Soon after making a passionate speech Thursday night about how she was “stunned” by a last-minute change to a proposed city development approval rule, Austin City Council Member Leslie Pool fired off a tweet.
The tweet was about Council Member Sheri Gallo, who had indicated some support for the change. And the tweet, Pool said, was never supposed to be public. It was intended to be a private communication, she said.
“So maybe this is the nail in Gallo’s coffin,” said Pool’s tweet, which appeared just before 11 p.m. as the council met and was quickly deleted.
With the tweet, plus some other cross exchanges between council members on the dais, there was a palpable tension in the tone of this council meeting compared with past meetings, some veteran council observers say.
“Last night was one of the first times where at the end of night we said, ‘Oof,’” lobbyist and political consultant Mark Littlefield said Friday. “Last night felt different and looked different. I wonder if last night was business or if last night was personal.”
Or as council watcher and AURA board member Steven Yarak tweeted, “I do like that #ATXcouncil 2016 appears to have dropped a lot of the kumbaya (bull). This is politics. It’s a fight. Let’s grind it out.”
David King, a neighborhood activist who is a frequent face at council meetings, said of the fractious tone, “To me it was much more obvious at this meeting.” But, he said, “I know there were some contentious items.”
The subtext: The Grove
The meeting grew tense at times as the council debated proposed changes to policies on parkland dedication and the standards for approving development on previously unzoned land.
These issues might sound abstract, but both policies drew keen interest from those involved in or following The Grove at Shoal Creek, a controversial “planned unit development” — a large development receiving special zoning — proposed in Gallo’s District 10 but next to Pool’s District 7. Because the state used to own the 75-acre tract near Bull Creek Road and 45th Street, it is unzoned.
“This Grove case is going to be something that will be a very hard decision,” Mayor Steve Adler said Thursday night, as he described his concerns about possibly changing the rules for approval of such planned unit developments. He added, “I do believe that that case is permeating so many of the other things that have come to this council as surrogates for that, and that makes me uncomfortable.”
The project, proposed by ARG Bull Creek Ltd., an affiliate of MileStone Community Builders, would include single-family homes, apartments, neighborhood businesses, parks and open space. Some nearby residents have expressed concerns about the $500 million mixed-use project, including that it could generate too much traffic for roads to handle.
Pool is a co-founder of the Bull Creek Road Coalition, which opposes The Grove development as currently planned.
“Leslie really believes in listening to constituencies and working with them,” Sara Speights, who is president of the coalition, told the American-Statesman on Friday. Speights also said, “Gallo has not been our friend. She is definitely taking care of the developer.”
Natalie Gauldin, co-chair of an advocacy group called Friends of the Grove, said the group “thinks very highly of Sheri Gallo.” The group is in favor of the concept of The Grove developers have proposed.
“We really, really appreciate all the work she’s put in to listening to every stakeholder in this process,” Gauldin told the Statesman.
Pool and Gallo first butted heads at Thursday’s meeting over how a group of stakeholders had gathered to work out changes to the city ordinance on parkland dedication. It was approved by all the council members, except for Council Member Don Zimmerman, who abstained.
Pool posted the tweet as the council weighed the second controversial proposal, which would require at least three-quarters of the council members to approve a planned unit development on previously unzoned land in order to override the rejection of city’s Planning Commission or Zoning and Platting Commission. Such a requirement exists for planned unit developments on already zoned land.
Pool was in favor of this item. Gallo was not: She said if a simple majority of commissioners turned down a development, that should not trigger a higher threshold for council approval.
The council gave initial approval, on first reading only, to a rule change requiring three-quarters council approval only if three-quarters of a commission rejected a planned unit development on previously unzoned land. The vote was 8-2, with Pool and Council Member Ann Kitchen against, and Zimmerman abstaining.
The provision borrowed from a change Adler had pitched, only to be blasted by Pool, Kitchen and Council Member Kathie Tovo for bringing forward at the eleventh hour what they saw as a game-changing proposal. Adler wanted a rejection by three-quarters of a commission to trigger the need for three-quarters council approval for developments on both zoned and unzoned land.
Pressed on what the “nail in Gallo’s coffin” tweet meant, Pool said it was hard for her to remember everything but that she had apologized “immediately” to Gallo.
“It was intended to be a private message, but I should never speak badly about my colleagues,” Pool told the Statesman on Friday.
Gallo issued this statement: “It is always my intent to participate in positive communication with the community and other council members. I am extremely disappointed in Council Member Pool’s comment.”