Contact Team Reform

I received the following announcement about Contact Team reform.

The Austin City Council will be considering a resolution directing the City Manager to initiate amendments to the Land Development Code that would add oversight and compliance requirements for Neighborhood Plan Contact Teams. Proposed new requirements would include formal recognition of contact teams by the City, criteria for official contact team meetings, the ability of the City to rescind its recognition of a contact team for non-compliance with City Code or its own bylaws, and a process to address grievances. The current regulations are contained in Chapter 25-1, Article 16 of the City Code.

This resolution was initiated by Council Member Sabino Renteria and was endorsed by the City Council’s Planning and Neighborhoods Committee (with amendments) on September 21, 2015. It is tentatively scheduled to be heard by City Council on October 1, 2015. The draft agenda, Committee report, and support material for this meeting may be found on the City Council meeting webpage, Please note that draft agendas are subject to change before their official posting 72 hours before the meeting.

If passed by Council, this action would initiate the process to amend the Land Development Code with these new requirements. Stakeholder meetings, a public hearing before the Planning Commission, and further discussion by the City Council would occur before any changes are made to the existing regulations. Recommendations would be provided to City Council by January 28, 2016.

If you have any questions or comments about this item, you are encouraged to attend the City Council meeting or contact Council members at


Matt Lewis
Assistant Director
Planning & Zoning Department

Very good news! Some of our neighbors have expressed concerns to me that our DNPCT By-Laws should be more uniform with other PCT in Austin. I’ve identified a number of problems with it myself. Neighborhoods could really use a nonpartisan mechanism, with enforcement powers, whereby the City can be alerted to failure of the PCT to follow the established process. Unfortunately, DNO was severely rebuffed by the Neighborhood Advisor (I have her business card, but won’t print her name here) who replied to our email sent to her CoA office address, from her home one instead, and took personal action in an effort to undermine us in the crisis we were seeking her help with.

Here’s some new information just sent out from the city about the changes.

Neighborhood Plan Contact Team Representatives:

Attached is additional background information on the City Council agenda item #45 for October 1, 2015, related to neighborhood plan contact teams.

George Zapalac
Division Manager
Planning & Zoning Department
(512) 974-2725

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Now that we have the elections out of the way, one of the first issues FAN should take a stance on is the contact team reform that is currently working its way through council. The city is listening to stakeholders, and I think an official position from FAN would really help move the conversation in a positive direction.

Let’s use this forum to bounce around some ideas and work towards writing up a resolution to be voted on by our membership.

Some things to get this started:
(1) Are the contact teams even legal, and is the city putting itself at risk for a lawsuit?
(2) What requirements, if any, should the city place on contact teams?
(3) Should we change the process for making neighborhood plan amendments?
(4) What about areas that don’t have contact teams?
(5) Should there be more stringent reporting requirements for contact teams?
(6) Are there any similar systems in other cities? What can we learn from other cities?
(7) How should contact teams perform votes?

My thoughts:

  1. Contact teams are certainly not legal if they do not meet their most basic goal of having a representative from the four basic groups - Home owners, business owners, renters, and neighborhood groups. I don’t think they’re legal in any case, but that should be the most basic standard. EROC has zero renters currently, and I don’t think votes currently should count since we are 80+% renters in EROC.
  2. Contact teams must have a proper number of representatives. Contact teams must post their meeting times, votes and minutes on a city website. You must be able to put your address into a city website and find out what contact team governs you and when they meet.
  3. Yes. Neighborhood plan amendments are almost entirely subtractive. There is no real way to add anything currently. We have to have the city allowing simple changes every 6 months at minimum or there is zero value to plans. We still have references to the Dillo in EROC.
  4. I don’t see the value of adding new contact teams if the city can’t manage updates to existing plans.
  5. Yes. All contact teams are essentially governmental entities and as such need meeting time/dates, contact information, and minutes online. I’d prefer having in-person meetings be optional and all votes happen online, since meeting times tend to work as an exclusionary tactic.
  6. They need to be online and anonymous to prevent bullying. I think we would see much greater participation with this. The city could easily provide a way to go to a library and vote for those without computers/who are computer illiterate.
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I am in favor of abolishing them completely. As someone who is much more involved in city politics than your average citizen, even I don’t know anything about my contact team or what purpose they serve. How much weight do their recommendations carry? I’m sure contact teams were created with good intentions, but I feel like these contact teams suffer from extreme selection bias and basically serve as a way for the city planning process to be captured by NIMBYs. I feel like our hands-on approach to democracy has gone too far in Austin, because most people don’t have the time to participate in city council meetings, NPCT meetings, CodeNEXT meetings, committee meetings, etc. All of this overhead creates extreme selection bias and in fact makes the whole process less democratic.

