council member

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.”

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

With Austin voters rejecting Proposition 1 on Tuesday, the city will have to look at new options in order to continue its efforts to improve Austin’s transportation infrastructure.

Prop. 1 proposed allocating $600 million in bond money toward a 9.5-mile urban rail line running from East Riverside to ACC-Highland, with three of the proposed stops located along the east side of the UT campus. The plan also required the city to acquire $400 million to complete road improvements. The bond proposal was defeated Tuesday with 57.2 percent of voters against the plan. 

One of the plan’s biggest supporters, Mayor Lee Leffingwell has repeatedly emphasized that the city had no backup plan to improve transportation infrastructure.

John Julitz, Capital Metro and Project Connect spokesman, said the city and CapMetro will continue working to improve traffic congestion but, in light of the urban rail plan failing, will have to step back to look at the situation.

“The mayor has said it — there’s no plan B right now because we felt it was the best plan,” Julitz said. “We need to look at it from a system perspective for what the next step is going to be.” 

According to Julitz, voters against the proposition may have not been able to consider the bond from a broader perspective. In January, the City Council will begin operating under the 10-ONE system, in which each council member will represent one of 10 geographic districts instead of being elected at-large. Julitz said presenting a rail plan like Prop. 1 would need to address each council member’s specific district. 

“The route that we proposed was the first phase of urban rail,” Julitz said. “Subsequent phases would have included extensions to Lamar, to Guadalupe [and] to the airport. Giving the makeup of the new council, they’re going to be focused on ‘What impact is this going to have on my district?’ We need to present some planning as to ‘Here is the full system plan. Here’s the cost. Here’s the phasing and how its going to help your neighborhood.’ Not just ‘Here’s the first line, and we’ll do some additional lines.’ If people were able to see the whole plan, it might provide a little more perspective.”

Mayoral candidate Steve Adler said moving quickly on another solution is crucial in containing Austin’s traffic congestion problem. While the thorough process for Prop. 1 was not an issue, he said, this time around, the City Council needs to step it up.

“Looking forward, we need to have a sense of urgency, so whatever process we go through moves more quickly than processes have moved in the past,” Adler said. “The problem with the plan that the voters had was they did not believe it would do enough to solve the traffic congestion and crisis for the price it had.”

Council member Kathie Tovo said she heard similar concerns from citizens, and the most frequent issues she heard fell into two categories.

“Certain people were supportive of high capacity transit but felt this route would not be as successful as other options,” Tovo said. “The other concern that I heard often was the cost — that right now, many people are facing rising taxes and feeling the burden of that and taking on another debt was more than they felt was appropriate right now.”

Despite advocating for an urban rail alignment on Guadalupe Street and Lamar Boulevard, Student Government endorsed Prop. 1 in October. Robert Svoboda, SG City Relations agency co-director, said while the plan was not perfect, it was a step in the right direction.

“What was presented was the best option at this moment in time,” Svoboda said. “The last time that it failed was in 2000, and the city of Austin had to wait for 14 more years for it to be voted on again. That gap in time is really costing the city in terms infrastructure.”

I’m disappointed to read the district 9 council endorsement in the journal of an institution dedicated to fostering critical thinking.

Riley’s policies enrich a privileged few while costing the rest of us — whether we live in a dorm, a nearby apartment building or house. Riley’s multi-million dollar developer giveaways contribute nothing to affordability. Rather, they feed the speculative land prices that property owners could never demand if they couldn’t count on the upzoning giveaways Riley’s famous for.

Increased density has not lowered the price of a single apartment or condominium. Meanwhile, Riley voted to rewrite the city code to reduce developers’ required contribution to the city’s affordable housing program.

And with each additional floor of luxury condos Riley grants on top of the zoning code’s limit, he adds an average of two more cars per unit onto our congested streets. More cars, more traffic, more danger to bicyclists. With friends like Riley, cyclists don’t need enemies. Tovo incorporated substantive bicycle and pedestrian thruways, facilities, and Lady Bird Lake connectivity when negotiating the South Central Waterfront subdistrict’s Hyatt-Fairfield development — plus a mechanism to make developers pay for affordable housing in the district.

The Texan editors compare Riley and Tovo for accessibility. I wonder if the editors ever tried to make an appointment for an office visit with either council member. I’m quite sure they’d find both equally accessible.

