City Hall Hustle: All Things Bright and Comprehensive

One man's diversity is another woman's usual suspects

Just what the hell is the Comprehensive Plan?

The city's long-coming, much-vaunted, oft-opaque Compre­hensive Plan can occasionally be victim to its own ambitions. Put briefly as possible, it's a plan to direct the city's priorities in land use, transportation, water, the environment, open space, housing, public works, public facilities, growth and development, and health and human services. But the long-winded planning process has added to the confusion (it sure as hell has for the Hustle). It's comprised of three phases (plan kickoff, vision and planning, and the Comp Plan itself), and according to city planner Mark Walters, an interactive open house Oct. 12 at the Austin Convention Center is the "culmination" of the first phase. Once sufficiently kicked off, the second phase begins in November with the first of several planned community meetings. The plan's scope and breadth should be suitably refined through the middle of 2010, with the actual Comp Plan expected sometime around 2011 – both a testament to and indictment of the city's community input fetish.

Back here in this decade, another milestone was passed at City Council last week: the naming of 29 members to the Comprehensive Plan Citi­zens Advisory Task Force, variously "champions, ambassadors, and guides for the process," according to Comp Plan literature, offering "a forum for the discussion of ideas and issues and help to guide the consultant team and staff in synthesizing public input."

The nominations were met with a flurry of activity on the dais. After the initial 25 names were read, council members spoke to one another, papers were passed, and Sheryl Cole, chair of the Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee, read four more names. But the additions were not enough to satisfy Randi Shade, who called herself "very concerned" with the process. One consideration was geographic. Oak Hill activist Sandy Baldridge had circulated a Google Maps printout showing that no task-force members live south of 290 West, which Mayor Lee Leffingwell called a "fairly significant gap." Also jarring to Shade was the absence of representation of any large, local tech firm. Shouldering the blame, she noted, "I didn't do such a good job of recruiting people."

Nor, the argument could be made, did the task force matrix. Having drawn it up to encompass different constituencies, staff seemingly expected applicants to be narrow in their self-descriptors – picking out one, like "Spanish Speakers," "Afford­able Housing," or "Northeast Austin" as a defining characteristic. But several applicants self-reported several areas of interest, leading to a surplus in some fields (22 of the approved 29 members checking "Workers") and a dearth in others (e.g., zero applicants from Southeast Austin). Plus, the overlapping delineations created some hilariously specific vacancies: In the words of one staffer, they still needed an "Oak Hill High Tech Employee of Color who might still be in college."

"It's very difficult to get everybody represented," Shade told the Hustle, "but I clearly don't see any representation from large employers." Elaborating, she continued, "I think that there's some gaps, and my point was that if we're going to use the usual recruiting methods, we're going to keep getting the same usual suspects, and that's with no disrespect to anyone who signed up to take this on; being on the task force is an important thing." Shade pointed to "technical advisory groups and individual focus groups" as an avenue to provide "the kind of input we need from those that are not represented on this task force. But I just wanted to make sure, on the record, to say the task force should recognize that there are these gaps, and they have to work extra hard to fill those gaps, and it can't be through the usual way." For her part, Cole added: "With over 200 applications, it was difficult for the committee who did the initial evaluation to narrow it down to a manageable working group. But I think we are on our way to a task force that will rise to the challenge and serve as the ears of the entire community as we go through this process."

As with all things Comp Plan, the task force is still in its nascent stage and will be further finessed. But looking at the list of appointees, it's hard not to see Shade's "usual suspects" – a glaring oversight when the city's own Comp Plan literature reads as follows: "Those who live in Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction, young adults, ethnic and racial minorities, and those without a college education will be recruited to participate in focus group discussions. Additionally, these groups will have representation on the Comprehensive Plan Citizen's Advisory Task Force."

Since we're in this for the long haul, let's get things right the first time around – because who has the time to do it again?

Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Task Force Members

Margaret Cooper (chair)Roger L. Cauvin Perla Cavazos
Scooter CheathamG. Kent Collins Rob D’Amico
Wilhelmina R. Delco Greg M. Esparza Frances A. Ferguson
Lawrence Gross Jr. Maria Hernandez Ora E. Houston
John H. Langmore Roberto O. Martinez Frances A. McIntyre
Jennifer McPhail Rebecca MelanconJonathan Ogren
Juan P. Padilla Lori C. Renteria Regina L. Rogoff
Cookie G. Ruiz Frederick Steiner Evan K. Taniguchi
Donna C. Tiemann Candace L. Wade Allen W. Weeks
Jerry Winetroub Mark A. Yznaga

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