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Council Preview: Putting Austin Cemetery Changes to Rest?

Phoebe Ann Flanigan for KUT News
The Austin City Council is seeking guidance on how and when to clean up city-run cemeteries today.

Earlier this month, Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department took on a difficult task – cleaning up Austin’s five city-owned cemeteries. But the cleanup policies have rankled some families of the dead.

The city received a barrage of complaints after it began citing graves adorned with extra objects for code violations: benches, birdbaths, vegetation, wind chimes, stones and more.

Today, the Austin City Council will look to revise the city’s strategy and finally put the issue to rest. The cleanup, which was slated to begin Nov. 1, could be delayed another six months.

The effort to reinvigorate cemeteries began in March, when a long-time maintenance contract with an independent contractor ended. The change came after some cemeteries fell into disrepair.

Though the city initially hoped to receive bids from a new contractor, the parks department ultimately decided to take on the project of cleaning up the five cemeteries themselves.

The resolution put forward today will prohibit the city from removing any personal item on a grave until the City Manager, along with the parks department and outside stakeholders,  “evaluate the sensitivity of the current cemetery rules and regulations to personal and cultural expressions of grieving, while preserving the necessary safety for cemetery workers and respect for the values of all families.”

"Some of the ornamentation … was just really outrageous and maybe overflowing past their grave plots," the Parks and Recreation Department’s Troy Houtman told the council at its Tuesday work session. "Our concern in the short term is that if we are really lax in enforcing the rules, we might really get some things that put their [feet] down."

Though council members expressed concerns over potentially offensive and racially charged graveside memorials, Houtman said the department had not yet seen such displays – but that litter and other concerns were an immediate concern.

"Regulating speech is something we need to be very careful about," said Council Member Kathie Tovo. "I saw some of the examples you were talking about, and I saw a few beer cans. But, I think, more commonly I saw an angel statue, which is currently not allowed. … I hope we have a policy that allows more flexibility, while still, of course, making sure that these are respectable places for people to visit their loved ones."

What else is on the council agenda today?

  • The council is set to discuss making changes to the rules that govern urban farms.

Changes could include putting a cap on the number of animals a farmer can slaughter each week, and mandating that farms acquire conditional use permits for events. Some worry these farms contribute to gentrification in some neighborhoods such as East Austin. You can read more about the issue here.

  • The council could vote to end the city’s 24-hour trail program. 

The program began in June as a way to keep bike riders off the streets at night. Ever since, council members have argued with Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo over the resources required to patrol the sparsely-traveled trails at nighttime. Chief Acevedo has said if the trails remain open around the clock, he would have to pull district representatives from across the city to police them – a proposal that got significant pushback from some neighborhoods. “Quite frankly, if we don’t keep them open we’re not going to move them at this time,” Acevedo told the council this week.

  • The council has postponed discussion of changes to the city’s Special Events Ordinance.

That's the collection of rules detailing the permits and fees required for putting on a big event in the city. The item will return to the council next week.
The meeting starts at 10 a.m., at Austin City Hall. You can watch the meeting online.

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