One unreported element of the May 16 hearing on HOME 2 is that Council Members José Velasquez and Natasha Harper Madison were not present at the meeting. They joined remotely, but blocked their cameras except when discussing votes. So people in the Council Chamber and watching on the livestream could not see the two Council Members. Instead there were two gray boxes on the big screen behind the Council dais, with a Council Member’s name on each one.

One early speaker from Velasquez’s District asked for Velasquez to come on camera. Mayor Kirk Watson explained that Velasquez had recently suffered the death of a loved one. After that no one asked him to come on camera anymore. 

A speaker from Natasha Harper Madison’s District, however, asked in three different speeches that Harper Madison appear on camera. The speaker, Jenny Grayson, first made the request around three o’clock. “Councilwoman Harper-Madison, I respectfully request you to turn on your camera during my testimony, as I’m a D1 (District 1) resident. I’m asking Council to listen to the people who live here and call Austin home; not the developers who live far away and call Austin an investment.” 

Harper Madison did not come on screen and there was no response from the gray box with her name on it. Grayson then went on with her remarks. 

Grayson spoke again just after 7:30. She began by asking, “Natasha if you’re here, please come on camera.” Once again there was no response from the gray box with Harper Madison’s name on it. Grayson went on with her remarks.

Just before 9 PM Grayson spoke for a third time. This time she had six minutes to speak because another citizen had signed up and given her time to Grayson. Grayson began, “Jose, I’m sorry for your loss. Natasha, where are you? I’ll request for a third time if you’re here, please come on camera.” There was no response from the gray box with Harper Madison’s name on it.

Grayson had a slide show cued up and the mayor pointed out that the remote Council Members could not be seen on screen while slides were being shown. Whoever was operating the screen briefly removed the slideshow and cut back to the main screen where the only evidence of Harper Madison was the gray box with her name on it. Grayson then went through her slide show. Once done she again appealed to Harper Madison to come on the screen. She also appealed to Watson to require the Council Member to appear.

Watson replied, “I’m going to let the Council Member make her own decisions.”

Grayson said, “All right. I can wait until my time is up to see if she comes on camera. Maybe she didn’t hear me, so I’ll ask again. Natasha if you’re here, can you please come on camera and show your representation for D1?” 

Grayson then asked, “How much longer do I have (to speak)?” The answer was just short of two minutes. “Oh cool,” said Grayson who proceeded to just sit quietly at the table from which she presented her slide show.

Jenny Grayson waits patiently hoping that Natasha Harper Madison will emerge from her gray box

That only lasted a few seconds before Harper Madison’s disembodied voice burst forth from the gray box: 

“With all due respect, I’ve been here all day, and it’s very difficult for me to sit here and listen to people proclaim to care about black people. I’m here with an injury. If I could be on camera, if I could be in person, I would be. I can assure you I am present.” 

Note that Harper Madison went immediately to invoking race, saying “it’s very difficult for me to sit here and listen to people proclaim to care about black people.” The statement was vague as to whom it was aimed, but the exchange was with Grayson. Grayson, who is white, had barely mentioned race in her three presentations. Her slide shows focused on what she saw as the similarities between existing Transit Oriented Districts (TODs) and the proposed Equitable Transit Oriented Districts (ETODs). The only thing she specifically said regarding race was that in the Plaza Saltillo and Martin Luther King TODs (both in central East Austin), “There’s been a significant increase in white high income populations and an active decrease of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) presence.” This is an indisputable and well documented fact. Grayson made a similar point, using even fewer words, in an earlier presentation.

Grayson didn’t respond to Harper Madison’s allusion to race, but instead repeated her request that the Council Member show her face on camera. Harper Madison remained silent and did not appear.

Grayson them made a few additional points before her time expired. 

About an hour later, when the Council was taking their required vote to extend the meeting past 10 o’clock, Harper Madison made a brief appearance on the screen, as did Velasquez. Harper Madison offered, “I can appreciate there are some people who are frustrated by me not being on camera. I have a complex fracture. I’m supposed to be going to the emergency room.” Harper Madison did not elaborate further. The next day she participated remotely, and on camera, in the Council’s deliberations and votes on the HOME 2, ETODs and compatability votes. 

Harper Madison is clearly the Council leader in attending meetings remotely instead of in person. The Austin Independent asked the City for records on remote attendance, but has not heard back yet from the City Clerk. 

Specific to the May 16 meeting there is one issue not mentioned yet that could arise from Harper Madison and Velasquez attending remotely. That is whether a Council quorom was actually present during the entire meeting, as is required by state law. There were chunks of the afternoon where the Council did not have a quorom without counting the two Council Members whose only proof of presence was the gray boxes on the screen with their names on them. That, for instance, is the case in the screenshot at the top of this story, where only the Mayor and three Council Members are on the dais. Six are required for a quorum. We’ll leave the question of whether the potential lack of a quorum is a legal issue to lawyers. Sparse attendance on the dais, however, certainly seems to indicate a lack of interest by Council Members in what their constituents have to say about an issue that will forever change the City of Austin and the lives of the people who live here.   


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