Council Watch

Leaving Home: Council's Move Brings Out the Old-Timers

Council Watch
By Doug Potter

Did you know that in German towns they call their city hall the "rathaus"? If this reporter hadn't been on vacation, and in no mood to contemplate the Austin City Council in any manner whatsoever, many a joke could perhaps have been made upon learning this factoid. Rat, house. Get it? Fortunately for the citizens of Austin, the inhabitants of our very own rathaus behaved in a distinctly non rat-like fashion this week, moving forward on a host of issues that have proved popular with the locals in recent months. From CSC to the Mexican-American Cultural Center to social equity to the much-belabored Champion tract zoning case in Northwest Austin, the council kept the wheels of progress turning and its collective irons in a whole lot of fires.

It was a real hoedown last Thursday in the council chambers, celebrating the last meeting held in the somewhat decrepit Second Street building that was established as a temporary facility back in 1974 (see "This Week in Council," below). With more former mayors and council members in attendance than you could shake a stick at (including Carole Keeton Rylander, Texas' comptroller of public accounts and Austin's first female mayor), the group reminisced and traded lame jokes, almost every local luminary taking their turn at the mike and the whole thing taking a bit too long. After the speeches ended, up-and-coming country singer Roger Wallace provided the musical entertainment as the VIPs adjourned to a back room to celebrate over white cake and fruit punch.

The Economic Gap

The good news: Your City Council wants to do something about the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in this city, especially with regard to wage inequality. Council members spent some time Thursday talking about the worsening situation, which was backed up by numbers published last week in the Austin American-Statesman showing that the fastest-growing job categories in the city are the very highest- and very lowest-paying jobs.

In order to, in the words of Mayor Kirk Watson, "focus a laser beam" on the inequality issue, the council directed the city manager to issue a Request for Proposals for a consultant to recommend how to narrow the gap between the rich and poor in Austin. This would be something on the order of the 1997 IFC Kaiser Report, commissioned by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which addressed strategies for maintaining a vital economy in Austin. The council also voted to establish a nine-member citizens committee to address the same question, and scored in recruiting Dr. Ray Marshall, Council Member Bill Spelman's colleague at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, to chair the committee, which will also include representatives from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO.

The recruitment of Marshall, who served as Secretary of Labor under President Jimmy Carter and who is known for his involvement in labor, workforce, and education policy, seemingly indicated that the council's new venture will focus on labor issues. And the council's initiative has already sparked debate over the perennially contentious minimum-wage issue: keep it low and allow the underclass to grow, or raise it and risk slowing down the economy? But according to one council aide, the council is open to a much wider field of options than just a minimum-wage increase, calling the nascent initiative a "blank slate."

In the words of Council Member Daryl Slusher, "If anyone can deal with this problem on a local level, it's us here in Austin, Texas." It would indeed seem that Austin has all it needs to undertake an initiative of this kind: extensive resources, be they capital, natural, material, or human; a politically engaged population; and the political will at the top level to get the ball rolling. But will the council, their committee, and their consultants be able to solve a social conundrum that's as old as the hills? In Austin's current go-getter climate, it actually seems worth a try. Ignoring the polite pleadings of Mayor Watson that they stick to the subject, which theoretically was the managed growth agreement between Computer Sciences Corporation and the city, council members, city staff, and minority contractors' representatives debated CSC's record so far on encouraging the hiring of minority contracting firms for subcontract jobs in the company's huge downtown construction project. Representatives from both the Hispanic and Black Contractors' Associations say that they were given only about two weeks' notice to apply for subcontracting opportunities with the CSC project, and that all four firms that are on CSC's short list for the general contractor position are "unfriendly" firms that do not have good reputations for encouraging subcontracting opportunities for minority and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBEs).

The city has been working overtime to facilitate good relations between CSC and the minority contractors, but the relationship has been an uneasy one from the start. And though the city is said to be asking CSC to extend its deadline by about a week to allow for more M/WBE participation, Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell said that such a slowdown was not likely to fit with CSC's plans. "Without exception, the time frame has been the most important thing to them," she said.

Council Member Gus Garcia has long complained that CSC should be required to comply with the terms of the city's minority contracting ordinance, instead of just acting in a manner "consistent with [its] intent and spirit" as the city's agreement with CSC actually reads. Garcia also said he sees a meaningful minority contracting program as an important part of the council's social agenda. "When you talk about social equity, this is part of it," he said. "People who are supposed to be beneficiaries of this are saying, "We're not getting anything.'"

MACC Designer Named

Another important step forward in the long evolution of the Mexican-American Cultural Center (MACC) sailed through the council on its consent agenda last week. The partnership of Casabella, Del Campo & Maru Joint Venture was selected to design the facility for an amount not to exceed $740,000. The selection process was lauded by Council Member Gus Garcia, despite the fact that the presumed favorite for the position, local outfit Cotera, Kolar & Negrete, was not selected. Garcia's aide, Paul Saldaña, said that after the RFQ (request for qualifications) was issued, he fielded calls from architecture firms wondering if they should even bother responding, since Cotera's firm had been so closely associated with the project, including conducting the charrettes that outlined the Austin community's vision for the facility. Cotera's firm was selected as the alternate on the project, and reportedly has not protested Joint Venture's selection. Cotera is chair of the city's Design Commission. "At the outset I thought this was a slam dunk for one of the firms, because it was a local firm," said Garcia. But "I think it's an excellent selection."

Limiting Development

Zoning for the Champion tract crept ever closer to final approval last week, with the council's second-stage approval of the neighborhood's plan to limit the size of the proposed development and the traffic that will inevitably accompany it. The Champion sisters continue to insist that the restrictions violate a previous legal settlement with the city, and are hinting that renewed legal action may be imminent if their wishes do not prevail. But the council, retaining the courage of its convictions regarding the need to protect FM 2222 from future traffic infusions, shows no sign of flinching.

This Week in Council:

There is no council meeting this week, but the next meeting, on January 27, marks the dawning of the itinerant season for the council and its watchers, as the current Second Street annex building meets the wrecking ball, and our government takes its show on the road. That meeting will take place at Bergstrom Airport's New Airport Project Team Building, 2716 Spirit of Texas Drive (take the air cargo exit off Hwy. 71, a half-mile before the main airport entrance; then it's the first building on the right, in the building that's marked "Dept. of Aviation"). This will test the dedication of those few eccentric souls who attend council meetings, seemingly, just for the fun of it, who will presumably have a much longer haul than the downtown location required. How bad do you want it?

For the Jan. 27 meeting, expect a rousing discussion on the fate of ground-floor retail in the City Hall/CSC complex. The Planning Commission denied the city's request for a waiver to an ordinance requiring that ground-floor parking garages be separated from the street by retail space. The waiver request came as a surprise to Council Member Beverly Griffith who, like many Austinites, was under the impression that the whole of the CSC project was going to have ground-floor retail facing the street in all of its buildings. Now, the council will consider whether to appropriate the extra money (about $950,000) that finishing out the projected retail space would require.

Also, there may be some action on the dispute between Hyde Park Baptist Church and the Hyde Park neighbors opposed to the church's massive expansive plans. The council-ordained six-week negotiation period will end the next day, and so far it's produced only one meeting and no progress toward agreement. end story

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mayor kirk watson, carole keeton rylander, darly slusher, gus garcia, csc, minority contractors, social equity, bill spelman, chamption tract, mexican american culture center

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