City Hall Hustle: Cop Out

Council declares APD monopoly on traffic control – and off-duty paychecks

Last summer, Laura Morrison shared her "conservation of controversy" theory with the Hustle: She proposed that controversy "fills up the empty space" of any City Council meeting containing a political-argument vacuum.

You couldn't have asked for a clearer demonstration of Morrison's principle than last week's Feb. 11 meeting. The inevitably long-winded, divisive discussion on whether to extend the city's money-losing recycling contract? Postponed until Feb. 25. But not to worry: A seemingly perfunctory, arcane item from council stepped in to fill the gap – and what an admirable job it did.

Just what was this barn burner? An ordinance "relating to temporary closures for a right-of-way event to create certain requirements for peace officer participation" – not really the stripes of a real hellion. In English, plain or no, what the item from Randi Shade and Lee Leffingwell does is restrict the police and public-safety officers working traffic control on street-closing events – marathons, festivals, etc. – to only city-commissioned peace officers, unless they've been otherwise authorized by Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo. "For many, many years, we had a very confusing ordinance in place to deal with street closures," said Shade, referring to the city's often revised street-closure rules. New language, she said, was needed to address a revision that "was so broad that it suggested that any off-duty peace officer commissioned by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement could be used for traffic control without any authorization by our city's chief of police." ("I'm really not clear," Shade added, on how the language was adopted in the first place.) Her concerns were prompted, she said, by Houston Police coming to Austin to work an upcoming bi-city bicycle ride. "The buck stops with our chief of police," Shade declared, "and he's responsible for our city streets."

While the buck may stop with Acevedo, that didn't prevent others from putting in their own two cents. Most prominently, there was Travis County Constable Bruce Elfant, who's provided countless officers to cover Austin events. Shade took the eye-opening measure of reading a letter from Elfant into the record, stating in part: "For years deputy constables have worked many events in the Downtown Austin area, including the Texas Book Festival and Pecan Street Festival. My officers have always willingly complied with city regulations and not received any complaints." Elfant also noted, "We charge nonprofits significantly less, as much as 50 percent less, and on occasion donate our services," a subtle allusion to some of the unspoken financial issues at stake – both for promoters and for off-duty Austin Police Department officers (or any competitors) working the events.

Some members tried in vain to delay or amend the ordinance. Morrison moved for a three-month delay; Bill Spelman offered an amendment that event organizers deliver a security plan to the police chief; another motion to table discussion until later that afternoon also failed. Just before the final vote – 5-2 in favor, with Morrison and Spelman the dissenters – Shade defended the proposal, saying, "I think it solves the immediate challenge where we have this lack of point of accountability today ... a challenge that I'm just sorry I didn't know about sooner." She also noted council's charge that the Public Safety Commission review the changes – a concession still insufficient for Elfant, who told insider tip-sheet In Fact Daily after the vote, "There's a right way to go about this and then there's the way they did it." Like the traffic-clogging festival season it addresses, this dispute's just getting started – and when it returns, it will be filling all sorts of space in the council's consciousness.

Recycle Returns

There's certainly less between the rubber and the road for council this week. Not even a real council meeting, for starters, but a special-called meeting at 5:30pm Thursday, Feb. 18, for final hearing and almost certain passage of the LegalZoom economic-incentives package, costing the city a cool (but annually tiny) $200,000 over 10 years. On the draft agenda for council's Feb. 25 get-together (we are definitely getting these things earlier under the Leffingwell administration), aside from the perpetually delayed Greenstar recycling contract, are a last splash of rebates for some 5,000 low-flow toilets destined for apartment install (requests made before the suspension of the multifamily and commercial toilet rebate program); authorization of a $4.6 million contract for a pump station in the Loop 360 corridor, to increase water pressure there; $6 million for a transmission main from Water Treatment Plant No. 4, 36,300 feet to the Jollyville reservoir; and a fee waiver for city co-sponsored South by Southwest (everybody duck!).

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City CouncilAustin Police Department, City Council, Laura Morrison, Art Acevedo, Bruce Elfant, LegalZoom

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