Council Watch: Mixed Media
Even though the City Council hadn't met for a month, it wasn't very hungry for action when it sat down at the dais on January 18. Which is good, because the bill of fare was notably devoid of red meat. In Kirk Watson's absence -- he was in Washington at the U.S. Conference of Mayors conclave -- the council's plate was decked with a few bonbons over which members lingered like the ladies who lunch.
Indeed, the council had so little to do that it killed time by voting on its consent agenda twice. That agenda included the official handover of management for the perpetually star-crossed Austin Music Network to the nonprofit Kenneth Threadgill Foundation, spawned and helmed by Threadgill's (and, back in the day, Armadillo World Headquarters) impresario Eddie Wilson and his colleague Woody Roberts. The council passed the consent agenda before remembering that Roberts and other interested parties had been invited to speak. So they had a do-over.
This deal is a salvage operation, picking up the wreck of the AMN from its sad prostrate position in Wilson's parking lot at Threadgill's North, the city-funded all-music channel's base of "operations." The council's 1999 experiment with privatizing AMN -- under the auspices of "manager" Rick Melchior -- having gone horribly and expensively wrong, Wilson and Roberts are doing the city a big favor, well worth the money left in what was supposed to be Melchior's three-year contract.
Given that AMN couldn't make it as either a city department or a supposedly moneymaking enterprise, the nonprofit route envisioned by the Threadgill Foundation, which would require the city spend some of its money on AMN in perpetuity, is about the only management model left. "It's been a disaster with Melchior, but it's been kind of a disaster under everyone's auspices," Council Member Daryl Slusher says. "It's significant that the people behind the Armadillo are now behind it, because that was one of the great musical and cultural successes of Austin. ... The AMN has so much potential that we have to give it one more shot."
The council's telecom subcommittee pulled together an ad hoc panel of citizen players and city staffers to think about how AMN, the Austin Community Access Center, the city's public-info Channel 6, and the Austin City Connection Web site, as well as outside entities like the Austin Free-Net and the Greater Austin Area Telecom Network (GAATN), might add up to a coherent media operation.
"Some of their needs are virtually identical, on the surface, across the board -- equipment, studio space, annual budget [support], shared equipment like a mobile broadcasting unit," says Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who chairs the telecom subcommittee. "And they're all sort of in the same place" in terms of their needs, "so there's some merit for collaboration." ACAC director John Villareal has been working on ideas for resource-sharing between ACAC and AMN, and Goodman expects an overall strategic plan, of some sort, for all the city electronic media to emerge in upcoming months.
Elsewhere on the agenda were some more no-brainer items that gave the council something to do and offered political implications as seasoning. The city decided to ask the state if we could take over of the middle leg of Koenig Lane (from Airport to Lamar) from the Texas Dept. of Transportation. We already know that TxDOT would love nothing more, so what are we waiting for?
Well, the impetus here is the adjoining neighborhoods (Northfield, Brentwood, Skyview) and their seemingly endless battle with TxDOT to keep Koenig -- tapped for a reconstruction project that feels like it's been going on since Reconstruction itself -- from becoming a freeway in appearance if not in fact. Many of the design features the neighbors want to see have been nixed by TxDOT engineers and would surely be nixed by the city's engineers as well.
Plus, TxDOT has money to pay for rebuilding Koenig, and that money wouldn't automatically come to the city along with the road. But the neighbors could get trees in the middle of the road, which after lo-these-many-years might be enough for them to declare victory and go home. (The main neighborhood player, Clare Barry, enjoyed notable public comity and hatchet-burying with the man who beat her for a council seat, Will Wynn.)
And then, speaking of endless, there was Mueller. The council asked its airport redevelopment consultant and auteur of the much-cited Mueller master plan, San Francisco-based Roma Design Group, to do what its contract already said it would do -- prepare a request for qualifications (RFQ) for the city to send out to potential master developers by March 22. But, the council added, it would be nice if they could do it sooner, even though nobody really thinks they can.
Huh? Remember that before the holidays, the council -- particularly Slusher -- got keelhauled for (let's see if we got this right) talking to the council about talking to city staff about talking with Stratus Properties about potentially swapping Barton Creek land for development rights at Mueller. That seemed like a non-event too -- people had been talking about a Stratus-Mueller deal for at least six months -- but boy, did council member and mayoral hopeful Beverly Griffith and her coterie of enviro-and-neighbor friends give 'em what for. (Over the holidays, Slusher gave some what-for back with a lengthy letter to the progressive mailing lists pleading his cause; see "Austin Stories," p.14.)
So the Mueller project, which has been going on for years without any political impact whatsoever, is now a football. "It seems clear that [this item] was part of the ongoing efforts [opposing] Stratus, though nobody would say so," said Slusher. Goodman, who sponsored the item along with Griffith and Wynn, saw it slightly differently. "Technically it had nothing to do with Stratus or a land swap, but informally it sent a very strong message that we want the RFQ out as quickly as possible, so we can have a process with very specific criteria for what a developer team -- whether Stratus or another -- would have to do and show." This is also the official position of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition: first RFQ with performance criteria, then talk with Stratus.
Now, back last month when Slusher et al. were getting whipped like pigs by the newly swelled ranks of Mueller partisans, everyone was thinking a Stratus swap would pre-empt the RFQ process, which is why the idea was so smelly and rank. Apparently, says Goodman, they were mistaken. "Even the members who were interested in talking with Stratus seemed, to me, to be committed to abiding by the process, without any special deals. If Stratus were to put together a team and a deal" to build out the Mueller master plan, "they would have to be chosen on merit just like anybody else."
This Week in Council: This Thursday looks to be another slow day at the council chambers, with only five citizens signed up to "communicate" and nary a contentious item to be found on the brief agenda. Council members will vote on restructuring the existing Airport Advisory Board, whose focus was long on building the new airport, to reflect its new mission of running the airport, which is, by any reasonable measure, no longer new. The newly named Airport Advisory Commission would have nine members nominated by consensus, with preference give to candidates with certain backgrounds, such as neighborhood advocacy, real estate, or finance. Zoning cases will take up the bulk of the council's afternoon, with one annexation -- for Brandt's Crossing, a 140-acre planned traditional neighborhood district -- in the lot.