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Posting this at 15:08 CST

  1. Going by the current PCT By-Laws template, the ‘representative groups’ appear to really just be very very encouraged; “greatest extent practicable”. A reasonable person would obviously harbor doubts about a PCT comprised entirely of area developers, merchants, or renters from one building, but it wouldn’t invalidate it, let alone make it “illegal”. PCT might still be illegal for a different range of reasons, though.

  2. Neighborhoods are still free to tinker with the wording of their By-Laws, as did ours, which only says there should be a minimum of 6 board members. This might actually be too many for a neighborhood of half a square mile like ours. Failing to meet that minimum, we can still hold meetings, but just not expect any decisions to be binding. And we could solicit nominations at every meeting until we have elected the minimum, and can get to business.

  3. Establish a PCT in these areas before someone with conflicting ambitions does!

  4. Heck yeah. I’m behind a movement to get our NA & PCT to exhibit their Agenda online, as it develops, and Minutes online very shortly after meetings. Our PCT doesn’t proactively share ANY information or documents unless “requested” by the city, per By-Laws. They’re deliberately bad at operating in the public eye. Our PCT even made two Board Members vanish between elections. These Board Members were were utterly left out of the loop, and never invited to meetings. The only evidence that they were on the Board is one mention in a newsletter. Our PCT plays fast and loose with all of the rules, per abusive interpretations by one BM who went to law school for a while.

  5. I strongly favor in-person meetings, for the community feeling they give, but with live tele-presence, and online voting used for absentee votes.

@cevangill Any new wrinkle on government can be abused by those who are willing to do so. On the whole however, I see the more hands-on system to be an opportunity better than what we had before. As Americans, we’re taught to stay out of things and keep our mouths shut. That’s the problem. I have a lot of neighbors who cry “I’m soooo busy these days!”. I think if we had a resource to line our civic ducks up in a nonpartisan row, and let people cast their votes in that same place, they would realize they’re saving time they would have spent running from meeting to meeting. It could be as easy as a facepoke page kept well-stocked with meeting videos, community Q&A, and voting links per #7 above.

Ah see this is where the non-standard bites us. EROC has this in our bylaws:

The following groups shall be represented on the NPCT:
a. Property owners;
b. Non-property owner residents (i.e. renters);
c. Business owners; and
d. Representatives of neighborhood associations within the EROC Planning Area registered with
the City of Austin. The representatives of the neighborhoods should be listed in the City’s
neighborhood association lists as representing the neighborhood.

Let me throw out some ideas:

I would be in favor of having the city narrowly define the purpose of contact teams by saying that the one and only thing they can do is make recommendations for proposed neighborhood plan amendments. I know that is their original purpose, but many CTs have been making statements on all sorts of issues that have very little or nothing to do their neighborhood plan.

I’d also like to see the city allow any property owner that can gather a certain number of signatures move forward with an out of cycle neighborhood plan amendment. The contact teams should not have a monopoly on this ability.

Lastly, all plan amendments should be announced 30 days in advance of a vote, and should be voted on quarterly. Voting needs to be open to everybody that lives in the neighborhood or owns property in the neighborhood and should not require in person attendance at a meeting. The job of the Contact Team should be to administer these votes fairly with oversight and help from the city.

Posting this at 17:11 CST

I agree with the idea that PCT should be focused on a narrow range of purposes. It’s mission should not be allowed to creep. Even more important, there should be term limits.

Signatures are a good way to let the at-large community weigh in on an issue in some cases, but what does a property owner with lots of signatures do with them? Bypass the PCT and go directly to the City Council? Form her own PCT? Force the existing PCT to do something they don’t want to do? - they’ll simply do it as badly as possible IMHO.

Language about notification periods should be schedule-agnostic. Our DNPCT only meets 6x a year, per by-laws. “Quarterly” votes would mean holding special meetings to match the language in your example.

