Friday, June 24, 2016

Notes on Yesterday's #ATXCouncil Meeting....

"There are many plans in a man’s heart,
Nevertheless the Lord’s counsel—that will stand."
Proverbs 19:21

[Author's Note: The full agenda for the meeting can be viewed here.]

We attended a substantial chuck of yesterday's uber-marathon Council meeting (14 hours and counting when we left at midnight; ultimately 16 hours).  Our thoughts are in the order events occurred.  For those only interested in the transportation bond, that discussion is at the end:

  • Item 79: They actually approved approximately $275k per year to build 2 luxury public bathrooms on street corners downtown.  This despite the fact that every downtown hotel already has bathrooms that any member of the public can use as long as they don't make a scene while doing so.  Kathie Tovo justified this project on the grounds that the homeless would relieve themselves on the street if the city didn't provide facilities.  Passed 8-2-1 with Zimmerman and Troxclair voting Nay and Gallo abstaining.  We can't prove it at this point, but we strongly suspect someone's getting paid.

    In addition, during later public testimony over the bond package, a female firefigher testified that there are numerous fire stations around Austin that don't even have male and female bathrooms despite the fact that a previous council moved seventeen years ago to provide them; for council to move forward with taxpayer funded luxury bathrooms at a time when city owned firestations have been waiting almost two decades for sufficient facilities seems...odd.
  • Item 56: The ball appears to be slowly moving forward on APD's plan to buy license plate readers to scan citizens' vehicles.  We're not a lawyer, and we haven't reviewed the relevant jurisprudence, but this strikes us as one of the most blatant violations of the fourth amendment we've ever seen.  Making matters worse, the vendor will be allowed to keep data from license plate scans as long as it "has commercial value."  So it's both unconstitutional and a special interest boondoggle.  In addition, one of the members of the public who testified in opposition raised concerns over whether such a proposal would turn APD into "mobile debt collectors" for things like traffic tickets.  Thankfully, they at least dropped the civil asset forfeiture component.  Council voted 6-5 (Zimmerman, Troxclair, Casar, Houston, Garza, and Kitchen voting AYE) in favor of Zimmerman's amendment to restrict APD from "executing" the contract and merely allow them to negotiate it.  This will be back in front of council in August.
  • Items 57/58: Unfortunately, council went ahead with their poorly conceived APD body camera policy and contract.  First things first, between the cameras and iphones being purchased to play the footage, we're talking about $17 MILLION.  Council went forward with using Taser (yes, THAT Taser) for the cameras at a cost of $12 million despite the fact that another vendor (Utility) was offering a technically superior product at a fraction of the price (Author's Note: We apologize, but we didn't write down the number of their asking price).

    Leslie Pool initially moved to postpone consideration of the contract to August, but she later pulled the motion after asking questions of APD.  Kathie Tovo called now a "time for action" following a "deliberative" process.  Keep in mind, they tried to ambush us with this contract 6 weeks ago.

    More troubling is the incomplete policy council pushed forward related to body camera footage.  While Kathy Mitchell of the Texas Criminal Justice coalition cited "incremental progress" in terms of allowing public greater access to body camera footage, there are still numerous hurdles to public access.  A representative from the Electronic Frontier Foundation urged caution because whatever policy adopted by council would subsequently become subject to typical governmental inertia; specifically, "we should be very careful about a cobbled together system."  Everybody supports police bodycameras, but there's no reason council couldn't have taken another month or two to get the policy right.  Council will rue this day whenever the inevitable dispute between an officer and a citizen provokes outrage that this policy proves insufficient to quell.

    Item 57 ($12 million for body cameras) passed 9-1-1 (Zimmerman voting Nay, Houston abstaining); Item 58 ($5 million for iphones) 7-3-1 (Zimmerman, Houston, and Pool voting Nay; Troxclair abstaining).
  • "Special Called Meeting" -- Council also considered Ellen Troxclair's proposal to expand the city of Austin's homestead exemption to 14% from the current 6%.  For obscure legal reasons, this had to be considered as part of a "special called meeting" instead the regular agenda.  Council watered Troxclair's proposed 8% expansion (to 14%) all the way down to 2% (to 8%). We had actually left the meeting at this point so we missed the discussion, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out why the current council would water down a tax relief package.

    [Author's Note: Community Impact has more here.]
  • Item 83: This was the discussion of the Transportation bond.  We left following public testimony, so we didn't see much of the discussion between council members.  Something eventually passed 8-3, but we aren't familiar with the details and will refrain from commenting further until we digest said details.

    That being said, we are going to re-iterate the concern we expressed in our public testimony and in our open letter to the mayor: Does the city bureaucracy have the capability to execute this plan in anything resembling a competent or timely manner?!?  $720 million is a lot of money, and this package has a lot of moving parts.  As the female firefighter testified, the city still hasn't been able to produce male and female bathrooms in fire-stations despite having promised to do so seventeen years ago.  If they can't deliver bathrooms, are they really capable of successfully executing a major transportation project?!?

    [Author's Note: The firefigher's testimony is at the 17:35 mark; our testimony is at 23:30]

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