Austin Energy (Again) and the President’s Visit

With Barack Obama coming to Austin, the Council agenda is slim

May 10, 2013

Austin Chronicle

What started as a thick City Council agenda today, May 9, has been watered down to a slimmer action plan, with a good number of items getting punted, in order to accommodate President Obama‘s specific request for the entire Council to attend his speech in Austin Thursday afternoon, which will eat up at least two hours of time otherwise spent hashing out land-use issues and so forth, including what would have been a third and final vote on the perennial East Riverside Corridor proposals.

Still scheduled for action — on second reading only — is the proposed creation of an independent board to oversee Austin Energy (Item 15). The proposed ordinance has been altered considerably since its initial introduction, with new versions having Council retaining more authority than what was laid out in the initial draft. After giving the proposal another scrub-down at its work session Tuesday (creating a Council subcommittee to keep close watch over the board), Council members appear closer to a consensus — except for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who argued that the revisions defeat the purpose of having an independent oversight board. "If we continue to water down the authority of the board," he said, we’ll end up with "basically an Electric Utility Commission with another name." The EUC is a council-appointed advisory group that makes recommendations to the Council but holds little authority.

Consumer and environmental activists have waged a months-long campaign against handing off much of Council’s decision-making powers to an unelected board, a move that would effectively amend the city charter without voter approval. State legislation carried by Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Paul Workman (replacing original House sponsor Rep. Eddie Rodriguez) would allow the charter change without an election.

Another weighty subject, this one involving Downtown development (Item 30), is also scheduled to proceed. Council Members Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman, and Kathie Tovo are introducing a resolution designed to add more teeth to the requirements for affordable housing and other community benefits outlined in the city’s density bonus program as part of the Downtown Plan. Developers seeking additional height on buildings and other variances currently manage to work around those goals and requirements by seeking zoning changes under the Central Urban Redevelopment Combined District, better known as CURE.

Proposed changes to the much-debated short-term rental ordinance (Item 70) were kicked to May 23. According to a staff review sheet, the changes would "ensure greater compliance … improve notification and enforcement," and ensure a more effective permit review process.

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