Regarding the two candidates’ positions on transportation networks, the difference is one of customer rights and protections. Tovo seeks driver insurance to protect you as a passenger; Riley is fine with you simply taking your chances with the driver and vehicle that picks you up. While Tovo seeks to limit the gouging prices you get charged during peak events and areas, Riley’s okay if you get charged ten times the standard fare and find out later.

The editors tout Riley’s work with the Interfraternity Council and Student Government to revise the city’s sound ordinance. But they didn’t mention Tovo’s work with the City Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances committee to review and revise the City’s noise ordinance. That review led to the formation of the City’s Music Department and Director, and new noise ordinance enforcement mechanisms city-wide.

The editors call Tovo’s vision for a future Austin “infeasible” and “cozy.”  Actually, their feasibility is proven — when Riley and his council cohorts don’t undermine them. Upholding neighborhood plans’ provisions for directed growth and mixed use on commercial corridors is likely the only way to sustain Austin’s life qualities, while Riley’s giddy rubber stamp “any growth, anywhere” approach is analogous to celebrating a cancer.

Finally, to dismiss a position that includes preserving Austin’s history is ironic when you consider the number of historic buildings on the UT campus — a community I would hardly classify as a “museum district with no growth.”

District 9 is the most diverse and dense district in the new 10-ONE configuration. Tovo has committed in her campaign to respect the differences and diversity of the district’s areas and residents. With an architect as her husband, and two daughters who may also want to attend UT — and stay in Austin, she has a vested interest in our continued growth. Responsible is not suppressive. Conversely, a candidate who represents and is funded by the moneyed interests that have dominated City Hall for decades can only continue to thrive by pitting the district’s unique interest groups against one another.

— Cory Walton, Austin resident, in response to our Monday endorsement of Chris Riley for District 9 council member over Kathie Tovo.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

Editor's note: Early voting for District 9, along with all the other municipal races, begins Monday. Students can vote on campus at the Flawn Academic Center.

District 9, which encompasses UT’s main campus as well as West Campus, Hyde Park, downtown Austin and South Congress, is one of ten districts under Austin’s new single-member council system, which will replace the council’s previous system of seven at-large members. Students make up a significant portion of the district, so their representative should make a point to address students’ issues and views.

Council member Chris Riley is more engaged with students when compared to councilwoman Kathie Tovo — his main opponent — and Erin McGann, who has never been a council member. Riley’s work with students throughout the council’s process of legalizing transportation network companies, such as Uber and Lyft, demonstrates that he actually cares what students have to say, and he understands that students’ transportation needs differ from other Austinites'. Given how abysmally low the student voter turnout is, Riley’s motivation couldn’t have been solely to secure students’ votes.

Riley is also working with both the Interfraternity Council and Student Government to revise the city’s sound ordinance. With a promise by the city to increase enforcement of sound restrictions, as well as a new process the city put in place that requires a group to apply for permits at least 21 days before an event and submit a specific site plan, West Campus parties and events such as Round-Up could decrease dramatically. Granted, fewer fraternity parties wouldn’t exactly be the end of the world, but Riley’s attempts to mitigate this conflict shows that his priorities are to establish a consensus between West Campus students and nearby residents.

Tovo’s campus involvement, on the other hand, is less concrete. Simply being an alum of the University as well as a former instructor doesn’t say anything about how she’ll represent students, and although she said she is involved with campus programs including The Project and the UT Opportunity Forum, her presence on campus hasn’t had an impact on students like Riley’s has. She hasn’t done much recently to concretely address student specific student issues, such as promoting economic growth or working to increase students’ access to the council, so we see no reason why that would change if she is elected. She may be a good candidate for a different district, but not for ours.

The District 9 council member must foster strong communication with students. Riley is the only council member who currently holds weekly office hours, and he said he plans to hold office hours near campus if he is elected. This illustrates that he values the student population of District 9, as opposed to Tovo, who doesn’t mention students anywhere on her website, and barely mentioned them in an Oct. 7 interview with the editorial board even after we asked her specifically about the student population. When compared to Tovo’s, Riley’s website is further proof of his initiative to communicate with the student population. His website is far more informative and accessible than Tovo’s, and while that in itself definitely doesn’t merit our endorsement, it further demonstrates his ability to adequately communicate with the young student population online, which is one of the most important communication platforms for reaching young adults.

