obscured the Capitol views, and the debate continued over Plaza Saltillo: How high can we go?

It’s been a bit difficult to focus on City Hall in recent days, as the Trump D.C. Circus has tended to swallow most local political discussions. That was the subtext Thursday morning, as City Council members discussed whether to approve a $200,000 increase to a $600,000 2016-17 contract with Catholic Charities of Central Texas for “legal and counseling services to immigrants.” Tentatively initiated in December, the funding became more urgent in the wake of the Trump regime’s Muslim travel ban and, in recent days, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Austin and other cities.

Council Member Greg Casar (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Council approval was not in doubt – several council members had attended an earlier morning press conference to express their support, and the proposal was listed on the consent agenda, suggesting little controversy. Several advocates spoke in favor of the proposal (a single dissenting witness called the funding “a disgrace to the city”), and then District 4 Council Member Greg Casar began to recount a couple of stories from his district – the first of an Iraqi family separated by the federal travel ban, although the father had spent “12 years supporting the U.S. Government in Iraq.”

Casar paused, and then – hesitating – decided not to tell the second story because, he said with feeling, “It's just a very emotional time in my district and it's difficult for me to even describe some of these stories.” He called the support for immigrants “one small step in the direction of the city declaring that nobody is illegal.” D2 CM Delia Garza, D3 CM Pio Renteria, and D1 CM Ora Houston all spoke briefly in favor of the motion, with Houston suggesting that Austinites also consider contributing to the nonprofits working with immigrants.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Pursuing that thread, D8 CM Ellen Troxclair picked up Houston’s remark – but to argue that only charitable contributions should be in order, and that any city spending in support of undocumented immigrants is “inappropriate.” Troxclair went on to say that while the issue is obviously an emotional one, some immigrants have committed “heinous crimes” – and therefore the immigrant fear of deportation is mirrored by “a legitimate fear on the side of people that have been here for generations,” of “immigrants who have committed crimes and are not being held accountable,” and are threatening the “quality of life” of Austin residents.

Troxclair’s remarks were a vague but pointed reference to accusations by Gov. Greg Abbott and others that an immigrant accused of sexual assault of a child had nearly been released from Travis County custody, despite an ICE detainer request – although the inmate had not, in fact, been released, and his immigrant status remains unconfirmed.

A visibly exhausted Casar, who had spent much of the preceding week trying to reassure residents of his district that the city would do what it could to defend them against immigration raids, reacted angrily. He called Troxclair’s anecdotes “false,” and said she was juxtaposing to the legitimate fear of deportation a “deliberately misleading” fear of immigrant crime – although immigrants are equally subject to arrest and prosecution for any criminal actions, and “can be tried and held and put in prison just like anyone else.”

“Do not spread lies and misinformation,” Casar continued, “that people that have committed particular crimes are not being punished, and that people are in danger from those folks.”

Troxclair blanched at Casar’s harsh response – she appeared briefly to be weeping – and in due course responded, saying she could have attacked him in the same way, “but I didn’t, because I want to maintain that level of professional decorum and set an example for our community of how to treat each other.” Troxclair is now the lone declared conservative on the dais – the absence of defeated Don Zimmerman was likely a blessing this day – and said she would continue to speak for Austinites who feel unrepresented at City Hall, and who do not “align with the views of the rest of this Council.”

The funding proposal was duly adopted, 10-1, and advocates said it would mean an additional 50 immigrant clients per month could now receive assistance. Hours later, as Council neared its 10:30 adjournment, Mayor Steve Adler obliquely recalled the morning’s “emotional debate,” and without mentioning either Casar or Troxclair, cited Robert’s Rules of Order, Sec. 43: “Decorum in Debate.” The parliamentary rules – from the Bible of gentlemanly procedure for elected bodies – counsel against personal attacks or questioning the motives of other members, and against even the suggestion that another member might be “lying.”

“It is not allowable to arraign the motives of a member,” wrote Henry M. Robert (ca. 1876), “but the nature or consequences of a measure may be condemned in strong terms. It is not the man, but the measure, that is the subject of debate.”

Young Mexican and Central American refugees at a U.S. detention center (Photo courtesy of Diocese of West Texas)

“The measure, not the member, is the subject of debate,” repeated Adler, asking his colleagues “to stay as far away as possible” from personal attacks. Casar did not respond, but Troxclair thanked the mayor for “recognizing the inappropriateness of the exchange that happened earlier.” It would be left to the few remaining observers to consider which was worse: a council member implying that Austin’s immigrant communities are rife with dangerous and unaccountable criminals, or another council member responding that such accusations amount to “lies and misinformation.”

In between those freighted moments, Council:

• Approved a $3.25 million settlement with the family of David Joseph, fatally shot by Austin Police Department Officer Geoffrey Freeman in Feb. 2016; Joseph was naked and unarmed. In return, the family agreed to end further legal action against the city.

• Postponed indefinitely a contract to purchase body cameras, related equipment, and software for APD officers from Taser International – the proposed contract is now tied up in litigation filed by a Taser competitor, with no resolution in sight.

• Postponed to March 2, at the request of D10 CM Alison Alter, a second reading on the Austin Oaks PUD, still in negotiation among the stakeholders and with the public hearing remaining open.

• Approved on second reading the Plaza Saltillo/Capital Metro development, with the debate continuing over how many affordable housing units – to be subsidized by the developer or the city – can be worked into the agreement, and whether a commercial tower on the western tract (of 3) can be built eight stories tall, despite Council and neighborhood reluctance to allow more than four. After lengthy discussion, D6 CM Jimmy Flannigan wondered, “If you can't build an eight-story building on a highway on a train line, I'm not sure where you can build those things.”

• In a somewhat related vein, Council initiated a CM Houston-sponsored proposal to add several Eastside “Capitol View Corridors” (where highrises would not be allowed) to those already existing from Westside perspectives, saying the move is a “question of equity.” Central Health board member Juan Garza told Council that one of the corridors in question would obstruct construction of the mixed-use development planned to replace Brackenridge Hospital – and intended to help underwrite the health district’s primary mission of serving indigent clients. CM Flannigan suggested – to little enthusiasm from his colleagues – that any review of the effects of new corridors should also consider the utility of maintaining the existing ones. Hanging fire temporarily on the Brackenridge view corridor, Council directed staff to explore adding the other Eastside corridors.

• With some amendments, Council approved on second and third readings the District 7 Elysium Park affordable housing development, in a form that might earn state tax credit support, a missed opportunity in earlier incarnations. (“The Next Steps for Elysium Park,” Feb. 10)

• Approved on first reading a 16-unit condominium project, the Villas at Vinson Oak (upzoning from SF-3 to SF-6), over the objection of nearby neighbors who fear the otherwise good development will trigger further nearby encroachment. Council is hoping for additional compromises before final approvals.

The next regular Council meeting is March 2; a special-called meeting to consider CodeNEXT progress is this Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 1pm. For more on City Council, follow the Daily News and this week’s print edition.

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City Council 2016, immigration, Greg Casar, Ellen Troxclair

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