City Hall Hustle: Top 10 City Council Stories
From the dais to the streets
1) KEYPOINT CARNAGE The sprawling Nathaniel Sanders II saga spread to City Hall as City Manager Marc Ott canned longtime City Attorney David Smith over his futile advice to suppress the incendiary KeyPoint Government Solutions report. Council's decision to renege on the Sanders family's lawsuit settlement sprayed kerosene on an already roaring (and still burning) firestorm.
2) WTP4EVER! Despite decades of debate and 2009's town hall showdown, there's still more acrimony flowing over Water Treatment Plant No. 4. The latest: a $300 million omnibus appropriation passed by a 4-3 majority. Spicewood Springs neighbors fought against getting the shaft, and the chattering class is pondering WTP4's potential impact on the 2011 municipal elections.
3) WHAT HISTORY TEACHES A late deluge of tax-abating, historic landmark zoning cases – 25 in a single December 2009 meeting – initiated a yearlong reconsideration and an Austin ISD moratorium. Opponents pointed to the landmarks' drain on city and school coffers, while preservationists defended architectural turf. An overhaul awaits.
4) THE ALL-BLUE BUDGET This budget season held a smaller up-front deficit ($11.4 million) inevitably closed through a combo of cuts and fees, with a deep-blue outcome. As Council Member Bill Spelman noted: "We've taken all the new money we've gotten from property taxes, sales taxes ... and put it all into public safety. And none of it into parks, libraries, health and human services, development services."
5) BEST-LAID PLANS City planning efforts gobbled time and tracts: the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, a form-based code pilot program, the Waller Creek master plan, preliminary urban rail planning, and the unveiling of the years-in-progress Downtown Plan. But as Audit and Finance Committee Chair Sheryl Cole asked, what are they worth if we can't fund them?
6) PROP. 1 IN TRANSIT Despite an eleventh-hour oppo campaign, the city's $90 million Proposition 1 transpo bond passed handily – virtually the only good news for local progs on election night. The receding timetable for an urban rail vote – 2010, then 2011, now 2012 – and lingering questions over the city's debt capacity suggest the next campaign will be a bumpier road.
7) BYE-BYE, TRI-PARTY The city formally dissolved its agreement with the Austin Revitalization Authority and anointed the Urban Renewal Agency to steer development in Central East Austin. Honeymoon hopes were dashed by the Marshall Apartments housing controversy, calling everyone's new roles into question.
8) LET'S GO MRFING! The city's quest for its own materials recovery facility was this year's council farce, with Texas Disposal Systems banned from bidding over a lobbying violation – only to have the city reject the bidding process and vote to negotiate with ... TDS and one other company. But council's closure of the recycling loophole exempting apartments proved it's not just a bunch of trash-talkers.
9) WHAT'S MY INCENTIVE Austin went on an incentive spending spree, enticing Facebook, Hanger Orthopedics, and most recently SunPower to relocate here. The deals dodged Domain-esque controversy, but the city might hunt more blue-collar industries in case of a tech downturn.
10) MAKING IT, WEIRDLY One sign of the city's lagging growth was 2010's explosion of food trailers and pedicabs – low start-up-cost businesses inevitably generating regulation. Cooler heads prevailed, and council approved sensible trailer regs while postponing pedal-pusher rules.