City Hall Hustle: The City Council Blues ... Again

The price of all these things, twice

Could City Council's regularly scheduled work sessions – called in response to the Crisis of Austin's Democracy – actually have the effect of making Thursday's council meetings less transparent? That's one of the quixotic questions on the Hustle's mind, and while it certainly isn't an intended result, it wouldn't be surprising – considering the through-the-looking-glass atmosphere at City Hall as of late.

That surreal sensation was on full display last Wednesday at council's inaugural work session, called by Mayor Lee Leffingwell in response to the Open Meetings investigation by the Travis County Attorney's Office (although Leffingwell declined to address the issue) – and council's subsequent decision to end its pre-Thursday small-group meetings.

Imagine an awkward first date. Now imagine an awkward first date among seven people, in a cramped room flanked by 40 onlookers.

"Weird dance" was the phrase oft-repeated by Council Member Randi Shade, as the participants sought to determine the direction of this meeting and future gatherings. Would it be a meeting of the minds for council members to engage one another with upcoming initiatives and spitball ideas off one another? Or a more formal affair, in which council questions could get some answers from staff – which, of course, requires that staff be present and available, whether that proves necessary or not?

Despite hopes for the former – Leffingwell somewhat futilely encouraged discussion among members, like a school dance chaperone trying to move the wallflowers' feet – mostly the latter prevailed. As council members previewed the entire agenda, section by section, for the Thursday meeting, Chris Riley persistently interjected questions for staff – on whether an infrastructure project was in keeping with the city's stated transportation and mobility goals, or on the environmental impact of a specific proposal. Workmanlike matters all, but hardly the stuff of transparency-betraying "secret" meetings. Mike Martinez, ill and participating from home, tweeted as he followed the lengthy exchanges: "Now you see why" Riley led the Austin Bulldog's tally of "private meetings."

But that also meant that the "work session" – as City Manager Marc Ott soon articulated – had started "to look more and more like another council meeting, almost." And such meetings require staff on hand from every department listed on the agenda, plus assistant city managers and more, to answer questions and keep the meeting running smoothly. "It potentially has an adverse impact on productivity because we have so many people now dedicated to two meetings."

Ott implored council to "refrain from making any final decisions" while staff sorts through the issues raised by the additional meetings. But if council continues to meet as a "committee of the whole," getting staff input and potentially considering some of its regularly scheduled items a day early, the gatherings may, ironically, make the Thursday meetings more streamlined – and arguably less transparent, or at least less engaged – with council sorting through issues in a Wed­nesday work session that doesn't invite direct public input.

Well, if that's what it takes to make some people happy ....

School Rescue?

One of the topics du jour at last week's inaugural work session was the Gordian Knot of the Austin Independent School District, and specifically the district's budget woes – which, in the days since, have only grown more pronounced with the district's Friday announcement of a plan to slash 1,000-plus jobs (see "AISD Takes Stock of Impending Layoffs"). This week's council work session (Wednesday, Feb. 16) included a discussion with AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to consider the district's financial shortfall. A related initiative is on the Thursday, Feb. 17, agenda: Item 48, from Leffingwell, Martinez, and Shade, instructing the city manager "to identify potential operational efficiencies and partnership opportunities to help ensure the success of AISD primary and secondary schools citywide" and report back to council. It's a vague but potentially sweeping involvement of City Council in the district's affairs (or vice versa), and a response to the broad public outcry against proposed school closures. Whether it can be more than symbolic – in light of the city's own strained finances, as well as state restrictions on such interlocal activities – remains to be seen.

Also pulling double duty on both Wednesday and Thursday are meetings of council's Tax Increment Financing Board overseeing the TIF slated to fund construction of the Waller Creek tunnel project, with discussion Wednesday and likely action the following day. It's not pocket change. The TIF would collect the increase in property tax revenue following (re-)development of an area, ultimately to pay for the construction – which in this case will pull large swaths of Downtown property along Red River out of the floodplain. A related item would approve a $49.9 million contract with S.J. Louis Con­struction of Texas to build the main 5,233-foot-long tunnel.

Elsewhere, Item 2 would put Austin Energy's renewables-boosting Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plan into effect, including "affordability goals" for the utility and its customers. Briefing items include an update on the city's partnership with the Lower Colorado River Authority, likely focusing on some of the conservation issues Austin Water raised at the last council meeting (see "Austin Water: The High Cost of Saving," Feb. 4, 2010), and the proposal to extend paid parking hours Downtown.

Set the meter running ....


For an expanded preview of City Council's agenda, see "The Daily Hustle: 2/15/11" at austinchronicle.com/newsdesk.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Open Meetings Act, City Council, Austin Bulldog, Chris Riley, Austin ISD, Waller Creek tunnel, Austin Energy, generation plan

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