Audit: Documentation makes historic landmark process ineffective


Highlights

The department either failed to collect or failed to document 58 percent of required fees auditors sampled.

Justifications for case decisions made by a single staff member aren’t documented.

Austin’s Planning and Zoning Department does not effectively oversee the city’s historic preservation program, an audit found this week, largely due to lack of documentation and confusion.

The department either failed to collect or failed to document 58 percent of required fees auditors sampled — making the money vulnerable to theft, the report found.

Officials don’t document the status of cases or who’s responsible for reviewing them, auditors said. And the justifications for case decisions made by a single staff member aren’t documented, so there’s no way to track consistency.

RELATED: No-shows, ‘no’ votes hindering action at Austin’s landmark commission

Additionally, members of the volunteer Historic Landmark Commission told auditors they often didn’t have enough information to make informed decisions about properties, “which could expose the city to lawsuits as well as dissatisfied stakeholders,” the audit said. Commission members have not had legal guidance on decisions they make, but that is set to change this month, staff said.

“This is very concerning and supports what we’ve been hearing from the community,” Council Member Leslie Pool said Monday at a meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, the committee’s chairwoman, said she knew of multiple cases in which commissioners had given the wrong information to each other about the process of making historic recommendations because of confusion about how the process works.

Greg Guernsey, director of Planning and Zoning, said he was surprised to find that Austin has fewer staff members dedicated to historic preservation than many other cities. The office now has three people, and is hiring a fourth, while comparable cities averaged six.

OPINION: Efforts to slow bulldozers in East Austin long overdue

But getting a digital system in place for tracking fees and cases will help, Guernsey said. Staff has been using paper receipts. A new digital system will also prompt staff members to document actions taken.

The audit recommends the department establish a process to document fees, begin documenting justification for administrative approval of alteration, demolition or relocation cases, improve the process for inspecting historic properties and improve training and legal support for commission members. The department’s staff agreed to do so by next year.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair worried that wouldn’t help enough, particularly when criteria for historic designations includes such vague considerations as a building’s overall value.

“The process overall is subjective to begin with, and then the standards that we do have are not applied consistently. It leads to a lot of confusion and divisiveness,” she said. “This seems like we need a broader strategy or plan, like a revision of the program.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Politics

Is Trump violating the Constitution? In absentia, he defends himself in court
Is Trump violating the Constitution? In absentia, he defends himself in court

The defendant was elsewhere, stirring and twittering in his new city, his name rarely spoken — just the title sufficed — but always top of mind inside an overstuffed Manhattan courtroom.  “The president” is a businessman, the plaintiffs’ lawyer reminded the judge. “The president” refuses to leave the marketplace...
5 takeaways from Xi Jinping’s marathon speech
5 takeaways from Xi Jinping’s marathon speech

As Xi Jinping’s first five-year term as China’s leader ends, he gave himself a shining report card on Wednesday — and a big to-do list for his next five years.  Speaking at the start of a Communist Party congress in Beijing, Xi gave a work report that summed up his achievements so far, while also laying out where he wants to...
Russian socialite enters race to challenge Putin
Russian socialite enters race to challenge Putin

A young socialite and television journalist whose father was a close ally of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, declared her intention Wednesday to challenge him in the presidential election scheduled for next March, a move liable to split the already feeble liberal opposition.  The journalist, Ksenia A. Sobchak, 35, announced her presidential...
The Child Tax Credit is key to tax reform for many families
The Child Tax Credit is key to tax reform for many families

The tax reform framework released three weeks ago by the White House and Republican congressional leadership has lofty goals: Simplify the tax code; provide relief for middle-class families; cut taxes for businesses; end many narrowly focused special tax benefits; and keep the reformed tax code “at least as progressive” as the existing...
Protesters rally against travel ban
Protesters rally against travel ban

Muslim Americans had planned to gather in the nation's capital to protest President Donald Trump's latest travel ban on Wednesday, the day it was scheduled to go into effect.  But late Tuesday, a federal judge in Hawaii blocked its implementation, saying that it "plainly discriminates based on nationality." A federal judge in Maryland...
More Stories