Council: The Budget Warms Up ... and Ott's Under Fire

With substantive postponements, this week's Council meeting may bring fireworks

City Manager Marc Ott
City Manager Marc Ott (Photo by Jana Birchum)

There's no regular City Council meeting this week (next one is May 1), but by the time you read this, City Council will have had its initial budget briefing from the Financial Services staff – Deputy CFO Ed Van Eenoo is City Hall's smoothest number-cruncher, and he generally does the bulk of the rapid-fire honors. The Thursday morning briefing marks the kickoff of the formal budget season, which lasts (with a monthlong break in July) into early September. There's no reason to expect surprising or distressing numbers – Austin's economy continues to boom, with unemployment still dropping and cranes still marking the skyline – and that generally means rising property values, tax revenues, and sales tax income as well, presumably easing budget worries even as city services continue to strain over a burgeoning population.

But Council members have been appearing a little restive of late. Maybe it's just campaign season (with three, possibly four, incumbents readying for the stump), but for some time now the dais has been uneasy over money matters. Nobody wants to raise taxes in a "historic" (10-1, November) election year, and last month Mayor Lee Leffing­well held off an attempt to make "midyear budget adjustments" (i.e., spending some "surplus" revenue) that instead devolved into a new midyear formal budget policy. But some members weren't delighted with that outcome, and it was followed last week by a brief Council meeting dustup over the posting of midyear, executive session, senior staff review (City Manager Marc Ott and three others who report directly to Council). The mayor was apparently miffed that he hadn't been warned before the reviews showed up on last Thursday's agenda, and they were summarily withdrawn (partly because Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole was absent due to illness) over the objection of CM Bill Spelman.

Leffingwell told Spelman that annual staff evaluations are already scheduled for late June: "The reason I suggested withdrawal is we can take up those items then." Spelman conceded, while noting that "some of us" might want to re-post the reviews (also including City Auditor, City Clerk, and Municipal Court Clerk) for earlier consideration. The online Austin Monitor and KUT-FM reported that Spelman and Mike Martinez had posted the reviews, which they both initially said were simply pursuant to a decision last August to do staff reviews more often than once a year.

The Austin American-Statesman's Alberta Phillips, who smelled a coup, pursued the story, and Spelman told her subsequently via email (see "Spelman lambasts city manager's leadership," April 22) that the move to review Ott and the others was additionally sparked by recent Council disagreements with senior staff. The public quarrels haven't been remarkable – for visible example, Ott firmly warned Council during a work session not to count budget estimate chickens until they're fully hatched – but then Spelman popped this cascarone: "It's not for me alone to decide, and I don't know what the other council members think. In particular, I believe Mr Ott has (perhaps inadvertently) created a toxic environment among city staff. Staffers are unable to make decisions because everything needs to be kicked upstairs; many are worried that they'll be fired if they make a mistake or speak up. We have an exceptional city staff, capable of doing great things. But they won't do great things – they won't do anything – if they believe they're liable to be fired for any misstep. This needs to change immediately."

Any Council unhappiness with Ott is undoubtedly aggravated by members' inability to communicate consistently over time, due to rigidly enforced open meetings standards – that was also a factor in Leffing­well feeling blindsided by the review posting. But Spelman (who's not running for anything, so probably feels a certain freedom) reiterated that he didn't want to wait until the regularly scheduled June reviews. So we may see fireworks on this issue as early as this week – watch Friday's final agenda posting.

With Cole absent, there were several other substantive postponements, and along with some other later-to-bloom resolutions, the main accomplishment of last week's meeting was the initiation of a housing nondiscrimination ordinance that will prohibit landlords from rejecting tenants solely for "source of income" – that is, primarily federal "Section 8" and similar vouchers. An ordinance still needs to move through the drafting process – and property owners and their organizations made it clear they have objections they want heard – but Council seemed determined on the subject, and it could mean opening up many thousands of affordable apartments to low-income residents.

The Road to 10-1

Would-be Council members continue to accumulate in the upcoming district races, with roughly three dozen people having filed campaign treasurer designations with the City Clerk's office, and another couple dozen either already campaigning informally or said to be waiting in the wings. We're planning a full workup for next week's issue, but the headline news this week was Sheryl Cole's announcement of a "10-District House Party Tour" of the whole city, beginning May 3, although she insists she's not yet ready to declare her candidacy. "I'm taking a hard look" at a mayoral run, she told the Chronicle, "but I'm not there yet." Presumably she'll be there (or not) come mid-May.

Meanwhile, local musician and businessman Todd Phelps, who filed a treasurer designation this week, became the fourth declared mayoral candidate (with Steve Adler, Mike Martinez, and Randall Stephens), making a candidates-only 10-1 house party increasingly feasible.

We're also running – as fast as we can. Fol­low the ongoing updates on the Chronicle election page:

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News, Ed Van Eenoo, Lee Leffingwell, Marc Ott, Sheryl Cole, Bill Spelman, Mike Martinez, 10-1, Todd Phelps, Steve Adler, Randall Stephens

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