I think encouraging online voting is a positive thing. I think there would be a considerable negative backlash if it were imposed upon NA. A nice incentive should be offered.

@rickyhennessy, I like those ideas.

Your questions:
(2) What requirements, if any, should the city place on contact teams? Standard bylaws, standard meeting requirements (public space, advertised using signs and social media, etc),
(3) Should we change the process for making neighborhood plan amendments? I like the petition idea.
(4) What about areas that don’t have contact teams? I’m in one. The NA is treated like the CT. I don’t think this is fair, especially since the NA does not use a fair election process and has very low turnout.
(5) Should there be more stringent reporting requirements for contact teams? Yes, transparency is key.
(7) How should contact teams perform votes? I like online voting as an option in addition to in person meetings.

Two things that weren’t mentioned in this thread, but were mentioned by CMs:

  1. Preserving the existing regulations for the “good” CTs. If we’re creating new rules, those rules should work for everyone. If a CT is successful now, they will be able to find success using some new processes.
  2. Allowing stakeholders outside of the FLUM boundaries to participate and vote as part of a CT. I have a negative reaction to this idea because I can see advocacy groups (like this one) stacking votes in order to push their agendas.

Thanks, @NatalieGauldin

@ChadV, a property owner would use a petition to put a plan amendment up for vote on property that they own. Yes, getting a non-cooperative CT to hold a fair vote would be difficult, so the city would have to observe. The idea is definitely not fleshed out. Just wanted to throw it out there so we could discuss.

Another thing that was discussed by CMs (or maybe it was staff) is to greatly increase the size of the planning areas. This would lead to less NIMBYism and more thinking about what’s good for the city as a whole. It would also be much less work for staff since there would be less CTs to watch over.

I agree with a lot of the suggestions above, and I’m still working out my more precise thoughts. At the very least, I don’t think in-person meetings should be required to vote. I like online voting, but perhaps vote-by-mail would work, too.

If the city insists on keeping Contact Teams, I think they should be held to a higher standard of making sure they operate fairly and properly. This would include moderating meetings, and preparing presentations and documents to the teams. Contact Teams are generally made up of amateurs, and people posturing as experts. It’s easy to have people who aren’t experts on zoning (99% of the population, including myself) to be persuaded by bad actors.

Also, when a CT vote is presented to Planning Commission and Council, they should report the minority opinion, if any, and the percentage of eligible votes cast for and against. So if there are 3000 households in an area, and 30 people voted unanimously on an item, it should be reported that 1% of eligible households voted. That’s more precise than simply claiming “the neighborhood” has spoken.

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Hi all,

Below are the results from October’s NPCT stakeholder meetings, from an email from Stevie Greathouse:

Thank you again for your participation at the stakeholder meeting held on Monday, October 17 regarding Neighborhood Plan Contact Teams and the process for selecting future planning areas!

As described at the stakeholder meeting, we will be presenting the results of stakeholder input to date on Neighborhood Plan Contact Teams to [the Small Area Planning Joint Committee of Planning Commission and Zoning and Platting Committee][1] this Wednesday November 4. A document which compiles all stakeholder input to date (including meeting notes from the October 17 meeting) has been distributed to the Joint Committee, and is also linked from the [October 17 Event Page][2]. We welcome you to review the NPCT [input summary document][3] and provide any additional feedback to staff as we move forward to developing more detailed recommendations based on stakeholder input over the next several months.

A [Summary of Stakeholder Input][4] on Selecting Future Planning Areas is also linked from the event webpage. If you have follow up questions or additional input about the material related to selecting future planning areas, contact:

If you have follow up questions or additional input about the material related to neighborhood plan contact teams, contact:


I just received the following update

Hope everyone had a great New Year.

Austin City Council adopted Resolution 20151001-045 on October 1, 2015 which directed staff to conduct stakeholder involvement and return to the City Council with a potential code amendment related to Neighborhood Plan Contact Teams within 120 days. In response to that resolution, staff hosted two well-attended stakeholder meetings in October 2015 and conducted a public survey (which many of you responded to).

Staff Recommendation
We have developed a refined staff recommendation based on the input received and discussion at the Small Area Planning Joint Committee of PC and ZAP. The recommendation is described in detail in the staff report to Planning Commission: . Additional background information is available via the webpage that was set up for the October stakeholder meeting:

We Want your Input!
We invite you to review the recommendation and provide comments to the Planning Commission and the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee of City Council. The recommendation will be the subject of a Planning Commission hearing scheduled on Tuesday, January 12. The recommendation will also be discussed at the next meeting of the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee of Council scheduled on Tuesday, January 19. This item is currently scheduled to go before the full City Council for a hearing on January 28, 2016.

