Well folks, my last five articles or so were lengthy deep dives. So this time around I’m going to keep it shorter, do some follow-ups and also report briefly on some items we have not yet covered. A logical starting point is to follow up on our last article about whether the City would provide notice to property owners affected by Council Member Leslie Pool’s proposal to allow three units per lot in all single family zoning categories and to reduce the minimum lot size — meaning at least six units could be built on most lots where now only one or two (depending on the zoning) are permitted.
That article centered around Mayor Kirk Watson and trying to determine exactly what he was seeking to do with item 55 on the September 21 Council agenda. Item 55 required notice to all affected homeowners, but utilized a mysterious and unprecedented joint meeting with the Planning Commission. Its overall thrust was a tad hazy. The article also explored whether the rest of the Council was likely to vote for notice.
As it turns out, Watson delivered the votes on notice with everyone but Council Member Alison Alter voting yes. Alter was not against notice, but said she abstained because not all the documents were available until the Tuesday before the meeting, not enough time she said for her or the public to adequately review them.
That vote led to an item on the October 5 Council agenda setting the joint Council-Planning Commission meeting for October 26 (no time yet specified) and a Council-only meeting on December 7. That item passed on consent (with Harper Madison on “medical leave”). So the joint Council-Planning Commission meeting is set for October 26 and Council is scheduled to consider and vote on the Pool proposals December 7.
The 41-day gap between the two meetings reflects Watson responding to citizen requests to provide adequate time for citizens to examine the proposals and provide input between the joint meeting and final Council consideration.
The City will now provide notice to property owners about these two meetings. The exact content of the the notice remains to be seen — such as how clearly the City describes what is being proposed. Also, the Council, at staff’s recommendation, is dividing up Pool’s proposal into two parts. The three units to a lot will be heard this year and the reduction of minimum lots sizes will follow early next year. Staff’s rationale for doing this is unclear, but one effect will be property owners will not be told the entire plan in the initial notice.
Nonetheless, the Council, at Watson’s initiative, voted to provide notice when immediately previous Councils stubbornly refused to do so. That led to their votes on Land Development Code changes being thrown out in court.
Homeless Strategy Update
Now, let’s move on to an item about which many of you have probably heard, but on which we can provide some additional context. That is the resignation of Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey. She resigned on August 30. Grey served in the position for around 30 months, or 30 times longer than her predecessor.
There was of course speculation as to whether Grey was pushed out, but — among other indications that that wasn’t true — Council Member Ryan Alter told the Statesman that Interim City Manager Jesus Garza had asked Grey to stay. Garza himself released a statement praising Grey, saying he was sorry to see her go. Yes, sometimes when people are forced out their bosses will still say nice things about them publicly, but it doesn’t appear, at least to this reporter, that is the case with Grey.
Nonetheless, it turns out that two days before Grey resigned, Council Member Mackenzie Kelly sent Garza a letter asking him to look into explosive claims that a whistleblower had shared with Kelly about the City’s Northbridge “bridge shelter” at 7400 North IH35, near St. John’s. Northbridge is one of the former hotels that the City purchased, under the Adler Councils, and converted to housing for homeless people.
Kelly wrote to Garza, “It has come to my attention that there have been several deaths within the facility, reportedly linked to drug overdoses. Additionally, I have been informed that drugs are being sold and consumed by clients inside the building, along with reports of prostitution taking place on the premises. Disturbingly, there have been allegations of clients assaulting each other, and even the presence of weapons such as machetes, knives, and hammers. I have a photo of a gun that was found in a clients room there, as well as drugs that were on premises. Moreover, I’ve heard concerns that methamphetamine may be produced within the facility by clients. These issues, if accurate, are not only alarming but also deeply troubling.”
Kelly asked for Garza’s “assistance in verifying the accuracy of these reports,” and added, “Furthermore, I would like to understand what plans and measures are in place to prevent such incidents from happening in shelters and permanent supportive housing throughout the city and ensure the safety and well-being of the individuals at Northbridge and others.” Garza says he is investigating the allegations.
Multiple media outlets covered Kelly’s letter and the whistleblower’s allegations, but none of those stories came out until after Grey announced her resignation. This resulted in some reporting making it appear that Kelly called attention to it after Grey left. In reality, however, the timeline was as laid out above.
Photos whistleblower says were taken inside Northbridge homeless facility
On August 31, the day after Grey’s resignation, Kelly sent another letter to Interim City Manager Garza. The Council Member said she was writing “to respectfully request that the City of Austin consider conducting a comprehensive review and audit of homeless services and spending within our city.” Kelly continued, “It is essential that we evaluate our current strategies, funding allocation, and the outcomes of our efforts to provide support to those experiencing homelessness. Additionally, the community deserves to fully understand what their tax dollars are going toward and how the funds are helping those in need.”
The Austin Independent also talked to the whistleblower Andrea Gipson. Gipson told the Independent that she has been at Northbridge for a year and a half. She has been on administrative leave since July 31.