Aside from Tovo’s lack of strong connections with students, she also has infeasible ideas for Austin’s future. Her preservationist views of Austin are nice and cozy but woefully unrealistic. Riley embraces Austin’s rapid growth, while Tovo wants to suppress it. Her focus on preserving Austin’s history is great for a city that wants to be a museum district with no economic growth, but impractical for pretty much any other purpose. Not every student who graduates will want to move to a different city to find a job, so we need councilmembers who will accommodate and facilitate responsible growth in Austin’s population rather than push against something that’s inevitable. Riley is the person to do this. His forward-thinking visions and plans for Austin combined with his accessibility to students show that he is the best candidate to represent District 9.

Kathie Tovo, District 9 seat candidate, discusses her expectations and plans of running for re-election for the City Council at Café Medici on Friday afternoon.

Photo Credit: Cristina Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

Kathie Tovo, Austin City Council member and District 9 seat candidate, sat down with The Daily Texan to discuss her plans should she be re-elected. This year’s city election is the first under the council’s 10-ONE structure, in which each council member will represent one of 10 geographic districts in the city. District 9 covers most of the UT campus, West Campus, North Campus, Hyde Park, downtown Austin and South Congress. This interview is the last in a series of three with the District 9 candidates.

The Daily Texan: You voted for the temporary ordinance legalizing transportation networking companies at the City Council meeting on Thursday, but you raised several concerns before your decision. Why were you so hesitant?

Kathie Tovo: That ordinance was rushed. It was going through a stakeholder process and the sponsor, Chris Riley, decided to bypass the process. Temporary or not, any time we’re enacting legislation, we have an obligation to make sure it protects the health and safety of Austin. With regard to this one, it was important to me to make sure the rights of the consumers are protected. One of the changes I really hope to achieve in the ordinance was to make sure we had some sort of caps on surge pricing. I believe we should have TNCs, but it was important to me to put reasonable limits on surge pricing. In the end, it’s the riders that will pay the high prices for that.

DT: If the ordinance was rushed, was voting to legalize TNCs the right decision?

KT: Usually we don’t adopt a temporary ordinance while the stakeholder process is still going on, but it allows the TNCs to operate here legally and in a way to protect the public’s interest. I think we were able to spend the time on the ordinance that we needed to. I looked at the recommendations that stakeholders and staff made and made sure we incorporated those.

DT: Urban rail is another hot topic in transportation with the city’s Proposition 1 on the ballot. Why do you support the plan?

KT: Transportation issues are not getting better, and we need to attack it from different angles. High-capacity transit offers potential for us as a city. Especially for University students, I think it could be really positive because it runs so close to campus. And I believe it’ll be a real asset for games, events and other things that draw a lot of traffic. 

DT: What do you think about the changes the new 10-ONE council structure will bring?

KT: It’s been interesting being on the campaign trail. Some of [the candidates] I’ve worked with on boards and commissions, and some have a lot of city experience and will be able to take office seamlessly. Others will have a learning curve, but it’s a very smart and engaged group. It’ll take us a little time to figure out how to work in the new council.

DT: You just went to a women-in-City Council luncheon. Has putting more women in city government been a part of your focus this race?

KT: That’s not been an intentional focus. I’m the 16th woman to serve on City Council in the history of its existence. We need to encourage more young women to consider public service. Whenever I have an opportunity, I try to go to schools and speak. That’s always a message I try to get to young women. You have so many opportunities to be in public service, and we need the council to look like Austin in terms of diversity.

DT: Are there any issues that you haven’t been able to talk about as much on the campaign trail?

KT: There’s a central committee that is focused on women’s health, particularly with regard to the [Dell Medical School], and we asked our women’s commission to make sure we are connecting with that committee, and women are able to get the services we need. One of the things I’m working on with the women’s commission is to make sure we are keeping tabs on women’s health. With the advent of the medical school, I think people are worried about Seton [Healthcare Family]’s role with the school. There is concern about the future of women’s health. And we need to make sure we can still provide adequate women’s health care.

DT: Does the historically low student voter rate in city elections worry you?

