Community event offers free wellness knowledge, and BBQ, too

 

As a longtime church music minister and funeral director in East Austin and Manor, Barry J.W. Franklin has stood at the intersection of some of the most vexing challenges confronting African Americans: Health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease, and financial illiteracy.

Those challenges, he says, have diminished the quality of life for so many people he regularly interacts with in church pews and funeral homes – folks who have lost their inheritance, homes and health, essentially because they lacked the knowledge and savvy to address those issues timely.

On Saturday, Franklin is doing something about it by bringing experts, ranging from doctors and nurses to financial planners and insurance professionals to East Austin’s Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex — which by the way, should be renamed for the late Eric Mitchell, who as a council member in the 1990s secured the federal HUD dollars to build it.

READ: Fiery one-term council member was part of pro-business minority, rattled status quo

That’s a story for another column. Back to Saturday’s event, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the entertainment complex, 1156 Hargrave St.

Thanks to a host of volunteers and Franklin, who is paying for the venue, barbecue and fixings, the event is free. All are welcome.

“African Americans need to be educated on important issues while they are living so they can improve their health, survive old-age with dignity and hold on to their homes and inheritance,” Franklin said, explaining why he is hosting what he calls “A Community Celebration of Health and Wealth.”

Franklin says the event will feature information and screenings regarding diabetes, heart disease, high and low blood pressure and cancer – several of the chronic illnesses that disproportionately afflict black Americans.

The good news for African Americans is that their death rate has decreased by 25 percent from 1999 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bad news is that African Americans, ages 18-49, are two times as likely to die from heart disease than whites; and they are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than whites, according to the CDC.

RELATED: African American health

Another overlooked health issue is oral care for children and adults. Franklin’s got that covered with dentists and other specialists who will be on hand to provide information about that. He wants to increase awareness of oral cancer and gum disease.

Franklin says he didn’t limit the health and wellness fair to health issues because finances also play an important role in a person’s quality of life.

“I’ve seen many people pass away and leave their estates to family members and others who aren’t equipped to handle those assets, back taxes and related matters,” Franklin said. “That lack of knowledge has contributed to people losing their homes in East Austin and putting folks in debt.”

Aside from financial and estate planning, experts will be on hand to discuss wills, trusts, reverse mortgages, social security and veteran benefits and various kinds of insurance.

Among those supporting Franklin’s event is the Rev. Henrietta Sullivan Mkwanazi, co-pastor for historic Metropolitan AME Church in East Austin.

“Even those of us with college degrees have a hard time distinguishing between whole life insurance and term life insurance,” she said. “This is three packed hours of knowledge on that and many other topics.”

Mkwanazi continued: “There is an old saying that ‘knowledge is power’ and people suffering from a lack of knowledge don’t know how to tap into the things that need to be done to improve their health and welfare.”

On Saturday, the public can tap in to what Mkwanazi called “free knowledge” at the community celebration.

Precourt’s MLS stadium proposal faces new, legal hurdles

Precourt Sports Ventures wants to build a Major League Soccer stadium on this city-owned tract at McKalla Place. JAY JANNER / American-Statesman

Whatever the Austin City Council decides to do in its negotiations regarding a proposal to bring Major League Soccer to Austin, it should check two boxes: Be on firm legal ground with the letter and the spirit of state law, and fairly compensate taxpayers in the way of direct benefits akin to the arrangement the city has with the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

That is why it’s a good idea for the city to immediately clear up new questions raised by Austin lawyer Bill Aleshire about whether the proposal for a professional soccer stadium on city-owned land violates state law.

It also would be wise for Precourt to sweeten the deal for taxpayers.

In a letter sent this week to City Attorney Anne Morgan, Aleshire stated that the city cannot lease, transfer or give away McKalla Place to Precourt Sports Ventures under state law unless the city receives compensation, totaling more than $18 million, or uses the land for a purpose consistent with its owner – Austin Water.

“Based on what information has been disclosed publicly, the City of Austin is on the verge of violating laws that prohibit property acquired with water utility bonds for specific use by the utility to be leased to one who would devote the premises to an inconsistent use,” Aleshire wrote in the letter to Morgan.

“McKalla Place is an Austin Water Utility asset purchased and improved with water bonds paid by Austin water utility customers. A soccer stadium is not a water utility use.”

If that is true, it throws a curve ball (excuse the baseball metaphor) into professional soccer stadium negotiations, which already are raising concerns about whether Austin is getting a fair deal, or as Council Member Ora Houston has said, “giving away the farm.”

I contacted Morgan, the city attorney, for a response.

“We did advise our council in executive session,” she told me via email. “While I cannot disclose what we advise in executive sessions, I can tell you that if council asks the city to go forward with negotiations regarding McKalla, we will explore and address the issues raised by Mr. Aleshire.”

In a unanimous decision Friday morning, the council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to analyze Precourt’s proposal and begin stadium negotiations. In a separate action, the council passed a resolution seeking alternative proposals for McKalla Place.

