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Lee Leffingwell

It’s hard to get beyond coal

The city of Austin is trying, but there are many obstacles along the way.

Fayette County coal plant at dusk

In Austin politics, it’s almost an article of faith that the city must aggressively curb its contribution to global climate change, regardless of what transpires across the rest of the country. That philosophy has led environmentalists to target the Fayette Power Project, a coal-burning plant 83 miles east of downtown Austin.

The plant’s fate is sure to be among the city’s most hotly debated political topics this year. A major rate increase for Austin Energy customers is coming regardless of what the utility does with Fayette, and Republican legislators already skeptical of Austin-style environmentalism have indicated they would not look kindly on additional increases.

But after failing to persuade Congress to enact coal restrictions in recent years, the Sierra Club has focused its lobbying efforts on local decision-makers — a change that includes targeting Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Leffingwell won environmental plaudits when he pledged to move Austin off coal during his re-election campaign kickoff in November. Other council members have also committed to the idea in the abstract. But their statements are carefully parsed, and they have avoided committing to a time frame, particularly the 2016 date sought by the Sierra Club.

Many details — most notably the cost to the average customer — will probably remain murky until Austin Energy finishes a comprehensive study next fall.

But ahead of the heated debate that is sure to come, another question has emerged: How environmentally ambitious should Austin be?

Should activists push Austin Energy to shut Fayette down? Should they push for the city to sell? Should the city stick with a plan already in place to begin weaning Austin off coal over the next decade?

All of those plans have advantages — and significant drawbacks.

That picture is of the Fayette Power Project, which you’ve seen if you’ve driven along Highway 71. Part of the problem is that the Lower Colorado River Authority, which jointly owns the FPP along with Austin Energy, plans to continue to use it even if Austin Energy pulls out, meaning that just getting Austin weaned off coal won’t actually reduce coal consumption. It’s cheap energy, so someone will buy it if Austin won’t, and Austin will need to figure out how to pay for energy sources that are more expensive, at least for the foreseeable future. There are legal issues as well, not to mention the possibility of legislative meddling. It’s a noble and worthwhile goal, one at which I hope they succeed, but the path forward is long and unclear.

Austin will keep May elections for now

As we know, the city of Austin holds its municipal elections in May. They have three year terms for City Council, so half of their elections are held in even-numbered years. As we also know, a bill that was passed by the Lege this spring will cause a conflict for cities like this as the primary election calendar will leave them insufficient time to prepare for their elections. Austin has contemplated moving its May 2012 election to November, but in the end and in a close vote on Council decided to stay put for the time being.

A narrow council majority said the city should stick with May until the voters decide otherwise, via a citywide referendum planned for November 2012. Council members on the losing end argued that a May election will cost the city more money while drawing fewer voters, and noted that the county’s top election official recommended a November date.

But council members also voted their own interests.

May elections are typically dominated by Democratic clubs, civically engaged environmental clubs and neighborhood associations in Central and West Austin, whose influence is magnified by chronically low turnout. Those groups were largely responsible for the election of council members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo. Those groups’ support is also key to the prospects of Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman, both of whom supported a May election and are considering running in it against Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Leffingwell’s supporters think a November election would strengthen his re-election prospects. A larger and more diverse electorate would dilute the influence of activists who have grown increasingly frustrated with Leffingwell, and his higher name recognition would help among voters who have traditionally shown little interest in city issues. Council Member Mike Martinez, a Leffingwell ally, voted for a November election, as did Council Member Chris Riley.

The Thursday debate centered largely on whether a larger turnout would be more important than the risk of a presidential election drowning out local issues.

The vote was 4-3 to keep the May election date. I get the argument for that, and I have no doubt that local races will be utterly drowned out by the Presidential and legislative cacaphony that next November will be. On the other hand, I have a hard time being sympathetic to the idea that lower turnout is a good thing. Katherine Haenschen argues forcefully for “new and casual voters [being] given lower barriers to participating in our city elections”; she expands on that further here. Personally, I wish there was no such thing as a “casual voter”, but if voting is a habit – and it is – then the goal should be to get more people into the habit of doing it. All things considered, I’d have picked the November option.

The good news is that this should not, or at least that it need not, be an ongoing concern.

The city is working on a proposal to overhaul Austin’s political structure by switching to a system of district representation on the City Council. Now, each council member runs citywide. That referendum could be accompanied by a proposal to move the city elections to November of odd-numbered years, and extend council terms from three to four years.

