City Hall Hustle: Agreeing To Disagree

Outside City Hall, crowds gather; inside City Hall, clouds form

As the Occupy Wall Street protests enter a second month, solidarity gatherings are popping up across the country, with one – Occupy Austin – scheduled for this Thursday (today) at City Hall's outdoor plaza.

Much has been made of the protests' seemingly inchoate message. The Hustle is sympathetic to the messages of breaking the global financial choke hold our unelected financial elites have on the globe, and also to the protesters and their as-yet-uncrystallized message. As Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald wrote: "There's substantial value even in those protests that lack 'exit goals' and 'messaging strategies' and the rest of the platitudes from Power Point presentations by mid-level functionaries at corporate conferences. Some injustices simply need anger and dissent expressed for its own sake, to make clear that there are citizens who are aware of it and do not accept it."

However, the selection of City Hall just seems weird. I don't recall the city of Austin receiving billions in public dollars to resolve a financial hostage situation of its own creation, only to spend the money on bonuses and soak us with new fees to make up for a couple of bad quarters. Moreover, the usual collection of "activists" at City Hall trying to harness the power of the Occupy movement already have their own goals in mind, everything from ending water fluoridation to halting DWI-related blood draws to denying the mayor another term – initiatives all of local resonance and debatable import, but not the makings of a movement, local or national.

As if to drive the point home, on the day of the protests, City Council is scheduled for a second vote (with the third on tap Friday) on whether to hold the next mayoral election in May or move it to November without a public vote, as allowed by the Legislature. A November vote's probably the easiest thing a local body could do to directly empower citizens in broader numbers. But the act of extending terms by six months is seen by some local "activists" as a nefarious infringement on liberty. Okay, then ....

But then again, Austin's potential issues are illustrative of the Occupy movement's issues everywhere else: preserving the popular engagement and momentum while deciding what it is they're fighting for. Here are a few suggestions: End corporate personhood, reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act separating commercial banking and high-flying investment banking (i.e., speculation), and meaningful regulation of the fees banks, TARP-assisted or otherwise, can charge citizens to access their own money. Oh, and an end to endless war.

In the Zone

Moving from Tahrir Square to council chambers, today's meeting, Oct. 6, may see an occupation of its own, because who knows how long it will take to get through this agenda. That aforementioned election item will undoubtedly draw some discussion, hopefully in contrast to the few speakers at council's Tuesday work session (see "The Calendar's on Fire!").

One item that won't take much time is Item 80, adoption of the Downtown Austin Plan, in the works longer than the citywide Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan. Surprise – it ain't ready yet. Council members discussed postponing its adoption at the work session. It sounds like Mayor Lee Leffingwell wants an acknowledgment of Sen. Kirk Watson's ambitious plans for a medical campus, while Kathie Tovo and Laura Mor­ri­son want more time to address staff recommendations preserving Cen­tral Urban Rede­vel­op­ment zoning instead of killing it, leaving Down­town Density Bonus zoning the only option for expanded heights in the urban core.

Another planning conundrum: Item 61, from Tovo and Morrison, "directing the Comprehensive Plan Citi­zens Advisory Task Force ... to review the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan and provide recommendations to the Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee."

What piqued their peers' interest at the work session was the draft's Paragraph B, asking the citizens task force to "work with the established working groups and stakeholders ... to compare and contrast existing adopted components of the Comprehensive Plan (e.g., Create Austin, Families and Child­ren Master Plan, Bicycle Master Plan, Neighborhood Plans) and major planning documents from other entities such as area independent school districts with the proposed Com­pre­hensive Plan to help identify potential conflicts and omissions." Former Planning Commissioner Riley expressed concern at the "tremendous amount of work." Should it expand beyond the named examples, he said, "we're not talking about one month; I doubt that task could be performed in one year." Morrison tried to assuage those concerns by noting that staff had already been looking for inconsistencies. And Tovo went on the defensive, noting the intent was not to "derail the comp plan," as alleged by some who claim neighborhood interests have been slow-walking Imagine Austin.

But as Leffingwell offered on the proposal's impetus, "A big part of the complaint seems to be we don't agree with staff on certain points. ... Nothing says you have to agree."

That's basically City Hall in a nutshell right now.

Tweets off @CityHallHustle.

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City Councilcity planningactivism, City Council, Occupy Austin, comprehensive planning, Imagine Austin, zoning

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