KT: I am optimistic. I see a lot of enthusiasm about this election, and so I believe the numbers this time can be a lot higher. I’m hopeful. I’ve had a lot of volunteers in the student area, and I’ve been on campus myself talking with voters, and people seem engaged, and they express they intend to vote. We see that there are student groups who are forming more formal groups with city, like the [Student Government] City Relations agency. There are more formal ways to be interactive with the city. I think that would help me to know who to reach out for issues, and I think it will encourage students to be more involved. I like to think my office has always been open to students.

DT: What would you do without a role on the Council?

KT: I ran for Council because I was interested in the issues. I’m interested in making sure as our city grows, it stays a city that is livable. Before I ran, I was a University educator, and I loved the research and working with students. I would go back to teaching. I do miss one-on-one student interactions.Some answers in this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Austin City Council member Chris Riley talks about the transportation networking companies ordinance Thursday night.

Photo Credit: Graeme Hamilton | Daily Texan Staff

The Austin City Council continued to discuss an interim ordinance allowing transportation network companies to legally operate in Austin and passed a resolution to revise the city’s sound ordinance at a meeting Thursday. 

The TNC ordinance passed 6-1 on its second reading, and the Council will revisit the ordinance for the final time at its next meeting. 

Council member Chris Riley, who sponsored the resolution, proposed passing the TNC ordinance immediately, on an emergency basis. Riley said the ordinance addresses a number of issues regarding ride-sharing services.

“With respect to the issue about accessible service, and I thought that was the biggest issue we needed to address in real detail,” Riley said. “There is new language that clarifies that the goal is to have successful rides with wait time equivalent to other TNC times.”

Council member Laura Morrison, who gave the only “no” vote on the ordinance, said the Council ought to look at the plan more closely.

“I don’t think it’s an emergency and would much prefer to see the whole issue go forward,” Morrison said. “If we are going to pass this, I do want a few things clarified and make sure we have the language right.”

Morrison expressed concern about language issues in the ordinance, including the requirement that TNCs provide outreach to underserved communities.

“I do think handing it over to the TNCs to do their best is not adequate,” Morrison said. “I think there should be some requirement in the law that allows us to evaluate it and put new requirements in their agreements if they’re not doing it adequately.”

While Riley said a task force would continue to work on a more long-term solution beyond the temporary ordinance, Morrison said she thought addressing all aspects of the ordinance, temporary or not, was necessary.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell said legalizing ride-sharing transportation is the next necessary step in Austin transportation.

“I realize that something needs to be done about our transportation system,” Leffingwell said. “I want to make sure we provide a level playing field for all kinds of transportation agencies, including cab companies. It’s silly to put a restriction on the number of cabs in service. The best approach is to deregulate — not totally, but still have requirements for insurance and vetting drivers.”

Council member Kathie Tovo expressed concern with surge pricing and proposed capping the level where pricing could rise. After a
representative from the Lyft ride-sharing service explained surge pricing is explicitly posted on the app during prime time, Council member Bill Spelman said he did not agree with the practice.

Chris Johnson, a senior policy associate with ride-sharing app Uber, said Uber is working to ensure that everyone has access to their agency.

“We do have a staff here, and we’re learning the nuances of the city,” Johnson said. “We are looking to continue to build relationships with the community.”

The council also passed a resolution to look at the city’s existing sound ordinance. After Austin police and fire department officers informed students the current city sound ordinance would be enforced more strictly, students became concerned that the rules would hinder West Campus events and parties. Leah Bojo, policy aide for Riley, said the procedures to obtain a permit would be almost impossible for students.

“The cops have said you’re not going to be able to get these permits,” Bojo said. “It’s reasonable to think that students want to have parties, and they need to be safe and respect the quality of life of other residents.”

Under the resolution, City Manager Marc Ott will present city code amendments defining a “private party” to the Council on Nov. 20.

Photo courtesy of Mike Martinez for Mayor

Editor’s Note: In the run-up to the November election for mayor, the Texan will be running Q-and-A’s with the candidates. Voting is open only to those registered to vote in Austin and registration continues through Oct. 6. Early voting starts Oct. 20 and ends Oct. 31. Election Day is Nov. 4.

Daily Texan: So what made you decide to run for mayor?