If the district plan goes to voters in May, its fate would be decided by the same electorate that has rejected the idea numerous times. Council members are in general agreement that it would stand a better chance of passing in November and should be put to voters then, regardless of when the City Council election happens.

More on the single member district plan is here; there’s a citizen group petitioning for an alternate plan as well. Going to November of odd-numbered years only strikes me as the best solution. Houston’s turnout is no great shakes most years, but it’s historically much better than Austin’s. That’s the direction I’d recommend they go.

Austin to propose ban on plastic bags

Good for them.

The City Council will vote Aug. 4 on a resolution from [Mayor Lee] Leffingwell and Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley that would direct staff members to propose a scope for the ban and a timetable for phasing it in. Staff members would have to present a plan to the council in November.

City staffers will work with retailers and other stakeholders to write that plan, the mayor said.

Details such as whether small retailers should be exempt, what penalties retailers could face for not complying and when the ban should take effect will be worked out over the next four months, he said.

“I’m sure many retailers have a lot of plastic bags on hand or (long-term) contracts with bag companies. We want to take those things into consideration,” Leffingwell said. “Our goal will be to develop a reasonable ordinance that doesn’t cause hardship. It would be a hardship to enact a ban immediately.”

Leffingwell said he thinks paper bags should still be an option at checkout counters because they’re included in Austin’s curbside collection program for recyclables and they don’t gum up recycling machinery as plastic bags do.

But he said retailers may want or need to charge a fee of a few cents per paper bag to compel customers to get in the habit of bringing canvas or reusable bags.

The mayor said he would prefer that compostable plastic bags not be allowed because they can be tough to distinguish from other plastic bags, which might make a ban difficult to enforce.

Leffingwell said he expects there will be exceptions to the ban, such as allowing grocery stores to put fish and meat products in plastic bags at checkout counters.

Only a handful of other U.S. cities have enacted bans on plastic bags, including Brownsville, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., which passed a ban last week.

Besides Brownsville, South Padre Island has banned plastic bags, while Fort Stockton has a ban that will take effect in September. The Lege had a couple of bills proposed that would have preempted these local ordinances, but neither got a vote in either chamber. Austin had tried to ban plastic bags in 2008 but settled instead for a voluntary program that aimed at reducing their usage by 50%; Leffingwell says that only a 20% reduction was achieved. I’ll be interested to see what they come up with. I hope it succeeds and becomes a model for other Texas cities to follow. More from Mayor Leffingwell is on BOR.

Austin presents a single-member Council map

The city of Austin has released the first maps of a proposed six-district City Council, which Mayor Lee Leffingwell would like to put on the ballot next year for public approval.

The City of Austin has for decades operated under a so-called gentleman’s agreement , an unspoken rule that has reserved one City Council seat for a Hispanic person and one for an African American.

A district system could scramble that.

Federal laws dictate that the city would have to draw districts that don’t weaken the voting power of black or Hispanic residents, said Sydney Falk , an attorney at Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta , a law firm that specializes in drawing political districts and that the city hired for legal advice on this subject.

But it is very difficult to draw an Austin district with a large percentage of black residents because Austin’s black population is small — 7.7 percent — and dispersed, Falk said. The city would have to create more than three dozen districts of roughly equal size to draw just one that has a majority of voting-age black residents, Falk said.

Falk began by drawing a district anchored in Northeast Austin that has 22 percent African American residents and a Southeast Austin district with 67 percent Hispanic residents. Those districts are the same in all four maps. The other districts are slightly different in each map, but each has a majority of white residents.

Under federal law, districts must have roughly equal populations, Falk said. Each of the six districts has 127,000 to 140,000 people.

Falk said he drew the lines trying to keep voting precincts intact and also trying to follow obvious geographic boundaries and maintain so-called neighborhood planning areas — areas for which the city has written detailed land-use plans.

Leffingwell said the four maps “are a great start” because they have roughly equal populations and are not gerrymandered.

There’s an image of the four proposed maps, and indeed they look pretty reasonably compact to me. Whether they’ll pass muster with the feds and fulfill their promise of actually electing minority members is another matter. Some of the people pushing for the change want there to be more districts to increase the odds of electing minority members. There’s also a dispute about whether to have the referendum in May or November next year, which is a by-product of the bill that was passed to change the election calendar to comply with federal law making it easier for overseas military personnel to cast absentee ballots. I don’t have any stake in the outcome of this process, but I am hoping that Austin can approve a plan that most people like. I’d like to see some more cities follow their lead on this. Austin Contrarian has, appropriately enough, a contrary view.

