Bill Spelman

City Council member Kathie Tovo speaks at Thursday’s Council meeting. The Council voted 6-1 in favor of “The Deep Clean” approach. Mayor Lee Leffingwell voted against the approach.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

In looking at the land development code rewrite Thursday, the Austin City Council voted 6-1 to approve Approach 2, known as “The Deep Clean,” which reformats the code with a medium amount of rewriting. Mayor Lee Leffingwell voted against it and said he supported the more extensive option of Approach 3, “The Complete Makeover.”  

The initiative, known as CodeNEXT, had three options to approach revising Austin’s land development code. Opticos, the city planning consultant hired by Austin to aid in the code rewrite, recommended “The Deep Clean” because it would take less time to execute than “The Complete Makeover” but would still hit many goals the city had in rewriting city code.

Council member Bill Spelman said he was concerned about the symbolism each option held after so much discussion.

“It seems to me the issue has been clouded to some extent,” Spelman said. “The way the issue has been framed — to take Approach 1, Approach 2, Approach 3 — very early became symbolic and political. We lost sight of the fact that we were talking about a scope of work for a particular contract, and it was not necessarily the same as, ‘Will this work better?’”

Spelman moved to adopt the second approach with a few amendments. He proposed to allow consultants to be more far-reaching when they decide how to rewrite the code.

“Coming up with new material is going to be more difficult for us than for Opticos,” Spelman said. 

Spelman added that the medium ground of “The Deep Clean” does not mean city staff cannot extensively rewrite where they see the need.

“They should not feel constrained to some moderate level of review just because it said so in ‘The Deep Clean,’” Spelman said. “If they believe there needs to be more extensive review in a section of the code, they should do so.”

Council member Kathie Tovo said she appreciated Spelman’s focus on giving more rewriting responsibilities to staff as consultants phase their contract out.

“It’s very useful to have a discussion about where the consultants begin to hand over the reins to the staff and empower them,” Tovo said. “That’s what I see is the main piece that you’re adding here.”

Council member Laura Morrison said she supported Spelman’s revised version of “The Deep Clean” but asked to add a few things to the motion.

“In terms of the rewrite being extensively rewritten, we’ve had a lot of input from landscape architects that we’re leaving the sustainability as a focus on the wayside,” Morrison said. “I would like the rewrite to have a focus including green infrastructure and sustainable water management. I think with the extensive rewriting, you need to get some of these things in there.”

Leffingwell said while he understood Spelman’s amendments to “The Deep Clean,” it was not enough.

“I am persuaded by Spelman’s comments made yesterday at a public forum,” Leffingwell said. “He recounted a situation a number of years ago when there was an attempt to clean up the code, and, as they went through it, that people suggested to change this, modify that. And the end result is very little got done at the end of the day. And I think that’s what will happen with option 2. I still support that, so I’m going to vote no.”

Austin City Council voted to reduce the number of unrelated adults who can live together in a single-family dwelling, on Thursday afternoon. Councilman Bill Spelman believes that the stealth dorm ordinance will negatively affect lower-income individuals.

Photo Credit: Helen Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

Austin City Council gave final approval to a city code amendment reducing the number of unrelated adults who can live together in a single-family dwelling from six to four, in a 6-1 vote on Thursday.

Without additional public comment, the council heard both the second and third readings required to pass the amendment, which will go into effect for two years, beginning in 10 days, according to the Austin-American Statesman. The ordinance will affect greater central Austin in the areas from U.S. 183 to William Cannon Drive. The city code amendment contains a grandfather provision, so those who currently reside in a single-family house will not be affected by the amendment.

Councilman Bill Spelman, who is also a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said that although the code change is intended to disincentivize developers from building high-occupancy dwellings, the code change will affect students more than developers.

“[What] concerns me the most is that any restrictions we put on people being able to live together in single-family houses is going to put the biggest restrictions on students, not the people who are building the stealth dorms,” Spelman said.

According to Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, the council has not sufficiently addressed the concerns of neighborhood associations or University students.

“We have not really heard enough with the students involved,” Cole said. “I think we need to reach out to our university students not only at UT but throughout the city in our other colleges and universities more and get their input.”

Spelman, who voted against the measure, said the ordinance will negatively affect lower-income individuals, including those who have not come forward to give their input because they are undocumented immigrants.

“They just don’t have very much money and have decided to double and quadruple up to share the cost in single-family houses because it’s the only way that they can live,” Spelman said.

Councilman Chris Riley said he does not think the amendment fixes an underlying issue of affordability.

