By JACK CRAVER, Austin Monitor
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan believes City Council had a lot more to deal with in 2018 than it should have.
Council welcomed a new city manager, found new chiefs for the police and fire departments, engaged in an extended dispute with the police union over oversight and pay, and tried and failed to overhaul the city’s land development code.
“It was a crazy, crazy year,” he said during an interview in his City Hall office.
Some of those issues were resolved. Flannigan was delighted by how smoothly the budget process went; Council made minimal changes to the budget presented by City Manager Spencer Cronk and took less than a day to approve the budget, a feat that appeared impossible as recently as a year ago. Granted, Flannigan said, Council was probably lucky to have “more financial flexibility than we can rely on in the future.”
Similarly, Flannigan said that the tug-of-war between Council and the Austin Police Association “ended up in a really amazing place” with the union contract approved by Council last month. The tough negotiating position Council took produced a “fiscally sustainable” deal for taxpayers as well as increased oversight aimed at reducing police misconduct.
“I would argue that it’s one of the most forward-looking contracts in the nation,” Flannigan said.
Flannigan shrugged off the suggestion that the 11-month stalemate over the contract could have left police officers feeling mistreated or unappreciated.
“I feel like good negotiations are difficult,” he said. “If it was all glad-handing and smiles, we would have the contracts that we had in the past, with ever-increasing costs and little to no oversight.”
Last year did include some notable disappointments, most prominently CodeNEXT, the failed attempt to rewrite Austin’s land development code. Flannigan was one of the most vocal proponents of making major changes to the code, pushing to simplify it and allow for the construction of denser housing in the city’s core.
In addition to viewing increased housing supply as the necessary response to rising demand, Flannigan, along with several other Council members, describes increased density in the core as key to reducing sprawl and making Austin less dependent on cars.
However, CodeNEXT did not do much to achieve those goals, Flannigan said. The widespread perception that the proposed code would dramatically increase development entitlements, allowing for far greater density throughout the city, was not grounded in reality. The proposed zoning, he said, “didn’t change anything.”
Despite doing little to change the status quo, the zoning chapter of the proposed code was “overly complicated,” he said. In addition to confusing Council members and the public, the messy zoning was a distraction from the other parts of the land use code, which Flannigan maintains were more important to address. The zoning, he argues, is the easiest part to change in the future.
He liked some parts of the 1,600-page proposal (he says he read it all), including new drainage rules that he says would reduce flooding and help to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The unsatisfactory result, however, left him little choice but to support the effort to suspend the process. He hopes Council can get the job done in 2019. Cronk is expected to propose a process to develop a new code sometime early next year and Flannigan believes Council should have it drafted and approved within the year.
Flannigan is hesitant to draw conclusions from the election results about what Austinites think of land use. But he points to the failures of Propositions J and K as evidence that voters are thinking carefully about the issues. Prop J, launched by anti-CodeNEXT activists, would have required voter approval for any major rewrite of land use rules, while Prop K would have required the city to undergo an efficiency audit of all of its programs.
“We didn’t just take something that sounded good on the ballot and vote for it,” said Flannigan.
He suggests that Mayor Steve Adler’s overwhelming victory provides a mandate to do big things to address the greatest long-term issues facing the rapidly growing city.
“This is a community that is tired of planning again and planning again,” he said. “It’s time to stop doing that and get to work.”
After crafting a new land development code aimed at reducing sprawl and car use, the natural next step for the city is something big on transit, reasons Flannigan, who believes it’s imperative that Council work proactively with Capital Metro to craft a high-capacity transit system to put to the voters in the fall of 2020.
“I want to do land use in ’19 and transit in ’20,” he said.
Besides major, citywide plans, Flannigan is focused on maintaining infrastructure in his district, which the 2016 transportation bond (he supported it before he was on Council) has helped: “Nearly every major road in District 6 has a project funded or about to be funded.”
Finally, Flannigan, who has on multiple occasions noted that maps of the city shown in presentations by city staff don’t include a large portion of his district, believes that City Hall has become more sensitive to the distinct character of District 6, which is partially located in Williamson County and is almost entirely outside of the Austin Independent School District.
“We have definitely seen the debate and conversations shift in subtle but important ways,” he said. “We’re no longer saying the ‘county’ but ‘counties.’ (Staff has) acknowledged other taxing entities other than Travis County and AISD.”
In other words, “We’ve made a lot of progress.”
Austin Monitor, an online, nonpartisan, 501(c)3 nonprofit publication that covers local government and politics in and around Austin.