District representation in Austin

I have to admit, it hadn’t occurred to me that there were any large cities in Texas that didn’t have City Council districts, but Austin is such a place, at least for now.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell will soon propose sweeping changes to Austin’s elections and governing structure, including creating districts for City Council representation, an idea voters have rebuffed before.

The aim of the changes, Leffingwell said, is to compel more people to vote in council elections, which have a history of abysmal turnout.

Currently, the mayor and six council members represent the entire city of nearly 800,000 people. Leffingwell wants to replace that with a hybrid system, in which six council members would represent smaller districts and two council members and the mayor would represent the whole city.

The mayor also wants to increase the maximum amount people can donate to city campaigns (currently $350 per donor) and move city elections from May to November of odd -numbered years, which would involve increasing council members’ terms from three to four years.

Austin voters have rejected district plans six times since 1973 , most recently in 2002 .

“Even though it has failed before, I sense a different mood out there,” said Leffingwell, who will detail his plans in his State of the City speech Feb. 25 . He will also host a Feb. 28 public forum with former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and former Houston Mayor Bill White to talk about the district idea and other subjects.

Apparently, previous attempts at this failed because the plan was put to a vote before there was a map of the proposed districts, and because the size of Council would have been doubled. With Census data coming soon, the former should not be an obstacle, and the current proposal has an increase of only two seats. So maybe this time there’s hope.

One obstacle still remains, however:

Another past hurdle that’s likely to resurface this year is the drawing of a district that has a large concentration of African American residents and that would give black voters a fair chance to elect candidates they favor.

Since the 1970s, an unwritten rule has reserved one Austin council seat for a Hispanic person and one for an African American. Some say that so-called “gentleman’s agreement” is arcane.

“The idea of holding a seat for a particular race empowers the old Austin fathers,” said Nelson Linder , president of the Austin NAACP. “It’s time for a new model that’s more competitive and inclusive and that empowers everybody.”

Because blacks are dispersed across Austin and make up only about 8 percent of Austin’s population, the city would have to draw at least 14 districts with equal populations to form just one with a majority of black residents, city demographer Ryan Robinson said.

Council Member Sheryl Cole , the council’s only black member, said she would support putting a hybrid system to a vote but questions whether the Justice Department would approve a map that includes no district with an African American majority.

A six-district map would probably have one district in Southeast Austin and one in North-Central or Northeast Austin with a majority of Hispanic residents , and one district stretching from Central East to Northeast Austin that has more black than Hispanic or white residents but not a majority, Robinson said.

Houston had a similar tradition for the At Large #5 seat, but then Chris Bell filed for it and won in a 1997 special election, and Michael Berry did the same in 2003 after abandoning his Mayoral campaign. The problem with unwritten rules is that they’re unenforceable. As for the question of drawing a Council district that an African-American could win, I will simply note that Travis County, which has six legislative districts, has counted Dawnna Dukes among its delegation for more than a decade now. According to the Texas Redistricting webpage Dukes’ district (HD46) is 27.1% black by population, 26.1% by voting age population (VAP), while the numbers for Anglos are 27.9 and 32.6, and the numbers for Hispanics are 42.1 and 37.9. Surely a suitable district can be drawn within Austin.

Austin to ban texting while driving

After considering it for a long time, the city of Austin is set to ban texting while driving.

Council members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley and Mayor Lee Leffingwell are proposing to prohibit writing, sending or reading text messages, instant messages or e-mails or viewing the Internet on a cell phone or other portable electronic device while driving a vehicle or a bike.

I don’t really want to know how you can text while riding a bike, do I? I guess if you’re one of those people who can ride with no hands on the handlebars, it’s doable.

They also want to require a 3-foot distance between vehicles and other “vulnerable road users” on the roadside, including cyclists, pedestrians and people in wheelchairs. Either party — the driver or the other road user — could be ticketed for failing to keep that distance, Martinez said.

The Safe Passing bill lives, at least in Austin. Governor Perry can’t veto this one.

If council members vote in favor of the policy changes Thursday, city staffers would write ordinances that would come back to the council for a vote before they’re enacted, a process that could take at least two months, Martinez said.

This has been a work in process since at least November of 2008. You can’t say they’ve rushed this, that’s for sure.