“It’s going to affect those who would like to live in high-occupancy [houses], and it’s going to continue to affect the neighborhoods in central Austin because we’re going to continue to see those development pressures manifested in some other way,” Riley said. 

Bill Spelman, city councilman and LBJ School of Public Affairs professor, provides input for the Project Connect: Central Corridor study during a meeting at Austin City hall. 

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

The project to create a public transportation system aimed at reducing traffic congestion has narrowed the modes of transportation being considered in Austin from 14 to two — bus rapid transit and urban rail — at a Project Connect advisory meeting Friday.

Project Connect, a collaboration between Capital Metro, Austin City Council and Lone Star Rail, aims to increase transportation connectivity within Austin and in Central Texas. The plan to reduce traffic congestion in and around central Austin, referred to as the Central Corridor, creates a high-capacity transit system with multiple modes of transportation. These transportation modes are meant to be faster with more frequent service and fewer stops.

According to Kyle Keahey, lead consultant for the project, urban rail has the potential to be used in different kinds of areas. 

“[Urban rail] is kind of like a streetcar and light rail mix,” Keahey said. “[It is] one vehicle that could be a streetcar in your inner city but when you get outside the city it operates more like a rapid transit.”

John-Michael Cortez, CapMetro community involvement manager, said the project’s goals include wait times of no longer than 10 to 15 minutes during peak periods. Also, Cortez said the targeted spacing between the stops will be half a mile to a mile, and average speed, including time spent at stops, will be approximately 20-30 miles per hour.

Bill Spelman, city council member and LBJ School of Public Affairs professor, said a major challenge is planning for both current and future ridership.

“We need a [transportation] system which makes sense in 2020 — maybe 2022 — when it actually opens,” Spelman said. “We also need a system that makes sense 50 years from now, and the best system for a 50-year time horizon is not necessarily the best system for right now.”

Spelman said an option he thinks will receive greater consideration from the project collaborators is an underground train that will extend to campus.

According to Spelman, the project is considering an option that would connect South and Central Austin using a train that would travel below Lady Bird Lake. Spelman said the train’s technology requires that the earliest the train could return to surface level is near Fourth Street. 

“UT would be particularly well-served if, at least, the downtown section of this train were underground,” Spelman said. 

Spelman said extending the length of the possible underground train route would avoid using an additional lane — which bus rapid transit requires — and minimize the chance of hitting pedestrians.

“I think it’s part of UT’s master plan to have more pedestrians on the east side of campus,” Spelman said. “It seems to me that what people are looking for is new capacity, and we can’t create new capacity on our roads.”

According to Keahey, after finalizing a plan with the city in May, the team will present a final plan to the council to vote on in June. If the plan is passed, a November bond election will determine funding sources for the project.

I am writing to respond to the editorial board’s endorsement of Bill Spelman for City Council. I don’t take issue with your support of my opponent. I do take issue with the failure to accurately describe my agenda and platform. The notion that I am “firmly opposed to any progressive change on council” demonstrates a failure to actually follow this election and listen to my positions at nearly two dozen forums and meetings.

I am the candidate who supports the 10-1 redistricting plan that would give UT a legitimate chance of actually electing a representative to city council. I am the candidate who supports moving elections to November to boost student turnout in particular. I am the candidate who has opposed corporate welfare for companies that do not require the public resources. Most importantly, I am the only candidate running for city council that has made education and workforce development a central theme of my campaign. I have specifically articulated a vision for a community-inspired education effort to expand opportunity and improve results. Spelman is on the wrong side of all these issues. Sound like progressive change to you?

Dominic “Dom” Chavez is a candidate for City Council.

Students should make sure to exercise their hefty political potential by voting in city elections, as early voting begins today. All of the incumbents — Mayor Lee Leffingwell and city council members Mike Martinez, Bill Spelman and Sheryl Cole — should be re-elected.

As mayor, Leffingwell has successfully guided Austin through three years of tremendous growth during a devastating global recession. In the past year, Austin’s unemployment rate has stayed below 6 percent, lower than both the state and national average.

Leffingwell supported many measures over the past three years that have benefited students. From supporting alternative transportation methods to defending an incentives deal that will bring high-tech behemoth Apple Inc. to the city, Leffingwell has proven himself as the right leader for a vibrant, dynamic Austin.

As a council member in place 2, Mike Martinez has shown dedication to non-traditional members of the Austin community. Earlier in the semester, Martinez was a strong voice in support of moving municipal elections from May to November, which would benefit students by allowing them more access to vote without the impediments of final exams and summer break. Moreover, as an enrolled student in a UT undergraduate program, Martinez has strong ties to the University community.

