City Hall Hustle: Songs in the Key of Council

Players in proposed music department singing off different pages

We all know the cliché about politics making for strange bedfellows, but you know someone's wearing the beer goggles when the Austin Police Association and the Austin Amer­i­can-Statesman's editorial authors end up under the sheets.

The consummation came some two weeks ago, with the editorial, "Timing off to create music department in Austin," in which the daily echoed APA complaints about creating the department in the thick of a budget shortfall. "If the city can siphon money from other sources to build a music department," said the Statesman, "then why not tap those sources to maintain library services, pool hours, parks and street maintenance?"

A fraught question, but let us note the irony of the Statesman – which has laid waste to entire forests printing screeds bemoaning the undue power, influence, and cash of the public-safety unions – aligning with the APA to pressure City Council when it suits them. As long as we're busting out clichés, the daily might want to revisit that one about the ends justifying the means.

Yet the music department long-player continued spinning out in the Statesman this week, as City Manager Marc Ott sat down with the editorial board for "a wide-ranging discussion" of the city's budget-cutting efforts – of which a scant three topics were deemed fit to print. Naturally, one of them was the editors' latest obsession, the music department. Asked whether the city could afford to create it, Ott said: "I mean I guess if I'm directed to do it we will find a way of incorporating it into the budget. I think your question went beyond that as to whether or not it's wise to do that under these economic circumstances. And all things considered, this probably is not the time. It's just not the time."

Wrangling Over the Spigot

A marked departure from the majority of Ott's public statements – where he's endeavored to draw a bright line of demarcation between making policy (council's job) and implementing it (his job) – his remarks illuminated the cold reception the department's received at the city. The first warning was the three multi-million-dollar department permutations delivered to council in May, overseen by Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards and Ott's chief of staff, Anthony Snipes, which seemingly sought to torpedo the department under a top-heavy, costly bureaucracy. The second came in the run-up to what seemed to be the likely creation of the music department at council's last meeting before summer hiatus, June 18. Then, it was postponed till August by Council Member Sheryl Cole, who wanted more time to eyeball the item, per the police complaint. But even before that, according to sources close to the process, city staff pored over the agenda item, nit-picking its language. In light of the resistance, it's hard not to think in-house battles over control of city resources – who has their hands on the spigot – are more at issue than the actual cost, approximately $300,000, a relatively negligible sum when compared to the overall $30 million to $43 million budget gap the city faces.

If the internal wrangling over funding the department weren't enough, there's also the question, being borne out most fully in the local blogosphere, over whether the department and the Live Music Task Force are actually doing what they were created to do – identify and address the concerns of the local music community – or whether the process has been hornswoggled by homeowner forces who'd just as soon pull the plug on ostensibly irritating outdoor venues.

Austin Unplugged

By now it's known that the noise complaint against Shady Grove that handcuffed its summer concert series – until council retroactively waived its venue regulations for six months – originated from Scott Trainer, the task force's "neighborhood representative." Local blogger Mike "M1EK" Dahmus, always up for a neighborhood association beat-down, has further highlighted connections between Trainer and the Austin Neigh­bor­hoods Council. From there, it's a short step to Laura Morrison, the former ANC president, who, as council member, co-sponsored the item that would have created the music department and reworked music venue permitting earlier this year. In March, just prior to South by Southwest's music deluge, Morrison and Mike Martinez sponsored an "emergency" item taking effect immediately, which specified permitting requirements for venues. In pointing to decibel limits for music at restaurants, the item highlighted a historically unenforced requirement setting restaurant limits at 70 decibels instead of 85, which led to complaints ending music at Freddie's Place.

Shady Grove was silenced not due to decibel issues but because, as it was in the process of reapplying for a permit under the louder cocktail lounge limit, its current permit lapsed. Dahmus and others feel the zoning changeover may not be that easy. Blogger Chris Bradford ( writes that in addition to going through the conditional-use permitting process, restaurants "will have to submit site plans and comply with all code requirements enacted since they obtained their initial use permits, including parking, compatibility, setbacks, etc. ... Rather than being a minor, administrative matter, a reclassification will be time-consuming, expensive, and fraught with uncertainty." He also notes venues will have to renew their permits yearly, meaning nonplussed neighborhoods can wait them out. Or as Dahmus writes, "the 'easy change to cocktail lounge use' is a load of crap – it's going to give nearby neighbors an annual shot at closing them down, or require expensive and impractical physical upgrades, or some combination of the two."

This isn't to accuse Morrison of leading a conspiracy to unplug Barton Springs Road to make the stretch safe for the landed gentry – co-sponsor Martinez is too savvy to get rolled like that, even if it were true. And even the irony of Trainer's task force membership is somewhat understandable, as the group was assembled, in part, to get neighbors and venues right with each other; the city prefers to have rabble-rousers inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in. But between the daily's drubbing, institutional inertia and confusion created by the "clean up" language on venue permitting, council – especially Morrison, who's received the most online vitriol – needs to hit the right notes about music matters this summer.

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