The Leander City Council’s debate turned contentious during last week’s meeting over two Old Town proposals and an agenda item aimed at slowing the development of apartments. The discussion primarily took place in the council’s new briefing session, which was held just prior to the main meeting.
Leander Mayor Troy Hill presented an initiative to fund public arts and other improvements to the Old Town district by raising parkland requirements from 3.5 acres per 100 dwelling units to 4.5 acres per 100. City rules require any new proposed residential subdivision or multi-family residential site development to dedicate these acres or pay a fee in lieu of the requirement at a rate of $1,050 per dwelling unit.
Hill also proposed to create an ad-hoc committee tasked with developing ideas to improve the Old Town district.
Both proposals drew fire from Council member Christine Sederquist during the briefing session prior to the regular public meeting, which devolved into arguments that saw Hill and Sederquis repeatedly shouting over each other.
“Excuse me, can I talk? Can we please maintain a little bit of order here,” Hill said.
“Both of you. Let’s be on the same page,” Council member Chris Czernek said sharply, and urged them to be less pointed with their questions so they could have a healthier debate.
“Every question I ask is being treated like I’m in the way and that needs to end,” Sederquist said.
Sederquist questioned why they wouldn’t funnel the money “to the entire community” by dedicating it to the arts funds in general, rather than passing something that could potentially limit its future use to “just a 4-block radius.”
Hill said he would be open to splitting the new revenue “50-50” between the arts in general and Old Town.
“Purpose is to, rather than take taxpayer money to do things in Old Town, we can have a jumpstart with something like this,” Hill said. “We put a lot into it, so for me, it’s important that we finish it.”
During the discussion with city and legal staff, questions emerged over whether the city is legally allowed to repurpose the money. Staff said the funds could definitely fund public art in parks, so one option might be designating part of Old Town a park. Without a park component, it is unclear whether the city would be allowed to redirect the money direct to Old Town.
Staff mentioned alternative funding source could help achieve the proposals goal, pointing to using a portion of the city’s future Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT Tax) funds.
Ultimately, during the council meeting, the council voted unanimously to instead have staff research the legal issues and draft options for how the city could increase parkland requirements and dedicate the resulting funds to the Leander Public Arts Commission in general.
Hill and Sederquist also exchanged words over the scope of a committee Hill proposed to mine ideas for the initiative.
During the recent council retreat, Hill presented an idea for a possible public-private partnership to build a two-story development with an open roof bar and restaurant between the Leander Chamber of Commerce and the Davis House. He said the city would own the land but the developer would build and run the building.
During last week’s council meeting, Sederquist said the council needs to finally complete a Master Plan for Old Town, arguing they need a clear vision of what they want to accomplish. She said they also need to outline the proposed committee’s goals and responsibilities, to ensure they achieve those goals and avoid “butting heads with other commissions” like the Public Arts Commission.
City staff seemed to agree, saying it would be helpful to have the committee’s role laid out to make clear what is the committee’s “jurisdiction,” and whether or not it is subject to open meeting requirements.
“I’m not opposed to an Old Town committee,” Sederquist said. “But, given it’s overlap with other commissioners, the responsible thing to do is have this come back with language that says what they’re doing, what their parameters are and then approve... I don’t understand why there’s any pushback to just having it in writing of what we’re approving and not just who we’re approving.”
“It’s an advisory group – only to come up with ideas that would be brought to the council,” Hill said, noting that wouldn’t have the power to vote on anything nor spend money. “It’s strictly about bringing specific ideas to council for the council to consider. Just because we’ve been talking about doing things on old town forever. It’s time to do it.”
Council member Michelle Stephenson expressed concerns with the number of ad hoc committees the city already has. She argued these committees deal with city issues, but aren’t required to post agendas, so it is difficult to determine when they meet – even for herself as a council member.
“Will this be publicly posted? I think the public should know when all these meetings are happening,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson said these committees deal with city business, particularly the proposed Old Town committee, so they should post the meetings and keep notes.
Council member Kathryn Pantalion-Park and Hill both argued for keeping the committee’s goals vague so the committee could figure out what it wants to achieve through its discussions.
“We say we want people to help us. We say we do, but the moment somebody tries to organize something, somebody is going to gripe,” Hill said.
“Nobody’s griping. There’s just serious concerns,” Sederquist said.
“You know what? I’ll fix it right now to get it going,” said Hill. “We’ll take notes, post meetings. Then, we’ll get with (legal staff) and look over the rules. If it doesn’t have to be [a public meeting] and we’re not going to be making decisions, we won’t do it.”
Later, during the council meeting, he added, “It’s a little bit troubling that anytime everybody can’t put their own fingers over what private people are doing, they have a problem with it.”
“I’m getting tired of that mischaracterization,” Sederquist shot back. “Just because we want it spelled out what the parameters are. Otherwise, they can just do whatever they want. I’m not asking that much, and to characterize it as, ‘You’re putting your finger on things?’ I’m asking something very simple.”
The council voted unanimously to table the item and have Hill bring it back for future discussion with a clear description of the “general goals of this committee.”