Austin, Travis County prepare for another contentious legislative session—with the added challenge of COVID-19
When the Texas Legislature convenes later this month, lawmakers will consider a number of bills that seek to preempt cities and counties from governing themselves. So far, those filed propose to transfer control of the Austin Police Department to the state and prevent local government entities from hiring lobbyists, or even maintaining their in-house staff, to advocate on their behalf at the Capitol.
"We do have to take a defensive posture to a lot of bills," said Brie Franco, intergovernmental relations officer for the city of Austin. "The Legislature sets a lot of priorities for us."
In the past, Franco's office has advocated against bills that would have compromised the city's nondiscrimination protections, such as the controversial bathroom bill that lawmakers debated in 2017, and its short-term rental regulations, which Franco said were implemented in part due to residents' concerns about party houses, despite objections from companies such as Airbnb and HomeAway.
This year, the city and county's intergovernmental relations offices face similar challenges—with the added obstacles posed by the pandemic, which has strained government resources and will likely limit access to the Capitol.
"We are going to have what I consider a much more conservative agenda," Travis County Intergovernmental Relations Officer Julie Wheeler told commissioners Dec. 15. "It's going to be focused much more on playing defense than really trying to push many initiatives this session."
A budget crisis
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar estimates the state will face a $4.6 billion shortfall this fiscal year due to pandemic restrictions on businesses and recent volatility in oil prices. Cities and counties will also likely be impacted.
"I think the impact of the coronavirus on city budgets, on county budgets is huge," Texas Municipal League Executive Director Bennett Sandlin told Austonia.
This is due to a combination of factors: a decrease in sales tax revenue due to business closures and other financial strain combined with a steady, if not increasing, demand for city services.
Although the U.S. Congress recently decided to extend the deadline by which cities and counties must spend their CARES Act relief dollars, lawmakers did not approve any substantial new assistance for local governments.
A law passed during the last legislative session also further constrains local governments' finances. In 2019, lawmakers passed a property tax revenue cap, which limits cities and counties from raising their property tax rates above a certain threshold. Although the bill would have allowed for an emergency exception during the pandemic, nearly every local government observed the new law, citing the financial pressures facing their constituents, according to the Texas Municipal League.
"Something has to give if revenues are down," Sandlin said, adding that this will likely take the form of cutbacks in park budgets, infrastructure maintenance, library opening hours and other local services.
Despite the protests against police violence over the summer, and pushes for criminal justice reform, Sandlin said there is not a big appetite for police budget cuts across the state.
In Austin, however, local elected officials and state Republican leaders continue to spar over local control when it comes to contentious issues, such as public safety and the pandemic.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced last month that the Legislative Council, a nonpartisan agency that helps lawmakers draft legislation, had sent draft language for a proposed law that would transfer control of the Austin Police Department to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The city of Austin would still be required to fund the police department under the proposal.
Just in time for Christmas: The Legislative Council has sent draft language for a proposed law that would transfer… https://t.co/pii7xtaAxg— Greg Abbott (@Greg Abbott) 1608573823.0
Abbott expressed support for such a move earlier this year after Austin City Council cut the police budget by approximately 5%.
The main impact of the decision was the elimination of funding for three upcoming police cadet classes. The APD training academy has come under fire in recent years for its "fear-based" and "paramilitary" approach to training, discriminatory recruiting practices and attrition rates.
Overall, however, the city's violent crime rate has actually decreased slightly in 2020, and APD's own officials have questioned the link between violent rates and the council's recent policy decisions.
State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt called the draft legislation "political theater" in a statement, adding that if the bill were approved it "would trample on the rights of local governments and citizens of Texas' largest cities" and "would allow him to seize local police departments, seize local assets, seize local taxes, and subvert the ability of voters to determine their relationship with their local police officers."
Access to the Capitol
Another concern is that, while state lawmakers debate these critical policies, local government entities and concerned constituents may have less access to them than they normally do because of the pandemic.
"I hope there's a workaround, but I just don't know," Sandlin said. "If they don't let you in the building, are you going to be allowed on a Zoom call? If not, who's going to speak for those cities?"
The Texas Capitol was closed due to the pandemic. (Bob Daemmrich)
Abbott announced that the Texas Capitol will reopen on Jan. 4. It has been closed for much of the year, due to the pandemic and concerns about protests over the summer.
The state House and Senate will vote on their respective COVID protocols at the beginning of the legislative session, which will convene on Jan. 12.
Franco is "very concerned" about the public's access to the session but said there is a path forward, as demonstrated by the city of Austin, which has seen increased public participation in recent months due to the option for residents to call in to public meetings. Without the requirement to attend in person, access has actually widened.
"The pandemic … will limit how we can go and advocate at the Capitol," she said, "but it shouldn't limit democracy."
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Last fall, Janneke Parrish was pushing hard in her advocacy at Apple. She wanted to see flexibility with remote work, pay equity and for Apple to respond to Texas’ six-week abortion ban with paid time off and coverage for the procedure under the company’s health insurance plan.
Then, in October last year, she was fired.
