Council Watch

Citizens voice their approval of the recommendations of the Police Oversight Focus Group; proposed City Hall balloons and its price tag grows; Rainey Street Historic District nears its day of reckoning.

Council Watch
By Doug Potter

Like the retired minister who sits in the audience on Sunday morning, intermittently shouting "amen" whenever he agrees with the pastor, 38 extremely vocal Austinites spoke at a public hearing about the Police Oversight Focus Group's report during last week's council meeting. Of those who spoke, the overwhelming majority supported the focus group's recommendations, which, if passed, would give citizens a stronger voice in how police are investigated and disciplined.

"I was shocked to find out that an officer can stick his dick in someone's mouth and not get kicked off the force. That ain't right," said Michele Weston, who testified in favor of the proposals. "I just encourage you to vote for this. Put as many teeth in it as possible."

Weston was referring to an incident last year in which APD officer Samuel Ramirez allegedly forced a pregnant woman to perform oral sex on him during an on-duty visit to her home. He was put on suspension and charged with official oppression (not sexual assault, the original charge); his case will go to trial in October.

Weston's sentiments echoed those of the other 35 citizens who spoke in favor of the plan.

"This is a good opportunity to take advantage of making a policy that would address the third 'E' of the three E's of Austin: economics, environment, and equity," said lawyer Ann del Llano, a focus group member and chairwoman of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability. "This would be a wonderful opportunity to really do something for equity and public safety."

Letting the Sun Shine In

Under the current system, citizens must report their complaints to APD's internal affairs division and wait for the outcome of their complaint. In contrast, under the focus group's plan, a city-hired civilian police monitor would track the investigation as it proceeded through internal affairs.

The plan would still give the police chief the power to decide whether or not an officer is punished, but the monitor would have unprecedented access to investigation files -- information that APD currently withholds.

If a resident was unsatisfied with the outcome of an internal investigation, he or she could request a public hearing before the Citizen-Police Review Panel, a nine-member body which would examine the evidence, decide whether a violation occurred, and report their findings to the police chief. This public body would have access to the same internal files as the police monitor, making that information available to the public. Currently, only validated complaints -- those that are upheld by APD's internal affairs division -- are public information.

APD opposes the part of the plan that gives the police chief the power to compel an officer to give a statement and cooperate with internal affairs, said assistant police chief Michael McDonald.

"You can get things wrong in the work environment, but there are very few instances where you can be compelled and be terminated if you don't cooperate with the investigation," he said.

The department also opposes making portions of the investigation public before disciplinary action is taken, McDonald said. "I think it's important for officers to understand that there's going to be a process in place where all of the facts are going to be taken into consideration and that they will not be tried by the media."

The council is expected to take action on the plan this week.

One Hell of a Hall

In other council news, the addition of more office and parking space has caused the price of the new City Hall to grow by $3.3 million.

Originally planned at 100,000 square feet, the proposed City Hall has since ballooned to 115,000 square feet. The council has yet to decide who will occupy the additional space, but a consultant's suggestion to use space on the first floor for commercial retail was shot down.

"If people want to go do retail, they can go across the street east, across the street north, across the street west, but City Hall is not a place where people come to shop," said Council Member Gus Garcia. "It's where people come to do the business of the people. I have significant difficulty having retail at City Hall. I really do."

The council asked city staff to study which departments would be best suited to fill the additional space and to return a recommendation during next week's council meeting.

Rainey Day of Reckoning

The council also approved hiring a consultant to develop a remedy for a problem as old as its most recently elected member, Raul Alvarez.

The 33-year-old dilemma: What will become of the downtown Rainey Street Historic District?

Because of the city's growth, property values in the last moderate- to low-income downtown neighborhood have skyrocketed. The neighborhood, located on Town Lake near the Convention Center, has been nearly eclipsed by the surrounding commercial development, which has simultaneously isolated the neighborhood and left landowners sitting on a gold mine. While many homeowners want to sell, historical preservationists are adamant about keeping historical structures in the area intact.

To solve this question, the council has asked city staff to hire a consultant to speed up the area's redevelopment.

"I don't want the history of the area to stand in the way of the homeowners and longtime residents in this area getting a fair return on their land," said Council Member Daryl Slusher.

The consultant will be responsible for coming up with a plan that would balance historical preservation and potential land sales. It would also recommend zoning for the Rainey Street district and estimate the cost of restoring or relocating houses. In addition, the plan would include affordable housing and relocation assistance for renters in the area.

The council also passed a resolution naming the new Montopolis/Riverside Branch Library the Daniel Ruiz Branch Library. Ruiz was an Austin native who worked as a grassroots community organizer during the 1970s, helping to elect the first Hispanics to office in Austin and Travis County. He worked for 20 years in the Texas state government, and was most recently the executive director of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Ruiz died in March at the age of 53.

This Week in Council

The council will take up the question of what to do about the algae bloom that's clogging up Barton Springs, considering both biological and "engineering" solutions. Then, meeting as the Austin Housing Finance Authority, the council will consider issuing $9 million in bonds to build the Southwest Trails apartment complex in Oak Hill, a 160-unit affordable housing development. And council members are expected to recommend that the city manager send the Police Oversight Focus Group's proposals to the "meet and confer" process with the Austin Police Association, a first step toward getting the recommendations implemented as part of the police association's labor contract.

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Police Oversight Focus Group, Michelle Weston, Samuel Ramirez, Ann del Llano, Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, Austin Police Department, Citizen-Police Review Panel, Michael McDonald, City Hall, Gus Garcia, Rainey Street Historic District, Daryl Slusher, Daniel Ruiz Branch Library

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