Naked City

Feuds Parked Here

"The city's making the neighborhood associations run a citywide election for them," said Bryan King, president of the South Lamar Neighborhood Assoc. King was referring to the city's way of handling the proposed ordinance banning parking on lawns, which the City Council will consider on second reading July 11. Council Member Danny Thomas proposed the ordinance last year after a group of North Austin residents complained about neighbors who stacked up to 15 cars in their front yards. After several neighborhood groups fiercely opposed an earlier version that applied citywide, the city agreed to allow neighborhood associations to decide individually on inclusion in the ordinance. So far, 71 neighborhood associations have signed on, and at a recent meeting the SLNA decided whether to add its name to the list.

If the SLNA's decision-making process is representative, the ordinance may well become an argument waiting to happen. As King frankly admits, the process disintegrated into a mini-Florida ballot, when several attendees who were not association members showed up specifically to oppose inclusion under the parking ordinance. The first poll produced a 10-10 deadlock -- but an officer realized that according to association bylaws, only members who had belonged 10 days or longer could vote. Many of the disqualified non-members who had cast ballots then walked out. Based on the 10 "yes" votes, the SLNA eventually accepted inclusion.

King said the SLNA tried to inform residents of the parking ordinance via newsletters, yard signs, and the like. Anyone who resides or owns property within the 18-month-old association's boundaries can join and vote on issues, he said; in fact, the confusion over the parking ordinance poll erupted in part because he wanted everyone to be able to participate. The bylaw, he adds, exists to prevent vote stacking. "We've tried to do our darnedest to be above board, play by the rules, and be inclusive," he said.

But Susan Verhoef, who calls herself "not a member, just a person who lives in the neighborhood," watched her vote get discarded and is outraged. "Ten people decided the fate of our neighborhood," she said. "What's next -- ordinances telling you what color to paint your house?" Verhoef believes the ordinance is aimed at the poor. "I believe neighborhood association people in general are anxious to gentrify. They tend not to have much sympathy for low-income people -- property values, and all that jazz."

If passed, the ordinance will be enforced by Austin Police Dept. district representatives -- officers already assigned to neighborhoods to deal with neighborhood issues -- and will be complaint-based. Violators will receive two oral warnings before getting cited; those who receive citations will be subject to a $40 fine, $20 if paid early. Each year, neighborhood associations will be able to opt in or out of inclusion by turning in to the city a petition signed by at least 10% of the property owners and undergoing a public hearing process.

King says that if the ordinance changes before it hits the council (it's currently in its eighth mutation), the SLNA vote will become invalid. Given that possibility, he invites anyone eligible to become a member before the association votes again. But Verhoef says that after watching the double vote, she doubts she'll join. "It's kind of like living in Chicago," she said. "Vote early, vote often."

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Bryan King, South Lamar Neighborhood Assoc., lawn-parking ordinance, City Council, Danny Thomas, Susan Verhoef, Austin Police Department

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