Déjà Vu All Over Again: Proposed Council Rules Reduce Transparency

Last week, some proposed council rule changes popped up on the agenda at the last minute.  (See Unfair Park’s great post explaining the rule changes.) Some of the proposed rules were good, like requiring councilmembers to attend more than half a meeting to be counted as present.  But one of the rules seemed to be a retread of what the mayor pushed for last year, and I didn’t like it any better in reruns:  eliminating morning speakers.

For those of you unfamiliar with public speaking times before the council, here’s how it works:  Every Wednesday council meeting, the public can sign up to speak on any topic in either the morning or afternoon.  There are five slots for the morning and unlimited slots in the afternoon.  If you’re a City Hall regular who’s spoken in the last 30 days, you’re automatically bumped to the afternoon, leaving the morning open to others.

The problem with eliminating morning speakers is that it’s much more convenient for working folks to take off an hour in the morning than spend the whole afternoon with the council, waiting to speak.  See, if you speak in the afternoon, you have to wait til after the council meeting, and that can be two o’clock or 6 o’clock — our schedule is unpredictable.  But if you speak in the morning, you’ll typically speak around 9:30 a.m. and be out before 10:30 a.m.

I strongly oppose this proposed rule change.  We should be making it easier, not more difficult, to speak before the City Council.

I also object to the proposal to require councilmembers to pull a consent item off the agenda by 5pm on Monday before the Wednesday council meeting.  See, we’ve this “consent agenda” where the city manager consolidates what she perceives to be non-controversial items into a single voting group, and we vote up or down on the whole group at once.  Problem is, sometimes there are items that are on the consent agenda that need to be discussed and voted on individually.  Currently, any councilmember can remove an item from the consent agenda until the moment we vote on the consent agenda.  The new proposal would require us to do this two days before.  Or we could get the mayor or the majority of the council to agree to hear the item individually. Continue reading

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Today at the City Council meeting….

Here are some highlights from today’s council meeting:

Apartments Crime Reduction Program – We approved an ordinance that will require apartment complexes with excessive crime rates to participate in a mandatory crime reduction program administered and enforced by the Police Department. Run-down apartments are a breeding ground for crime, so this new program is absolutely critical. As I said today, though, we can’t make crime prevention a burden that’s born solely by our police; we must invest MUCH more in code enforcement.

Little Forest Hills Conservation District – (District 9) On Councilmember Kadane’s motion, we denied this CD. On zoning cases, I generally defer to the councilmember who represents that district because (1) I believe the voters in that district elected that person to reflect their values (which will be reflected in the councilmember’s zoning decision), (2) voters can vote out someone who makes zoning decisions they don’t agree with, (3) that councilmember has usually worked closely with the community on zoning cases and can best represent their position. I am very supportive of CDs because I’ve seen in my own neighborhood how beneficial it’s been. Someone at the meeting suggested that CDs reduce property values. The facts belie that claim: property values have risen significantly in the M Streets and other CDs in our city; people like the certainty of knowing what type of development can go up around them. Councilmember Kadane had asked the LFH CD proponents to attain 65% support from all residents, and they fell short, with 58%. I know how hard their worked, and my heart goes out to them. I hope LFH is able to find another way to protect their trees and keep themselves “funky,” such as through a planned development district, as was suggested today. Otherwise, I fear we’ll lose what is one of the coolest neighborhoods in our city.

Goodwill Drop-Off on Haskell – Here, Goodwill wanted to put in a small building that would serve as a drop-off for donations. It wouldn’t have had any retail component at all. Surrounding neighbors worried about an increase in traffic on an already busy street, as well as the possibility that people would drop things off while the site was closed, resulting in litter and a haven for the homeless or theives. I worked with Goodwill and the neighborhood for months to try to reach a compromise, and delayed this case more than once. As a matter of right, Goodwill could put in a retail store today without special dispensation from the city, and that is a more intense use than a drop-off. However, at the end of the day, 41 property owners voted “no,” and 41 voted “yes.” With such a split, I couldn’t justify a zoning change. To me, the zoning on the ground is the default, and the property owner has to show a compelling reason to change it. Part of that reason may be that the neighborhood strongly supports the change. Here, that wasn’t the case, and I couldn’t support a zoning change. Goodwill is such an amazing organization and does so much for our city. I wish the neighbors had been able to reach a compromise here.

Far West SUP – Residents near the Far West club at Gaston/Grand had grown frustrated with problems stemming from the club — crime, noise, traffic, etc. Usually, bars have to have a short-term “specific use permit” that lets them operate under certain conditions. The SUP process involves a public hearing and approval of the City Council. A bar that causes problems runs the risk of the neighbors opposing the renewal of the SUP, so the bar has an incentive to be a good neighbor. That is dependent on an SUP that expires every couple of years. Here, for whatever reason, the City Council gave the predecessor to Far West a 99-year SUP. That’s nuts. At the request of the neighborhoods I recommended the city reduce the time period for the SUP and put other restrictions in place. After working cooperatively with the club owner and residents, we were able to reach an agreement on a 5-year SUP with traffic and safety requirements. I’m very proud that we were able to make this change.