At this point, few – including myself – can determine the legitimacy of Aleshire’s assertions or whether they have any merit at all. The city is in the best position to clarify those matters and should do so publicly to limit speculation that is likely to cloud or confuse matters regarding the use of McKalla Place for professional soccer or, for that matter, other purposes, such as a mixed-use development. To allow such questions to simmer without clarification is unfair to the water utility and its users, Precourt and the public.

Aleshire asserts that state law prevents the council from selling McKalla Place to Precourt without taking competitive bids. He did say, however, the council does have authority to use the land for a purpose consistent with the water utility – a stipulation he joked isn’t satisfied with a few rain water collection barrels or low-flush toilets.

Matters might end up in court, Aleshire told Morgan, unless the city sheds light on the legal questions raised by using property owned by Austin Water for sports or entertainment purposes.

Again, this is speculation, but if Aleshire’s assertions do have merit, it would seem that the city would have methods to make the water utility whole, clearing the way for soccer or other uses of McKalla.

Aleshire’s caution should not be taken lightly. He prevailed in a previous legal skirmish with the council regarding the city’s attempt to grant water utility fee waivers to the Pilot Knob housing development, getting the council’s action reversed and declared void.

READ: Pilot Knob violated state, federal law

Those new legal questions come as Austin City Council members are in talks with Precourt about its proposal to lease the 24-acre McKalla property for $1 a year. The initial terms of the agreement would cover 20 years, but with options that permit Precourt to renew under the same terms, the contract could run 80 years.

Precourt has proposed financing the construction of a $200 million stadium on the site for its Columbus Crew, SC, which it wants to relocate to from Columbus, Ohio, by year’s end. Because the property – including the stadium — would be owned by the city of Austin, Precourt wants a deal that would exempt it from paying property taxes to the city, Travis County, Central Health, Austin Community College or financially-strapped Austin Independent School District.

Some on the council have downplayed such taxpayer subsidies, arguing that the economic and social benefits Major League Soccer would yield for the city outweigh other financial considerations.

That argument ignores the fiduciary responsibility of council members to consider the highest and best use of a public asset — prior to a decision. That doesn’t mean a soccer stadium isn’t the best use, but that can’t be determined in a vacuum.

That is especially true, given city records provided by Aleshire.

Austin Water, the city’s water utility, purchased the property in 1995 for $1.4 million, city records show. That distinction requires the city to at least recoup the utility’s $18,261,323 investment over time.

So far, Precourt’s offer, while significant in benefits to Austin’s private business community and the city’s overall economy, does not provide direct or meaningful compensation to Austin Water, those who pay fees to the utility, or city taxpayers.

As the Statesman’s editorial board has said, the proposal deprives students and families in Austin district schools and ACC of badly-needed tax revenue the city likely would realize from other private developments that paid property taxes to those jurisdictions.

RELATED: Negotiate MLS stadium deal on Austin’s terms, not Precourt’s

Precourt seems to be getting the message. This week it announced it would build up to 130 units of affordable housing on the site with a parking garage. The details are sketchy, but that would be a solid benefit to taxpayers, helping Austin deal with its Austin’s affordability crisis.

If the sports franchise wants to win over critics, it should look to the city’s arrangement with the ACL Music Festival in which the private venture uses Zilker Park to stage its festival two weekends a year, though preparations and clean up limit park use for weeks before and after the festival.

The city gets a solid return from ACL: Since 2006, ACL has contributed over $26 million to the Austin Parks Foundation for improvements to parks, trails and green spaces – and in 2016 alone, it donated $6.3 million for maintenance and improvements to hundreds of city parks. ACL also pays for the yearly restoration of Zilker Park’s Great Lawn.

Major League Soccer might well be a Kumbaya enterprise for Austin; might boost the city’s cool factor. Even so, the council should put its game face on and get the best deal for Austin Water users and taxpayers.

 

 

 

Poll shows how we’re split over CodeNext and what issue can bring us together

What do you think of CodeNext? It may depend, as much as anything, on how long you’ve been in Austin.

While the legal wrangling plays out at City Hall over whether to put a CodeNext-related item on the November ballot — a subplot with legal questions almost as complex as the rewrite of the land development code itself — I went searching for indicators of what the public actually thinks of CodeNext.

True, more than 32,000 people signed petitions supporting a ballot initiative that would allow voters to decide the fate of CodeNext and similar zoning overhauls, an indication many are concerned about the issue. But as Uber and Lyft can tell you, gathering enough signatures to put something on the ballot doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have enough votes to prevail on election day.

The most revealing glimpse I found on CodeNext attitudes comes from a poll commissioned by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. This scientific survey of 501 Austin residents found 45 percent favored CodeNext and 36 percent opposed it. With 19 percent unsure, a decision could swing either way.

EDITORIAL: With no good options, City Council faces dilemma over CodeNext

Most notably, the poll shows a stark difference in support for CodeNext based on how long people have lived in Austin. Support for CodeNext is 63 percent among those here less than a decade, and just 27 percent among those here more than 35 years. The opposition counts just 23 percent of the less-than-10-years crowd — and more than half of the folks here longer than 35 years.