Gipson said there were always problems, but things took a particular turn for the worse when clients from cleared encampments at Roy Guerrero Park, Pack Saddle Pass and Gaines Creek began arriving at the facility. She said there seemed to be a higher level of hard drug use among those groups and that there were increased assaults; assaults on staff and assaults between residents. She added that “a huge amount of weapons” have been found inside the facility.
Gipson also cited another serious concern, the danger of staff accidentally pricking themselves with an infected needle left laying around by a resident. “Clients are notorious,” she said, “for leaving needles laying around.” Gipson added that she has tried to get PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) to protect employees from potential needle pricks, but has so far been unsuccessful.
We’ll have more on this issue and its origins in future editions. For now let’s just say that Austin’s homeless problem is not an issue that any single person could solve, even with a lot of staff. In fact homelessness is a national problem, but the responsibility for dealing with it has fallen largely on local governments. That seems to be true all over, but is particularly acute in Texas where the state government does virtually nothing.
At the same time the degree of Austin’s homelessness crisis can be traced directly back to the Adler Councils and particularly to an ideological initiative by then Council Members Greg Casar and Delia Garza — both of whom have since been promoted by voters; Casar to Congress and Garza to County Attorney. In 2019 the duo led an initiative to repeal the longstanding “camping ban” which specifically forbid camping in numerous places within the City.
Casar and Garza led a repeal of the camping ban based on the ideological tenet that being homeless should not be “illegal.” (Council Members Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter voted no.) Unfortunately, the Council Members’ ideological certainty was matched by their naïveté on the subject. For instance, the then Council super majority showed no signs of being aware of the high percentage of mentally ill and hard drug users (with a lot of overlap between the two) in the homeless population. (Austin voters reinstated the camping ban in May 2021, after a petition drive by Save Austin Now got the item on the ballot.)
Accompanying the mix of naïveté and ideological certainty was an extreme largesse with taxpayer money. As Interim City Manager Garza put it prior to a Council briefing by Grey in July: “We (the City of Austin) spent a considerable amount of money, at least, unofficially, $200 million, trying to deal with the issues of people who are experiencing homelessness. And at the end of that period we haven’t decreased the amount of people experiencing homelessness. In fact, it’s increased.”
Interim City Manager Garza’s administration has moved to create more housing and shelter for the homeless, including transforming the City’s “Marshaling Yard” near the airport into a temporary homeless shelter this summer. Ironically this was opposed by many of the same activists who supported the Casar-Delia Garza effort in 2019. They opposed it because it is a “congregate” facility.
911 Call Center
Mackenzie Kelly’s active approach on the homeless issue is just the latest example of her taking the lead on issues that other Council Members seem to avoid, or miss. The previous Council virtually ceded all public safety issues to her. Just one example of this came in February 2022 when Kelly sponsored an item from Council instructing the City Manager to do something about the staffing crisis at EMS. That was almost a year before Garza became Interim City Manager.
This week Garza’s administration announced progress on the issue. In a September 28 memo Interim Austin Police Chief Robin Henderson reported, “Since October 2022, total Call Taker and Dispatcher vacancies have decreased from 69 to 39 which brings us to approximately 91% filled for Dispatchers and 69% for Call Takers.” Henderson added that new people have been hired onto the “leadership team” and reported on an array of recruitment efforts.
Recruiting more public safety personnel to answer those calls, however, remains a major challenge.
Addendum/Clarification. The Austin Independent received a call from Council Member Alison Alter objecting to the sentence above that reads, “The previous Council virtually ceded all public safety issues to her (Mackenzie Kelly).” Alter says this ignores the considerable amount of work she has done on public safety issues. She has a point. Below is a list provided by Alter of “the issues I have been leading on related to public safety for many years.” I have cut and pasted them as sent by the Council Member except to add the complete terms where she used inititals. I put the parts I added in brackets so as not to confuse with places where Alter had parentheses.
- Fixing 911 compensation [since summer 2021] and hiring processes, and improving 911 response and protocols
- Improving the Police Academy
- Reforming sexual assault response, including resources for victim services
- Creation of OPO [Office of Police Oversight]
Related to police but not just police
- Improving response to hate
- Created Office of Violence Prevention
- Gun Violence Prevention Taskforce
- Secured 5 fire houses (w/ D. Garza) [Delia] and ensured they are on track (3 built, two underway)
- Accelerated wildfire prevention efforts (across multiple departments and in a page full of ways)
- Scrutinized OT [overtime]
- ESD4 [Emergency Services District] contract with AFD [Austin Fire Department]
- Secured additional ambulances, dozens of medics and leadership slots, changes to schedule
- Made the pandemic hotline permanent, now referred to as the C4 line (Collaborative Care Communications Center -I believe is the acronym)
- Created Office of Chief Medical Officer and resources it with physicians and analysts to improve oversight and delivery of quality care
- Expanded the Paramedic Practitioners program to reach low acuity calls without need to send an ambulance
- Lots of big and small things related to recruitment and retention
- Active with all 3 public safety contracts in this round and last with my staff regularly attending negotiations
HSEM [Homeland Security and Emergency Management]
- Added staff and made sure got hired, active follow up on prior recs from storms and other crises
- Cybersecurity audit follow up
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