Beside the Point

If It Walks Like a Duck ...

On a local political mailing list (which shall remain nameless), there's talk – gloating, really – about Toby Futrell's impending departure. "TOBY FUTRELL HAS BEEN PACKING PERSONAL ITEMS AND HER OFFICE," reads one all-capped dispatch. "I WAS THERE LAST WEEK." Another commenter chimes in, "I can get extra boxes if she needs them."

Helpful bunch.

Even prior to Marc Ott's naming as city manager ("Beside the Point," Jan. 25), Futrell had seemed scarce around City Hall. She wasn't at her usual perch next to the mayor for Ott's ascension; she hasn't been on the dais for several of the last council meetings. Really, the last time you could truly call Futrell active and engaged was during the annual budget adoption at the summer's end. Since then, it's been a parade of assistant city managers occupying her seat.

But while Ott moves to the third floor Feb. 18, Futrell hasn't completely abdicated behind the scenes. About two weeks ago, she issued a memo recounting the plight of a local business. Citing the substantial rains of last summer, Futrell noted that flooding had closed Lake Austin, "hindering many summer recreation activities and other business endeavors, including those of Austin Duck Adven­tures, a locally owned and operated tour guide business" – resulting in "significant losses" for the company.

No doubt you've seen and heard the amphibious Duckmobile quacking across Downtown on its six-wheeled, watertight military chassis (and if you share BTP's sunny disposition, resisted the urge to answer those duck calls by extending a nonwebbed middle finger). Now, says Futrell, the duck's been plucked again, as seasonal lowering of Lake Austin to fight hydrilla and repair docks means the engine can't take to the water. Citing these trying times, Futrell's memo officially allowed the Duckmobile to launch instead into friendly feathered Lady Bird Lake waters from a single location, three times a day, for no more than 20 minutes at a time, all dependent on a favorable vehicle inspection.

While Futrell said her edict created "a mutual benefit" to the city and the tourism company alike, her opinion apparently wasn't watertight – as Council Member Mike Martinez asked Futrell to rescind her executive decision as effectively violating council prerogatives. "I am not supportive of this shift in agreement (POLICY) with Austin Duck Adventures," Martinez e-mailed Futrell and the council. "I understand the hardship that has occurred over the last year but quite frankly that is the nature of the business they have entered. Any amendment or change in direction with regard to Lady Bird Lake should be set by council policy rather than based in business modeling or economic impact to one single business." While Martinez says he was specifically concerned to prevent "further commercialization" of Lady Bird Lake, he was also annoyed at Futrell's de facto policy-making flourish. "It's a policy-level decision when you're talking about something like Lady Bird Lake," he told BTP.

"I'm just waiting for a response to the e-mail," Martinez answered when asked what's next. Appar­ently he got tired of waiting, reiterating his question again this week, this time with Lee Leffing­well noting he also has concerns about motorized vehicles on Downtown waters. Parks and Recreation Depart­ment acting Director Stuart Strong replied that Austin Duck Adventures had agreed not to operate while Lady Bird Lake is lowered for a repair project. "So are you saying that Austin Duck Adventures has been given permission to operate on Lady Bird Lake?" Martinez asked. "Who is offering these agreements and why? ... Council never agreed or authorized another motorized use on LBL, and I believe this to be a policy shift that requires a process and council action."

Futrell eventually responded, saying the permit request had been withdrawn (in contrast to Stuart's intimation that Austin Duck Adventures had simply given up on touring while the lake was lowered). But she also cited city code provisions giving her authority to allow vehicles on Lady Bird Lake as long as they don't "adversely affect the public safety or welfare," among other concerns. "Moving forward," Futrell concludes, "if the Council wants to preserve this decision as a policy decision and does not want or intend for the City Manager to have this authority, several sections of the City Code will need to be amended."

It looks like this policy-setting skirmish writ small has ended less like water off a duck's back – and more like an exploding box of quackers.

With an enormous 138-item agenda for this week's meeting (today, Jan. 31), council can't sweat the small stuff. Items include initiating the Eastside Homestead Preservation District; creating a Live Music Task Force to examine noise issues, assist music venues, and, oh yeah, consider programs for the actual musicians; a pilot program to leg-up local businesses hoping to open a second location; and the consideration of releasing proposed mega-entertainment studio Villa Muse from Austin zoning regs. Presentations at 10:30am (on the 51st Street Water Tower) and 2pm (on everything Waller Creek) fill in the front half; a bloc of neighborhood vertical mixed-use zonings and 6pm public hearings on affordable-housing incentives, residential uses in mixed use, and taco carts make up the back end. Any­one fancy living affordably above a Torchy's Tacos?

E-mail BTP at [email protected].

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City Council, Toby Futrell, Mike Martinez, Lady Bird Lake, Austin Duck Adventures

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