Now, you may quibble with the pollster’s wording of the question, which described CodeNext as an effort “to rewrite the land development code and rezone certain areas of the city … in order to create more diverse housing options and increase density” in Austin or select neighborhoods. The question waves at the expected positives without acknowledging critics’ concerns about the potential displacement of longtime residents and the disruption to established neighborhoods.

And the poll, conducted in December by Baselice & Associates with a 4.4 percent margin of error, is no doubt a few months removed from the pulse of Austinites now. Even so, the results provide a helpful map to the fault lines in the CodeNext debate.

The poll showed Democrats supported CodeNext 2-to-1, while only a third of Republicans did. Predictably, support was stronger among the folks who said they believed in planning for future growth, and tepid among those who would prefer no growth at all.

The length of time people have been in Austin struck me as the most useful prism for understanding the debate, though there are exceptions to the trends. I’ve talked to some decades-long residents who champion CodeNext, and you can count me among the newcomers (I moved here five years ago) who aren’t yet sold on the plan. Still, in broad strokes, it helps to understand people on the other side of the divide.

RELATED: CodeNext foes are done with compromise. They’re going for the kill.

Most of us recognize Austin is a vibrant city that will continue to draw newcomers (there’s no hope, as the joke goes, of building a wall around Austin — and making California pay for it). It’s not a question of whether Austin will change, but in what ways, and to whose benefit?

I don’t think most longtime residents want a city frozen in amber, but they do want the neighborhood they’ve invested in to retain its feeling of home. I don’t most think newcomers want to knock everything down, but as we’re searching for housing, it’s clear to us that much, much more of it is needed.

And here’s where the poll provides some common ground: 85 percent of those surveyed agree that “Austin has an affordability problem.” (I’d love to meet the 15 percent who aren’t feeling the squeeze.) Devise a CodeNext draft that can address that overarching problem, providing more of the affordable units new residents need without physically or financially pushing out longtime residents, and the city of Austin might get more of us on the same page.

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Phillips: Adler wants city to release city manager search records

Mayor Steve Adler, after voting to conduct a secret search for Austin’s new city manager, now wants to release all records.

When the Austin City Council meets Thursday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler will recommend that the city turn over all records the Texas attorney general’s office ordered be released regarding the council’s search for a new city manager.

“I’m fine with the ruling,” Adler told me over lunch recently. “I believe in transparency.”

The mayor went on to say that in addition to releasing the records showing who applied for the city manager position, he hopes the city would not appeal the AG ruling and “resolve all issues” regarding the lawsuit.

Hallelujah. Adler has come to his senses. I hope the rest of the council does, too, when it discusses the issue in closed session on Thursday.

Frankly, the council has no legal leg on which to stand after the AG’s ruling earlier this month that the city cannot withhold records showing who applied for its city manager position by claiming the information would harm the city competitively in a search for qualified applicants.

The ruling gutted arguments by the city aimed at justifying its efforts to conduct a secret search, such as the ridiculous claim that the information is a trade secret, a matter that would harm the search firm competitively or is “highly intimate and embarrassing.”

Whether the council believed it was on solid legal ground or, as some observers say, bamboozled by a private firm that had not heretofore conducted a search for a public entity or governmental body makes little difference. The damage is done in either case.

It sends the wrong message to the public when the city’s daily newspaper had to sue the city to get records regarding the hiring of the city’s top executive position. It erodes public trust when the city uses resources of its taxpayers to hide information from them to which they are entitled legally or otherwise. It should not have taken an AG ruling, but it did.

Matthew Taylor, an assistant attorney general in the open records division, wrote the opinion, which directs the city and its executive search firm, Russell Reynolds, to turn over the bulk of the information the American-Statesman requested related to the search for a new city manager, including candidate applications. Austin may withhold only attorney-client privileged emails and some personal email addresses and cellphone numbers.

If that weren’t bad enough, the American-Statesman also had to sue the city for potentially violating the state’s open meetings law when the council publicly posted a meeting at one location, then ducked out a door to take vans to another location that had not been posted. That was done to dodge reporters who staked out the posted meeting place.

The law requires public notice of where and when meetings will be – even when the meetings are in closed session.

The public won’t soon forget council members’ unanimous vote to keep the people they represent in the dark or how the city resorted to bizarre tactics to hide the faces of candidates and evade reporters.

Bowing to public pressure, the council finally released the names of five finalists, including Spencer Cronk, who they hired. Cronk starts later this month, after Sunday’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, where Cronk serves as city coordinator until Feb. 11, according to the Star Tribune.

In denying information about the pool of applicants seeking the city manager post, a job akin to a chief executive officer in the private sector, council members did a huge disservice to the public and to Cronk.

The public was unable to evaluate candidates and give feedback until the very end of the search for the person that oversees all city departments, 17,000 employees and a $3.9 billion budget. Cronk will be responsible for the kind of city services residents rely on daily, such as clean water, trash pickup, street repairs, recycling services, electricity and safe neighborhoods.

One of the biggest challenges Cronk will oversee almost immediately is the city’s overhaul of its land use and zoning code, called CodeNext, a political hot potato that has stirred activists to push for a citywide referendum — instead of allowing the council to decide the matter.

