Tag Archives: Austin City Council

A “Crazy” Letter to the Editor

Austin American-Statesman, january 5, 2018

Re: Dec. 30 article, “Austin Will Appeal Its Most Recent Court Loss Involving the Texas Open Meetings Act.”

I applaud City Council Member Alison Alter for asking city staff to study and recommend legally required agenda-posting procedures. However, it’s shameful that it took two court rulings in the people’s favor to prompt this action. The city of Austin was founded in 1839. It shouldn’t have taken them 178 years to learn how to properly prepare their meeting notices — 179 before the study is completed.

We can at least be thankful for one thing. The City Council meetings have never failed to keep us entertained, befuddled and amused. In the words of Paul Simon, the folks at City Hall are “still crazy after all these years.”

BILL OAKEY, AUSTIN

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Still Crazy After All These Years” – Paul Simon
  2. “That Song Is Driving Me Crazy” – Tom T. Hall
  3. “Crazy” – Written and recorded by Willie Nelson, 1962
  4. “Crazy” – Patsy Cline version
  5. “Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby” – The Crew Cuts
  6. “Crazy Arms” – Willie Nelson & Ray Price
  7. “Crazy Baby” – Doug Sahm
  8. “Crazy Talk” – Brenda Lee
  9. “She’s Crazy for Leaving” – Guy Clark
  10. “Crazy Man, Crazy” – Bill Haley & His Comets
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City Needs Vigorous Protections For Whistleblowers

By Bill Oakey, December 12, 2017

If anybody out there does not agree with the need to protect whistleblowers, they should keep reading and seriously rethink that position. Thanks to an excellent article by American-Statesman reporter, Elizabeth Findell, we learned late Friday that the City’s Ethics Review Commission has subpoenaed statements provided to the City Auditor’s office by a whistleblower, alleging wrongdoing by another City employee. The ethics panel’s new subpoena powers were just approved by the City Council six months ago. They felt it was necessary because of previous occasions where people whose ethics were under review either refused to cooperate with the commission, or pulled a no-show. (Can you say Don Zimmerman…)?

Now the pot is boiling at City Hall. The case at hand alleges that former police monitor, Margo Frasier, used her City computer to conduct some private consulting business. The City Auditor’s Office provides investigative support for all alleged cases of wrongdoing, from financial fraud to discrimination and harassment. Last month, the Ethics Review Commission voted 6-2 to subpoena the investigative auditor’s notes and records pertaining to the Frasier case. The Auditor’s Office turned their investigative records over to the commission. But so far, the whistleblower’s identity and direct statements have not been publicly revealed. This Thursday the City Council will revisit their decision to grant unlimited subpoena powers to the Ethics Review Commission.

Three Cheers for Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool!

The Mayor Pro Tem and Council member told the Statesman that they feel strongly about the need to protect whistleblowers. Who would want to come forward if their names and faces will be flashed on the side of a building at the Next Big Festival? Who would want to risk retaliation by a supervisor or threats from the alleged wrongdoer, or both?

Hey Guys, the Taxpayers Have a Stake In This Deal

Waste, fraud and abuse can add up to a lot of our money. The distractions caused by inappropriate behavior and activities can ripple throughout an office and hamper the productivity of everyone there. So, I recommend that the City take whistleblower protection one step further. Not only should they be granted confidentiality, but he City needs to proactively encourage confidential reporting of misdeeds. I completely agree with City Auditor, Corrie Stokes. She told the Statesman that allowing the Ethics Review Commission to publicly disclose the names of whistleblowers would have a chilling affect on their willingness to come forward. Nathan Wiebe, Chief of Investigations for the City Auditor, gave me this quote for the blog: “If me don’t protect whistleblowers, then we put the entire system at risk.”

The City Council Should Consider Taking the Following Actions on Thursday

  1. Amend the ordinance granting subpoena powers to the Ethics Review Commission. Exclude whistleblowers and their attorneys, and redact their names from all notes and documents turned over to the Ethics Review Commission by the Auditor’s Office.
  2. Adopt a policy that all employees be required to receive training on how to recognize activities and behaviors that are prohibited under various governmental laws and City rules.
  3. Provide written assurance to all employees that they can freely report misconduct to the City Auditor’s office, and be granted full confidentiality throughout any investigations or proceedings by any City department or citizen panel empowered by the City.
  4. Establish a guiding principle throughout the City organization that employees have a duty to protect the public and their tax dollars by discouraging improper activities and behaviors, and encouraging the reporting of such, with full faith that the employees’ identities will not be disclosed.
  5. Adopt policies and procedures to identify false reporting of misdeeds, and establish penalties for those responsible.

