City Hall Hustle: Of Human Bondage

Transpo bond to cost 100 mil in dead presidents – and dead precedents

As far as historical bond elections go, this November's transportation bond package ain't that big a deal.

While $100 million in bonding capacity – and the congestion-clearing goals of the package – isn't anything to sneeze at, it's a fraction of the several-hundred-million-dollar bond packages of years past. And unlike those omnibus collections, this package is narrowly focused: roads, sidewalks, trails, etc. Moreover, the likely most controversial measure, funding for urban rail, has been delayed until at least next year.

But like much that happens at City Hall, it's not the results but the process that is generating questions. This time, it's the appointment of a bond task force comprised of board and commission members who will vet the proposed package before it's set and sent to voters – and how some on the dais are feeling left out.

At City Council's March 25 meeting, Sheryl Cole challenged language stating that the nine-person task force would be appointed by a council subcommittee of three: Lee Leffingwell, Randi Shade, and Chris Riley. "I don't think any of my colleagues would and are intentionally attempting to disenfranchise any of us," she said, but "this is not about me per se, but this is about the seat that I sit in. ... When we're going to be asked by the voters about not only the financial integrity but the reasonableness, the geographic dispersion, and all those things ... we'll have to answer those questions into the future."

Then, in Cole's inimitable style, she rattled off her colleagues' distinguishing traits to argue that despite the slim parameters of the package, it's still important that each council member have appointees representing his or her interests: A "Place 4 council member might want to appoint someone who knows a whole lot about compatibility and commercial design standards and [vertical mixed use]," she said, while Place 5's dream appointee might be someone who "likes to give slide shows and was passionate about water quality and water supply." (We'll let veteran council watchers connect the mysterious dots.)

Shade took the opposite tack, that as council has to sell the bonds to the whole community, it made sense to make the nominees consensus appointments – leading to hair-splitting vis-à-vis "nominations" and "appointments." When Cole said, "We make individual appointments associated with us that last the term of our office," Leffingwell added a forest-for-the-trees clarification: "Council member, that's not correct. Individual council members make 'nominations'; the entire council makes the 'appointment.'"

While Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman rallied to Cole's side, her motion to change nominations from the three-member committee to individual council members failed, 4-3. And despite similar consensus appointments in the past (the four nays cited the Austin Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Task Force, which, it should be noted, ballooned in size), Cole now says that she still feels the process sets a poor precedent.

"In the past whenever we have held a bond election, each council member has made an appointment to the bond advisory committee – in 2006, there were two appointees each," says Cole. "I was concerned about the precedent we were setting, in not allowing individual council members the opportunity to – technically, the word would be nominate – their appointment, and then have the whole council approve that appointee. And do that in open session."

Cole shepherded one change through: allowing nominees to include former B&C members. (Council also agreed all B&C members were potential nominees, instead of confining the choices to only members of certain boards, as originally proposed.) Cole still asks: "Just because it's a transportation-related bond, should that mean that I don't get to put someone on there like Wilhelmina Delco, because she's never served on a board and commission? ... But she's well known and probably the most well-respected African-American in the city." Cole, who holds the traditionally African-American Place 6 seat, adds that diversity doesn't stop at race. "I use the African-American issue as a last resort – overall, it's a bad precedent. We're taking this [bond package] to the voters. ... [Can we] go to the environmental community, or the African-American community, and say 'all we have are experts on transportation'?"

Having a small select committee choose the nominees keeps the focus tight but also reduces the likelihood of obstructionist appointees: intransigent advocates, special interests, NIMBYists, and the like. But whatever the merits, Cole insists: "You don't get the right to do that. If Laura Mor­rison wants to put Jeff Jack on that committee, she has the right to do that. That's the constituency that she represents." Moreover, with the council committee not a quorum – and not subject to the same open meetings rules – if a council member disapproves of a nominee, they must publicly make a substitute motion to replace that person, which could leave dissenting council members in a politically embarrassing place.

"I have excellent relationships with my colleagues, respect their decision-making process, [and am] sure they will respect my input," Cole says. "But that's not the point! It's about the precedent!"

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City Council, transportation bond package, elections, Sheryl Cole, Lee Leffingwell

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