Planning Commission:
Tuesday, January 12, 2016, 6 pm
Austin City Hall
Code Amendment Case # C20-2015-013, PC Agenda Item #C-14
Agenda and Back Up Material:
For information about the Planning Commission meeting, contact: Andrew Rivera, (512) 974-6508

Planning and Neighborhoods Committee of Council:
Tuesday, January 19, 2016, 4 pm
Austin City Hall
Code Amendment Case # C20-2015-013, Draft PNC Agenda Item #4
Draft Agenda:
For information about the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee meeting, contact: Carla Johnson, (512) 974-6438

Please let me know if you have any questions about the recommendation or process.

Stevie Greathouse
Acting Division Manager, Comprehensive Planning Division
Planning and Zoning Department
City of Austin
phone 512-974-7226

I’m not sure what problem this reform is intending to fix. Contact teams can make recommendations about neighborhood plan amendments, but so can neighborhood associations and individual citizens. Typically, plan amendments occur when the property owner wants a zoning change that is inconsistent with the Future Land Use Map (FLUM).

From the Land Development Code:
(A) The director shall initiate the formation of a neighborhood plan contact team.
(B) The neighborhood plan contact team shall to the greatest extent practicable include at least one representative from each of the following groups within a neighborhood plan area:
(1)property owners;
(2)residential renters;
(3)business owners; and
(4)neighborhood organization members owning or renting property within the neighborhood plan area.
© Representatives shall to the greatest extent possible be drawn from the group of persons involved in the development of the neighborhood plan.
(D) The neighborhood plan contact team shall annually submit a list of its officers and members, including individual contact information and applicable membership category under Subsection (B), to the director.
(E) The neighborhood plan contact team shall submit new bylaws or changes in existing bylaws to the director. The bylaws shall be based upon a standardized template provided by the director and shall address roles and responsibilities, boundaries, membership, decision-making, meetings and meeting notification, officers and duties, amendments to the bylaws, finances, and conflicts of interest.
(F) Before the date on which the Planning Commission is scheduled to consider a proposed neighborhood plan amendment, the neighborhood plan contact team may submit a letter to the director stating its recommendation on the proposed amendment. The neighborhood plan contact team shall also identify any conflict of interest as defined in the bylaws of the neighborhood plan contact team.
Source: Ord. 20080306-073; 20091217-053.

You can have multiple associations, but only one contact team per neighborhood plan area. The advice of a contact team is taken far more seriously by City Council than other sources. CT effectively replaces the voice of the NA and individuals. It’s reasoned that a CT is voted in, formal and organized, so that makes sense right? Except that at the last stakeholder meeting I was at, a number of people said their CT assumes spokesmanship over a areas which aren’t even allowed to join and vote, and individuals are kept from joining by shockingly long occupancy standards (like 8 years).

In theory, CT give ACC a better idea of the needs and decisions of a neighborhood. In practice, CT are literally free to organize and meet in secret, and decide privately who to recognize as members. And many do. Tiny cliques of “old friends” who make all the decisions themselves and keep the neighbors at bay through secrecy and hostility.

In the case of my own Dawson Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, they held an absolutely fraudulent election Dec 14, which was specifically crafted to keep one individual out. Myself. I know there were at least 12 people there who voted for me, but my tally was 1 vote. Owing to their illegal ballot that invited members to vote for OR AGAINST each name on the list. Another candidate was talked into withdrawing her ballot by boardmembers who misled her about her eligibility.

We’ve always simply moved to accept the whole slate of candidates because we have no upper limit on boardmember seats, so there is never a need for a run-off. And there has historically been a candidate shortage owing to frequent resignations, even among those hand-picked by the other boardmembers.

CT Reform is unquestionably necessary. Many CT, one hopes most, have operated in a trustworthy fashion. However, a number are demonstrably not. The reform will establish standards intended to ensure that all CT behave themselves, and so the public is better informed and can be involved in decision-making. I welcome you to read my meeting summary of that stakeholder meeting HERE.

