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Mayor Watson holds forth at Mueller Coalition candidate forum

Tuesday, April 4, 2000 by

Mayor reveals strategy for redeveloping defunct airport

The annual parade of candidates began in earnest last night with both the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association and Mueller Neighborhood Coalition hosting forums simultaneously, the former at the Regency Apartments adjacent to the new Central Booking Facility downtown, the latter at Maplewood Elementary School. In Fact Daily opted to cover the Mueller Coalition, which is made up of some 17 neighborhoods that have expressed interest in the redevelopment of the defunct Robert Mueller Municipal Airport (RMMA).

While mayoral candidates were given 10 minutes apiece to speak and answer questions, the crowd of about 30 people was clearly not willing to let incumbent Mayor Kirk Watson off the hook so easily, and kept him on the griddle for 36 minutes.

Watson started with a standard stump speech to recite some of the accomplishments of his first term, including the redevelopment of city-owned property downtown that boosted annual tax revenue from about $3,600 a year to about $3.8 million a year for all taxing entities; retrofitting Palmer Auditorium for a performing arts center; starting a new Town Lake Park, planning for of a new Austin Museum of Art, and initiation of multiple downtown residential projects. He noted that voters in November 1998 had approved $152 million in bonds related to traffic and transportation and said those projects were "front-end loaded" to put improvements on a fast track. He said funds for synchronization of traffic signals had been doubled from $11 million to $22 million and was funded early in its entirety to accomplish improvements within two or three years instead of five. Watson bragged on the crime rate, which he called the lowest in 18 years, as well as full staffing of the Austin Police Department.

In appealing to the Mueller Coalition, Watson said he worked hard to live up to the commitment to close Mueller Airport, despite legislative attempts to keep it open. The mayor said Mueller's future would be decided within a framework of three guiding principles:

(1) Finishing and following a master plan, which is being reworked as a result of the state pulling out of the project.

(2) Building a premiere neighborhood that will enhance the surrounding area.

(3) Doing the business of redevelopment in a smart way, by using an asset that belongs to all of Austin for the benefit of all of Austin.

"With these three guiding principles, we will do all right," Watson said.

Gordon Bennett, a Cherrywood Neighborhood Association representative on the original RMMA Redevelopment Process and Goals Task Force, asked what steps would be followed when the new master plan for RMMA's redevelopment is completed by Roma Design Group Inc. of San Francisco.

"I believe a redevelopment authority is the way to go," Watson said. He said that would remove the city council and neighborhoods from being under continual stress over the redevelopment. Watson said there had also been talk of hiring a master developer for the project. Although Watson said he wanted to wait to see what Roma recommends, he added, "One reason I favor a redevelopment authority is because mayors come and go and councils come and go, but we need to follow that (redevelopment) plan."

Watson mentioned several concepts that may be used. He said zoning the land would provide some measure of protection because requests to rezone the land for uses other than specified in the master plan would have to come back to the City Council. In that regard, Watson said a planned unit development might be appropriate to set in place a long-term plan. Also, for land that is to be sold, he said that might be doled out as it is being developed, "so we know what is happening over time." "A master developer would be required to follow that plan."

Asked how much work had been done to improve the infrastructure necessary for redevelopment, Watson replied, "next to none." He said that couldn't be done until plans are drawn for what would be built on the site. "It costs money for infrastructure and if we don't do things right we could end up without anything," the mayor said, noting that downtown redevelopment had stalled for some 30 years. "If we go to a master developer, we could require them to put in the infrastructure," he said. "We've got to be smart about business so we can get something going."

Asked if there would be a national search for a master developer, Watson said, "I don't know if there'll be a national search or not." Noting the Austin American-Statesman recently reported the possibility of swapping land at RMMA with Stratus Properties Inc., who might become the master developer, Watson said a number of things were being analyzed that might benefit the whole region. "To do a master developer we would first issue a Request for Qualifications to qualify who would be best," and reduce that to a certain number, "then issue a Request for Proposals" for the best project. "The good news about negotiating is you can qualify them in some way to protect yourself as a city. As long as you keep those three principles in mind, you don't have to fear other developments."

Architect Girard Kinney, who chaired the original RMMA Redevelopment Process and Goals Task Force, noted that the task force had recommended four years ago to create a redevelopment authority to manage the project. "I don't know why we can't have an authority with expertise of a master developer but not deed the property over to them. Why are we even thinking of negotiating with a local entity?" Kinney said.

Watson said he wanted to wait till Roma's report is received, but added, "I'm a believer that we need an authority that outlives all of us." He said that would help prevent some future task force from questioning the need to go forward with the redevelopment master plan. "I've been to San Diego. I've talked to Stapleton (a 4,700-acre airport redevelopment project in Denver–see In Fact No. 70, Nov. 20, 1996)," Watson said. "I believe I have a good idea" of how redevelopment authorities work. "The city needs to be in a position to negotiate," he said. "If we use those three principles we should have no fear."

Kinney followed up, asking, "Why negotiate behind closed doors?" With regard to Stratus Properties, Watson said that was necessary due to pending litigation. "But if we can develop this property in a way that…you folks want it to and get it done and provide benefits to the whole community, it ought to get done.

"You elected us to do things on your behalf," Watson said, pointing to the Bradley Settlement as a model of things negotiated in private and then brought out for public review before enactment. "You elected us to evaluate those kinds of proposals."

