The Austin Chronicle

Council-Manager or Managing Council?

Mayor backs down on private funding of staff, but Council doubts remain

By Michael King, February 27, 2015, News

Although it still appears as Item 35 on today's City Council agenda (Thursday, Feb. 26), the Mayor's Better Austin Foundation is officially an idea whose time has not yet come. After significant backlash from Council colleagues, the media, and public testimony, Mayor Steve Adler has done a "full pivot" on the notion of foundational support and private funding for additional mayoral staff and Council outreach – Item 40 (co-sponsored by Council Members Leslie Pool, Sheri Gallo, and Ann Kitchen) now proposes that Council authorize the shift of five currently vacant (but already funded) city staff positions to the mayor's office. The new version – which Adler describes as "better policy" than private funding, the primary sticking point for critics – has the advantage of no immediate budget impact in this cycle, and the mayor defends it as "a good example of the Council-Manager form of government working as it should."

It's more likely to pass in this form, but at Tuesday's work session, there were still considerable misgivings from some quarters – notably District 2 CM Delia Garza, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, and D8 CM Ellen Trox­clair. Garza especially wanted to know what particular needs the additional staff is supposed to fill – Adler has persistently suggested as sufficient justification broader constituent services and a mandate for "change" – while other members expressed concern that expanding the mayor's staff would inevitably amplify the mayor's role beyond that of the other 10 Council members. Tovo noted the potential long-term effect of a structural change that might seem minor today, although Kitchen defended the proposal as simply extending the whole Council's abilities to act – "If I need help," she said, "I'm not concerned about where the person providing that help is sitting."

Beyond the dais, Adler received unanticipated opposition from LBJ School Professor Emeritus (and Adler campaign supporter) Terrell Blodgett, who circulated an open letter to the mayor and Council strongly arguing against expanding the mayor's staff – even via existing positions – as both imposing on the city manager and "upset[ting] the balance of power between [the mayor's] office and council members." For the moment, the members seemed inclined toward referring the proposal to committee (Audit & Finance) – if that's what happens today, it would be the first proposal to follow that route in the new Council's reorganization.

Other matters of note, on the relatively light (65-Item) agenda:

CM Don Zimmerman is restive about Austin Water's arrangements with recently annexed River Place; he's questioning Item 7, the hefty outside legal contract to defend the city's water rate case concerning the subdivision.

Five CMs (led by Kitchen) would direct (Item 36) the city manager to estimate, for budget purposes, the cost of health care coverage for additional city workers (part-time, temporary, contract, and in the utilities).

Phones Are Ringing: Item 38 would extend the prohibitions on "adult-oriented" businesses to within 1,000 feet of a museum or library (where children might be present); the unidentified target of this legislative drone is a "gentlemen's club" recently proposed for a Downtown Congress venue.

Play Another Round: The Decker Lake/Long Metropolitan Park golf course-concession proposal (Item 41) returns, now with a deep-drill alternative for water instead of using (or reusing) city water – work session buzz suggested another delay to consider the latest wrinkle.

In the Zone: The Garza Tract returns (Items 50-51), with the hearing closed, so Council may have to bite the bullet and decide whether the proposed conditions (e.g., on impervious cover) are sufficient to protect the Edwards Aquifer – a question under dispute for decades.

And at proclamation time, musical honorees the Eastside Memorial High School Jazz Band will be in the house.

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