My assessment on the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee in particular, is that it does not uphold the directives put forth in the City’s LDC and are instead used as a de facto waiting period for zoning changes.

Before any plan change can even be heard in front of the City, they have to meet with a Contact Team, whether or not the City takes the vote of the team into consideration. CANPAC in particular says on it’s website that it can take up to 6 weeks to even get a meeting with them. And prior to that, it’s stated that no proposed plan amendment can be heard (or voted on) at CANPAC without first having a review and recommendation from the affected NA. So in the case of Heritage NA, and many others, where we only have meetings once a quarter, this can add 20+ weeks to that time cycle - that’s almost half a year.

And when a builder does finally get that CANPAC meeting, there is no record of the events or opinions presented (minutes haven’t been published in over 5 years), and the members have significant leeway over how that meeting is conducted. The bylaws literally give them authority over everything in a meeting:

“CANPAC members may establish rules, processes, and procedures for certain matters including, but not limited to, the administration, governance, hearings, and proceedings of CANPAC, including but not limited to: (a) imposition of time limits upon speakers, presentations, and testimony, (b) sequence and recognition of such presentations, © scheduling of meetings, votes, and postponements of matters, (d) notification, and modifications to these bylaws and other rules of CANPAC within six (6) months of the original implementation of these bylaws.”

The only item in the Bylaws about Meeting Notification is literally one line and states nothing about notifying the public:

“A. All meetings shall be scheduled during a meeting or via other reasonable means”

I’ve never seen a public notice of issues (or even general meetings) that will be brought before CANPAC in my 5 years of living in that area.

There are a lot of procedural issues I take around membership in CANPAC in particular - it’s members are selected from “7 established neighborhood groups” without qualifying what established means, but goes on to specifically name those 7 groups.

There are a maximum of 2 members from each of those 7 pre-approved groups, which ends up an even number - an issue in the case of needing a tie breaker vote. Although, It’s a moot subject in a landscape where we never hear or see any record of how membership has voted. And I’m not exactly sure I want 14 people alone determining the planning future of Central Austin and holding any changes to Neighborhood Plans that have been found to disproportionally underrepresent renters and business owners in numerous city studies.

There are no term limits to members or CANPAC’s 14 officers, who are also the ones creating the By-Laws - You’ll notice if you peek at the CANPAC site that all current members have served since 2011 at the latest.

There’s also a technical glitch in the CANPAC membership bylaws that states NAs must show that they have “Open membership (without regard to dues requirements) to residents and/or commercial property owners within the neighborhood boundaries” - but I don’t think many NAs offer membership to business owners in their bounds. In my research to find which do I found that:

  • Heritage in particular doesn’t state that it allows commercial property owners or business owners to join, and solely refers to “Households” in its bylaws.
  • Eastwoods specifically invites business owners.
  • Original West University Neigh Assoc is virtually clandestine - which makes it hard to know who to approach when a change is being requested
  • NUNA specifically states in it’s bylaws “Only individuals who are over the age of eighteen years, reside within the defined boundaries, and agree to pay the required dues and comply with the policies and procedures of the Association may become Members.”
  • Shoal Crest’s only online presence is the existence of a yahoo-group.
  • University Area Partners’ by-laws and conduct is lost in a sea of bureaucracy at UT, and their website has just said “Something Cool Is Coming” for ages.

I think the reforms presented in the stakeholder meetings and summarized by Stevie Greathouse in the post above by brwittstruck are only a first step to creating a fair playing field that the LDC initially intended to create.

The draft changes for contact teams is coming up at planning commission tomorrow, if anyone wants to speak then. Otherwise, you can also email all of the planning commission at the emails below.

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I attended the Neighborhood and Planning Committee this afternoon, because they were taking up this item. Here’s one key thing that came out of the meeting: The bylaws template is drafted administratively by city staff, and while staff welcomes council input, council does not vote directly on the proposed bylaws template.

CM Casar, chair of this committee, suggested council gather input on the bylaws and meet with staff to talk through those and implement the revisions to the template. This means that it’s likely these proposed changes that give a little more teeth to the Director of Planning in order to enforce bylaws, plus having a complaint/grievance process will pass council on January 28.

The bylaws template may or may not be completed at that time. Also, the 1/2 full-time employee (FTE) for city staff to help maintain web support for Contact Teams will probably not be available unless funded in the next budget cycle.