While Austin City Council continues to dive into issues related to Austin Water and the citywide boil-water notice in effect earlier this month, members also passed several measures Feb. 17 tying into public safety, public library fees and homelessness.

Council will again consider Austin Water next week during an oversight committee hearing and its outgoing Director Greg Meszaros said the utility's own internal review will likely wrap up within two weeks. A resolution sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter and passed Feb. 17 also initiates the process of auditing the utility; Alter said the third-party review could cost the city $250,000 to $1 million.

Safety staffing

In response to the hundreds of current vacancies at Austin's police, fire and EMS departments, District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly brought a resolution to council that would require the development of a citywide plan to fill those staff positions in the coming years.

Kelly's resolution was unanimously approved and now directs city management to provide council with information on historical vacancy trends, the challenges each department faces with filling empty slots and a plan to reach budgeted staffing levels. An update on the plan is expected in late April.

"My goal is to have a transparent process for the city, and it’s important for the council to be aware of the steps necessary to fill these vacancies, which have already been budgeted for," Kelly said.

Council also voted in favor of a $2.5 million contract with public safety consultant Code 4 to handle staffing management for special events in the city such as South by Southwest for five years. Code 4 and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office will provide fill-in patrols in town given understaffing at the Austin Police Department expected for at least the next three years.

Downtown court, marshal program delayed again

Several items tied to changes at Austin courts were again shelved by council Feb. 17.

The first, the creation of a new marshal office to provide security at the Austin Municipal Court, was shut down after drawing a mixed response in recent months over concerns of expanded public safety operations. Security at the municipal court is currently provided by APD officers, a system that will now stay in place.

“We don’t anticipate this coming back. ... I don't believe this is the right direction for the city," District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo said.

Council also passed on making a decision about the relocation of the Downtown Austin Community Court in the wake of community opposition to the proposal. The court mainly serves those experiencing homelessness and is located temporarily at One Texas Center at Barton Springs Road and South First Street. The city is proposing its permanent move to the historic municipal building on Eighth Street at a cost of $27 million.

APD lawsuits

Council voted to spend a total of $10 million to settle a pair of lawsuits brought against the city for alleged "brutal and excessive" force by APD officers during downtown protests in May 2020.

Plaintiffs Justin Howell and Anthony Evans said officers struck both of them in the head with potentially lethal projectiles that left them with serious injuries and disfigurement. Council voted to proceed with a $2 million settlement for Evans' suit and $8 million for Howell's.

"The significant dollar amounts in today’s settlements stem from these particular plaintiffs’ need for ongoing and long-term care," a city spokesperson said in a statement. "Following the protests, APD committed that it will no longer use bean bag ammunition for crowd control. The city continues to reform public safety policies and procedures in the interests of our community."

Both settlements follow the $150,000 officials agreed to pay Feb. 3 to settle a similar suit brought against the city by Arianna Chavez. Settlements will be financed from Austin's liability reserve fund.

Also on Feb. 17, Travis County District Attorney José Garza announced he expects to see multiple indictments of APD officers handed down from a special grand jury in the coming days due to actions during the protests. In response, city and police leaders expressed disappointment in Garza's comments while they await next steps in the legal process.