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The Top 10 Austin City Council Stories of 2012

Filipa Rodrigues, Andy Uhler for KUT News

One mayor. Six council members. 10 stories.

While the Austin City Council lacked for an overarching theme in 2012 – nothing like the months-long roil of 2011’s open meetings act or Formula 1 controversies – it faced a decidedly full agenda.

But ironically, 2012 may be remembered more for the change it initiated to future councils that the actions of this one.  With the council safely on hiatus until Jan. 17, 2013, KUT News is taking a look back at the year that was.  

1. Switch to Single-Member Districts

Austin has rarely, if ever, had such an important local election.

No, we’re not talking about May’s municipal contest, which re-elected all four incumbents (Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and council members Mike Martinez, Bill Spelman and Sheryl Cole). Instead, November’s charter election – which saw the passage of Prop 3 (the “10-1” proposal to elect ten city council members by individual geographic districts) – means fundamental change for Austin government.

A city-appointed charter revision committee studied the issue the first half of the year, before narrowly voting to recommend a 10-1 scenario be put to voters for approval. A citizens group then collected enough signatures to put the measure up for a vote. And despite facing competition on the ballot from a separate geographic representation proposal (the “8-2-1” plan, which called for two at-large council seats), the measure won handily on election night.

Now the real work begins: The citizen group that propelled Prop 3 to victory has vowed to stay part of the process, and has already butted heads with the city over the timing of drawing the districts and getting federal approval. And Prop 3 is just one change to future elections: another proposition moves city elections from May to November, and extends council terms from three years to four.

Austin’s next council election, in 2014, will be radically different.

2. It’s the Affordability, Stupid

Speaking of elections: While Mayor Leffingwell won another term, he narrowly avoided a runoff against former council member Brigid Shea. And the campaign message on both sides could be boiled down to one word: affordability.

But it was a tough year for affordability in Austin. Council cast aside a controversial proposal from Austin Energy to raise electric rates for the first time in 18 years on affordability grounds. It then initiated and approved its own plan for raising rates. Property tax rates and fees rose in the city’s annual budget (despite Leffingwell’s launch of an unsuccessful, 11th-hour proposal for across-the-board cuts). And many Austinites were shocked at this November’s defeat of Propostion 15, which would have allocated $78 million for affordable housing.

3. The Year of the Incentive

One argument affordability advocates made in 2012 was that Austin needed to rethink economic incentive agreements with large companies: Apple. VISA, and HID Global all went before the council seeking incentives of some sort this year. All were approved.

Running for reelection, Leffingwell defended the use of incentives as resulting in solely cash-positive agreements for the city. But a New York Times report found that the state’s not so lucky: Texas leads the nation in economic incentives, and statewide enterprise incentives usually include a buy-in from both the city and county: a position Austin has found itself in several times.

Momentum is building for a wage floor for construction jobs tied to incentive agreements; Travis County approved a wage floor for construction jobs; VISA voluntarily agreed to an hourly wage of $11 for its (admittedly smaller) construction project. The council is expected to take the issue up early in 2013.

4. Off the Rails

City plans to put urban rail to a vote got the kibosh this year – again – at the behest of Leffingwell (possibly due to horse trading over this November’s big ask – a Central Health tax increase to build a medical school offering expanded community health care).  Still, the council found time to address plenty of other transportation issues ranging from wayfinding to “parklet”-style street patios.

5. It’s In the Bag

The answer, my friend, was truly blowing in the wind: the council’s a passage of a ban on single-use plastic satchels went through revisions like an H-E-B bagger went through bags. Council approved the measure, banning single-use bags by March 2013, but some questioned whether subsequent changes were too lenient.

6. Short-Term Fuses

No issue inflamed neighborhood politics more than regulations to short-term rentals, those spaces available for rent on sites like HomeAway and VRBO. Rental opponents, emboldened by a posting snafu on the city’s part, urged the city to ban properties that exist solely to be rented out. But council approved less-stringent regulations, which capped the number of STRs by area, before going back and revising those very regulations a few months later.

7. Rainey Days

The identity crisis on Rainey Street played out in council chambers this year. Once a sleepy, residential neighborhood, now filled with trendy bars and restaurants, a parking garage planned next to the Mexican American Cultural Center was one Rainey development too far. Council took the land for sale off the market and called for new suggestions – and plans to revisit the permissive zoning that created the entertainment district in the new year.

8. Pregnancy Center Revisions

In April of 2010, the council resolved that “pregnancy centers” – operations that provide counseling, but not medical resources, to pregnant women, in an attempt to discourage abortion – would be required to put up disclaimers describing what they do and do not do. The centers sued, and early this year, the council revised the language, but not the need for a disclaimer.

9. Taxis Still a Checkered Story

The council continually wrestled with issues surrounding taxis and for-hire transportation in 2012. They voted to allocate new permits to existing companies, approved a “vomit fee” for inebriated passengers, and capped the number of pedicab permits. But taxi drivers complained more permits meant more competition, which meant less money for existing drivers; and council member Chris Riley voted against issuing new permits without instituting recommended improvements to cab service outlined in a report from 2011.

10. Same Sex Support

In September, the council passed a resolution declaring support for same sex marriage. But while the resolution is largely symbolic, equality groups applauded the measure, saying “small steps have worked in the past.”

It also attracted a lot of attention: KUT News’ report on the resolution’s passage was the most viewed city council story of 2012.

And if that’s not enough, here’s some honorable mentions on the council beat, from KUT News:

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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