The Austin Chronicle

City Hall Hustle: Trouble Abhors a Vacuum

There's always room for argument at City Hall

By Wells Dunbar, June 19, 2009, News

"No matter how benign the agenda looks, there's always gonna be something," said Laura Morrison at the last City Council meeting, explaining her "conservation of controversy" theory. Any breathing room a council agenda might have, controversy "fills up the empty space that exists."

"I wonder if there's a finite amount of controversy," the Hustle asked.

"I don't think so. I think it's infinite – the potential for controversy is infinite," Morrison answered.

During our discussion of negative space, filling the controversy gap was, fittingly enough, a postponement. Last week, June 11, was the second time the item – a $1.5 million contract to develop an Integrated Solid Waste Management Mas­ter Plan for the Solid Waste Services department – had been delayed. The plan's expense has been questioned, along with the wisdom of commissioning the study in a time of departmental tumult. SWS is currently undergoing a performance audit, and its longtime head, Willie Rhodes, was recently moved to the city's newly formed Code Compliance department.

Morrison cited two reasons for her move to postpone: First, the Solid Waste Advisory Commission recently reconsidered the item but, lacking a quorum and any consensus, didn't issue any recommendations. Secondly, Council Member Sheryl Cole was absent, doing continuing legal education on South Padre Island, and according to Morrison, she "had expressed some interest in the item." But there are plainly other considerations at play: "That's one of the things that's been raised – does it make sense to move forward without our new director having put their fingerprints on the RFQ [request for qualifications]?" Morrison asked. "Because the RFQ really does dictate the path we're gonna go down to some degree, just like we did with our website design, pulling it back and letting the new folks that are in charge take a look at it. I think that's got to be a consideration – whether or not that will be an overriding consideration is still to be determined."

The proposal returns for consideration as Item 14 today, Thursday, June 18. So with all the hoopla over its cost, will council still go ahead with the plan? "The item will be posted, so we will have the ability to select a consultant for the plan," says Morrison, esoterically straightforward.

As for the rest of this week's meeting, music matters dominate. A late add to the agenda is Item 82 from Morrison and Mike Martinez, which would retroactively extend sound permits for specifically zoned venues that were permitted when council revisited outdoor music venue permitting this spring; the immediate effect is that the Unplugged at the Grove series at Shady Grove will continue. The concert series was shut down last week as the Grove's permit had expired, and the club's efforts to secure a music venue permit under cocktail lounge zoning (allowing 85 decibels) instead of their previous restaurant zoning (allowing 70 decibels) had apparently complicated its renewal. (For more on the Shady Grove saga, see "Off the Record.") Yet another item from Morrison, Martinez, and Randi Shade would create a music division at the city, as part of the Convention Center Department; see "Remixing the Music (Department)" for more.

Other arts matters are scattered on the agenda: Item 16 mints an agreement between the city and the Film Society of Austin, whereby the society gets a 30-year lease for a nominal $100 a year in exchange for maintaining and improving the studio facilities at Mueller and supporting "economic growth and development ... through supporting and creating growth of the local film industry." Items 17 and 19, both Art in Public Places projects, allocate $230,000 and $99,000, respectively, for shade-providing art at a public safety training facility and an installation along Brazos from Cesar Chavez to 11th Street. Item 18 sees the city joining with the county to jointly monitor the job creation requirements faced by the Domain shopping center. Updates are also scheduled at 2pm for the city website redesigning Austin GO initiative and Mayor Will Wynn's signature Austin Climate Protection Program (see "Not So Cool").

Items from council include Item 47, delayed from last week, which requires city board members advising on development or contractual matters to file financial conflict-of-interest statements and sees the Public Safety Com­mis­sion transition from a temporary task force to a standing commission. Item 48, a seemingly innocuous item "related to campaign finance" from Morrison and Mayor Will Wynn, draws a bright red line between general and run-off elections, stating that a candidate can't raise potential run-off campaign cash until the end of the general. It's an ignominious item to fall on Brewster McCracken's farewell council meeting, as the pol was pilloried for doing just that in May. It's also the farewell meeting for Wynn, before the swearing in of the new council this Monday, June 22.

Today, as always, the potential for controversy is infinite.

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