Dog Run for CityVet on McKinney – I postponed this for a month so the applicant can work with the surrounding neighbors on trying to reach a compromise.

GPS System for Garbage Trucks – At a cost of $700k, the GPS system is supposed to help track trucks, reduce inefficiencies, and save money. That sounds good, but having ridden on a garbage truck, I saw firsthand some of the problems our sanitation workers encounter that slow them down: overgrown alleys being #1. If we cleared the problem alleys, we’d speed up service and prevent our men from speeding down streets to make up for lost time (not that they should be speeding anyway). I don’t really think we’ve got the money to do this, given today’s economy, but if we do have an extra $700k, I think we should spend it on giving our sanitation workers a raise. They make minimum wage right now, and $700k would almost get them to a living wage (a $3/hr. increase). Alternatively, we could spend that on cleaning up alleys, or hiring 1-2 mechanics that are needed to fix air-conditioners and heaters in the trucks (that are frequently broken). A majority of the council, including me, voted to postpone the matter and have a briefing to get more info.

UNT Law School in Downtown We unanimously authorized the City Manager to enter into final negotiations with the University of North Texas to establish a law school in what is currently the city courthouse. (We desperately need a new courthouse and will include that in the 2010 bond program.) The legislature has to approve the law school, but I am very hopeful that it will pass this session.

Lastly, I’m not shy about speaking up when I disagree with the Mayor, so I want to take a moment to compliment him on the way he handles public hearings. One, he is very respectful of the time people take out of their schedules to come down to City Hall, and tries to move up cases involving large groups of people. Before I was elected, I remember coming to City Hall and spending 8 hours waiting for our neighborhood’s case to be heard. This is a welcome change.

Two, even when a group’s time to speak before the Council has expired, the Mayor lets opponent/advocates come to the microphone and enter their name and opinion into the record. This takes a little time, especially with large groups, but I think it really shows a great courtesy to citizens who have taken off work to spend their afternoon at City Hall.

Smoking Ban Strengthened

On a 10-5 vote, the Council just approved an expanded smoking ban, prohibiting smoking in bars, billiard halls indoor workplaces, and within 15 feet of their main entrances. We exempted tobacco shops (which get more than 90% of their revenue from tobacco sales) and currently operating cigar bars (bars that get 15% of their revenue from tobacco sales). Violators will face a $200 fine, and the ordinance goes into effect April 10, 2009.

I voted in favor of expanding the ordinance (see my reasoning in a previous blog on this issue). Also voting in favor: Mayor Tom Leppert, Councilmembers Elba Garcia, Dwaine Caraway, Pauline Medrano, Dave Neumann, Carolyn Davis, Jerry Allen, Linda Koop, and Ron Natinsky.

Against: Councilmembers Vonciel Jones Hill, Steve Salazar, Tennell Atkins, Sheffie Kadane, and Mitchell Rasansky.

Council Approves Towing Cars When Driver Cannot Show Proof of Insurance

Today, Councilmember Rasansky moved and I seconded a motion to tow cars of uninsured drivers. As of January 1, 2009, if the police pull over a driver and that driver cannot provide proof of insurance, their car will be towed to the city impound lot. (When there are extenuating circumstances, the police may use their discretion not to tow.) To get the car back, the driver will have to pay a fee and show proof of insurance.

I fully support this proposal. I disagree with the argument that towing uninsured cars will disproportionately hurt the poor. On the contrary, I think this will most benefit poor, law-abiding citizens who spend their hard-earned money to ensure they’ve got insurance. An example: a single mother who works two jobs is the victim of an accident. She has insurance. She pays $66 every month to comply with Texas state law that requires every driver in the state to carry proof of financial responsibility (insurance). But she can’t afford to carry the more expensive, “uninsured motorist insurance” that would protect her if she’s hit by a driver who doesn’t have insurance. If she’s hit by an uninsured driver, she has to pay out of her own pocket for any hospital care she needs as a result of her injuries, any physical rehabilitation she may require, any work time she may lose, any repair her car may need. How is that fair?

Law-abiding drivers have to pay more for their car insurance to make up for those drivers who refuse to obey the law. How is that fair?

Car insurance is part of the cost of owning a car. I checked with four insurance companies. Basic liability insurance is as little as $66 a month. That’s a tank of gas, a cellphone bill, a couple of dinners out. If someone can’t afford insurance, they shouldn’t drive. They will have to use public transit, walk, or carpool.

