Old Tensions Flare Anew at End of Mayor Pro Tem’s Term
Clashing symbols at City Council
City Council's 2021 began with some minor drama over who would succeed Delia Garza in the largely ceremonial post of mayor pro tem. It ended with the "winners" of that contest at odds on the dais, highlighting tensions and policy differences that have divided Council for years and led to splitting the MPT baby in the first place.
That compromise anointed Natasha Harper-Madison as mayor pro tem for this year, and Council Member Alison Alter as her successor in 2022. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprisings and Austin police violence and recalcitrance that Harper-Madison had taken the lead in addressing from the dais, elevating and honoring Council's only Black member was seen as an important symbol for a city continuing to reckon with its past and present racism in policing, housing, and health.
In brief remarks at the outset of Council's Dec. 9 meeting, her last as MPT, Harper-Madison acknowledged the importance of that symbolism. "I'd like to say that Austin is progressive in a lot of ways and I'm really proud to be part of a Council that" elected a Black member as MPT, "because regardless of how we interact with one another [on the dais], I'm up here." she said. "Young people of color ... they're watching us and they know that they can do it because I did."
Harper-Madison's caveat about "how we interact with one another" foreshadowed a debate later in the meeting that dripped with the thinly veiled animosity between the Council camps on housing and land use, generally the subjects of its most bitter debates. The item in question was a resolution from the outgoing MPT directing staff to collect data on how much various city regulations, as well as other market factors, contribute to the cost of building housing.
The resolution did not initiate any policy change – it just asked for information to be collected to inform future discussions in 2023, after Austin elects a new mayor and at least two, maybe more, new council members. Nonetheless, Alter and CM Leslie Pool, aided by their land-use allies Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen, threw up firm resistance to Harper-Madison's proposal.
The scope of work is undefined in the resolution, which is not uncommon, allowing staff the flexibility to return to Council with varying scenarios for implementation. As an example, this study might come back with a matrix showing what it costs a developer to build a four-unit apartment building in North Austin. That analysis would include city fees levied to pay for things like parkland acquisition and street improvements, and perhaps the costs associated with applying for a rezoning or submitting site plans for review (including hiring an agent or attorney to represent the owner). Staff indicated it could bring a scope of work back to Council early next year.
Despite this, objections and proposed amendments to the resolution – which first surfaced two weeks ago when Kitchen asked that the item be postponed – were numerous. It would likely cost too much and take too long to produce useful data, Kitchen said. The scope of work, which may involve Council authorizing a contract with an outside consultant, was too broad and unfocused, Alter said. Or perhaps it wasn't broad enough, Pool said, and staff should also "provide an analysis of the value of City priorities" like providing open space and tree canopy that the fees pay for.
Pool's amendment produced the most tension during the prolonged debate. Harper-Madison agreed that Pool's ideas were worthy of exploration – in a separate resolution, one that she would happily co-sponsor. Pool felt otherwise: "This is a really important part of the overall perspective," she said, "and frankly, my support for your resolution rests on the piece that I'm looking for ... to make sure that we have a comprehensive review."
Pool suggested postponing the resolution again if Harper-Madison was not prepared to incorporate her changes, to which the MPT replied with a firm, "Absolutely not." Ultimately, Pool pulled down the amendment after receiving assurance from staff that the quality-of-life value of these fees and regulations would be considered in any future recommendations for change.
"I am disappointed by the level of inconsistency some of us bring to the dais," Harper-Madison said at one point, alluding to Mayor Steve Adler's dictum that Council focus on housing items with consensus support, and not get mired in debates like the one that was unfolding. For instance, earlier in the meeting, Harper-Madison withdrew her own amendments to Tovo's resolution on accessory dwelling units, which could have also led to a frustrating debate, so that Council could take action more smoothly.
"I was surprised and disappointed by the resistance," Harper-Madison later told us. "We're in the middle of a crisis and we needed urgent action yesterday. I know it can be frustrating for our constituents to see us micromanaging from the dais and deliberating endlessly. Sometimes when we do that, we let perfection be the enemy of the good."
As amended by Tovo, the adopted resolution asks staff to report to Council no later than March 1, or before entering any contracts with consultants, on its progress developing the scope of work, including how the analysis will be approached and what data it will include. A Kitchen amendment also asks staff to produce a scope of work for a study that would look at the city's permitting process and identify ways to reduce wait times. The original resolution asks staff to deliver an interim report in May, with a final report in December.