The City Attorney could advise the City Council on various strategies and best practices that have worked successfully in The World Outside of Austin (my favorite place to look when doing blog research).

I contacted the City Auditor’s office to learn more about their interactions with the Ethics Review Commission. Their office routinely sends staff to attend commission meetings to speak and answer questions. When needed, the audit staff can communicate further between commission meetings. This arrangement gives the commission sufficient information to determine whether to assess penalties or recommend prosecution. And it keeps any whistleblowers at the proper arm’s-length distance from public view.

Let’s Not Forget One Other Thing

Thursday is also the delayed final date for the Big Decision that I blogged about recently. The City Council…lucky them…will get to decide whether to protect the City Budget’s General Fund and stay within the legal maximum property tax increases for years to come. I’m talking about the huge pay raises in the unaffordable police contract.

Update: The City Has Changed the Date and Time of the Police Contract Agenda Item to 3:00 Today

The Council may have to lean on each other for support, in order to do the right thing. That would be to send the parties back to the negotiating table. I won’t be brave enough to watch the dramatic vote live on TV. Any of the Stephen King movies saved on my DVR would be less scary to watch!

Musical and Poetic Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

The auditing profession received a serious black eye in 2002 when some of the firm, Arthur Andersen’s auditors were found guilty of criminal charges in the notorious Enron scandal. There should have been a song written about it. But since there wasn’t, I took that chore upon myself and composed a satire of the Bobby Darin hit, “If I Were a Carpenter.”

If I Were an Auditor, By Bill Oakey

If I were an auditor
And you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway
Would you have my baby

If accounting were my trade
Would you still find me
Covering the tracks I made
Following behind me

Save your love through loneliness
Save your love for sorrow
Baby help me get out of this place
Help me face tomorrow

If I dipped my hands in fraud
Would you still love me
Answer me babe, yes I would
I’d place you above me

If I were a CEO
With a big jet flying
Would you run my shredder for me
While I’m testifying

Save your love through loneliness
Save your love for sorrow
Now it’s time for me for me to leave this world
I can’t face tomorrow

If I were an auditor
And you were a lady
Would you bury me anyway
And take care of my baby (!)

Would You Vote For $600 Million In City Bond Projects – Every Year For Five Years In A Row?

By Bill Oakey, December 6, 2017

Think of our city as one big extended family. That family has to look out for each of its members. Now, put that into context with your own family. The holiday shopping season is now underway. Your inbox overflows with tempting cyber-this and hyper-that offers. All you have to do is type in your credit card number and click…

But somewhere in the pit of your stomach, you know it’s not quite that simple. Your family has to stay within a budget. You and your spouse, the kids, and the other folks on your shopping list  can only have what your family can afford. Unless, that is, you are reckless enough to pile on the debt and t refuse to take it seriously.

In 2014, Austin voters faced a billion dollar bond election for one sliver of a citywide urban rail system. We were told then that it would double the City’s outstanding debt. We voted against those bonds for several reasons, even though many of us support rail in a general transportation plan. So, here we are three years later. The City’s Bond Election Review Task Force really is considering $3 billion in bond-funded projects over the next five years.

Look at the big picture here. Where does that leave Travis County? What about AISD, ACC and Central Health? And where does it keave us as taxpayers? The City Budget is so tight that its share of our property taxes are in danger of doubling in nine years. And with new debt on top of that, it could be even worse.

I was a little rough on AISD in a recent blog posting. When their CFO reached out to me, I softened just a little, and requested a meeting to talk things over. Wish me luck as I try to convince AISD to stay very close to their low estimate on the cost to refurbish their new headquarters building.

Let’s try to end this on a brighter note. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt gets it. In fact, here’s how she painted the picture when we discussed the long list of “needs” that our local governments think they have to have. She said this, “If you load too many ornaments on the Christmas tree, it will topple over.” Then she graciously accepted the challenge to work with the City, starting early next year on a “Go Big” on affordability initiative. I have since received some positive signals from City Council members.