Thanks to the council, Cronk enters Austin’s political stage under questions of transparency. That is not the best way to start the job. The council can and should help clear the air by releasing all records and taking no more action to appeal or challenge the AG’s ruling.

With its legal arguments in shreds, Austin should release records for manager search

City of Austin chief communications director Doug Matthews, left, interviews then-candidate Spencer Cronk during a town hall meeting at the Austin Convention Center, Dec. 12, 2017. Cronk was later hired as Austin City Manager. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

 

This week’s decision by the Texas attorney general’s office rejecting the city of Austin’s decision to search in secret for a new city manager was a boost for good government.

As the Statesman’s Elizabeth Findell reported in Friday’s print editions, the city of Austin cannot withhold records showing who applied for its city manager position by claiming the information would harm the city competitively in a search for qualified applicants.

The ruling ripped to shreds nearly every ridiculous argument the Austin City Council and city staff proffered to do its business in the dark, such as their claim that the information is a trade secret, a matter that would harm the search firm competitively or is “highly intimate and embarrassing.”

Thankfully, the AG’s office wasn’t buying that foolishness.

Matthew Taylor, an assistant attorney general in the open records division, wrote the opinion, which directs the city and its executive search firm, Russell Reynolds, to turn over the bulk of the information the American-Statesman requested related to the search for a new city manager, including candidate applications. Austin may withhold only attorney-client privileged emails and some personal email addresses and cellphone numbers.

The Statesman’s editorial board also rejected the city’s arguments.

The city should turn over the information swiftly before any more damage is done to the council’s battered reputation regarding transparency.

It’s telling that the American-Statesman had to sue the city for not releasing the information, and later, for potentially violating the state’s open meetings law when the council publicly posted a meeting at one location, then ducked out a door to take vans to another location that had not been posted. That was done to dodge reporters who staked out the posted meeting place.

The law requires public notice of where and when meetings will be – even when the meetings are in closed session.

The Statesman’s editorial board was sharply critical of the council’s unanimous vote to conduct a secret search and for resorting to bizarre tactics to hide the faces of candidates and evade reporters. Bowing to public pressure, the council finally released the names of five finalists for the job, including Spencer Cronk, who they hired. Cronk starts next month.

Incredibly, the council’s decision to conduct a secret search was unanimous, representing a low point for the city’s first council elected in a 10-1 system that was supposed to yield council members more in tune with public interests. No one should have to tell them that transparency ranks at or near the top of Austin values.

Arguments by Mayor Steve Adler and other council members that the city would get a broader and better pool of applicants if identities of those seeking the job were kept secret so their employers would not know they were being recruited elsewhere were naïve at best. Employers are well aware that head hunters constantly are on the prowl for talent – and some of those recruited for the Austin job had turned up in other searches that were public.

It was particularly disappointing that Adler and his colleagues voted for secrecy in the manager’s search. Yes, Austin’s city manager oversees all city departments, 17,000 employees and a $3.9 billion budget. But that person also is responsible for the kind of city services residents rely on daily, such as clean water, trash pickup, street repairs, recycling services, electricity and safe neighborhoods.

That position in particular would have benefitted from total transparency and wide public input, given the myriad challenges the city, residents and next manager face. They include the city’s overhaul of its land use and zoning code, affordability crisis, traffic gridlock and economic segregation, among other things.

 

 

City Council trying to solve homelessness, parks and convention center puzzle

The Austin City Council meeting, August 29, 2017.
(RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

When it comes to the Austin Convention Center expansion, you might say the actions of the City Council are puzzling.

Yes, I know that is a play on words, given the name Mayor Steve Adler dubbed his plan to expand the convention center, boost financing for cultural arts and address the city’s homeless community that is concentrated downtown near tourist venues.

But with so many moving parts and seemingly contradictory decisions, the mayor’s proposal truly is living up to its name: The “Downtown Puzzle.”

Last week, in a meeting that at one point turned uncharacteristically hostile on the dais as some council members and the mayor fought over how to use a portion of the hotel occupancy tax (HOT), the council endorsed a proposal by Council Members Ellen Troxclair, Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen to steer a slice of hotel taxes to historic preservation of amenities in parks, such as Barton Springs and Zilker Park.

On the surface, that action seemed to kill Adler’s puzzle plan that also relies on hotel taxes.

But when the dust — and the flared tempers — settled, an amendment was added that won Troxclair’s proposal a unanimous vote – including a yes vote from Adler. But here’s the thing: It also keeps Adler’s proposal alive for another vote expected later this month.

The secret, soothing sauce it seems was an amendment that calmed what otherwise was a bare-knuckle brawl pitting parks preservation funding against designated, and unprecedented, funding for permanent housing and other services for people experiencing homelessness. Adler’s proposal is estimated to generate about $4 million to $8 million a year for homeless services for a total of $68 million over 10 years.

As adopted by the council, Troxclair’s proposal directs the city manager to divert $11.9 million of the city’s portion of the HOT to fund “operations/maintenance of city of Austin historic facilities and sites in accordance with Texas Tax Code,” and bond requirements, then fund other eligible historic restoration or preservation projects.

That money would be carved from the yearly budgets of the convention center and Visit Austin, the city’s visitor bureau and marketing arm. Together they received $55.9 million this year in HOT revenue, which would drop to $55.3 million next year. In all, the city’s share of the HOT is 9 percent of the total 15 percent. The remaining 6 percent goes to the state.

But the amendment Adler added gives the council flexibility to look at other options for spending the HOT, including on an expansion of the convention center. So, both proposals are alive, at least for now.

As its name implies, hotel occupancy taxes are generated by fees charged to visitors when they stay in hotels in the city. That is an important distinction in understanding Adler’s plan and why the business case in terms of bookings and losses is trumped by a more relevant, pressing issue: Whether the expansion can be leveraged to access tens of millions in new dollars for projects the Austin community cares deeply about but lacks money to address, from homelessness to music.

Keep in mind that the $400 million to $600 million needed for the expansion would not add a penny to either homeowners’ tax bills or city sales taxes since it would be financed by HOT revenue.

Consider that the convention center is financed mostly by the HOT. Even when revenues and bookings don’t cover expenses, the convention center operates in the black because it receives more than enough revenue from the HOT to cover losses and generate a healthy reserve fund. Similarly, HOT taxes would finance the expansion by raising it to its maximum 17 percent, or 2 percent more.

Adler’s plan would use the expansion to leverage $400 million to $600 million in bond money, more than needed to pay off debt. The extra would steer an estimated $162.3 million to historic preservation over 10 years and about $36.3 million to music. Another $59 million would go for other eligible projects, including historic preservation, and the mayor told me, Austin’s burgeoning film industry.

Because HOT revenue is restricted, city legal has deemed it to be off limits for permanent housing for the homeless, though Adler wants to revisit that decision. Instead, he is proposing a Tourism Public Improvements District, which permits downtown hotel operators to tax themselves through that mechanism, again by charging fees to visitors staying at their establishments. The city’s slice, amounting to 40 percent, would be designated for housing and other assistance for the homeless.

What is unknown at this point is whether Adler’s proposal can survive if Troxclair’s uses all or most of the $11.9 million the council took from HOT revenue.

Starting Monday, the public will get a sense of whether both proposals can go forward or just one — Adler’s or Troxclair’s — when the council starts voting on its budget for next year.

That is when the council is expected to match dollars with proposals, which could eliminate, delay or reduce the size of either proposal.

In other words, another puzzle.

 

Dan Patrick: lieutenant governor or viceroy?

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick presides over the Texas Senate during the final days of the 84th Texas legislature regular session in May, 2015 at the Texas state capitol in Austin. (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)

 

Maybe we should change Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s title to viceroy.

That seems appropriate since he is acting more like a ruler exercising control over colonies – Texas cities and counties – than a statewide elected leader interested in solving the big problems and challenges facing Texas, such as the state’s broken school finance system, the high number of Texans who are uninsured when it comes to healthcare – including one of four women – and soaring school property taxes that are choking Texas homeowners.

Instead of the latter, Patrick has focused on dissembling representative democracy of cities and counties by overruling their elected leadership and supplanting their policies with his own. That is what viceroys do.

If the public has not gotten that message in the anti-local governing measures Patrick swiftly passed in the Senate during the regular and special sessions — some handed down from our sovereign governor — he made it crystal clear last week on the Fox Business Network.

“People are happy with their governments at the state level. They’re not with their cities,” Patrick said.

That’s bizarre, since it is we, the people, who elect mayors and city councils. And when we’re not happy, we turn them out of office. But Patrick’s statement went further:

“Our cities are still controlled by Democrats. And where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat (sic) mayors and Democrat city councilmen and women. That’s where you see liberal policies. That’s where you see high taxes. That’s where you see street crime. The only place Democrats have control are in our cities, and they are doing a terrible job.”

Got that? It’s the cities that are run by Democrats that are causing all the trouble.

It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that Patrick’s disdain for Democrats is a form of code-switching aimed at conveying to his base – white, socially-conservative Christians – that those “Democrat” people are what’s wrong with Texas and the nation.

His use of the term “Democrat” is a euphemism for people who call themselves Democrats. And we know who those people are. In the Lone Star State, and the country, they tend to be Latinos, African Americans, poor people, single moms, gay and transgender folks, white progressives and lower-wage workers.

Fortunately, it takes two chambers to get things done in Texas and that means Patrick and his court of GOP senators cannot prevail in ruling directly over Texas cities and counties without approval of their co-equal body — House of Representatives run by Speaker Joe Straus. Like the Senate, they are Republican and conservative, but thankfully conducting themselves in a deliberative manner that respects cities and their voters, even in disagreement.

By contrast, Patrick has declared war on blue cities, such as Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. He knows he can’t win the battle at local ballot boxes because voters will elect representatives who share their values and ideals. Given that, Patrick uses the power of the state to preempt and overrule pesky voters in his path. That is what viceroys do.

Consider that Patrick has passed legislation in the Senate that would make it more difficult for city and county governments to set property tax rates at levels they deem necessary to provide police, fire, EMS and other services for residents. Patrick’s Senate Bill 1 would require local jurisdictions to get voter approval for tax rate hikes above 4 percent.

That is a tight squeeze for Austin, which because of rapid growth, has regularly exceeded that limit. Given current trends, the city would need to conduct a tax election every year. The House version sets the level at 6 percent.

State law already provides protections for taxpayers without hamstringing cities and counties or forcing costly elections to do their jobs by permitting voters to petition for a rollback election for increases above 8 percent.

In addition to SB 1, there are proposals to prevent cities from regulating tree removal on private property, to place limits on local government spending and to make it harder for cities to annex outlying areas without their residents’ approval.

But here’s the thing: Legally, Patrick can’t target only blue cities. That means unintentional targets – cities, counties and suburbs run by Republicans — become collateral damage in Patrick’s war.

Their autonomy is every bit at-risk as Austin’s and other blue cities. And Patrick’s attacks won’t stop with the end of the special session on Wednesday. They will continue on conservative radio or television and in public speeches until Patrick prevails — or voters send him packing.

That’s what viceroys do.

 

With Troxclair’s name affixed to affordability plan, it was going nowhere

Austin Council Member Ellen Troxclair fails to pass affordability action plan. 04/10/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Austin Council Member Ellen Troxclair fails to pass affordability action plan.
04/10/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

No one is claiming that the affordable action plan the Austin City Council narrowly rejected this week was perfect – not supporters, such as Traci Berry, a senior vice president for Goodwill Industries.

And not City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who championed the initiative.

But in picking it apart, then voting to postpone it indefinitely – essentially killing it — six council members shut the door on something that was at best a roadmap advancing affordability goals all council members have affirmed. At worst, it was a flawed document with little meat on its bones, which would have put unwarranted restraints on the city budget.

Either way, it could have been handled as a work in progress, fixing and amending it as needed, as Berry noted.

“The most important piece of the plan is that it created a conversation by many stakeholders on a communitywide level — that we are putting our stake in the ground on one of the most important things we need to do in this city and saying, ‘Let’s go,’ ” she told me.

“It should have been all yes (votes) and zero no.”

Instead, the council split 6-5, with Council Members Alison Alter, Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Leslie Pool, Sabino “Pio” Renteria and Kathie Tovo voting against it. In addition to Troxclair, the resolution had the support of Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Jimmy Flannigan, Ora Houston and Ann Kitchen – who co-sponsored the resolution.

What sunk a resolution that seemed like a sure thing when it was first rolled out?

Some will say the details were problematic; others will tell you it didn’t go far enough. Still others would say it made the council look bad by not recognizing affordability measures underway. But the inability to coalesce around the resolution even as a working document points to political divisions on the council: Who would get the credit?

Troxclair was the lead sponsor, so the resolution – even with Adler’s support and heavy-hitting backers, including the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Habitat for Humanity — was doomed. Troxclair’s name as chief sponsor was akin to kryptonite.

The resolution laid out recommendations aimed at dealing with the various aspects of Austin’s affordability crisis, including expanding the city’s housing supply and addressing training needs of low-wage workers and the unemployed. But it also endorsed zoning reforms under way in CodeNext and city permitting. It contained a controversial budget option to keep taxes flat.

Though Troxclair championed affordability as key plank of her campaign when she ran for office in 2014, some colleagues believe she has since used the issue to posture, rather than produce. They aimed to teach her how to count votes, it seems.

They cited an American-Statesman commentary penned by Troxclair as an example of Troxclair’s posturing, saying she sets herself up as the lone council member standing up for affordability against a tax-and-spend council.

Troxclair wrote in August, 2016: “In this year alone, I have voted against hundreds of millions in spending, from high-priced consultants to vehicle purchases to cost overruns. I did not vote this way because replacing vehicles every three years and hiring consultants aren’t nice things to do. It is because each purchase ultimately impacts affordability. We must ask ourselves: Is this item a higher priority than financial relief for Austinites?

“Austin residents need a break – and this is the time to take their pleas to heart. We have to end the pattern of consistently increasing spending that has become a crisis for our city. It’s time for action, and it’s time for this budget year to be the Year of Affordability.”

You can judge for yourself if Troxclair was trying to steal her colleagues’ thunder, but if she was, Troxclair was doing what elected officials do: Using her bully pulpit to influence public opinion for her more conservative approach to budgeting and making Austin more affordable. Does she elevate herself by doing that? Sure. But she is not alone on the Council in showing off.

Adler says the discussion and action on Thursday was “not the Council’s finest moment.”

Troxclair says she is “disappointed, but not discouraged.”

Berry says, the Council lost an opportunity to send a strong message to people on the front lines in fixing problems and those bearing the brunt of Austin’s affordability crisis.

“The people who come to us live in poverty so they are marginalized. When they come through our doors, work and education are so important,” she said.

“They have transportation issues and housing issues. When they have to travel 20 plus miles, commuting for low wage jobs, how do they take care of their families? Where is their opportunity to succeed?”

Troxclair’s affordability action plan spoke to those issues. It wasn’t perfect, but it at least got things moving.

 

 

 

 

 

Austin’s first step to combat graffiti

Is graffiti art or vandalism? That is a question that has long been debated.

According to a recent American-Statesman story by Nancy Flores about a group of artists and community organizers dedicated to restoring and preserving street art and graffiti murals, it appears that in Austin some types of graffiti indeed equate to art. (Disclosure: I’m among those who appreciate street art and see value of its presence in our communities.)

But with a recent proposal sponsored by District 7 council member Leslie Pool to tackle graffiti, it made me wonder if graffiti as art could change in this city.

The Austin City Council members approved the proposal on consent which left me with more questions.

The proposal asks that the City Manager review the city’s current graffiti abatement strategies, study nationwide best practices, and recommend changes to the city’s graffiti abatement strategies. In particular, the proposal aims to reduce is graffiti markings such as “initials, slogans or drawings that are written, spray painted or etched in any manner on property such as a sidewalk or wall of a building without consent of the owner.”

Sounds like a something anyone could, and perhaps should, stand behind. But what would happen to the plentiful pieces of Austin street art that have reached iconic status? Would the proposal make it more difficult for any such pieces to exist in the future? And why was this resolution even necessary? After all, city data collected shows that requests for graffiti abatement has dropped significantly from 3,124 in 2011 to 1,171 in 2015.  And, Pool’s district is not one of the districts with the highest request for graffiti clean-up in 2015, the top three districts are Districts 1, 3 and 9 — all located in Central Austin or east of Interstate 35.

Most importantly, how much would a comprehensive plan cost taxpayers? (This question “will be answered when the city manager comes back with recommendations,” officials told me.)

I reached out to Pool to get more details. Below are the answers she provided by email:

1.  Now that the resolution has been approved on consent by the council, what is the next step?

Next, the City Manager will bring back his recommendations and Council will decide how to act on those recommendations. We also plan on looking into whether there are resources in the budget that could be used to expand our the graffiti abatement services offered through the Health and Human Services Department, which have been at the same level for at least a decade.

2. What prompted the resolution?

We’ve heard a number of concerns from the community about graffiti vandalism – especially about graffiti that lingers for weeks. The response time is very important because from what our research shows, individuals who engage in graffiti are more likely to re-tag areas where the response is slow. Those individuals often stop tagging in areas where graffiti is removed rapidly. When we started looking into the city’s programs, we realized that the city had been using largely the same strategy at similar service levels for years, and that other large cities seemed to have more comprehensive programs that incorporated things like mural arts and other strategies, as well – so we wanted to ask the City Manager to research nationwide best practices to make sure our efforts are as effective as possible.

3. Why has doesn’t Austin have a comprehensive strategy in place?

The city’s massive growth has presented the city with a number of important challenges, and our city staff has done an excellent job working on those issues. In this case, the city has had a policy of graffiti abatement, and seemed to handle that in the traditional way, by removing graffiti where it exists. However, our city has been growing very rapidly, and I think it is time for us to revisit our current programs and examine what other big cities have done to fight graffiti vandalism.

4. How does the number of 2015 graffiti service requests compare to the three previous years?

Requests have declined thanks to better use of preventive measures and materials by our departments. This is certainly a key part of any graffiti abatement strategy, but it is not a silver bullet. The city still receives hundreds of abatement requests per month and our graffiti abatement team in the Austin Youth Development program has been at the same staffing levels for at least a decade, despite the large growth of our city. I would like to make sure that we’re implementing a program based on best practices that encourages positive forms of expression, prevents graffiti vandalism, removes it quickly when it occurs, and maintains quality of life for our communities.

5.  Could there be any overlap in the Austin Youth Development requests numbers with either Municipal Court and/or Parks & Rec requests?

Staff indicated that they coordinate who responds to what requests and route them to the appropriate department accordingly.

6.   How will the city determine what graffiti will not be allowed? As you know, some spontaneous graffiti has become iconic to the city.

This is really aimed at graffiti vandalism — unwanted graffiti that harms our community, such as foul language, lewd images, or things that have been sprayed on your property without your consent. The city already has a policy of removing this graffiti, it’s just that our massive growth has made it difficult to follow through, which has impacted our communities. We want to improve our ability to follow through on policy the city has already set.

7. What is the expected timeline — beyond the Feb. 17, 2017 recommendations deadline — to have a program in place?

My hope is that we’ll be able to organize and coordinate our existing programs and resources in a way that allows us to move forward quickly once the City Manager brings back his recommendations.

8.  The graffiti that would be targeted for removal is would be graffiti NOT approved by the property owner, correct?

Correct. We’re targeting unwanted vandalism, not art.

9.  How will the city address unsolicited ‘positive’ graffiti on city property?

City property belongs to the public — so use of public property in that way should be a community decision.

10. As you’ve pointed out, the number of requests for graffiti removal have decreased and the total square footage to be cleaned has also decreased, but the days to clean up has significantly increased. Is there an explanation to why it takes longer to clean less space than it did 5 years ago?

