Beside the Point

The Sunshine Kids

As sunlight slinks away and the daylight dwindles, I wager I wasn't the only Austinite to note Thanksgiving's appearance next week with slack-jawed amazement. "O, call back yesterday, bid time return!" Or, in the parlance of our times, WTF?

Judging by their late night last week, I also wager the souls most thankful for daylight saving's extra hour would be City Council members, who adjourned last week at a quarter after 1am. As BTP needled last week (and deigns to do so again today), city staff's previous charge to recommend ways to shorten marathon meetings has been an ineffective joke: a half-hearted attempt to shave scant minutes at the expense of citizen speakers, and then nothing. So despite a dense, 129-item agenda, council was kept from using afternoon dead time to actually do something because of time-specific requirements. Let's move zoning to another day – because cramming 16 public hearings into one evening simply doesn't work.

Nonetheless, drawing the most agitated public comment last week was a nonactionable item over the Balcones Canyonlands Pre­serve's land-management plan – specifically, whether to open the preserve for unsupervised recreation like hiking and biking. Calling public access "the most controversial and common issue" facing the preserve, Will Wynn wasn't joking. Of the dozens signed up, the vast majority favored easing access restrictions. Yet despite the Statesman editorializing to "let the people who paid for the land enjoy it" (hey, can I take this cop car for a spin, chief? You know, my tax dollars and all ...), access advocates might want to examine the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit creating the preserve, its main goal being "to permanently conserve and facilitate the recovery of ... endangered species." (Last I looked, Mountain Dew-mainlining BMXers didn't fit the description.) The decision now rests with a three-man BCP committee including Wynn and Travis Co. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.

Also at the ass-end of the night was the hearing (and passage) of the Save Our Springs Ordinance revisions, allowing for ostensibly greener redevelopment in the Barton Springs Zone. Introducing the measure, a mildly loopy Lee Leffingwell said there were several people "I want to especially condemn," before laughing and righting himself: "There are some people I might want to condemn, too, but I want to really commend the staff." SOS Alliance's Colin Clark, likely candidate for the condemnation list, called for supermajority approval of denser development; his colleague Sarah Baker called for a smaller "pilot" implementation, noting "we know some pollution will be removed, but we have no idea how much will be added." Leffingwell responded, "This applies to less than 1 percent of the Barton Springs Zone. ... I submit that is a pilot program already."

But the alternately overstuffed and hurried hearings weren't especially disheartening: That came Thursday morning, when council split 4-3 against allowing voters the opportunity to change the appointment method for the city attorney. Per voter approval, Leffingwell and Mike Martinez's ordinance would have allowed council to appoint the attorney to a five-year term, with a supermajority vote required for dismissal. As the city attorney is currently appointed by the city manager – yet supposedly serves City Council – the change was meant to mediate this conflict of interest while keeping the office from becoming a political windsock. But the majority (Sheryl Cole, Betty Dunkerley, Brewster McCracken, and Wynn) figure things are just fine as is. It was odd to see the otherwise generally quiet Cole lead the opposition; like osmosis, Dunkerley's doctrine of staff infallibility has seemingly crept into the frosh member's perspective. (Dunkerley herself offered a meandering list of grievances, that having "worked in cities all over the state," she'd never seen a city manager pressure an attorney, but councils had done so, in "several instances." She later backtracked to state that this council never had – oh, heavens no!)

Serendipitously, the need for change was illustrated that morning when Martinez breached get-along-gang protocol to call out Item 57, a seemingly unremarkable consent item ratifying a $57,000 payment to the World Conference on Information Technology – but dating from spring 2006. Apparently Toby Futrell authorized the payment, though it's in excess of the monies she's legally authorized to under the City Charter, prompting Martinez to ask City Attorney David Smith "whether or not that act violated the City Charter." Smith said, "The short answer is, in my opinion, no, it did not." "Then why do we need an agenda item to cure something that doesn't need curing?" asked Martinez.

As the days grow shorter, it's more important than ever to keep City Hall bathed in sunshine.

Disabuse the author of any sunny notions at wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, Will Wynn, Lee Leffingwell, SOS, Save Our Springs Alliance, Save Our Springs Ordinance, Mike Martinez, Toby Futrell, Balcones Canyonlands Preserve

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