Enjoy the holidays with your family. But don’t click too many of those online offers without remembering your wallet!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

1. “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” – Elmo & Patsy
2. “Christmas In Jail” – Asleep at the Wheel
3. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” – Gayla Peevey
4. “Nuttin’ for Christmas” – Barry Gordon
5. “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” – Allan Sherman
6. “Monster Holiday” – Lon Chaney
7. “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” – Spike Jones
8. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – Jimmy Boyd

Can The City Council Put The Brakes On Police Pay Raises?

By Bill Oakey – November 28, 2017

Yes.

But that’s not the right question. The question is, do they have the will to do it? At their regular meeting on December 7th, the City Council will face a critical decision that will affect the  General Fund in the annual City Budget for many years to come. This is serious business, and I do not envy the Council members. All 11 of their positions on the dais will become “hot seats” on December 7th.

Staring at affordability projections is really spooky stuff. It’s a lot more comfortable to look the other way. You can kick the can down the road but, by golly, you’ll run headlong into it sooner or later. The other vitally important factor is that we all value the service of our police officers. Austin is one of the safest cities in Texas, if not the country, for its size. So, I would be the last person to suggest that we should short-change them on well-deserved pay.

The fact is that we already have the highest paid police force in Texas. The proposed new contract, approved by the union after negotiations with City staff calls for 9.5% in pay raises over the next five years. With additional stipends included, the total jumps to 12%. The impact on the City’s General Fund was laid out in a public meeting this past May. This was the headline in the Austin Monitor on May 18th: “Mayor Suggests Changes in Public Safety Pay.”

The article starts out with these words:

“Paying for Austin’s public safety needs could add more than $75.9 million to the city’s General Fund budget over the next five years – with more than two-thirds of that funding going to the Austin Police Department, according to the city’s preliminary needs assessment.”

Then, in a later paragraph, this dire warning appears:

“Looking at the projection of public safety needs over the next five years and the city’s projected income, it is clear that even going to the 8 percent rollback rate every year, the City will not be able to meet most of those needs.”

So, public safety salaries could push the General Fund over the edge, and force the City to raise property taxes to the 8% legal maximum every year going forward. And, even if that happens, all of the needed City services covered by the General Fund cannot be met. Fairly simple math will tell you that 8% annual City property tax increases would cause them to double in 9 years and quadruple in 18 years.

During that May City Council Meeting, Mayor Adler suggested that City staff expand their analysis of the public safety costs and other basic needs. And he stated that perhaps some adjustments should be made.

The Big Decision on December 7th Will Not Be Easy

In my current round of affordability meetings with City Council members, one fact has become clear. They cannot predict how the vote on the police contract will turn out. Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s office, often seen as the most conservative, expressed concern over both public safety salaries and the pensions. Council Member Ann Kitchen told me that “It is important to consider all of the cost projections and their implications.”

As an affordability advocate, I have just one piece of advice for each City Council member. Never be afraid to do what you really believe is the right thing. When in doubt about an issue like this, don’t just rely on verbal prowess and the power of persuasion. Sometimes it may be best to remain relatively quiet and…

Just Let the Numbers Do the Talking!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece:

  1. “Murder By Numbers” – The Police
  2. “One For the Wonder” – Sammy Kaye
  3. “Heartaches By the Number” – Willie Nelson (from 1966)
  4. “Fool Number One” – Brenda Lee
  5. “One” – Three Dog Night

Do What??? $3 Billion in City Bonds Over the Next 5 Years?

By Bill Oakey – November 16, 2017, 7:30 AM

It’s way too early to swallow this. Haven’t even had a sip of coffee yet…

For immediate release:
Nov. 9, 2017
Contact: Aly Van Dyke, Communications and Public Information Office, (512) 974-2969

2018 Bond Task Force seeking public input
The Bond Election Advisory Task Force, established by the Austin City Council in 2016, is seeking public input in advance of offering its recommendations to Council for a bond package to go to voters in 2018.

The Council specifically directed City staff and the Task Force to focus on funding efforts to address flooding, affordable housing, mobility, high-capacity transit, parks, libraries, and existing infrastructure. City departments identified more than $3 billion in needs during the next five years. From that list, City staff developed a $640 million bond package to serve as a starting point for the Task Force to consider.

While the Task Force develops its Council recommendations for the bond package, its 13 appointed members want to better understand what City infrastructure needs are most important to Austin residents.

