Beside the Point

From an Unfamiliar Planet

You'd be excused last week if you thought the water at City Hall had been dosed with something a little stronger than fluoride. Our City Council – no strangers to unintentionally absurdist comedy – this time segued straight in to Bizarro World, upending normally immutable laws of municipal physics. Members delivered glowing proclamations for longtime council gadfly Paul Robbins; Eastside activists dispensed with argumentative rhetoric long enough to propose solutions council can actually support. Hell, even the city manager earned a hearty hurrah from BTP this week.

What the hell happened?

Maybe this wormhole in the council space-time continuum occurred because everyone was hellbent to get outta Dodge. This was their last meeting until July 26, and the encyclopedic, 150-plus item agenda didn't augur an early night, but council still escaped well before midnight. And despite a healthy number of initiatives passing on consent – ambitious items like certifying Austin's employee uniforms are free of sweatshop labor and publicly broadcasting disciplinary hearings for police – the day's most notable moments occurred during the smaller passages, generally taking place off the dais.

Like, for example, Lee Leffingwell stepping down to honor Robbins. The occasion was the naming of Austin Energy's Downtown districtwide cooling plant for stalwart, self-described "consumer advocate and environmental activist" Robbins, who first proposed the concept of districtwide chilling in the early 1990s. Normally there to berate council (often rightfully) on matters ranging from Water Treatment Plant No. 4's environmental impact to city use of bond money, Thursday afternoon revealed a chastened, humbled Robbins (kinda). Honored and flabbergasted, he said, "I will probably be back in the near future to comment on existing city policy or proposed new ones. While I give credit where credit is due, I give criticism in generous portions, as well. I see that as my job."

Also punching the hell-raiser timecard was Susana Almanza from People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources. Whereas last meeting, the Eastside progs did themselves few favors by taking a heedlessly combative approach – arguing that council was more invested in animal shelters than in affordable housing (see "Proposed Animal Shelter Move Gets Community Howling," June 15) – this time PODER addressed the problem of the Pure Castings foundry in an Eastside neighborhood – something to which council will likely be responsive. The longstanding foundry on East Fourth – which, it should be noted, has no complaints on file with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or the city – nonetheless faces Zavala Elementary School; Erika Gonzalez, one of PODER's "young scholars for justice" addressing council during citizens communications, said odors from the plant permeate the school. Noting the harmful chemicals involved in the metal refinery process, Gonzalez and PODER implored council to employ zoning regs to relocate the factory. Mike Martinez and Brewster McCracken voiced support for a mutually beneficial solution.

While not part of the council meeting, occurring instead during executive session, a lengthy press conference regarding the beating death of David Morales overshadowed the day's ministerial actions. Minutes after Art Acevedo was confirmed as Austin's new chief of police (effective mid-July) – and immediately apologized for the Austin Police Department's mishandling of the news – City Manager Toby Futrell moderated a police press conference regarding the news, with all her characteristic restraint. (She had opened the council meeting similarly, attempting to quell the international waves APD had roiled with a poorly worded press release concerning nearby Juneteenth crowds. For more, see "The Morales Murder" )

The presser, delivered largely to tripod-toting TV newsniks, was notable for its length – nearly an hour – if not its breadth. The media spent virtually the entire time attempting to re-create what no one in the room had seen – like some "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" Rashômon retooled for sweeps week – and striving with all their miniscule might to link the incident to the Juneteenth events. After about an hour of this, Futrell took the podium to remind the assembled junior detectives that the primary purpose of the meeting was to clear up initial bad APD intel, not to further fan the flames with new faux re-creations. And then she brought the press conference to a merciful end.


Toby's stuck in summer school, as her staff prepares the proposed budget for council's July 26 return. Send along vacation postcards, tips, and complaints to wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin City Council, City Council, Paul Robbins, PODER, Juneteenth, David Morales, Media, Toby Futrell

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