Point Austin: Ringing in the New

New City Council takes its place, and the fun just keeps on coming

Point Austin: Ringing in the New
Photo By John Anderson

On Monday evening, before an uncharacteristically overflow crowd but with a municipal-sized minimum of pomp and circumstance, new City Council members Lee Leffingwell, Jennifer Kim, and re-elected Betty Dunkerley were duly sworn in by Judge Gisela Triana, and shortly thereafter incumbent Danny Thomas, now the longest-tenured council member, was elected unanimously as mayor pro tem (succeeding the departed Jackie Goodman). There had been some intermittent buzz that Raul Alvarez also coveted the largely ceremonial position – perhaps only to spite his frequent critics from El Concilio, who had impertinently pumped for Thomas – but the matter was resolved in the nonconfrontational manner common to this council, where the potentially most embarrassing issues are generally resolved quietly and off the dais. Not as entertaining for the citizens (not to mention City Hall reporters), but unashamedly in the interest of internal good will.

Point Austin: Ringing in the New
Photo By John Anderson

The freshman members are unlikely to upset that particular equilibrium. Place 1's Lee Leffingwell, looking newly reinvigorated after a campaign that brought him both easy victory and profound personal tragedy, in the death of his wife Mary Lou McLain, acknowledged her memory, thanked his staff and predecessor Daryl Slusher, and promised that he would bring "a little gray hair," i.e., mature and broad experience, to council deliberations. Jennifer Kim, Place 3 successor to Goodman, looking as freshly scrubbed and eager as she had throughout a tough and surprising upset campaign, promised almost the opposite – "all the advantages of youth" – and to carry her slogan priorities of "affordability and development, prosperity and stewardship" to the council's decisions. Amidst the day of celebration, the only cautionary notes came from veteran Dunkerley, who acknowledged that she had come to the job three years ago overconfidently, and as a longtime city staff member had to learn much about being a council member – including, she said most importantly, to stay on her elected side of the dais.

More Quality Time

Dunkerley also warned of the tough budget decisions ahead, as the council tries slowly to restore some of the services and even infrastructure funding slashed in the years of the recession that has not quite departed. There will be more of that in the coming weeks – if the city is to do what appears to be the public consensus on matters like libraries and social services, something will have to give on either revenue or spending – but this evening was devoted to congratulations, and Dunkerley's elegant new hairdo and the bouquet of roses she carried said as much about the occasion as the speeches. Even Mayor Wynn was more expansive than usual, closing the ceremonies with his reflexive encomium on the "best city in the best state in the best country in the world" – one tried for a moment, gamely, not to imagine what other citizens in less fortunate venues of the known universe might be thinking along those lines, this fine summer evening. Now, back to work. By the time you read this on Thursday, the new council will have under consideration a formidable agenda of 139 items, admittedly many of them perfunctory zoning and condemnation listings of intense interest to the immediate neighborhoods and almost none to the city at large. On a normal Thursday, the 6:30pm public hearing – effectively a continuation of the ongoing discussion of African-American quality of life that began several weeks ago – would predictably get most of the public attention, although this one, an open-mic spin-off of the more structured consultants' report delivered May 26, may be a stem-winder of interest primarily to the direct participants. The Midtown Live nightclub episode that began the latest rhetorical donnybrook has not entirely faded away – the Statesman's Rich Oppel put his foot in it last weekend, and is now busy backpedaling – and buried among today's eminent domain litanies is a $250,000 construction loan for the Mrs. B's Cajun and Creole Restaurant on East 11th Street. (Nothing in there about forgivability, at the moment.) But the hard decisions about how to respond to the consultants' recommendations are still a few weeks away.

Bells Still Tolling

Jackie Goodman (l) and Daryl Slusher
Jackie Goodman (l) and Daryl Slusher

What may raise more immediate sand at today's meeting are three pending contracts (totaling roughly $51 million) with the Texas Department of Transportation for the city to sign on to toll road proposals for Highway 183 (Ed Bluestein) and portions of highways 71 and 290 – the state says, you want the money, you ratify the toll deal. Members will be uncomfortably caught between the local consensus that toll roads are the devil's own handiwork and the state's determination to push highway costs downward onto users and municipalities. They may postpone, but it ain't gonna get any easier. (For more on 71/290, see the story on p.26.)

Otherwise, there's a 2pm update on the redevelopment of Mueller, and executive (closed) discussions of the city's ongoing legal battle with Austin Police Officer Jeff White, fallout of the long-running Mala Sangre scandal. Wouldn't we like to be a fly on that wall. (In open session, they'll ratify another $150,000 in legal fees down that bottomless abyss.)

There are a few vexed zoning cases – that de facto dentist's office cum deaconate on residential 15th Street returns for a sacred supplication, and the Gables at Westlake nominally returns in its many-weeks run – and no doubt other stories buried in the minutiae that it will take weeks to uncover.

It's June, it's Austin, and it's already hotter than the devil's backside. We wish them all the very best of luck. end story

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city councilLee LeffingwellJennifer KimBetty Dunkerley, city council, Lee Leffingwell, Jennifer Kim, Betty Dunkerley, Danny Thomas, Raul Alvarez, Midtown Live, Jeff White

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