Council Foregoes Public Hearings Before Leasing Public Land for Gas Drilling

On Wednesday, the council discussed a proposal for the city to lease city-owned land to private companies so they can drill for gas on public property. The proposal will allow gas drilling and wells within 300 feet of residential neighborhoods and public parks. In return, the private companies will give the city $32 million.

Have you heard about this? No? Perhaps because there weren’t any public hearings to discuss whether we, as a city, want to have drilling rigs and gas wells littering Dallas’ landscape.

Here are my objections with this entire issue:

First, no community input. When the council discussed an ordinance on gas drilling last Fall, I suggested we put one of the 150-foot gas drilling rigs out on the City Hall plaza and let residents come by and see what they think. I objected then, and object now, to the idea that we would do something like this without having public hearings. This is something we’re going to have to live with for decades, and we’re not asking residents what they think?

I just read an article in the Star-Telegram that pointed out the buyers’ remorse some Fort Worth residents are feeling over the city’s decision to drill for gas:

I do know that we didn’t ask enough questions at the beginning of this gung-ho gas drilling process, primarily because most of us simply didn’t know what questions to ask.

The new drilling techniques were to be minimally obtrusive, with the rigs only on-site for a handful of days and the finished wellheads basically out of sight or hardly noticeable….

Despite attempts by some companies to camouflage the destructiveness of natural gas drilling, we’ve already seen a terrible scarring of the land, with large swaths being cleared for access to rigs and the laying of miles of pipeline.

In several parts of town, I’m seeing the ugly industrial sites necessary to support this growing industry, where machinery like I’ve never seen has to be stored and maintained.

Large trucks are crowding and destroying streets that led to once-quiet neighborhoods. And many of us have just begun to learn that some of those massive mobile tanks are hauling waste water that we still haven’t figured out how to handle — whether to inject it into the ground in our own city or ship somewhere else to become someone else’s problem.

–“That upset feeling — was it something we swallowed? Barnett Shale” by Bob Ray Sanders (Fort Worth Star-Telgram, Dec. 9, 2007)

Second: I don’t like being railroaded. The City Manager told us if we didn’t approve the lease, we’d lose $20M from this year’s budget and another $14M from next year’s. What? How could staff have counted on this money when the council had not yet approved the drilling leases? When we had our council retreat last July and the gas drilling issue came up, both Mitchell Rasansky and I specifically instructed city staff NOT to count on this money because the council had not approved the gas drilling. We did not want to be in exactly the position we’re in now.

So here we are: staff puts the council over a barrel by including certain anticipated revenues in the city’s budget, despite the fact that the funding source for that revenue has not been approved by the council. The philosophy seems to be: “It is better to ask forgiveness than permission.” By including the gas lease funds in the budget prematurely, staff ensured that most of the council would have qualms about eliminating the revenue source, which would necessitate “budget cuts.” Then we’re told we’re in a rush to get the lease done, and we can’t possibly wait for public input. (Mitchell Rasansky wryly pointed out that the gas had been down there for a few million years; it could wait another couple of months.)

Third: If you’re under eighteen stop reading now, because I can’t think of a less crude way to say this: I’m tired of our city whoring itself out for a few measley bucks. There. I said it. I’ve been thinking that a lot, like when we decided it would be fabulous to put up ugly kiosks on tiny sidewalks all over town, for a pittance. Or every time we beg businesses to come to our city and give them tax breaks or other financial incentives out of the public coffers. Or when we give developers excessive zoning rights at the expense of residents/the environment/good design. We need to be more chaste and less desperate. We need to make our city attractive to businesses by making our city safer, improving our schools, and cleaning up/beautifying Dallas. We need to force new developments to provide generous sidewalks and use quality materials that will last. We need to protect our few natural assets like Timbercreek and the Trinity River.

Fourth: Ah, the tranquility of Dallas parks. Did I mention that the six-page list of addresses of leased property includes the Trinity River Park as well as Grauwyler Park and Bachman Lake Park? Oh, and Love Field, too. Makes sense, right? Airplanes, gas wells, parks, gas wells. Sure!

At the end of the day, I proposed that we postpone the issue 90 days while we hold neighborhood meetings and gather public input. We need to discuss this with Dallas residents. We need to talk about safety concerns, environmental impact, risk of water contamination, the future costs of possible environmental remediation.

Unfortunately, everyone except Councilmember Rasansky and I voted against getting public input before doing the leases. Those against the motion argued that each drilling site would require a public hearing and council approval, and that’s when residents would have their say. But that misses two key points: One, residents might like to have been consulted not just on individual gas wells, but on the overarching issue of whether they want gas drilling on public land in Dallas. Two, the council will NOT have the “absolute right” to refuse every drilling request. The drilling companies aren’t giving the city $34M to get absolutely nothing in return. We can’t turn down every single permit and not expect a lawsuit. And we can’t refuse a permit just because residents don’t like the idea of drilling near their homes. So we’ll be forced to do some drilling, somewhere.