As a council member in place 5, Bill Spelman — a UT public affairs professor — has proven an impressive ability to distill complex city policy and is unquestionably the most qualified candidate in his race.

Although Spelman has shown questionable judgment in his opposition to moving municipal elections to November, he has been a defender of Austin’s women and poor. One of his main opponents, Dominic “Dom” Chavez — spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board — seems firmly opposed to any progressive change on the council. The other, Tina Cannon, does not have sufficient experience to take on the more intricate city issues.

As a council member in place 6, Sheryl Cole has been a “watchdog for city finances,” as described by the Austin American-Statesman. Though sometimes her commitment to being a “watchdog” can be counterproductive, her support of the Waller Creek’s redevelopment will further Austin’s reputation as an eco-friendly, active city. She has also shown strong leadership on the Austin Energy issue, which would affect the electric rates of UT students who rent apartments.

Voter turnout for municipal elections is consistently in the single digits citywide, and for UT students that figure is probably even lower. Actions on the city council affect all students, and the voice of UT students is often lost in the crowd during policy debates because of low turnout. When walking to class this week, students should reverse that trend by exercising their political right to vote and making the UT community a formidable local force.

The city will gain either a new medical school or an Urban Rail initiative depending on how Austinites vote on two competing proposals.

City Council member Bill Spelman said he believed the medical school proposal is largely ready when compared to the many unanswered questions on the Urban Rail initiative.

The Urban Rail initiative will connect the Metro Rail route and the planned Lone Star Rail District and give people a broader range of travel options in the city.

“It’s my impression the medical school proposal is largely ready,” Spelman said. “There are a bunch of unanswered questions with Urban Rail, and it’s going to take us some time to answer.”

However, Spelman said there are still uncertainties about this initiative, which need to be addressed before they can put the proposal before voters. While a vote on public funding is happening on Nov. 6, Spelman said the Urban Rail initiative likely will not be ready for voters in 2013.

“I think Austin voters are likely to support both projects if we bring a vote before them and the projects are ready to go,” Spelman said. “I think the real question is ‘what is ready to go?’ I think it’s a good chance we are not going to have answers anybody is happy with for the next few months.”

Spelman said the City Council needed to find out how to pay for the Urban Rail initiative, exactly how much it is going to cost and whether or not the city receives expected federal funding.

“We also don’t know who is going to operate it,” Spelman said. “We don’t know how much it is going to cost to operate it. And these are pretty big questions and until we get good answers to those questions it seems improper to put it before the voters.”

Spelman is part of the Transit Working Group, a group that provides information about the project to the public and coordinates efforts between the parties involved.

“A lot of what we’ve been doing up to this point is clearing the decks,” Spelman said. “We are making sure that not just the council has seen most of these presentations.”

Spelman said the Transit Working Group is also composed of people from other jurisdictions and people from the private sector.

“A whole bunch of people are represented here who really need to buy into the idea and a lot of them are hearing it for the first time,” Spelman said.

Spelman said they were expecting to hear back from a consultant in April who will provide information about planning and expenses.

“Depending on what those answers are, we all may jump for joy and say ‘this is it, we got it’,” Spelman said. “But I suspect that we probably know we will have to talk about it a little more.”

Biomedical engineering senior Stephen Nabinger said a medical school would have a more positive impact on the area than the Urban Rail initiative.

“Our public transportation is pretty well developed,” Nabinger said. “I think a medical school would spark growth.”

Biology freshman Hannah Nguyen said she would like the opportunity of staying in Austin and studying at a new medical school.

“I think I would prefer staying in Austin,” Nguyen said. “I really like the environment here.”

Spelman said when they get all the information they need, he does not think it will take long to get everyone on board.

“I think it’s possible that all those folks who are involved in the transit working group will come to the consensus pretty quickly that this is a good idea,” Spelman said. “There is also a very good chance that they are going to talk about it some more and I wouldn’t want to second guess what is going to happen.”

Printed on Monday, February 6, 2012 as: Austin will choose between rail, school

While many UT students geared up for a trip to Dallas on Friday, Austin’s City Council made a controversial and highly questionable decision regarding a seemingly innocuous topic: election dates. Instead of moving the 2012 municipal elections to November, the council voted 4-3 to keep them in May. The highly symbolic move significantly limits the principle of democracy in Austin while simultaneously creating a de facto limitation on the student vote.