Mike Martinez: I’ve served this community for 22 years. I started out as an Austin firefighter, I spent 13 years in the fire department, led the Austin Firefighters Association as its president in the last three years of my career, and then some community folks came to me and said we think you should run for city council. It was an open seat, at the time I told them I thought they were crazy, I would never quit being a firefighter, it’s one of the greatest professions in the world and I loved what I did. But I thought about it, and two weeks later I decided to run for city council and I daresay it’s been the best decision that I’ve ever made in terms of my professional career. You know, I think that experience matters, I think that my service as a firefighter and as a council member speak to the knowledge that I have of how government works, how it can benefit those who need it the most. 

DT: So if elected mayor, what specifically would you do for UT students?

MM: I think there are quite honestly two things that affect you all the most: transportation, public transportation and affordability. Can you rent an apartment and live here and go to school and study without having to work 40-60 hours a week if you don’t want to. Transportation: I’ve chaired Capital Metro. In 2010 I took over as chairman. The agency was on the brink of being dissolved by the state legislature. We were given 19 state-law mandated marching orders to implement by 2016. We were also told, at that time our reserves had gone down to about $7 million, we were also told, bring your reserves up to $36 million by 2016. I took over as chairman, and by 2013 we implemented every recommendation, and they weren’t easy. It wasn’t ‘paint your busses blue.’ It was serious structural changes. And at the end of this year we will have $102 million in financial reserves so that we now can take this next step of asking you all, whether or not you would consider urban rail. I promise you that urban rail, we would not even be able to have a discussion about urban rail had we not turned the agency around and shored up its finances. We’ve done that, and it’s a testament to the leadership style I brought to the board, but also to our president, CEO, and other board members, I don’t do this alone, but without public transit in Austin, can you imagine what the city would be like? As it relates to affordability: it’s not just about keeping things cheap. If you’ve watched the things we’ve championed in office, I’ve fought to ensure things like the minimum wage are increased, whenever and wherever I can impart that at a city rule, $11 an hour is the minimum. I’ve also begun a study this year that says, what is the new living wage for Austin? Because the living wage of $11 an hour started in 2003 when I was president of the Austin firefighters, so we’re basing today’s living wage on a 10 year old study. We need a new study that says, what is the new living wage for an Austinite today? Is it 13, 14, 15 dollars an hour? Because that’s going to impact affordability. That’s going to help those folks that are out there struggling to make ends meet have a little bit more of an opportunity. 

DT: You’re familiar with the contention about the chosen rail route. A lot of people want the Lamar, Guadalupe corridor. Why is the Central, Eastside corridor the right choice?

MM: There’s a couple of things, I want Lamar as well.  The Federal government just gave us $38 million for Bus Rapid Transit in the Lamar corridor. We have to take those precious dollars and use them wisely. If we were to started a conversation to plan now rail on a corridor where they just gave us $38 million, conventional wisdom was we would not qualify for federal matching grants because we misspent their $38 million by putting BRT and immediately going for rail along the same corridor. The other issue with the alignment has to do with a study on future growth and where that growth will occur. As you see the Airport boulevard corridor transition, as Highland mall transitions, we know exponentially that that is where future growth is going to be. Density already exists on the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor. Density is here on West Campus. We know that if we stuck a rail line on that corridor, it would be wildly successful. But we just put BRT there, and we had to pick an alignment that makes us the most competitive we can be for receiving that federal match.

DT: How certain are you that you’re going to get matching funds for the corridor that’s being proposed?

MM: We’re not. We’re certain based on what we know, what we’ve been told by FTA to make ourselves as competitive as possible. The assurances that we’re giving you all, the voters, the bond covenant, which is the legal binding agreement between the city and the citizens, the bond covenant will explicitly state if we do not receive a one to one match, we will not spend a penny of your taxpayer dollars on urban rail.

DT: Anything else you want UT students to know?

MM: Like many UT students, I came here to make a better life for myself and I fell in love with the city. Unlike many UT students I didn’t have the same opportunities. I wasn’t raised in a family that had the financial means to support me through college, so I started attending UT at the age of 40 because it’s a personal goal. I’ve lived two dreams of a lifetime: I got to be a firefighter; I got to be a Council Member.  I have a beautiful family, two boys. I don’t necessarily need to finish but I want to because it’s that important to me. It’s important to set an example for my boys. So I guess the commonalities between us, we’re trying to make better lives for ourselves. Get a better education. Love the city that we’re in and be a part of it. Most UT students fall in love with Austin and don’t leave. 

