Council members announce Planning Commission appointments that promise to calm the harsh political winds that have blown through the commission of late.
Change of Plans
If you think the Planning Commission is running on three wheels now, you should have seen it back in its glory days in the 1980s and early 1990s, when rarely did a meeting pass without a head-on political collision, wholly uninformed by the concept of "planning." It is, in fact, because the current PC is largely thoughtful, studious, and actually concerned with policymaking -- that is, planning -- that its recent political eruptions, and their muddy consequences, stand out in relief.
We'll get to see some consequences firsthand, at either the Aug. 24 City Council meeting or subsequently, when the council plunges elbow-deep into the mud and makes new appointments to the most important of the city's 60-odd boards and commissions. Actually, the council is already halfway through the 2000 round, as both Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Member Danny Thomas have filled their slots. (Two consensus appointments remain.) Their choices speak to the council's priorities as it fine-tunes the PC mix -- looking for people who are neither tomato cans nor insane demagogues.
Thomas' appointee, the Rev. Dr. Sterling Lands of Greater Calvary Baptist Church, is one of the city's most influential black preachers, a huge presence who has so far, with both his thoughtful analyses and left-of-center votes, surprised white progressives who remember his firm and longstanding support of former council pariah Eric Mitchell. (Some may even be disappointed by the lack of bloodsport; one of Mitchell's favorite punching bags, former council aide Robin Cravey, sits right next to Lands at the PC table.)
Meanwhile, Watson has replaced departing PC Chair Art Navarro with developer Silver Garza, a board member of the Real Estate Council of Austin and a key player in projects like Round Rock West and Pioneer Crossing, out by Samsung. This maintains the PC's (and the mayor's) tradition of installing Hispanics But Not Radically So, like real estate broker Navarro and, before him, civil engineer Mike Rivera.
That matters because there is a parallel tradition of Hispanics And Radically So on the PC, starting with El Concilio stalwart Frances Martinez, then La Prensa publisher Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, and currently Eastside environmental activist Susana Almanza. That tradition is about to end abruptly, barring divine intervention, which is fairly stunning since, as recently as six months ago, there was no Eastside leader with as much citywide credibility as Almanza. (It took Council Member Raul Alvarez, who used to work with Almanza at People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), close to a year of nonstop campaigning to attain a similar public profile.)
Not that everyone is motivated by such things, but if Almanza had run for City Council to succeed Gus Garcia, she probably would have won. What happened? Well, the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan, bitterly opposed by Almanza's allies in El Concilio. Forced into a stand on a volatile case (in which her own brother was on the opposing side), Almanza chose El Concilio over PC and Council, and the chips have fallen where they may. (Filing ethics and civil-rights complaints against her fellow commissioners did not help). Indeed, of prospects to replace Almanza in the consensus seat, the most often mentioned is Joseph Martinez, chair of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team. Take that!
As for the other consensus seat, the ubiquitous and indefatigable Ben Heimsath will likely be reappointed, although there's been a sub rosa effort to return Maggie Armstrong to the PC in his stead. Armstrong's has been a curious path: the wife of Ronney Reynolds' former council aide, she was first appointed to the PC by Mitchell in a rare moment of calm, but now she's in tight with Council Member Beverly Griffith and her aide, former Austin Neighborhoods Council president Jeff Jack.
Meanwhile, the PC is still managing, in its fashion, to get things done. Commissioners report that, despite the frustrations and irritations of the last few months, they have no choice but to focus on working well with each other, since the political winds blow much more fiercely on, and from, the council, and they can't stop them. Lucky them. Soon we will see if those winds blow the Planning Commission on- or off-course.