Toward that end, the Task Force has scheduled seven town halls throughout the city.

6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 13, Dove Springs Recreation Center, 5801 Ainez Drive
6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, Little Walnut Creek Library, 835 W. Rundberg Lane
6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28, University Hills Branch Library, 4721 Loyola Lane
6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 29, ACC South Campus, 1820 W. Stassney Lane
6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, Carver Museum, 1165 Angelina St.
6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4, Spicewood Springs Library, 8637 Spicewood Springs Road
6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7, Hampton Branch Library at Oak Hill, 5125 Convict Hill Road
Additionally, the Task Force and City staff are working to launch an online survey and a bond simulator by Nov. 15. Residents also will be able to call Austin 3-1-1 to provide their feedback.

The City currently is developing a language access plan to ensure non-English proficient speakers can provide input into this process as well.

More information about the Task Force can be found on the City’s website at https://www.austintexas.gov/content/bond-election-advisory-task-force.

To learn more about the Task Force’s five working groups and their meeting schedules, visit http://www.austintexas.gov/department/city-austin-2018-bond-development.

 

Let’s Clear The Air On Soccer Stadium / Election Requirement Issue

Follow on Twitter – @AAffordability

By Bill Oakey – November 13, 2017

Above All, This Is an Issue of Transparency

Soccer is a popular sport for people of all ages. Many folks would love to see a major league (MLS) team come here. The last thing we need is another messy, expensive legal battle over whether a stadium on City parkland would require a public vote. Supporters of bringing a soccer team here should embrace an election and rally people to support it. Under the right circumstances, a public-private partnership can be a valuable tool in our affordability arsenal.

In early 2015 I was in the City Council chambers when a local attorney threatened to sue the City if the Decker Lake golf course proposal were not put to a public vote. This followed many months of frustration over why City legal staff insisted that a license agreement with the developer would not trigger an election. Both the Colony Park Neighborhood Association and the Austin American-Statesman endorsed the call for an election. Finally, on April 29, 2015 City Manager Marc Ott reversed course and recommended that the City Council consider putting the proposal on the ballot. Today we should expect the same standard for the proposed soccer stadium.

Let’s Take a Deep Dive Into the Details

My blog posting from last week delves into the history of the City Charter requirement, dating back to 1952. Over the weekend, I finally uncovered the City staff’s reasons for initially not supporting an election on the Decker Lake golf courses. Buried in the digital equivalent of mothballs is this official question and answer document, dated March 5, 2015. Here is a portion of the relevant text:

Council Question and Answer

Related To

Item#28

Meeting Date

March 5, 2015

Additional Answer Information

QUESTION 1: In 2000, voters rejected a ballot proposal to create a golf course at Walter E. Long Park. (The City Charter requires Council to get voter approval before selling, conveying, leasing, mortgaging, or alienating parkland). Please provide specific details about that 2000 ballot measure, including the acreage that would have been allocated for the course and whether that proposal was to sell or to lease the parkland.

ANSWER 1: The ballot proposal in 2000 included a golf course development with a hotel on parkland which required a referendum as the contract was for a lease of the parkland. The hotel would trigger a Chapter 26 due to the change of use of the parkland. The referendum did fail by approximately 49-51%. The approximate acreage is the same being considered today, approximately 735 acres; however, the current contract will be a license agreement for public recreational facility with commercial elements similar to those found on other municipal golf courses (green fees, event space rental, food and beverage, equipment rental, limited retail, etc).

QUESTION 2: Please explain why converting 735 acres of parkland to use as a private golf course does not require voter approval.

ANSWER 2: The proposed development is for a public golf course, not a private golf course as stated in the question. Voter approval is not required because the land will remain open to the public as a park use and will be owned by the City of Austin. The City will not sell, convey, lease, mortgage, or alienate parkland by entering into a license agreement for the finance, design, construction and operation with Decker Lake Golf of a public golf course. The course will be operated by a private contractor similar to other PARD concessions. Supplemental information will be provided to Council from the Law Department as an attorney-client privileged communication.

