Council: Whatever It Is, I’m Against It

Council blocks vaping, punts AFD overtime, and commissions students

As anticipated, City Council’s May 11 meeting was abbreviated, roughly three hours in the afternoon. Members did manage to use one of them to dither a proposed student commission within an inch of its life.

Not the City of Austin Student Commission

The student commission proposal is an offshoot of an earlier, short-lived Student Quality of Life committee that provided a series of recommendations of interest to students on a range of issues – housing, transportation, etc. – including the recommendation that the committee itself be continued in some form. Hence this resolution, sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, et al., that would direct staff to establish a permanent Student Commission, which would meet periodically in order to “make recommendations to City Council about topics that affect students, such as transportation, housing, affordability, immigration, and public safety.”

With all the colleges in Austin, it sounds reasonable enough, and following several supportive student witnesses, it quickly became apparent that essentially everybody on the dais supported the proposal – although that did not prevent them from spending more than an hour of this three-hour meeting debating the potential details. Council noggins bumped over the shape of the commission, the method of appointment, the frequency of meetings … pretty much everything except the color of the pom-poms.

District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, while endorsing the commission, floated an amendment that would have truncated all the whereas clauses and simply directed the staff to create the code amendments that would create the commission and its charges; it wasn’t clear if Flannigan thought staff could simply jump the gun on Council and go directly from resolution to ordinance.

Other members were unhappy with the presumption that college administrators from UT-Austin, Huston-Tillotson, St. Edwards, Concordia, etc. would be the default designators of student commissioners; D4 CM Greg Casar, flashing back to his own apparently feisty undergraduate days (Univ. of Virginia), recalled that he would not be top of the list of any college dean looking for likely nominees, and recommended direct student involvement in the nominations.

And so on. There were echoes of the Groucho Marx Principle – “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member” – and certainly the shadow of so many student orgs that are as much résumé-padding as public service. D8 CM Ellen Troxclair provided a moment of unacknowledged sanity when she pointed out that some of her own appointees have quickly learned that commission service is a less than glamorous task, and declared: “I don't want us to just be creating commissions for the point of creating commissions because it feels good to appoint people to stuff.”

Undaunted, after an hour of similar pingpong, and a couple of verbal tweaks (including mixed administrator/student appointments), Council eventually approved the resolution unanimously. In due course, staff will return with a draft ordinance to establish a Student Commission.

Otherwise, in its abbreviated compass, Council managed a few other actions.

Bogart That E-Smoke: A resolution sponsored by D1 CM Ora Houston directs staff to update the Smoking in Public Places ordinance to restrict e-cigarettes (vaping) in public venues, along with the traditional coffin sticks. The unanimous vote required no testimony, but D2 CM Delia Garza thanked Houston and attendant health care advocates for helping to “close the loophole.”

Skip the Links: In an extended executive session, Council reviewed personnel matters concerning the City Clerk, the City Auditor, Municipal Court Clerk, but not the Interim City Manager (withdrawn). Likewise, the uncertain future of Lions Municipal Golf Course was also on the executive session agenda, but the two relevant Items were withdrawn.

Overtime Fire: The expensive question of overtime funding at the Austin Fire Department was not quite ripe – Flannigan and D10 CM Alison Alter remain unsatisfied with the information and justifications they’ve received thus far – and Council voted (Garza the sole dissenter) to postpone consideration of a $3.5 million transfer from the reserve funds to AFD for at least a week.

Hold the Wrecking Ball: Also postponed was a full hearing of an appeal of a demolition permit granted by the Historic Landmark Commission for two houses on West 22½ Street, a secluded corner of West Campus. Council heard a single witness, a consultant from North Carolina brought in by neighbors to argue in favor of the historic value of the homes. The hearing will resume Thursday.

For more on City Council, follow the Daily News and this week’s print edition.

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