Parrish, who lives in Round Rock and worked at Apple’s Austin campus as an Apple Maps program manager for about five years, is a leader of an internal movement at the tech giant. It comes at a time when the company is expanding its local presence with a new $1 billion Northwest campus with space for 5,000 employees.
Parrish worked at this Apple campus on West Parmer Lane. (Steven Joyner)
In August, the movement known as #AppleToo launched a website with the goal of organizing employees and sharing stories about alleged workplace harassment and discrimination. Austonia talked to Parrish and another former Apple employee who are part of the movement about their claims in what they observed while working for Apple.
“I’ve been advocating for members of my immediate team within Apple for several years,” Parrish said. “And when I realized that the issues that I was seeing with my own team were true throughout Apple, there was a natural transition toward, ok let’s expand this advocacy and instead be more of an advocate for everybody at Apple to ensure that we the workers at Apple are treated fairly and equitably and get treated as human beings.”
In the lead-up to her firing, Parrish faced an allegation that she had leaked details from a recent all-hands meeting to the Verge. She says she suspects it’s this, along with her advocacy, that influenced Apple’s decision to fire her.
“I didn’t do (the leak). And I know that Apple knows I didn’t do this,” Parrish said since a few employees including herself didn’t have access to that meeting due to a system crash that day. “I was still placed under investigation.”
As a requirement of the investigation, Parrish turned in her work devices. Before doing so, she wiped the files from her computer, saying she didn’t want her personal files on Apple servers. After a few days on paid suspension, she says human resources called and told her she’d been terminated with the reason being that she’d deleted those files.
Parrish is one of the leaders of the AppleToo movement. (Janneke Parrish)
Before Parrish’s firing, Apple was taking action on leaks and workplace organizing. An internal memo from 2018 noted a number of leakers they had caught were arrested. About a month before Parrish was fired, the tech giant had fired a senior engineering program manager for allegedly leaking confidential information. And in a September note, CEO Tim Cook sent a note to all Apple employees saying “people who leak confidential information do not belong” at Apple.
Austonia asked Apple about Parrish’s case and other matters at the company. In an email reply, the company said:
“We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters.”
Another piece of Parrish’s advocacy involved career opportunities for workers, particularly those based in Austin.
Even though Apple upped their presence in Austin in recent years, Parrish said Austin-area employees couldn’t enjoy networking opportunities like California workers did as Apple events were held on the West Coast. Texan Apple workers shouldn’t have to relocate to move up, she said.
“For those of us in Austin, I noticed, especially for my department, my career options were extremely limited,” Parrish said. “I was told by a manager that if I really wanted to advance in my career, I would have to move out to California.”
Parrish said Apple employees in Austin do not have the same career opportunities as those in California. (Shutterstock)
Austonia spoke to another member of the organizing group AppleToo. She requested anonymity to not hinder future job prospects in the tech industry. She’ll be identified with the pseudonym Mary.
Mary said she’s worked at Apple since 2008 in Austin, starting off as a contractor in customer support at iTunes and moving around over the years, leaving the tech giant earlier this month.
“It’s too hard to advance and there are no opportunities for development so (I was) just kind of stuck in a dead-end job,” Mary said.
Mary felt that another challenge was being a woman at a tech company. Starting out, she says she was the lowest paid in a training class of mostly men with pay of around $30,000, which rose to about $55,000 by the time she left.
But aside from pay, communication also proved to be a hurdle. To make her persona appear gender-neutral, she changed how her name was displayed on Slack, the interoffice directory and over email to just her first initial.
“The hard part was when I would have to get into a meeting with people then I felt like my voice is giving me away now,” Mary said. “But when I could avoid having meetings, I felt like it did make a difference.”
Mary says there’s been some movement in the right direction. An internal memo in November affirmed employees’ right to discuss pay after it had shut down employee-run pay equity surveys and an employee-run Slack channel. Earlier this month, it announced new efforts in a racial equity and justice initiative.
“We all want to see positive changes from Apple,” Mary said. “We all want them to look at wage disparities. We’d like to see more diversity—more minorities in leadership positions, more females in leadership positions.”
Still, Mary feels there’s more to be done. “I wish Apple was more responsive at making bigger changes,” she said.
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The Texas French Bread Bakery, located on 2900 Rio Grande Street, has been completely destroyed after a fire erupted on Monday night.
The Austin Fire Department responded to the fire just before 11 p.m., where they arrived to see flames coming from the roof of the bakery. Firefighters fought the fire for about an hour before the roof collapsed.
While no one was injured in the fire, firefighters say the historic building was completely totaled.
Texas French Bread just went up in flames pic.twitter.com/agXqKN3c00
— Jordan (@AimIessFriend) January 25, 2022
AFD determined that the fire was accidental and caused by mechanical failure. AFD said the damages amounted to $1.6 million total: $1.1 million in structural damage and $500,000 in damage to the contents of the bakery.
This year, Texas French Bread will celebrate 40 years of business. Before the bakery occupied the building, it was the Rome Inn, a music venue that hosted 1970s artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan.