Monthly Archives: June 2014

New Reform Needed For Public Engagement Process

By Bill Oakey – June 30, 2014

In recent years it has become increasingly clear that major new projects and planning processes by local authorities lack sufficient citizen involvement.  We have seen this evidenced by published reports that lack quantifiable results of citizen input.  A perfect example is the so-called “Listening to the Community Report,” issued by the CodeNEXT team that is revising Austin’s Land Development Code.  The glossy report does not mention one sentence of public sentiment nor does it feature a single chart or graph summering the opinions or contributions by citizens who came to public meetings or submitted online suggestions.

The Project Connect process that evolved into the East Riverside to Highland Mall urban rail plan featured open houses where citizens could come and ask questions.  But there was no formal process for citizens to actually become functioning participants in the development and formulation of the plan.  Not only that, the City Council did not hold a public hearing to solicit input from citizens after the final plan was adopted, during their joint meeting with the Capital Metro Board.

Rightly or wrongly, this lack of a formal citizen participation structure creates the perception that some of these major planning initiatives are driven by outside consultants who are handed pre-ordained marching orders at the beginning of the process.  The end result is a fractured public opinion of the outcome, combined with a lack of trust in both the integrity of the process and the public officials behind it.

What we need is a fresh approach that strives to achieve consensus among interested stakeholders.  It has often been said that democracy is a messy business.  There is no way to get around division of opinions or to arrive at perfect conclusions that make everybody happy.  But an open, inclusive process where the participants can see their ideas and contributions honestly reflected in elements of important plans would ensure much better public support at the end.

To not hold public hearings on major projects is nothing less than shameful.  Public hearings should be held within enough time ahead of the final vote for the citizen input to be respected and considered in a meaningful way

Any major project or plan being considered will impact affordability.  The public should be given accurate and timely cost estimates, where applicable, throughout the process.

What I propose is for interested citizens and local officials to develop the framework for a whole new reform to address this problem.  It would probably take considerable time to work out the details of the reform and set it down on paper.  But it might be one of the best things we could do to arrive at a point where Austinites feel comfortable working together on major, transformative plans that will shape the City’s future for generations to come.

A Public Engagement Ordinance

To kick off a discussion on this proposal, here are a few ideas for how public inclusion in local planning could be improved:

1. The City of Austin could develop and pass a general ordinance that prescribes a method for including public involvement in planning sessions for major projects or significant revisions to City laws and codes.

2. This ordinance should define how the public input will be gathered, compiled and reported by the group that is charged with writing the plan.  Specific methods for evaluating citizen viewpoints and suggestions and incorporating them into the plans should also be defined.

3. Outside consultants and City staff who oversee major plans and projects should be required to adhere to the guidelines in the public involvement ordinance.

4. In a given planning process, various stakeholders from the community would participate in give and take sessions, where differing viewpoints are moderated on a fair and impartial basis.  Facilitators at the public meetings should guide the participants in a consensus-building effort.  Not everyone would end of with everything they like, but the process would help foster a spirit of openness and cooperation.

5. If there are easily discernible factions among the stakeholder groups, the moderators at the public meetings should attempt to resolve conflicts, in part by exploring the pros and cons of various scenarios.

6. Reports on the results of the plans would clearly articulate the prevailing viewpoints of the stakeholder groups, and illustrate the steps taken to resolve differences and arrive at a consensus.  Clear explanations should be written showing why predominant ideas and suggestions from the public did not get adopted.

7. As a guide for putting together the framework for this reform, we should be able to find published resources with best practices for consensus-building efforts that have already been tried with successful results.

8. If the Austin City Council can formulate a workable planning procedure that better serves the public interest, then perhaps we can utilize that same model for Travis County, Capital Metro and other public entities.

The ideas listed above represent a very rough outline intended to start a discussion.  Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that our new district representatives on the City Council will be eager to seek ways to make local governance more open, transparent and inclusive.  After all, they themselves will come from a reformed election process that sprang from the same goal.

City Hall Victory – New 911 Call Center Operators To Be Hired

By Bill Oakey – June 30, 2014

Following a KXAN news investigative report and appeals from this blog, the City Council last Thursday took action to hire more call takers for the 911 EMS system.  In accordance with my recommendation, they will hire 7 new positions using leftover funds to make the positions available without waiting for the new budget that begins on October 1st.

The critical staff shortages in the City’s Emergency Communications Center have persisted since the summer of 2011, with costly annual expenditures of $1 million for overtime, burned-out employees, and citizens being placed on hold during emergencies.  Even the disastrous Halloween flood from last year was not enough to prod the City into action.  The Public Safety Commission had voted numerous times to ask for more emergency operators.

Because of a State-mandated certification requirement, the new hires will need to complete an interim training program, which will be provided by the City.  For details on the training requirement and job transition, see this document.  Interested job applicants can read the announcement and file an application here.

The Thursday Council meeting was very contentious otherwise.  The highlight of the day was their broken promise to scores of citizens who filled the chambers, hoping to speak on a $1 billion urban rail and road initiative.  Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole, both candidates for mayor, joined the majority in voting to break the promise and limit the number of speakers.  Many of the rail activists took their anger and frustration into weekend gatherings and online discussions aimed at mounting a strong opposition to the November rail bond election.

Judge Rules Austin Drainage Fee Invalid

By Bill Oakey – June 28, 2014

In a stunning court decision Friday, a State district judge ruled Austin’s monthly drainage utility fee invalid.  The lawsuit was brought against the City back in 2009 by three citizens who claimed that the fee is unfair to condo and apartment dwellers, who pay the same amount as owners of large residential homes.

Judge Amy Clark Meachum did not address the question of whether the City will have to refund some of the fees, but plaintiff’s attorney Robby Alden thinks they will have to do some level of refunds for fees paid over five years.  And he expects the City to have to alter the fees.

City staff are weighing their legal options. The drainage utility fee is one of many add-on fees that grace our monthly utility bills.  Some folks characterize these as “only” fees, noting that each fee in the ever-growing list is “only” a few dollars per month.  If you just add up the increases in these fees that are planned for the upcoming budget, the total comes to $6.19 per month.  (not counting the two new fee increases that have evolved since the budget forecast was released in May).

Austin has become quite creative over the years in dreaming up new fees with clever sounding names.  We used to have an anti-litter fee.  That has been changed to a two-part “clean community service fee,” made up of a $3.55 “resource recovery fee” and a $3.10 “code compliance fee.” I have no earthly idea what those are for or which City department does what with the money.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit contend the drainage fee penalizes people with low incomes in small housing units who can least afford to pay.  The chart below shows that the City has plans to increase the drainage fee from its current rate of $9.20 per month to $11.60 over the next five years.  And that does not include the extra 75 cents that was recently added in the proposed 2015 budget to pay for buyouts of flooded homes in Onion Creek.

DRAINAGE UTILITY FUND (in millions)

2014 Amended 2014 CYE 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Beginning Balance 6.2 7.5 7.0 4.3 4.2 4.4 4.7
Total Revenues 72.4 72.9 78.3 85.4 89.9 94.5 98.2
Total Expenditures 74.1 73.4 81.1 85.5 89.7 94.1 97.9
Ending Balance 4.5 7.0 4.3 4.2 4.4 4.7 5.1
Monthly Residential Fee
Equivalent Residential Unit $9.20 $9.20 $9.80 $10.55 $10.95 $11.35 $11.6

Another surprise that awaits utility ratepayers is the hidden “urban rail utility relocation charge” that will be added to water and electric bills if the rail bonds pass in November.  I just happened to hear about that while watching a joint City Council and Capital Metro Board meeting.  In order to trim the cost of the rail and road bonds to an even $1 billion, they announced a plan to “reduce the cost” of relocating utility pipes and lines along the route by “sharing” those costs with the Water Utility and Austin Energy.

As for the drainage utility fee, it is important to note that it adds up to really big dollars.  The City’s Watershed Protection Department is funded by that fee.  You can read the details about that department and its funding in this report, on pages 55-57.  Before the lawsuit, its revenues were projected to surge from $72.4 million to $98.2 million over the next five years.

If anyone doubted whether affordability is a legitimate issue in Austin, just stay tuned.  There are only so many ways that the City can shift money around in the budget and inch up fees before the public absorbs all that they can afford to pay.  That’s because every other kind of tax and fee besides the ones in Austin are also going up, while salaries, wages, and pensions remain flat for tens of thousands of Austinites.  Retired teachers and State employees have not received a cost of living increase since 2001.

Some of the older folks might be thinking that they’ll kick the bucket one of these days and no longer have to worry about it.  They should have some sympathy for the family members they will leave behind.  Last year the City Parks & Recreation Department jacked up the cemetery fees 30% or higher, depending on the type of burial that you have in mind.  You can check out those fee increases here.

A Sad Day For All Sides In The Urban Rail Debate

By Bill Oakey – June 27, 2014

Early in the week, several citizen transit organizations were given a promise from the City Council.  They were told that no limit would be placed on the number of speakers at the Thursday meeting, and that they could count on the urban rail discussion commencing at 4:00 PM.

For two days, these groups coordinated with their members to line up speakers and prepare their presentations.  It seems very odd that the City would not have a standard policy to hold a public hearing on any major project slated to be placed on the bond ballot.  Especially one that includes both rail and roads and carries a price tag of a billion dollars.

Sadly, citizens were relegated to contacting various Council offices and asking for an answer to the haphazard guessing game of agenda item timing and whether the number of speakers could be unrestricted. Once the promise was granted, it was taken in good faith.

Then at the Council meeting, a bait and switch tactic was pulled.  A last minute decision was made to limit the number of speakers to 30 minutes for “each side.”  They took a vote on the matter and it passed 5-2, with Council Members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley opposed.

The overflow crowd of citizens was understandably upset about the broken promise.  They did not even like being divided into “for” and “against.”  Many of them have years of experience as transit advocates. They wanted to have an honest discussion on the pros and cons of various aspects of Project Connect’s plan.  Some of these folks have worked in leadership positions or served on boards and commissions, earning them valuable expertise.  On Thursday they were summarily given a slap in the face.

What Austin witnessed on Thursday was an example of government at its worst.  We are left with an expensive urban rail plan that ended up being contentious and controversial. Instead of inviting the stakeholders to the table early in the process, and seriously attempting to craft a community consensus plan, the mayor let politics rule the process. This is a “my way or the highway” plan promoted by Mr. Leffingwell.  It passed on Thursday, but voters will have the last word.

Austin is a community that places high value on citizen involvement.  By casting that aside on one of our most pressing challenges, the supporters of the rail plan have sewn the seeds of its defeat in November.

This isn’t a matter of “Rail or Fail.”  It’s more like “Rail for Sale to No Avail.”  Let’s do the process better with the new City Council and get it right.

That new Council that we elect in November can take a lesson from this experience.  Voters will be crossing their fingers and clinging to some hope for a refreshing spirit of respect, transparency and inclusiveness. I say please bring it on!

CodeNEXT Takes Austin To Another Dimension – Do We Really Want To Go There?

By Bill Oakey – June 26, 2014, Revised on June 27, 2014

I happened to notice a City Council Resolution on the agenda for the June 26th meeting.  It pertained to a new partnership with ACC at Highland Mall.  One clause caught my attention:

“WHEREAS, the redevelopment of the mall presents a unique opportunity for the City to partner with ACC to further workforce development opportunities and showcase the high quality development that a form-based code can foster.”

You’re Traveling To Another Dimension – Called CodeNEXT

I scratched my head, wondering  what “form-based code” means.  A Google search took me to the Austin Chronicle.  They ran a story back in 2010 that addressed my question. You can read it here, “What Is Form-Based Code?”  It turns out that it is part of CodeNEXT, the project to revise Austin’s Land Development Code.

If you’ve ever read Brian Greene’s excellent books on astrophysics or contemplated the existence of parallel universes, you will appreciate what is happening here on earth in the City of Austin.  Let’s travel to another dimension, so you can peer into the “public realm” of form-based codes.  Trust me, it matters if you plan to stay in Austin.

First I’ll give you a snippet of the technical B.S.  Then I’ll tell you what it really means.  Here’s how the Chronicle article introduces it:

“Form-based codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle. Not to be confused with design guidelines or general statements of policy, form-based codes are not merely advisory; they are adopted into city or county law as regulations. Form-based codes can be mandatory or optional/parallel.”

Now, What In The Heck Does All That Mean?

CodeNEXT is a plan is to effectively do away with old fashioned things like neighborhood zoning and building use restrictions.  Those are too complex and burdensome.  Now that Austin has become a “destination city,” we shouldn’t live in houses on blocks in neighborhoods.  Instead, we should be divided into “corridors,” “nodes” and “transit hubs.”  While this may work for designing certain sectors of undeveloped land, it should not be imposed on existing neighborhoods against their will.

That laid back tree-lined street that you used to live on may be transformed by the time you wake up in the morning.  You won’t have to worry about a McMansion going in next door.  It will be a McBuilding.  With cute little choreographed shrubs and “trendy” expensive shops on the ground floor.  You will be invited to an open house.  If you move in, they might even let you keep your pets.  In fact, the place I visited recently on East Riverside requires DNA testing for dogs.  So, if you find dog poop on your doorstep, the management will tell you who you can sue.

All of this is easier to understand if you think in terms of a Stephen King novel.  Austin has been taken over by a “presence” that most of you will never see.  The outsiders are dressed like humans and they identify themselves with the earth-like term “consultants.”  If you as an ordinary citizen walk into a room where the “presence” is in charge, you will learn.  You will adapt.  And, according to the Grand Plan, you will eventually become one of them.  You will conform.  This actually may be closer to George Orwell than Stephen King, but you get the picture.

For one more direct hit on what form-based coding is all about, this sums it up chillingly:

“A comprehensive planning process that uses codes to integrate the built environment into larger economic development strategies.”

What Is “Next” for You and Your Neighborhood?

You can go check out the CodeNEXT site here.  The “Listening to the Community Report” artfully speaks in the reverse.  You will see page after page of the same phrases, but not a single hint of public suggestions, public comments, or even any summaries of public likes and dislikes of any of the concepts mentioned.  There is a long roster of consultants and assorted private firms listed in these reports.  The City’s website lists 11 members of an advisory group that is working with these firms as part of CodeNEXT.  But nowhere will you find the backgrounds of the advisory group members, who they work for, or who appointed them.

This is most likely another consultant-driven process with pre-ordained results.  The level of trust that we can reasonably expect from it can be measured by the voting history of the City Council majority.  As a worst-case scenario, think about where Austin’s leadership is pointing the city.  Just think density.  Density.  And density.  They want you go to bed as a home-grown Austinite, but wake up in the same body as a “new urbanist.”  You might want to check the bushes by your bedroom window for a giant, eerie looking seed pod.  (You can rent “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” from Netflix).

We need to stay awake and wake up our neighbors, before it is too late. Talk to the new Council candidates and warn them that they too could be “next.”

Nix CodeNEXT Before It Nixes Us!

Help Me Celebrate The 26th Anniversary!

By Bill Oakey – June 25, 2014

As some of you may know, I have been fighting various City Hall battles since the early 1980’s. If I could only pick one to have adopted as a reform in the 21st century, it would be one that I first attempted to bring forward in 1988.  So, if we could get it adopted this year it would call for a 28th anniversary celebration.  I might even take some cake down to City Hall if I thought it would pass.

In my early activist days, I was constantly frustrated by going to City Council meetings and having to wait up to six hours or longer to speak at public hearings and on other discussion items. I saw parents with small children, citizens with wheelchairs and crutches, and seniors with canes and walkers waiting sometimes until past midnight to speak passionately about issues that affected their daily lives.

In 1988 I drafted a “City Council Agenda Reform Proposal” to deal with this topic.  I found a Council Member to sponsor the proposal and place it on the agenda.  So I went down to City Hall and took a seat at the meeting.  I waited.  And then I waited some more.  After a few hours went by, I kept on waiting.  Finally, I stood at the speakers’ podium and delivered the proposal. Needless to say, nothing happened to change the process.  But the next morning, I opened the Austin American-Statesman and saw my picture, along with a headline that read, “Agenda Critic Kept Waiting.”

Now it is 2014 and I am still waiting!

Believe it or not, the issue has arisen again and this time there is actual talk about getting something done with this reform.  With your help, perhaps we can turn that talk into action.  A delightfully friendly new City Hall reporter for the American-Statesman, Lilly Rockwell, has placed the issue front and center with this article from today’s paper.  Here is a telling excerpt:

“The property tax proposals were only one of three hot-button topics the council was set to consider on the 6 p.m. portion of the agenda but didn’t get to until after 1 a.m. The more than 300 people who flooded City Hall earlier that evening to testify on garage apartments and a popular animal shelter had trickled out of City Council Chambers as the clock ticked on.”

According to the article, several flustered Council Members expressed words similar to my sentiments over the last 28 years:  This is a situation up with which we can no longer put!  (With all due apologies to my wonderful high school English teacher).

Once again I have asked for a City Council sponsor to place a reform proposal on the agenda. Hopefully, this time for action!  Here is a draft for them to consider, as they work towards a long-overdue solution:

City Council Agenda Reform Proposal – 26th Anniversary Edition

  1. Public hearings should not be posted for 4:00 PM, as is commonly done under the current system.  If the item is expected to draw a large number of speakers, it should be posted after normal business hours and after the City Council’s dinner break. 6:30 PM would be ideal, to allow citizens time to get through the traffic to City Hall.
  2. Discussion items with large numbers of citizens signed up to speak should also be posted on or after 6:30 PM.  These items should be posted with a labeled “Time Certain.”
  3. Public hearings of citywide interest, such as budget hearings, utility rate hearings etc. may require a separate City Council Meting to accommodate the large number of speakers.  When these hearings are added to a full agenda, with zoning cases and other lengthy discussion items, it can often be 11:00 PM, midnight, or even past 1:00 AM before all of the speakers for the public hearings can have their say.
  4. The City Council should make their best effort to arrange the time sequence of agenda items, so that they can be taken up in an orderly and efficient manner.  Whenever the time certain arrives for a public hearing or discussion item, that item should proceed on time.  Unfinished items should be postponed to later in the meeting, or until the next City Council Meeting.
  5. Consider holding zoning hearings on a separate day, if the agenda contains one or more items with large numbers of speakers anticipated.
  6. The City Council should make a realistic assessment of whether an agenda is so crowded with items that citizens would be inconvenienced unreasonably if they came down to speak.  In those cases, the Council should move some of the items to a different day, or to a subsequent meeting.  Citizens should not be expected to stay up past midnight to address the City Council.
  7. Whenever possible, public hearings and discussion items with large numbers of speakers should be scheduled ahead of other lengthy items.  Give the citizens an opportunity to come to City Hall and speak, and then go home to their families at a respectable hour.
  8. While the mayor chairs the meetings and calls the agenda items, the City Council should establish a procedure that allows the entire Council to consider the order in which the items are called, as well as which items will be assigned a “time certain.”  This determination of time sequencing could be taken up at the Tuesday work sessions.  But the Council should still allow the flexibility for any Council member to make a motion during a meeting to shift the times for the items, based on the need to accommodate the convenience of public speakers.

What Can You Do to Help?

Email, tweet, and Facebook this blog posting to your friends.  Then contact all seven City Council Members here, and ask for action on this reform.

Speak Against The Urban Rail Plan On Thursday

By Bill Oakey – June 24, 2014

Citizens who have called for a chance to speak on the urban rail plan will get their wish this Thursday.  The City Council has set the time for 4:00 PM, with no limit on the number of speakers.  The good news is that this will not be a post-midnight meeting.  The Council has decided to hear three major topics that will draw speakers, with the urban rail plan being one of those.  After that they will most likely adjourn and finish the rest of the crowded agenda on Friday.  This scheduling update was provided by Council Member Kathie Tovo’s office.

You Can Sign Up Now To Speak Against Item #64

You can sign up at City Hall, 301 W. 2nd Street, anytime between now and whenever the item is called after 4:00 on Thursday.  Here are just a few of the reasons to oppose the current urban rail plan:

1. Many of us would like to support mass transit, but this is not the best plan for Austin.  The route from Highland Mall to East Riverside is not a densely populated area, and would do more to help land speculators and developers hoping to attract newcomers than current residents. The population patterns behind the 2000 urban rail route along Guadalupe and Lamar still make sense.  That ballot initiative passed within the City of Austin, and only failed at the polls because of opposition from outlying towns.

2. The $1 billion price tag would land you a property tax increase of $160 per year within five years on a $200,000 home.  That would come on top of a multitude of other tax increases between now and then.

3. The City Council is likely to bundle a 60 / 40 split for rail and roads into a single bond proposition for the November ballot.  The $1 billion cost would cover both.  Voters should not be forced to accept a questionable and highly unpopular rail plan in order to vote for road improvements. The hastily throw-together batch of mostly I-35 improvements was contrived only for the purpose of “sweetening” the rail vote, and citizens should reject that tactic outright.

4. Those who say “We have to start somewhere” should be informed that if the bonds pass in November, Project Connect plans to install permanent concrete dedicated bus lanes along the competing Lamar / Guadalupe route, closing it off forever to urban rail.

5. Project Connect has come up with a new humdinger of a deal to reduce the cost of the rail plan.  If you like paying your water and electric bills now, you will love this great idea!  They have decided to “share” the cost of relocation of utility lines along the rail route with the Austin Water Utility and Austin Energy.

A better sharing plan would be to email this blog posting to your friends and share it on Facebook and Twitter.

Can The People Take Control Under The New 10-1 City Council?

By Bill Oakey – June 23, 2014

We often hear that the City of Austin is at a crossroads.  Some call it a tipping point.  Water, traffic, and affordability have overwhelmed the community.  And unless we do something to change direction, the status quo threatens to put our neighborhoods and our very way of life at risk.

The new 10-1 district representation system for the Austin City Council offers an unprecedented opportunity for people at the grassroots level to take control of their destiny.  After all, the citizens are listed at the top of the City’s official organization chart.  But for far too long, we have been subjugated to the whims of special interests, most often with the assistance of their hand-picked outside consultants.

Austin maintains a council-manager form of government, rather than the strong-mayor type. Our mayor simply chairs the meetings, and has no more power than the other members.  However, most major decisions voted on by the City Council are filtered through the city staff at the behest of a very powerful city manager.  Our current city manager, Marc Ott, has often been depicted as a puppet of the powerful big business and real estate interests.  He manifests his control over the City in part by refusing to provide detailed responses to written questions from boards and commissions, or even to questions from our elected council members.

How Can the People Wrest Control Away From the Special Interests?

Step one has already been laid in front of us with the November election of council members from neighborhood districts.  Once these grassroots candidates are elected, we should insist that they hold some neighborhood forums to introduce us to candidates for a new city manager.  If the current City Council does not appoint an interim city manager from within the existing executive team, then the new City Council should do that early next year.  Then, they should seek community input on the selection of a permanent city manager who will be accountable to all the people.

How Can the District Council Members Best Represent the Interests of the People?

We should consider establishing formal lines of communication between council members and neighborhood leaders and other interested citizens from within each district.  Status quo communication is very haphazard and disorganized.  Have you ever tried to obtain a time-certain from a Council member on when a particular City Council agenda item might come up for discussion?  The rule of thumb is that you alert your friends and neighbors of a critical issue posted for action in the upcoming week.  Then you try to organize speakers to go to the council meeting.  You could wait as long as from 10:00 AM on Thursday morning until the meeting adjourns as late as 3:30 AM on Friday morning.

Under a new system of people-centric governance, the communication between district neighbors and their council member would not have to wait until the regular council meeting.  A website or Facebook page could be used to facilitate the communication.  Liaisons within each district could communicate through newsletters and listservs about pending issues that affect their area or the City at large.  District Council Members should hold regular meetings and forums right in their districts, as well as at City Hall.  Under the current system, a typical citizen is lucky to get a Council member or a policy aide to return a phone call or email.  There is no worthwhile process for the people to be effectively heard.

The Two Biggest Projects That Will Shape Our Future

There are two huge projects that directly affect affordability and the prospect of existing residents to survive Austin’s current transformation.

1. The Urban Rail Plan – The massively expensive plan to install electric streetcars from Highland Mall through U.T.’s new Medical District and across Lady Bird Lake to East Riverside is a dream scenario for land speculators and developers in the northeastern and southeastern sectors.  It would do little to help transportation for the heavy concentration of existing residents in North, Central, and West Austin.  The important thing to keep in mind here is that most of the route for urban rail was pre-ordained in 2008 by a consultant study.  See a 2008 Austin Chronicle report here.  For an eye-opening view of the gentrification and affordability issues with Washington D.C.’s new urban rail system, click here.

Those who say that “We have to start somewhere” should be aware that if the rail bonds pass, the other competing rail route along Lamar and Guadalupe would be removed from future consideration.  Project Connect has already planned to lay permanent concrete dedicated bus lanes along that route after the bond election.  For all of these reasons, we should vote no on the bonds and let the new City Council work with the entire community on an inclusive plan that earns broad based citizen support.

2. The Revision of the Land Development Code

You have probably heard about CodeNEXT.  This was sold to us as an opportunity to streamline and modernize our outdated land development code.  It was supposed to make it cheaper and less time consuming to remodel your home or expand or remodel an existing local business. But once again, it has been commandeered by the special interests and a very clever consulting team.

Just take a look at one report that has come out of the “community involvement” process.  Click here to see the “Listening to the Community Report.”  You will see lots of charts, graphs, and categories of significant issues raised by the citizens who attended the public meetings.  But notice the carefully and skillfully designed format of the report.  You can search every line on every page and you will see no summaries of public opinions of any kind whatsoever!

Yes, all of the prevailing issues are there: affordability, walkability, compatibility.  The word “density” is sprinkled generously throughout the pages.  But absolutely nowhere will you see a gauge of public opinion on maintaining compatibility in neighborhoods, limiting density, or even a clue as to what types of changes, if any, that the neighborhood participants would like to see. All one has to do, however, is read between the lines and look around to areas of Austin that have already been transformed.  What you will see is gentrification and high density, vertical mixed use (VMU) developments, nearly all of which contain luxury-priced living units.  Expect these buildings to arrive soon at a neighborhood near you.

Even more disturbing is another CodeNEXT report, called the “Land Development Code Diagnosis.”  On Page 30 you will find a pronouncement that individual neighborhood plans are “too restrictive” and “too complex,” compared to the envisioned scenario of a one-size-fits-all system, where anybody can build anything anywhere without too many burdensome regulations!

Here again, we need the new City Council to revisit the entire concept of rewriting the land development code.  But the involvement of the community and the format of the reports need to reflect what the people really want, as opposed to the pre-ordained whims of national consultants and the local special interests who control them like puppets on a string.

The Waller Creek Debacle – Why Can’t The City Talk To State Officials?

By Bill Oakey – June 18, 2014

This morning we awoke to this cheerful news from the Austin American-Statesman, regarding the botched location of the Waller Creek intake facility:

“A major design flaw in the city of Austin’s $149 million Waller Creek Tunnel project could cost between $15 million and $45 million to fix and delay part of the project by one to four years.”