Photo Credit: Jenna VonHofe | Daily Texan Staff

Austin City Council voted unanimously Thursday to support Project Connect’s recommended plan for urban rail, a 9.5-mile track that would connect East Riverside to ACC Highland.

The vote comes on the heels of Capital Metro Board of Directors’ endorsement of the proposal in a meeting held Monday. With approval of the plan from both parties the city is one step closer to seeing rail on the ballot in November. The proposed route was approved by the Project Connect Central Corridor Advisory Group earlier in June.

Before the meeting, project lead Kyle Keahey called the vote a “significant milestone” for Project Connect, a collaborative transportation effort aimed at bringing high-capacity transit to the Austin region. In an interview with The Daily Texan earlier this week, Council Member Kathie Tovo said the city is need of a better transportation system.

“Transportation is clearly one of the big challenges we have before us as a city,” Tovo said. “We need to take some really big actions.”

Through the project, Cap Metro launched the city’s first bus rapid transit route in January. The project is also looking at developing a regional rail system for Central Texas.

The approved route, which Project Connect expects to take an estimated 10,000 cars off the road every weekday, will travel through the city along Trinity Street, San Jacinto Boulevard and Red River Street. Three of the proposed 16 stops are on campus, including one at the future site of the Dell Medical School and another by Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. A new bridge will be constructed across Lady Bird Lake to carry the rail north to south.

Running along San Jacinto through campus was a recommendation given to Project Connect by the University as part of the 2012 Campus Master Plan, which predicts future growth to the east.

“Putting the light rail at the absolute center of campus is the best thing for us,” Pat Clubb, vice president for University Operations, said.

During the project’s development, some citizens and students have advocated the rail route run on Guadalupe Street and Lamar Boulevard. Earlier this week, Tovo said potential rail expansions to these streets and the Mueller area would benefit students.

“Those particular routes would be very useful for students to get to and from campus,” Tovo said.

City officials have also began discussing future extensions to the route. Council Member Mike Martinez expressed particular interest in an extension to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

In August, the council is expected to determine specific language for a bond election in November.

The city will seek Federal Transportation Administration grants to cover half the project’s $1.38 billion price tag, with the remaining portion locally funded. The city set aside $600 million for urban rail, leaving $100 million unfunded.

City council will also look into the ongoing costs of operating and maintaining the rail, estimated at $22 million per year.

“We need to be sure we aren’t going to have additional costs that are going to be borne by the taxpayers,” Tovo said earlier this week. “We need to be very clear with the public.”

There was significant public protest at the meeting, with protesters declaring opposition to the project and its lack of public engagement.

Despite an objection by Tovo, the council allowed only 30 minutes for members of the public to speak against the proposal.

“You have just silenced vast numbers of people in Central Austin,” Scott Morris, Our Rail political action committee spokesperson, said.

The last election on urban rail took place in 2000 and lost by a narrow margin of less than one percent.

Correction: This story has been edited with the correct source of the $600 million funding for the project. It is coming from the city's strategic mobility plan and not the Central Texas Regional Mobility fund.

Austin City Council members may avoid prosecution for allegedly violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by entering into an agreement with the Travis County Attorney’s Office.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and a lawyer representing Council Member Mike Martinez entered into an agreement requiring council members to follow open meetings laws and take online classes educating them about the law, according to The Austin American-Statesman. In the article, attorney Joe Turner, who represents Martinez, said members who sign the agreement will not face charges or fines.

Under Section 551 of the Texas Government Code, failing to follow the Texas Open Meetings Act is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail.

In 2011 Travis County Attorney David Escamilla began an investigation after local activist Brian Rodgers issued a complaint to Escamilla’s office accusing council members of violating the Open Meetings Act by sharing information with one another about items the council would discuss in future meetings.

Under the act, governing bodies must notify the public of the time, location and content of meetings. The act requires a quorum, or majority of members, be present to conduct business during public meetings. The governing body may convene a closed session to discuss property transactions, contract negotiations, the deployment or implementation of security measures, gifts and donations, personnel matters and litigation.

Governmental bodies may only take final action on a matter discussed in a closed session during an open meeting.

Before Thursday’s city council meeting, Leffingwell said he would not offer further comment on the case and beyond his statement in the Austin American-Statesman.