A Look at the State Code That Protects Public Parkland

Notice that Answer 1 above mentions that the 2000 election for a hotel and golf course was necessary because the project would “trigger a Chapter 26 due to the change of use of the parkland.” That refers to Title 3, Chapter 26 of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code. For a historical  perspective on the application of this law, check out “Pitfalls In the Use Or Taking of Park Land,” presented to the Texas City Attorneys Association in 2014. Attempting to decipher these will make your eyes glaze over. That’s why we have lawyers. Suffice it to say that both the Austin City Charter and State law aim to protect parkland from unauthorized changes of use.

The Bottom Line – When Does a License Agreement Cross the Line Into “Alienation of Parkland?”

It all comes down to the scale of the enterprise. It appears that only small operations and concessions are permissible. Former City Manager Marc Ott perhaps said it best in his April 29, 2015 memo to the City Council. In it he stated, “While we have a variety of license agreements for the use of parkland, I have to acknowledge that none of them may approach the scale of the one currently in front of you for consideration. With that in mind, giving our residents an opportunity to directly vote to either sell or lease the land may be an equally viable option.” (This quote appears in an Austin American Statesman “Viewpoints” piece, dated June 10, 2015).

Can the Community Come Together On Golf and Soccer Facilities?

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could put past disagreements aside, and approach these opportunities with a positive spirit. Perhaps our park system could benefit financially with revenue from a limited number of public-private partnerships. But we need an open and transparent process, followed by a public vote.

One Final Tidbit – ESPN’s Take On an Austin Soccer Team

Last month, the sports network asked some probing questions about whether Austin would be a good fit for an MLS franchise. It’s always fascinating to read what the outside world thinks about major goings-on here in the Capital City. The article is highly recommended.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

  1. “One Million Lawyers” – Tom Paxton
  2. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” – The Beach Boys
  3. “Get Together” – The Youngbloods

Soccer Stadium On City Parkland Would Require Public Vote

By Bill Oakey – November 9, 2017

A resolution at today’s City Council meeting seeks to identify sites, including City parkland, that could be used for a major league soccer stadium. We should hope they are aware that the City Charter requires a public vote before City parkland could be put to such a commercial use.

This topic came up a few years ago when two commercial golf courses were being seriously considered for Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park. A contract was prepared and the City still has a webpage describing that contract. But entering into that contract would have been a clear violation of the Charter, without a public vote. And there is a new golf course proposal in the latest Colony Park master planned community project.

Here is the section of the City Charter that applies:

Article II, Section 7

All powers and authority which are expressly or impliedly conferred on or possessed by the city shall be vested in and exercised by the council; provided, however, that the council shall have no power to, and shall not:

(A) Sell, convey, lease, mortgage, or otherwise alienate any land which is now, or shall hereafter be, dedicated for park purposes, unless:

(1) the qualified voters of the city shall authorize such act by adopting in a general or special election a proposition submitting the question and setting forth the terms and conditions under which such sale, conveyance, lease, mortgage, or other alienation is to be made

The 2015 golf course contract was described as a “license agreement.” Using that language is a lawyer-ly trick to try to get around the Charter. If the term “license agreement” was used to circumvent the prohibition against leases, surely it falls within “otherwise alienate” and would be clearly prohibited under both the letter and the intent of the Charter.

In November 2000, the City did hold a required election to decide whether to put a hotel and golf course at Walter E. Long Park. See the two articles below:

1. Austin Chronicle – March 24, 2000: https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2000-03-24/76535/

2. 2000 Election Results, Austin Chronicle – November 10, 2000: https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2000-11-10/79348/

The Charter Provision Dates Back to December 9, 1952

At 10:00 AM on that date, Mayor Bill Drake and the City Council held a meeting and voted to put Proposition 6 on the ballot. The parkland provision was included as Article II, Section 4. (a). In the election on January 31, 1953, it passed by a 61% margin  (Click to enlarge picture).

The history archives show that there was plenty of lively debate throughout the city surrounding this round of charter amendments. It was a complete overhaul. Emma Long, Austin’s first female council member, was a major force behind the charter revisions. Today a huge precedent is at stake.  A new 2018 Charter Review Commission is hard at work planning for an election next year. If you served on that commission, you might get stars in your eyes thinking of your contribution to the City. But what if your efforts got approved by the voters, only to be tossed aside by City officials in the future?  We should respect our legacy and vigorously defend our Charter.

Quick Musical Note:

The number one song on the day of the 1953 election was “Don’t Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes” by Perry Como.

Austin Mayor Bill Drake dressed as Santa Claus – From The Portal to Texas History