The Austin Chronicle

City Hall Hustle: Sins of Commission

Levy KO'd by Tovo as public safety assumes the fiscal position

By Wells Dunbar, July 15, 2011, News

Only for natural disaster, assassination, and steroid investigations does board and commission action garner as much ink as Kathie Tovo's decision not to reappoint Mike Levy to the Public Safety Commission.

It shouldn't be surprising that Tovo's chosen not to reappoint Levy in light of the letter he distributed opposing her in the Place 3 run-off against Randi Shade. "Electing Kathie Tovo would place on the Council one of the very worst public officials Austin has ever suffered," he started, and it was all downhill from there. (Had the race been any closer, maybe Tovo shoulda thanked Levy with a reappointment – his scorched-earth screeds often have the opposite effect on the electorate he's hoping to influence.)

That said, the Statesman-led coverage of the Tovo/Levy tête-à-tête misses the bigger picture. According to the City Clerk's Office, by the end of July, Tovo will have to make roughly 46 board and commission appointments. Along with the Public Safety Commission – a high-profile but solely advisory group – Tovo will also make appointments to the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission, two groups with decision-making authority. Other notable appointments will be forthcoming for the Animal Advisory Commis­sion (where Tovo's nominee will serve as animal shelter operator), the Board of Adjustment, the Downtown Commission, the Historic Landmark Commission, the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, the Water and Wastewater Commission, and the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board, to name a few.

"I'm surprised by all the attention they've got for as little progress as I've made on them," Tovo says of her appointments. "I've reviewed a lot of applications and talked to some people interested in applying, but I have made very few decisions." Obviously, a decision has been made in Levy's case; Tovo says: "I wanted to let him know as soon as possible so that he would have an opportunity to talk to another council member [about a reappointment]. ... I was not interested in reappointing him."

"As far as my other appointments go, I will be reappointing some that are currently serving," Tovo says, calling the B&C system a "great opportunity for citizens to get involved in city government." However, she notes, it would be positive "to see new perspectives on some of those boards." One potential change hall watchers are eyeing, for instance, regards the Planning Commission, where Tovo herself previously served. The term of Chair Dave Sullivan – a Shade supporter –  is up, and Tovo told insider tip sheet In Fact Daily that Sullivan (often regarded as a moderating influence on the board) isn't her first choice. "I had several people contact me who are interested in serving on that commission," Tovo tells the Hustle.

Tovo's still naming her office staff, too. So far Joi Harden, a Neighborhood Planning and Zoning city staffer, is Tovo's sole hire, as policy aide. Campaign manager Mark Yznaga will not join Tovo's staff. "He certainly was critical to my campaign, but he's involved in lots of community initiatives," Tovo says.

Still, nothing excites more than a personal skirmish, and the payback for Levy, who dropped $17,000 on his mailer, is indeed rich. Palace intrigue is now centered on Chris Riley, and whether he'll re-appoint Levy himself.

It's a wild time generally at the Public Safety Commission, with budget season bearing down and the Police Department assuming its perennial position of cost driver – a topic Tovo spoke to on the campaign trail; in a questionnaire, she wrote, "Escalating public safety contracts are financially unsustainable." And while you won't find any disagreement here that police salaries are indeed untenable expenses, we all know what the problem is – but what's the solution?

The PSC recently punted on public safety cuts. And with City Manager Marc Ott's proposed budget coming before Tovo and company July 27, one committee member recently wrote the Hustle to weigh in on the oscillating cuts and add-backs public safety departments are expected to make:

"The 911 staffing need [for additional call takers] is an example of how the city manager controls what gets into the final budget approved by the council and what does not. Fancy power points for council presentations in the budget process are put together by department heads after approval by the manager and assistant city managers and the budget office. Council is always clueless except to make sure their pet items are in, not knowing and/or caring what the dollars for these pet projects are taking away from critical needs such as 911 staffing, swimming pools closures, etc. Smart dept. heads usually put as proposed cuts to meet manager's dollar reduction goal things the dept. heads know the council could never cut."

In case you're curious, that note came from Mike Levy.

Make it ap-point (get it?) to find the Hustle online at

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