“I’m happy that this process has finally concluded and determined that there were no violations,” Leffingwell told the Statesman Wednesday. “As always, we will continue to uphold the highest standards of transparency at City Hall.”

Former Council Member Randi Shade, who held office at the time of the accusations, said in a statement Wednesday that she accepted the deal over the summer.

“I never knowingly conspired to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings Act, and over this past summer I entered into an agreement for deferred prosecution in an effort to put the investigation behind me,” Shade said.

Shade lost re-election to current Council Member Kathie Tovo in 2011. In the statement, Shade said council members met with one another outside public meetings long before her term began in 2008.

The Daily Texan reported in 2011 that Rodgers accused Leffingwell of meeting with two council members at a time in his office for an hour before each city council meeting. Meeting with only two members would prevent the presence of a quorum and a violation of the act.

Wanda Cash, associate director of the School of Journalism, said she found it interesting that the agreement includes online courses on the act. Officials who are members of a governmental body subject to the act are required to complete Open Meetings Act training 90 days after assuming the responsibilities of their office, according to Section 551 of the Texas Government Code.

“Apparently they weren’t paying attention the first time,” Cash said.

City spokesperson Roxanne Evans said the city has spent $343,602.73 hiring law firms to advise city officials on the investigation and on open meeting topics since the investigation began.

Escamilla declined comment Thursday, because the investigation is still ongoing.

Printed on Friday, October 19, 2012 as: Council investigated amid alleged violation

Austin tourists may have safer housing options when they come to town for popular events if Austin City Council approves new regulations on short-term rentals.

The council will vote Thursday on a proposed set of regulations for short-term rentals — properties that are rented out for less than 30 days at a time. Created by council member Chris Riley, the regulations would set a three percent cap on the number of non-owner occupied rentals allowed in a single zip code. There would be no cap on owner-occupied short-term rentals. In addition, all owners of such properties would be required to register with the city and pay the relevant hotel taxes, Riley’s executive assistant Matt Parkerson said.

Vacationers are the primary market for short-term rentals and can include people who are in town for entertainment, such as the Austin City Limits Music Festival and South By Southwest. Austin’s policies do not currently address short-term rentals, he said.

A preliminary vote on the proposed regulations was passed by the council in June with a vote of 5-2, the majority in favor.

“It’s kind of a gray area right now,” Parkerson said. “Our code doesn’t really say anything one way or the other.”

Since the preliminary vote, the topic has raised much local debate on both sides of the issue.

The grassroots organization Protect Austin Neighborhoods was created to oppose the regulation of non-owner-occupied short-term rentals. Many in the organization said the regulations make Austin housing less affordable because it might increase the number of houses classified as commercial short-term rental space, leaving less space available for long-term city residents, according to information on its website.

Council Member Kathie Tovo said she will be voting against the proposed regulations in Thursday’s meeting and would like to see an outright ban on short-term rentals in residential areas, or at least much stronger restrictions than what has been proposed.

“I don’t support STRs in residential areas at all,” she said. “I think they have a detrimental impact on the quality of life in our neighborhoods and on the supply of housing as well.”

Members of Protect Austin Neighborhoods rallied in front of the HomeAway corporate headquarters at West Fifth Street and North Lamar Boulevard July 21 to oppose the passage of the STR regulations. HomeAway, a corporation that advertises STRs on its website, came out in support of the proposed regulations.

The Austin Board of Realtors, on the other hand, has endorsed the passage of the regulations, and has created its own web-based campaign to promote the changes.

Emily Chenevert, an Austin Board of Realtors spokeswoman, said the proposed regulations seem like a positive solution to a complicated issue.

“We believe that that motion kind of strikes a balance between protecting the private property rights of investors and current homeowners who want to utilize their property as a short-term rental and also protects or respects the neighbor that lives next to them.”

Bob Easter, owner of two STRs and founder of the Austin Rental Alliance, an organization that has gotten around 180 short-term rentals to pay hotel-occupancy taxes, said he thinks the proposed regulations handle the issue of STRs fairly and will benefit Austin overall by reducing the number of run-down and illegally run STRs with stronger city regulations.

“I want fair regulations, I want people to pay their hotel taxes and I want the bad actors out,” he said.

The Protect Austin Neighborhood organization is planning another protest in front of City Hall Thursday morning at 11:30 a.m., according to information on its Facebook page.