Regarding the decrease in the number of requests — much of the decrease appears to be due to the city’s increased use of preventive materials on the front end. This is very important to the overall strategy, but it is not a silver bullet…

Regarding the increase in the time spent cleaning — there are concerns that the data reporting several years ago was not as accurate as it could have been. Since that time, the data reporting has improved in accuracy, and we believe the current statistics are a more accurate portrayal of the time it takes to respond to requests. Currently, the average request takes, on average, about two weeks to abate.

Editor’s note: Updated correct districts — 1, 3 and 9 — with the highest clean-up requests. 

 

True reason for Uber, Lyft election is power, not fingerprints

Caroline Joiner, left and Mark Nathan, right deliver petitions to Austin City Clerk's office Jannette Goodall on Tuesday, morning Jan, 17, 2016. The petition has forced a May election on a ride-hailing ordinance crafted by Uber and Lyft to replace one passed by the Austin City Council. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Caroline Joiner, left and Mark Nathan, right deliver petitions to Austin City Clerk’s office Jannette Goodall on Tuesday, morning Jan, 17, 2016. The petition has forced a May election on a ride-hailing ordinance crafted by Uber and Lyft to replace one passed by the Austin City Council. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Recent events in Kalamazoo, Michigan, regarding an Uber driver who reportedly killed six people are likely to reverberate in Austin, even though those events are not directly connected to the debate Austin is having over safety and security measures used by Uber and Lyft.

In Austin, the debate has focused on a city requirement for fingerprint-based background checks of Uber and Lyft drivers. The ride-hailing companies are fighting the rules with an ordinance they steered to the ballot to replace the current ordinance the Austin City Council passed last year. The election for the replacement ordinance is May 7. That ordinance is starkly different than the council-approved one.

The ordinance that Uber and Lyft are trying to replace requires drivers to pass fingerprint background checks, which would be phased in. It also mandates that drivers for ride-hailing companies display emblems of Uber, Lyft or GetMe on their vehicles so customers can identify them. The City Council ordinance also prohibits Uber, Lyft and drivers for other ride-hailing companies from loading or unloading customers in traffic lanes. Those are sensible safety and security regulations Austin needs and deserves, but the replacement ordinance backed by Uber and Lyft would eliminate all of those measures if voters approve it.

In Kalamazoo, questions are focused on whether Uber intervened swiftly enough to suspend its driver, Jason Dalton, once complaints about his hazardous driving were known.

No one can say whether that tragedy will influence the outcome of the referendum in Austin. But it certainly does bring into focus a broader concern about safety and security of transportation network companies serving the public, such as Uber and Lyft, whose business models rely on tens of thousands, if not millions, of independent contractors who drive their own vehicles, but use online platforms of Uber and Lyft. In such a huge, loosely regulated pool, there can be greater risks for passengers as well as drivers. Against that backdrop, it is fair to question whether Austin’s elected officials or Uber and Lyft should write the rules for how those corporations operate in the city.

The ordinance on the May ballot hands that power to Uber and Lyft.

It is that issue – and not fingerprint checks – that Austin residents should focus on when they go to the polls.

In orchestrating a referendum, Uber and Lyft masterfully manipulated public sentiment by threatening to bolt if the council required them to submit to a fingerprint-based background check system. That would leave many Austin people in the lurch in getting around the city, and as police say, increase the incidence of driving while intoxicated.

Their public influence was evident in the speed and ease with which signatures were gathered on their behalf to meet Austin’s threshold for forcing a May election. It put the ride-hailing companies in a win-win situation: At the very least, a petition drive could pressure the council to abandon fingerprint background checks. At best, it would put on the books an ordinance Uber and Lyft crafted.

In recent weeks, there have been cracks in support for Uber and Lyft as another petition drive got underway, centering on recalling well-respected City Council Member Ann Kitchen, who led efforts at City Hall to require fingerprint-based background checks. Uber and Lyft say they have no involvement in Kitchen’s recall attempt and there is no evidence to suggest they did. But they miss the point: The recall petition, still awaiting verification by the city clerk, was conceived from an environment Uber created by its attacks on Kitchen essentially for doing her job as chairwoman of the council’s mobility  committee.

Certainly deep-pocketed Uber and Lyft have weighed their costs in taking the issue to voters. They no doubt will have to mount a vigorous public relations campaign in a short window, which is likely to be expensive. Since the turnout for May elections in Austin historically is low, it will be tricky getting voters to the polls. In other words, the ballot ordinance is a gamble.

That might explain why Uber and Lyft engaged in eleventh-hour negotiations with Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Though Adler’s compromise greatly watered down the current ordinance, it would have spared the city $500,000 to $1 million for staging the May 7 election. But adopting Adler’s compromise also required the City Council to adopt the ordinance Uber and Lyft orchestrated – something a majority of council members weren’t willing to do. Instead they sent it to voters with an unmistakable message.

Here is what City Council Member Delia Garza, a former firefighter, said to the Austin Monitor about why she voted to send the matter to voters: “This is going to sound cheesy probably, but when you’ve walked into a burning building, there are very few things that intimidate you. And so, I think having that experience, I’m not afraid to stand by what I believe.”

In other words, game on.