A new state law allows for cities to move their municipal elections from May to November. The arguments in favor of such a move are numerous and incontrovertible. In the last city council election, an abysmal 7.4 percent of registered Austin residents voted, according to city data. In stark contrast, November elections in Travis County have consistently seen voter turnout above 30 percent. It would make sense that elected officials would be in support of an opportunity to engage more citizens in voting during municipal elections. However, four of our council members apparently disagree.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and council members Bill Spelman, Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison have cited concern over violating Austin’s charter as the reason for their opposition. Cole said that a vote “against the charter provision” would go against her mandate as an elected municipal official in Austin, according to the Austin American-Statesman. However, this reasoning is blatantly illogical. SB 100, the state resolution that legitimizes the move, specifically declares that the state law “supersedes a city charter provision that requires a different general election date.”

So why are these four council members still opposed when their stated rationale is patently illegitimate? To be fair, they have expressed a desire for formal voter approval, but the issue is much more complicated than it seems. According to the Statesman, Spelman argued recently that “we’re not doing [voters] any favors” by moving the election to November, implying that the electorate doesn’t endorse the switch. In actuality, a poll by Littlefield Research proved that 75 percent of traditional Austin municipal voters support the November election. How can a measure that involves more citizens in the decision-making process and is overwhelmingly supported by those same citizens do a disservice to the population? As is the case in most matters concerning elections, it seems the culprit is political ambition.

The feigned concern about the charter seems to be merely a symptom of self-interest on the part of some council members. Austin’s so-called political “elites” have traditionally wielded considerable power in May elections. It turns out that support from these Democratic clubs and organizations is “key to the prospects of Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman,” who are considering running against current Mayor Lee Leffingwell next year, according to the Statesman.

Their refusal to move the election to November can be seen as a political move calculated to undermine Leffingwell. It’s a travesty of democracy when dissatisfaction with a mayor, whether justified or not, supplants the desire to enhance the level of public involvement in elections.

For students, the issue is of particular concern. Currently, the May elections fall during finals week. College students, usually sleep-deprived and singularly-focused during their exams, do not have the opportunity to participate in elections as they might if the election were at another time. Likewise, any possible run-off elections take place during June, a time when most students go back home or are away on vacation. Moving the election to November would substantially increase the number of students able to vote.

Moreover, keeping the election in May is not just damaging to democracy and voter involvement generally; it is also economically negligent. Refusing to move the election to November will cost the city around $1 million in new voting equipment, said Travis County clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, according to Community Impact Newspaper. Just a few months ago, massive cuts were made to many city programs because of a lack of funding. Paying extra money to have fewer people vote is an idea that has rightfully been described by Leffingwell as “fiscally irresponsible.”

The hard facts in favor of the November election heavily outweigh the arguments made by proponents of the status quo. Keeping municipal elections in May during 2012 will preserve low levels of voter turnout and cost the city money. Councilwoman Laura Morrison wrote in a Statesman column last week, “There is no compelling or pragmatic reason” to shift the election date. If saving money and involving more people in voting are not compelling enough reasons, what are? As long as our city council members are willing to perpetuate low voter turnout, students have every reason to be worried.

Katsounas is a business and government sophomore.

City council members debated potential cuts to the Austin Police Department on Monday during the first reading and review of the 2012 city budget.

Council members discussed and proposed amendments to individual line items on the budget throughout the day, and a second reading will take place Tuesday at City Hall. The original budget lifted $3 million from the police force by delaying cadet class schedules and reducing overtime for sworn personnel. Council members voted to conduct a study of police force utilization after much debate about additional cutbacks to APD proposed by council member Bill Spelman. While the original budget made room to hire 47 new police force members, Spelman proposed the number be decreased to 31.

“Essentially [the study] is going to look at what are our community’s goals in terms of public safety, how we are currently using our officers to meet those goals and what changes we should take to more effectively use the resources we have,” said Barksdale English, policy aide for Spelman.

The city currently maintains a ratio of two police officers per 1,000 Austin residents. English said the results of the study could establish the current ratio as sufficient or indicate a need for more or less police force members. City officials do not yet have a time line for when the study will take place, he said.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo debated the idea of cutting police officers during the budget reading, stating a decrease in officers would produce a negative outcome.

Austin Police Association president Wayne Vincent agreed.

Vincent said he feels APD currently operates at minimum capacity, and he believes making further reductions based on a “theoretical study” would be a great mistake.

“The more visible the police are, the less crime there is,” Vincent said. “It’s been proven time and again.”

Vincent said possible cuts to APD could also place strain on the UT Police Department.

UT Police Chief Robert Dahlstrom said both police departments work together as necessary, but cuts to APD police numbers may not directly affect the UT campus and surrounding areas.

