Top 10 City Council Moments
By Wells Dunbar, Fri., Jan. 4, 2008
1) Send in the Clowns All year long, the pending retirement of incumbent City Manager Toby Futrell was the City Hall soap opera, complete with an ever-retreating exit date and backstage tears over council's determination to just get on with it. As the new year dawns, they're still looking, but we gave them the three-ring formula back in August: "Betty Dunkerley told the Statesman Austin needs a 'magician,' while some lobbyist or another said they'd have big shoes to fill. Put those two together, and you've got ... Bozo the City Manager? Great for kids' parties and council meetings – to the extent they're distinguishable." Or as the song goes: "They're already here ..."
2) Unboxing Day In February, after the Northcross Wal-Mart Supercenter got in under the wire, City Council passed the long-delayed Big Box Ordinance – intended to subject such enormo-projects to stricter public scrutiny. The conspiratorial question on everyone's mind was: What took so long? Futrell insisted the SuperWalton would have been grandfathered anyway – leaving the neighborhoods, as usual, fighting the last war. Oh, and a little thing called the Congress Avenue Retail Retention and Enhancement Fund passed on the same day.
3) Budget Trek: The Wrath of Toby A $27.5 million "forecast gap" from city staff rattles the Austin Enterprise, then mysteriously teleports away, while council ducks for PR cover and the citizens wonder whatever happened to boom-for-everybody warp speed. Futrell and Mike Martinez set phasers to flame-war. (Martinez: "Please stop with the rhetoric, Toby. It really is not necessary. And it's painfully and embarrassingly transparent.") Martinez tells BTP he didn't meet with Futrell and staff on last-minute budget numbers due to previous sessions being "unproductive" and "full of rhetoric." Despite Tribble-like multiplications of "cost-drivers," Futrell's presented budget miraculously balances.
4) Unparticipatory Democracy If the Charter Revision Committee meets and nobody shows up, do single-member districts falling in the forest make a noise? A Martinez-driven push for a newly districted council receives resounding citizen silence, until it's finally put online; the committee gets enough December Web response to cancel its remaining meetings and to recommend a charter vote this spring. Will the council accept the hot potato, and if it does, will voters notice?
5) Rock & Roll All Night Marathon Thursday council sessions routinely last into the wee hours, often with crucial votes after midnight, and staff is asked to offer a plan for more efficiency, less endlessness. Staff brilliantly concludes citizen comments could be cut from three to two minutes – and the resulting public backlash jettisons the whole effort. We've tried nothing, they say – and we're all outta ideas. Are these guys getting time-and-a-half? Cuz we're not.
6) No More Breakfast Tacos for You In the middle of the Las Manitas donnybrook, Brewster McCracken spills the refried beans on the Salsa Sisters, telling a radio audience the city was strong-armed into its forgivable-loan offer by the eatery's control over its alley right-of-way – allegedly holding it hostage against a deal with new Marriott developer. Shortly thereafter, the deal blows up, City Council still has migas on its face, and ... what about that triple-decker convention hotel? Anybody smell a campaign issue ... or is that just a whole lotta mole?
7) Panhandling Smackdown When a couple of neighborhood associations complain about street-corner panhandlers, McCracken and Jennifer Kim look for a policy (or campaign) handle. The resulting civil liberties backlash – and resistance from other council members – creates a yearlong push-me-pull-you over social services, public safety, firefighters' boot collections, and ... oh, yeah: "Isn't anybody going to think about the children?!" Most of the fuss died down in November – but like cedar fever, it's always in the wind.
8) It's a Doggie Dog World The bond project to build a new animal shelter runs smack into an animal-advocate war over where to put it – on the Eastside Levander Loop, as planned, or right where it already sits, on floodable Downtown parkland suddenly declared sacred ground by animalists who had been the dogs that did not bark during months of bond hearings. After a vitriolic Oct. 11 public hearing, council splits the puppy by voting shelter for Eastside (despite howls from yet another set of affordable-housing absolutists, abhorring a "dog hotel") and adoption center for Lady Bird Lake. It ain't wagging away: FixAustin sued the city anyway, and the whole deal will come back to council via zoning issues. Bring your dog whistles.
9) The Angry Young Mayor Heretofore a mayor of sweetness and light, the 2007 Will Wynn developed a rep for going ballistic at inopportune public moments. First there was the South by Southwest party crasher at his Downtown condo complex, who accused His Surliness of attempting to throttle him just for being a garden-variety idiot (we've been there), then the 311 call from a rattled construction foreman roundly cursed by Hizzoner for blocking morning rush-hour traffic. With a year and a half to go, should we hope for a Fiorello or for a Giuliani? Peace for the citizens – or better copy for BTP? (We know how we're voting.)
10) Kim's Airport Insecurity With a mysterious assist from City Hall, the Statesman acquires documentation of an apparent Jennifer Kim demand for security-free access to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport's restricted gates, resulting in much public hilarity, followed by public remorse from the council member. Unfortunately, KVUE discovers Kim also attempted to pull rank on a ticketing cop – "Do you know who I am?" – and before the dust settles, a Kim staffer takes the blame and the exit. We wouldn't bring it up, of course – except that you will soon hear it in chorus from the herd hoping to retire Kim come the May election.
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