Council Watch: Board Games
Is the Urban Transportation Commission finally going to get some respect from the City Council? The council will take up a handful of items accepting commission recommendations for bike lanes, completion of the Lamar Street Bridge, and other transportation sundries -- which, while not earth-shaking in themselves, portend a more visible role for the UTC.
Last week, the council passed a resolution that requires the city staff to run transportation issues past the commission before they come to the council for a vote. That item, sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Members Raul Alvarez and Daryl Slusher, came in response to commissioners' protests that the UTC has not been asked to provide the citizen input that is, after all, the sole reason for its existence.
"I think city staff has been either unwilling or too busy to take issues to the Urban Transportation Commission," says commissioner Carl Tepper. "It's a little embarrassing, actually, when a transportation issue hits the newspaper headlines and we don't know about it." Tepper cites a steep hike in towing rates, approved by the council last month, as one case where the commission got cold-shouldered by city staff.
"Most of the issues that the council addresses we have dealt with at some point, but because there's no force behind us, and there's no interest from the council or the staff, the issue gets dropped," Tepper says.
Just last month, all nine members of the UTC were thinking about walking away from their posts. While that talk may have died down a bit, it's far from dead. "Maybe boards and commissions have outlived their usefulness," Tepper said. "City staff are the experts, and we're not. We are out in the community, though, and we do feel we have something to offer. But if I'm going to stay on the commission, I don't want to feel like I'm wasting my time."
Interestingly, the motions to grant the UTC's recommendations come directly before another proposal, by Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Members Slusher and Will Wynn, that would require fiscal notes detailing how much agenda items would cost the city. The change would have required Griffith, who vehemently opposed the motion when it first came up a month ago, to detail the cost of completing the Lamar Street Bridge -- which, by all estimates, would be a rather expensive proposition.
If the Urban Transportation commissioners are feeling neglected, they aren't alone. Similar complaints have been lodged, at least informally, by the Airport Advisory Board and even by the mighty Planning Commission itself.
Wynn, along with Slusher and Watson, has called for an overhaul of the city's policy on citizen boards and commissions. His proposal, to be considered today (Thursday), would form a nine-member task force to evaluate the boards and commissions system and come back with recommendations in six months.
The task force wouldn't be likely to resort to anything as desperate as disbanding boards and commissions altogether -- though some, like the Commission for Women, which reportedly hasn't met since 1997, have effectively disbanded themselves. Around 25% of the nearly 500 board and commission seats are vacant, according to the city clerk's office.
It's figures like that, and complaints like the UTC's, that have convinced Wynn that the system is overdue for a tuneup. "There's just this compelling pile of evidence that it's not working like it should," says Wynn. "There are too many missed opportunities. If we have good, qualified citizens who are willing to give up their time to serve on a board, then we need to have a system that works."
Recommendations from the task force, assuming it is approved this Thursday, could include everything from changing quorum requirements and meeting times for individual boards to eliminating or consolidating those whose missions overlap or that have outlived their mandates.
Of course, any tampering with the machinery of citizen input can raise a row in a town like Austin, where the demand for more democratic process amounts to a collective nervous tic. That fight, if there is one, is still down the road, but you can forgive Wynn for being a bit on his guard already.
"Nobody's trying to squish citizen input," Wynn insists. "Having boards that are ill-defined or whose jurisdictions aren't clear or who aren't even meeting -- that's squishing citizen input."
Speaking of the PC, Goodman's motion to launch a reorganization of that august body was voted down 5-2 last week, with only Goodman and Council Member Danny Thomas voting in favor. The other council members voted to postpone the item indefinitely, in keeping with the PC's recommendation.
Goodman's motion would create a Zoning and Platting Commission to relieve the Planning Commission of the routine zoning cases that take up most of their time, freeing them to spend more time on actual planning for all that nifty Smart Growth stuff the city wants to do.
As things stand now, not only are the city's treasured neighborhood planning initiatives muddled and off-track, but the council often has to delay its votes for weeks while waiting for recommendations from the commission.
The delay of a reorganization vote was a bit of a case in point, as Goodman pointed out.
"They chose not to take any action at all, and on planning issues that's pretty routine, which is one of the reasons why this proposal is in front of you in the first place," Goodman told the council. "That's kind of ironic that we don't want to expedite the matter until we hear from the Planning Commission."