That’s how the Austin American-Statesman sums up the situation at City Hall, where elected officials and municipal staffers are trying to draw up a budget in the midst of a COVID-19 surge and an economy wounded by business shutdowns. With public funds dwindling and the local unemployment rate growing, the city is under pressure to eliminate inessential spending and steer clear of any big tax hikes this August, when the budget will be finalized.
City Hall’s coffers would be in better shape if Austin officials obeyed our state and local land-use laws. Time and again, they have led taxpayers into expensive court battles over our land code, only to come out on the losing end. Unfortunately, those battles show no signs of stopping.
It happened in 2018, when Austinites were forced to fund the city’s unsuccessful fight to keep Proposition J off the ballot. It happened earlier this year, when local officials decided they would try to overturn the court order upholding our right to protest City Hall’s rezoning plan. (Austin City Council Members Alison Alter, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, and Kathie Tovo publicly condemned their colleagues for wasting public resources in the middle of a pandemic, but they were unable to stop the appeal.)
Now it looks like yet another land-use legal battle is beginning to heat up.
This one started when the state’s attorney general sued the City of Austin over the number of real-estate and land-development professionals sitting on our local Planning Commission. According to Austin’s city charter, no more than one-third of the commissioners are allowed to have ties to that industry, a measure designed to prevent conflicts of interest and biased decision-making. At the time, more than half of the commission’s members fell into that category. After complaints from a group of Austin residents, local legal authorities approached city leaders privately and asked them to fix the problem. They stubbornly refused, and as a result the attorney general’s office got involved.
In January of this year, the City of Austin quietly filed a motion to dismiss the attorney general’s case. It was quickly denied. As the case progresses, local taxpayers will be expected to pay for further costly discovery and possibly for a full trial.
If the city loses, every decision that our Planning Commission has made over the last few years could be voided, increasing uncertainty and opening the door to even more litigation.
All of this could have been prevented if City Hall had simply agreed to follow the law.
The Statesman closed its piece on the upcoming budget debate with an apt quote from Council Member Kitchen: “It’s going to be really important for the public to let us know what they think,” she said.
We wholeheartedly agree. Contact Mayor Steve Adler and your council member using the contact information listed below, and tell them to stop trying to skirt our local land-use laws! Tell them to stop wasting tax dollars on pointless legal battles and to start spending it on things that matter more, like the health and well-being of our community.
Together we can build an Austin for everyone!