Council: Only the Strong Survive

Mayor Adler begins to build his administration

The new 10-1 City Council hadn't been in place for a month before backstage muttering began about an eventual move away from Austin's council-manager governing structure to a strong-mayor system – in which, instead of being one vote among 11 Council mem­bers, the mayor would become Austin's chief executive – making the city manager either superfluous or the mayor's direct report, and Coun­cil a relative afterthought. (The bigger the city, the more likely it's strong-mayor.) We're not there yet, but fledgling Mayor Steve Adler seems to have hit on a transition strategy: Just pretend we're strong-mayor already. (And thus far, his dais colleagues have seemed mysteriously eager to follow along.)

Late-addendum Item 86 on today's (Thu., Feb. 12) 86-Item City Council agenda is a resolution authorizing a city agreement with "the Mayor's Better Austin Foundation Inc. to accept donated staff for the public purpose of assisting the new council committees and providing other council support." That "committee assistance" tag seems a bit misleading; early on, Adler has chafed at the size of his staff, and argued that since his is now the only "citywide" elected office, he needs more personnel for constituent services and mayoral "special projects." He's pointed to the one privately funded aide under his predecessor, Lee Leffingwell (an aide devoted to promoting volunteerism) as setting the precedent for a privately underwritten "Commun­ity Cabinet" and a group of Better Austin Foundation advisors.

Privatizing government functions is not a universally popular idea, and it's a notion that should at least merit some public debate (a hearing, perhaps?). But, although the new Council (most especially the mayor) has been committee-happy in its early weeks, this proposal apparently didn't merit a committee review or a public hearing before arriving on a Council action agenda. Pitched to the American-Statesman as a tax-free, problem-solving bit of noblesse oblige, and co-sponsored by CMs Leslie Pool, Greg Casar, and Sheri Gallo, it appears to be on a fast-track to enactment. (Wednesday afternoon, the mayor's office announced he will move to postpone action.)

The resolution attempts to include protections against conflicts of interest (banning persons with possible contract, zoning, or lobbying business before the city), but the sort of folks who land on these "advisor" lists are the sort for whom private and public interests are effectively indistinguishable – not to mention people who already have the mayor's ear. (The mayor's wife, Diane Land, would be an (unpaid) BAF staffer, and CM Ann Kitchen's husband, Mark Yznaga, would be a paid staff member.*[See correction below])

No doubt everybody involved has the very best intentions.

Other items of note today:

District 6 CM Don Zimmerman has made it clear he opposes spending on public art or affordable housing – he's targeted proposals for art projects at ABIA (Items 6 and 7) and several housing project proposals for city loans to draw down state low-income housing credits (Items 20-31, but his particular target is a Foundation Communities housing project planned for D6).

Item 50 would direct staff to review the budgetary impact of a 20% property tax homestead exemption, either immediate or phased in over a few years (sponsored by CM Ellen Troxclair, co-sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, CMs Gallo, Kitchen). At Tues­day's work session, Adler reiterated his stump speech on the subject, and Zimmer­man pointedly informed staff and his colleagues that there is no such thing as a "revenue shortfall," only "excessive spending."

Council won't be able to dodge zoning matters again this week; on the agenda are four pending cases with closed hearings, and two dozen more in various stages, including a couple of hard cases.


*Correction: Diane Land and Mark Yznaga were originally identified in error as proposed board members for the Foundation; they would be staff members.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council 2015, Steve Adler, Don Zimmerman, Better Austin Foundation, homestead exemption

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