A few weeks ago the City Council was informed that this facility was being constructed in a corridor that blocks a view of the State Capitol building that is prohibited by State law.  Their initial reaction was to issue a legal contract for up to $1.8 million, under the bizarre assumption that the City could possibly blame this problem on the engineers and contractors working on the project.  And they assumed the worse case scenario on correcting the problem – that the facility would have to be redesigned.

This morning the Statesman reported that the City’s Planning Commission saw no conflict with the Capitol view restrictions at a 2011 meeting when the facility was being permitted.  And it turns out there is already an existing State building and a tree that blocks the Capitol view in question.   None of this information was presented to the City Council, at least not in public session, when they sprang for the $1.8 million legal contract.

Now It’s Time for the City to Work With State Officials

It shouldn’t seem like too much of a stretch that the City and State officials could get together quickly and sort out this fiasco.  We were told when this first came up that waiting until January for the Legislature to convene was not a good option.  Well, would waiting one to four years and spending between $15 million and $45 million to redesign the intake facility be a better plan?

Perhaps it would in the view or our current City Manager.  But now the City Council has an opportunity to step in and take control of the situation.  Perhaps even a few of us citizens could write to our State Representatives and our State Senator and ask them for some help.  This thing should have never been allowed to get so far out of hand.  If the State Library and Archives building and a big oak tree are already in the same Capitol view corridor, then isn’t there some way that State officials could help our dysfunctional City staff here?

It will be interesting to see what the City Council does next.  Here’s a question.  Why wasn’t the City Planning Commission advised of the Capitol view obstruction during the permitting process?  And even last month when the City Council heard about it, why did they hire expensive lawyers instead of trying to work things out with a few phone calls and a couple of meetings with State officials?  If Legislative approval is required for an exemption, why not discuss the possibility and assess the situation before incurring millions of dollars of taxpayer expense?

Where’s The City Council Public Hearing On Urban Rail?

By Bill Oakey – June 17, 2014

On Thursday June 26, the Austin City Council is set to make one of the biggest decisions in modern Austin history.  They will vote on a resolution to approve the “Project Connect” urban rail plan, including the Riverside to Highland Mall route and the proposed funding.  The actual wording of the November bond proposition will come in a separate vote in August.

But there is one crucial omission in this process – a public hearing.

The City Council and the Capital Metro Board met this morning in a joint session to discuss the final urban rail plan.  This meeting will be broadcast on the City’s cable channel at 2:00 PM today, and a video of the meeting will be posted soon to the City of Austin’s website.

Many voters may not be aware of what exactly constitutes “Project Connect.”  It is a group of representatives from local governing bodies and their staffs that has been working on an all-encompassing mass transportation plan for the Austin area.  It includes rapid buses, commuter rail, and regional rail, in addition to the proposed urban rail project.  If you happen to belong to a community organization that hosted a Project Connect open house, or if you knew who they were and went to their website or Facebook page, then you might have a better idea of what is at stake in this major transportation initiative.

Unfortunately though, the urban rail project has not been communicated well enough yet for the average person on the street to understand what the proposal entails.  Just yesterday at the grocery store, a person mentioned that he had heard about the plan but did not know much about it.  “Does it go to the airport?” he asked me.  Nope.

There are two interesting things that I just learned about the plan within the past few days.  One is that Project Connect only decided towards the end of the planning process to include a tunnel at the north end of route near Hancock Center.  Somebody realized that there are other railroad tracks in that neighborhood, and that a new rail system would have to get over, under or around them somehow.  The other is that Project Connect’s plan includes constructing two permanent, dedicated bus lanes along the rapid bus route on Guadalupe / Lamar.  So, if anyone was looking at this fall’s bond election as “We have to start somewhere,” while assuming that more urban rail would soon be coming to a neighborhood near you, then keep these facts in mind.

Now, we are only days away from a City Council resolution that will set in stone the route and the funding plans for one of the biggest projects that Austin voters have encountered in at least 14 years.  (Since the last urban rail vote in 2000).  But the Council is planning to consider that resolution without a public hearing.

If you think a public hearing would be helpful, please use this link to contact all of the City Council members and ask for one to be scheduled at or before their June 26th meeting.