Open Letter re: Council Vote on Planning Commission Item

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Open Letter re: Council Vote on Planning Commission Item

Postby Genoveva Rodriguez » Mon May 14, 2018 12:42 pm

Over the past couple of years members of the community brought to the attention of Council the fact that the composition of the Planning Commission did not meet the criteria set forth in the City of Austin Charter. After a threat of a lawsuit the Council has wrestled, over many months, with the question of how to uphold a voter-approved City Charter provision that ensures that commissioners representing real estate and development interests do not dominate the Planning Commission. On Thursday, the members of the City Council who have signed this statement, offered a resolution to bring the City into compliance with the Charter and avoid violating its provisions going forward. Council voted down the resolution 4-6. Another resolution was passed (6-4) which, in our opinion, ultimately fails to address the critical issue of ensuring compliance with our City Charter.

The Planning Commission holds a very important place in our city government: it votes on land development rules, small-area plans, zoning cases, and conditional use permits -- policies that have a direct impact on the daily lives of individuals. Because of the importance of the role of this Commission, in 1973, Austin voters amended the Charter to include a key ethics provision limiting the number of commissioners who may be “directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development.” Subsequently in 1994, 67% of Austinites voted to further restrict such influence, allowing a maximum of only one-third of the membership of the Planning Commission to have industry ties.

This Charter provision aimed to ensure that real estate and land development interests do not have undue influence over land use and policy decisions. However, the Charter language does not identify a system to enforce this requirement. This has allowed Councils to violate the Charter by appointing more members connected to these industries than the Charter allows. Unless there is an intentional identification and implementation system, Councils will continue to be in violation.

The undersigned members of Council voted against the resolution that Council adopted for the following reasons: it fails to uphold the Charter in significant ways; It fails to create a process for removing commissioners who are currently serving in violation of the Charter; crucially, it dodges the question of what the Charter means by “directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development.” By not providing a clear standard to determine who falls into these categories, we leave the door open for continued violation of the Charter in the future.

We believe that Council has an obligation to uphold the City Charter and the authority to remove Planning Commissioners. Our plan would have established a robust and immediate process for removing members who are serving in violation of the Charter. The process would have clearly stated that licensed professionals and other individuals who earn a significant portion of their income from real estate and land development could not fill more seats on the Planning Commission than the Charter allows.

We believe in this key Charter protection and will continue to advocate for its enforcement.

Council Member Alison Alter
Council Member Ora Houston
Council Member Leslie Pool
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo
Genoveva Rodriguez
 
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