Council: Meet Denialism Don
Council considers resilience, and other things
There's no regular City Council meeting this week (next is May 7, agenda still in progress) but the week wasn't entirely lost for civic entertainment. Monday morning featured the last of the scheduled policy reviews – "We made the mistake of calling them 'deep dives,'" said Mayor Steve Adler, "and there's nothing deep about them at all." Henceforth the "policy conversations" are meant to take place in Council committees – this final one before the dais concerned civic "resilience," broadly defined as community responses to "disruptions": natural disasters, extreme weather events, economic distress, or social crises. Speakers addressed definitions of resilience, anticipated disruptions like floods or wildfires, and methods of economic and social resilience.
The presentations were fairly straightforward, yet sufficiently substantive to provoke District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman to complain about "government bureaucrats." If it weren't for bureaucrats, argued Zimmerman, Northwest Austin residents could solve the wildfire problem themselves by clearing out all the nearby brush – most especially in those impertinent and unnecessary wildlife preserves. And Zimmerman – who regularly delights in reminding his colleagues that he's "an engineer" – directly took on Katherine Hayhoe, Texas Tech climate scientist and director of the university's Climate Science Center. After Hayhoe's elementary but unsurprising account of man-made climate change and its increasing effects on Texas and Texans, Zimmerman informed her that there is no such thing as climate change – it's all cooked up by government bureaucrats who want to have "the government in charge of climate. It really angers me."
Hayhoe replied that there are free-market solutions (witness Texas' success at wind energy) but apparently that didn't placate Zimmerman, who reportedly continued to press his case to the scientist after her presentation. According to the Austin Monitor, Zimmerman was "loudly criticizing [Hayhoe's] views on climate change until some staff members took her out of the chamber." Hayhoe may be a climate scientist – and she recommended to Zimmerman and his colleagues the site www.skepticalscience.com – but on the dais, Zimmerman is increasingly adopting the role of World's Foremost Authority.
Before this amusing kerfuffle, last Wednesday, Council received from staff their initial budget forecast for FY 2016 (see above), and on Thursday managed a bit of regular business. Perhaps the most momentous was the third reading approval of a major residential project on a Burnet Road commercial tract – surprisingly, increasing the potential density from 225 to 300 units, increasing both the overall residential supply in the Burnet Corridor as well as the number of affordable units in the project – all in the interests of "affordability." Voting 7-4, they rejected both a smaller project favored by a nearby neighborhood association and an alternative mixed-use zoning designation proposed on the spot by District 7 CM Leslie Pool – which would have also required restarting the already several-months-long approval process.
The vote, which might be a one-off or might signal a sea-change in Council's approach to residential development, comprised a seemingly unstable alliance among the mayor (who wants more units); Eastside progressives Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, and Greg Casar, promoting affordable housing; joined by property-rights conservatives Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair, and D10's Sheri Gallo, whose arguments echoed the mayor.
• Temporarily extended taxi franchise agreements with all the current cab companies, while continuing to work on potential reforms, including at least the possibility of a drivers' cooperative;
• sent the proposed Decker Lake golf project back to committee, where it has languished on life-support since January, and frankly appears doomed;
• referred to committee a $68,000 art commission for the city's Women and Children's Shelter – despite a strong defense by Adler – after Troxclair, Zimmerman, and Ora Houston took exception to the cost and the entire Art in Public Places Program: Artists, if they work at all, should apparently work for free;
• referred to committee the buyout of a flood-damaged home of an elderly homeowner in far Northwest Barrington Oaks – Council was unwilling to make a singular exception, with outstanding buyouts pending elsewhere, especially at Onion Creek.