The Austin Chronicle

Council Rings the Changes

By Michael King, May 4, 2012, News

With the May 12 election looming for the mayor and three other incumbents, City Council will not hold a regular session again until May 24 – but the work goes on. Five work sessions will occur in the meantime, and the ongoing Austin Energy rate discussion will comprise only two of them (May 16 and 17). Beginning Wednesday, May 2, council began to hear in detail the budget presentations of various departments; Wednesday's session covered the Library, Health and Human Services, Animal Services, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, Austin Resource Recovery, Code Compliance, Public Works, Transportation, and Watershed Protection. The departmental agenda for next Wednesday, May 9, was not set at press time. Transportation staff will also be prepping for a special May 22 work session on urban rail – when presumably we'll begin to hear if more potential financing has been identified, and whether a bond vote on rail is still possible for November.

Last week's meeting turned out to be not quite as long as anticipated – adjournment came at 10:01pm – though much of the efficiency was achieved by punting several dozen items down the road (look out, May 24). Nevertheless, the session accomplished quite a bit, highlighted by the morning briefing and handoff to council of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan from the task force assigned to draft it – with ceremonial remarks from Planning and Development Director Greg Guernsey, Task Force Chair Margaret Cooper, and Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan. It's still a ways from adoption, but after 2½ years (or 30, beginning on when you start counting), everybody was glad to see a reasonably finalized product. (The task force vote was reported as 21-3, to which Bill Spelman commented that in Austin, "that's unanimous.")

And speaking of unanimous, council voted 7-0 for staff to negotiate an agreement to extend Austin Pets Alive!'s lease on the Town Lake Animal Center for a multiyear term, an extended deal that even APA! was surprised by – and of which we have likely not heard the last word. There was also a unanimous vote on various adjustments to campaign law – some proposed for city charter votes, some to be changed by ordinance (e.g., Ethics Review Commission given jurisdiction over campaign finance violations). Despite audible misgivings (primarily from Sheryl Cole) that tighter finance restrictions could effectively underfund campaigns, ceding candidacy to the wealthy, the vote was 7-0 to strengthen reporting requirements, and to put limits on bundling by lobbyists and their firms – no member was going to oppose such a move in the stretch run of a council campaign.

Meanwhile, legal staff reported that the timeline for instituting both geographic districts for council and an independent commission to draw district lines – each of which would require federal review – would likely push any election based on those changes to 2014, leaving everybody to stew in the meantime.

However, earlier in the day, on a proposal from Laura Mor­rison, council loosened the rules on Citizens Commun­i­ca­tion to allow communication in work sessions on the rare items posted for voting. No doubt that will compensate for the Incredible Shrinking Rolls of Actual Voters.

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