“If they were cutting back on those officers assigned to this area then it could affect us,” Dahlstrom said. “It will certainly affect the city as a whole though. When you cut back on officers, some of that crime will have to be prioritized.”

Dahlstrom said lower crime activities, such as graffiti or minor thefts, may not be followed up on if police officers are taking care of higher priorities. Dahlstrom said he hopes, however, that more crime would not be encouraged because of the lack of attention to these areas or less visible police patrol.

Printed on September 13, 2011 as: City council discusses cuts to police forces, may see rise in crime

After a summer tussling over plastic bag bans and parking meter hours, the City Council seemed unwavering in its willingness to impose onerous restrictions on Austin businesses. Last week, however, the council began implementing a set of ordinances on payday lenders. These new rules are as commonsense as they are long overdue.

Councilman Bill Spelman, who proposed the restrictions, astutely recognized lenders’ predatory nature on working-class and financially inexperienced Austinites. Outraged that lenders could bilk clients’ earnings by charging them interest rates well above a staggering 620 percent, Spelman decided to take action. His restrictions would apply the city’s authority on zoning laws, registration and lending rules on the payday stores.

Last week, the council instructed the city manager to establish an ordinance limiting the amount of money payday lenders can loan out as well as where they can set up shop. According to KXAN, the ordinance would prohibit these lenders from operating “within 1,000 feet of each other, 200 feet of a residential area and 500 feet of a major highway intersection.”

The ordinance would also require all lenders to register with the city, restrict borrowers from continuously refinancing a loan, prohibit new lending offices in East Austin and the UT campus area and prohibit lenders from loaning out more than 20 percent of a borrower’s monthly income.

UT students greatly benefit from the absence of these lenders near our campus. A cash-strapped young college student, not fully understanding the risks of taking out such loans, could easily fall into a vicious cycle of delinquency and spiraling interest payments. Students who are often establishing credit and paying an apartment contract for the first time are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by these loan sharks. The UT community could do without another financial stressor.

Predictably, Austin’s payday lenders went up in arms over the regulations. Virtually nonexistent a decade ago, stores hawking names such as EZCorp, Advance America and Check ‘n Go have proliferated throughout the city. Offering cash at usurious interest rates (often in the 300- to 500-percent range), they entrap Austinites struggling to make ends meet by deliberately instituting a very narrow time period of repayment. Spelman noted that Austin has more payday lenders than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined.

The lenders argue that their stores shouldn’t be subject to zoning regulations since Austin banks aren’t subject to the same. Unlike banking institutions, payday lenders in Texas are virtually unregulated in how much interest they can charge borrowers. Would Bank of America or Chase ever charge 500 or 600 percent interest for a debit card overdraft? An apples-to-oranges comparison doesn’t absolve payday lenders.

Payday lenders often wax apocalyptic tones on how borrowers would remain bereft of credit without them. On the contrary, the absence of payday lenders would allow far more reputable and responsible lending groups to take their place. Nonprofits such as Catholic Charities of Central Texas and Caritas already do a fantastic job helping with housing assistance-related costs. They would only grow in influence and reach if there were fewer payday stores.

Community-sponsored credit unions and finance companies can also provide loans at interest rates far more reasonable to Austinites in need of cash. With the payday lenders fiercely regulated, these institutions could enjoy rapid growth and mutually benefit borrowers seeking a firmer financial footing. In sum, more responsible financial institutions would quickly replace payday shops.

Conservative politicians in Texas understand the argument that payday lending increases “financial choice” rings hollow. The Republican-controlled state Legislature itself passed restrictions this year requiring payday stores to register with the state and requires all payday lenders to explicitly inform prospective borrowers of the interest rates and fees.

Although these lenders spent more than $8 million on lobbyists to kill an effort to cap interest rates, Republican legislators have vowed to try again in the 2013 session. Their efforts represent a bipartisan agreement on this issue nationwide. The conservative stronghold of Georgia has banned payday lending outright and the famously liberal state of Vermont has one of the most stringent rate caps on payday lenders’ interest rates.

The Austin business community understands how payday lenders affect their bottom line. By needlessly trying to pay off the interest, those who borrow from payday lenders have less disposable income to invest in regional businesses. When they default, borrowers are more likely to also break leases and apartment contracts, less likely to be able to buy groceries or school supplies for their children and less likely to rise out of poverty.

The council’s regulations on payday lending will benefit Austin residents and small businesses alike. Austinites of all political stripes should relish these sensible curbs on unscrupulous predatory practices.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.