Wheels Within Wheels

B&C Appointments Under the Microscope

The city's byzantine boards and com­mis­sions system is made up of some 63 groups, ideally staffed with 412 concerned citizens, there to separate the wheat from the chaff in issues ranging from Animal Advisory to Zoning and Platting, before they arrive at City Council.

It doesn't always work that easily, however: An ad-hoc approach to their creation had created B&Cs of varying shapes, sizes, and importance, while some boards suffer from semipermanent staffing deficiencies. In 2007, to address the problems, council passed a wholesale reorganization meant to standardize membership and the appointment process for boards. (Groups for which a charter is spelled out in law, either by the state, the city charter, or elsewhere, are exempt.) The reorganization has already been amended several times. Some were simple procedural changes required when a new group was birthed into existence. One simple addendum has had a profound impact: tying appointees' B&C tenures to those of the council members who appointed them. So with three new members on City Council (including the mayor) making appointments atop several previous vacancies, boards and commissions of various power and influence are being rapidly reconfigured. (The full list of some 120-plus appointments is available in the sidebar, "Boards & Commissions," below.)

So far, the biggest change can be seen at the Planning Commission. This nine-member board hears proposed zoning changes to areas of the city that have already adopted their neighborhood plans, ultimately recommending approval or disapproval to the council. Neighborhood advocates already have two relatively reliable votes on the board, former council candidate Mandy Dealey – who Council Member Laura Morrison also appointed to the Waterfront Overlay Task Force – and Saundra Kirk, who also sits on the Live Music Task Force. (Notes from an October 2008 Austin Neighborhoods Council meeting link Kirk with outdoor-music opponent Scott Trainer, as they both, according to the minutes, "noted that the [Live Music Task Force] sound control recommendations are inadequate.") However, two new appointees tip the scales even further to the neighborhoods. The first is Kathryne Tovo, past president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, appointed by Morrison, who herself is the past president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. The current president of the ANC, Danette Chi­menti, was the second appointee, named by Council Member Bill Spelman. The appointments have already caused reverberations through the local political sphere; blogger Chris Bradford (www.austincontrarian.com) writes that with "the appointment of Tovo and Chi­menti, the Planning Commission is now firmly in ANC's control."

Eyebrows were also raised at the appointment of another boogeyman of the pro-density, anti-neighborhood association gang: Jeff Jack to the Board of Adjustment, which specifically hears requests for zoning variances. The zoning variance being requested by Shady Grove, to transition from restaurant to nightclub zoning – likely the first of several among live-music-hosting restaurants looking to change their zoning in order to attain louder decibel levels – is headed before the Board of Adjustment. And as the board requires a supermajority (7 of 9 votes) to approve a variance, Morrison's appointment of Jack – past ANC president and president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association – has similarly unnerved some. (Clarke Hammond, a ubiquitous City Hall presence who works in the Office of the City Auditor, was moved to the Board of Adjustment from the Zoning and Platting Commission by Mayor Lee Leffingwell.)

"There was a suggestion, if you can imagine, that my appointments were just coming from a small group of people. ... I think that actually, overall, there's a good, broad representation," Morrison says of her dozens of appointments. Sarcastically noting that her Plan­ning Commission appointment bumps up hood interests "from being a 7-2 bloc," she says: "Dr. Kathie Tovo has been involved in neighborhood stuff, but I was excited to bring her to the Planning Commission. She's been very creative in working with developers in terms of getting community benefits and some really good solutions for bonus densities." As for Jack, she says: "Jeff is a great resource. I think it's going to be a very good position for him to be in, because he's very meticulous looking at guidelines." But more broadly, Morrison appears interested in a Board of Adjustment she sees as too acquiescent to requests. Describing "a very strict set of circumstances when the state allows you to bend the rules for somebody" in the form of a variance, she describes City Hall chatter that the board "has not turned down a variance all year long" as "very concerning."

Zoning and Platting, which, like the Planning Commission, hears zoning requests but for areas without neighborhood plans, got a spitfire of a different sort appointed when Leffingwell tapped Sandy Baldridge. Bald­ridge, who mulled over running against Spelman this spring but never entered the race, is president of the Oak Hill Business & Professional Association and secretary of the Oak Hill Association of Neighbor­hoods and stands in opposition to implementation of the impervious-cover-limiting Save Our Springs Alliance ordinance in her Southwest Austin neighborhood.

A new brace of appointments is scheduled to be named at this week's council meeting, surely engendering more prognostication, rumors of coups, and vote counting. Those worried by the latest round of appointments can take solace in this: Despite all the revisions to the city's boards and commissions, the new rules still don't reflect a way for council to take their routinely rejected recommendations more seriously.

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