City Hall Hustle: All Kinds of Trash
Don't ask, don't tell ... the council or anybody else
In English: It's been a miserable few months for transparency in your city government.
The city had little jurisdiction over one issue Martinez alludes to: the Travis County Healthcare District's purchase of a tract on Braker Lane designated for a low-income health clinic. By buying the property, the district extricated itself from city zoning jurisdiction, angering some northeastern NIMBYs in the process. But the more literal stink of a second deal is all over the city: expansion of the Sunset Farms Landfill on the northeast side. Seemingly at odds with explicit council policy, the agreement emerged from the city's legal department – with most, if not all, of the council clueless about the policy shift.
The landfill, north of 290 on Giles Road, has long been a bane to neighbors and embattled at the city and county. A 2007 council resolution "opposes ... the landfill expansion applications as filed," and calls for its closure by November 2015. That's why a Halloween agreement signed between landfill operators BFI Waste Systems, property owner Giles Holdings, and the city came as such a shock: While calling for the landfill to cease operations in 2015, it allows for a vertical expansion of 75 feet until then – which would make the trash mound, according to environmentalists' reports, a hair taller than Mount Bonnell.
Do the ends justify the means? Such an obviously nuanced question should be open for deliberation not just to the council but to the landfill's neighbors, as well. Neither was consulted. "I was not aware an agreement was being negotiated," says Lee Leffingwell, who sponsored the 2007 landfill resolution. "I have no knowledge that anyone [on council] was apprised of it before it went down." His colleagues Randi Shade and Laura Morrison have been quoted in the press saying the decision came as a shock. But now that council's considered the matter – after the fact – some see it as an effective way to close the site. "If the agreement does what it says it does and it's enforceable, then it would be a good thing," says Leffingwell. Without an agreement, he says, once the landfill runs out of space in 2012, it could convert to a trash-transfer station – a process requiring only administrative approval from the notoriously lax Texas Commission on Environmental Quality – "which could operate indefinitely." As for the nature of the agreement, "It is my understanding that [the legal department] had some legal basis for proceeding like they did," says Leffingwell, pointing to wiggle room in the 2007 resolution (the "as filed" language). "I don't want to be on the record as saying this was done improperly, because I don't know yet," he surmises. "I assume that the council will get a full briefing on this agreement at the next possible meeting."
At press time, the Solid Waste Advisory Commission was considering a resolution against the agreement. (Between this debacle and the city abandoning a million dollars' worth of plans for a recycling facility and shipping its recyclables out of town, it's an interesting time to be on the SWAC.) Commissioner Rick Cofer has led the fight against the expansion; he sees the city's chances to derail Sunset Farm's expansion request to the TCEQ – the conflict over which the city agreement centers – as winnable. He also sees the new agreement's enforcement clause as weak and doubts the agreement's legality. Moreover, he's disturbed that major decision and policy shifts at the city are being performed in such an anonymous, bureaucratic fashion. "I don't know if it was legal or not," says Cofer. "But it was wrong. This is no way to govern this city."
You'd think after similar failures – like council approving changes at the city jail without seeing a contract, getting the city into the forced blood-draw business – city staff would be more mindful of the need for transparency and public input. But you'd be wrong. If this doesn't wake up Marc Ott and company, what will?
Monday, Nov. 10, was the first day candidates for mayor and City Council could legally declare and start raising campaign funds – but all we've had so far is bow-outs. First it was Bill Spelman (who will run for council, but not the top spot). Now it's Jackie Goodman, who wrote the Hustle to say "in realistically assessing what would have to be a more 'populist' or 'grassroots' effort, we simply do not have the resources in hand necessary to achieve the high-dollar campaign and organization that an Austin mayoral bid has come to mandate." But we have picked up increased chatter about another potential mayoral bid: the Once-and-Future Carole Keeton Strayhorn. To that end, the Hustle has set up the Strayhorn Mayoral Declaration Alert System at Newsdesk (austinchronicle.com/newsdesk) in order for readers to stay vigilant. Too late.
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