It’s that time of year again. Flags have gone up in Zilker Park. Roads and hotels are seeing crowds. Bands are getting ready to take the stage.
And city officials are weighing whether to go see the Austin City Limits Music Festival — free.
The long-standing policy of giving free ACL tickets to elected officials and some city board members has been contentious for years. Parks board member Rick Cofer, who served on the Parkland Events Task Force last year, pushed hard for that body to recommend a ban on free tickets for city officials, arguing that they represent a conflict of interest and an expensive, unnecessary gift.
Ultimately the task force recommended in a September 2016 report that the city evaluate creating policies for free tickets.
Just over a year later, no one has done so.
The parks department said the ball was in the City Council’s court when it came to looking at policies. The mayor’s office said it was aware of no council member who was pursuing the issue, and a few council members’ offices said they didn’t remember such a recommendation within the report.
This year, as in the past, City Council members will receive VIP passes both weekends for themselves and their staffs. Parks board members can each receive two sets of three-day VIP passes, plus parking. Each three-day VIP pass retails for about $1,100.
The city parks department, via spokeswoman Shelley Parks, repeatedly said the parks board passes are general admission only and not VIP. But they are actually standard VIP tickets to allow widespread access to the grounds, passed out under a business-use policy that sets an expectation of not taking advantage of the drinks and perks they include, the board members who used them confirmed.
It’s unclear who will use those tickets. Several council members’ offices said they hadn’t heard anything about tickets yet this year, even though Colin Wallis, CEO of the Austin Parks Foundation, which writes the tickets into its ACL contract with C3 Presents, confirmed the same passes would be provided to council offices as in years past. Wallis said he hoped council members would use them to see the new layout of the festival.
Council Member Ora Houston planned to send the tickets back, according to her office. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who is in his first year as an elected official, said he would probably turn out one of the days “to at least see the thing that takes over two key weekends in the city.”
Parks board member Richard DePalma said he uses the tickets to attend the event with his family and to note problems and impacts on Zilker Park.
“I’ll go one day every year, and that’s about all I’m good for, because I’m not the most fun guy,” DePalma said. “There’s usually some sort of issue we’re documenting. Last year, one of our trees was substantively trimmed, and they did not coat the tree afterwards, so it was a raw wound. Of course, the smoking of pot and smoking, period, of cigarettes, was another one.”
DePalma defended his work as a needed role and valid use of free tickets.
“I would have a problem if there was a staff member or board member who was getting a drink on and not tending to the business aspect of it,” he said. “But when we have so many community members who are supportive of ACL, you want to see that and get a sense of it.”