In a follow-up interview, In Fact Daily asked Watson how he would allay fears over the way developers were picked to redevelop property downtown without a public process. He replied, "We have to be flexible enough to look for the best opportunities for the community as a whole, and stick with the principles that will give us the best results." Asked if there was a chance that a developer would be picked in the way that Amli Residential or Post Properties were picked to develop multifamily housing projects (without soliciting proposals), Watson replied, "We should not rule out that possibility of doing it differently from an RFP process…As long was we stand by the three principles, we ought to be able to look at processes that may be better than an RFP."

The also-ran candidates

Watson, age 42, faces three opponents in his bid for reelection: Albert Leslie Cochran, age 48; Jennifer Lauren Gale, 39; and Dale Adrian Reed, 53. Cochran and Gale are homeless transvestites, Reed is a cab driver. Gale did not attend the forum.

Cochran wore very high heels, a shiny mini skirt, a bright pink boa and a mad-hatter's tall goofy hat with a large Guinness label on it, not to mention toe nails and finger nails adorned in bright purple polish. He said he was encouraged to run by people who supported his ongoing protest against the police. "I've seen a lot of abuses in how police treat people," Cochran claimed. He said it was unfair for citizens to have to remove their dog's excrement while mounted police don't have to clean up after their animals.

Though most of the audience members seemed to be averting their eyes rather than look at him, Cochran did manage to draw a few questions. His answers: he filled out the census forms. He said light rail was definitely needed. As to RMMA, Cochran said the city was using millions of dollars of tax money to destroy an airport that cost millions to make. He said Mueller should have been retained for use by small aircraft. Near the end of his allotted time, Cochran stood fumbling with his notes for an extended period, seemed ready to speak at one point but gave it up. "I'll think of it after my time is up," he said.

Reed said he had associate and bachelor's degrees in law enforcement and was currently working on an associate's degree in architecture at Austin Community College. "My main goal as mayor is to rebuild the main streets of Austin," he said, including more lanes, sidewalks, and sewers. He said he wanted to diversify the economy beyond high-technology and build affordable housing on vacant lots in East Austin and other parts of town. Reed said he opposes light rail and wants to build a zoo at RMMA as a major tourist attraction.

Place 2 candidates tout their qualifications to win council seat

Mueller Neighborhood Coalition airs issues with candidates

Five of the six candidates vying to follow the tough act of Council Member Gus Garcia in Place 2 on the City Council showed up to woo members of the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition last night. Notably absent was Montgomery Lee "Monty" Markland, 22 years of age.

David Henry "Breadman" Blakely

Leading off the parade was Blakely, a 78-year-old retired U.S. Air Force major, who said, "I want to instill in the city council an attitude of servitude to the people of Austin." He claimed the City Council members "do what they want to do regardless of what you say," citing as proof the inattention paid to people who come to address the council in the three-minute Citizens Communications.

Blakely said, "I will not make a decision that affects your money but will submit it to a referendum." He said that would overcome voter apathy. "Let's get more voters out to get the council to serve you instead of dictating to you." He opposes the construction of a homeless center, posted on this week's City Council agenda for a $3.9 million forgivable loan and $111,000 in fee waivers, saying the council "is obsessed with a Hilton Hotel for 250 tramps living in the city."

Rather than support affordable housing initiatives Blakely said, "I'd rather work on reducing the high cost of building in the city." He blamed the Save Our Springs Ordinance for creating high-cost housing. "A craftsman who works with his hands cannot afford to live in Austin," he said. "The police cannot live in Austin." He said he would eliminate administrative costs that drive up the cost of housing.

Raul Ruben Alvarez

"I feel I'm the best candidate because I have the experience that fits right now," said Alvarez, age 33. He ran down his résumé, including a bachelor's degrees in industrial engineering and a master's in community planning, and noted his accomplishments in transportation, environmental protection and neighborhood planning. (See In Fact Daily profile, Jan. 11, 2000.) That includes working with the Trans Texas Alliance on transportation issues. He has worked with PODER ( People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources) and is environmental justice director for the state Sierra Club.

Noting that he had worked on the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan, Alvarez said, "The city plans to do 50 neighborhood plans in the next five years. We need someone who knows how the process works." He said he would ensure that "no one is left behind," by attending to affordable housing, health care and child care.

"I will be a full-time council member and find solutions to problems the city faces," Alvarez said. "That's what an engineer and community planner does." Citing his neighborhood protection plan recently released, the candidate said he would be sure neighborhoods have information, opportunities and resources to address transportation and infrastructure issues and make sure neighborhoods are affordable. "I want to protect the people who make Austin what it is," he said.

Asked if he supported creation of a redevelopment entity for Robert Mueller Municipal Airport (RMMA), Alvarez said he would vote for it and work to achieve active and meaningful neighborhood participation.

Raymond Blanchette

The 69-year-old retired U.S. Air Force major repeated the same themes he used to no avail in the 1997 mayoral election, trying to convince listeners that his long-ago 20 years of military service, including 177 combat missions in Vietnam, qualifies him to solve city problems. He said he ran against Council Member Bob Larson and sought the mayor's office twice, making this his fourth bid for a seat on the City Council. Blanchette said he got involved in politics when the council had three certified public accountants and Brakenridge Hospital was "$23 million in the hole." "I wanted to bring my experience as a quality control officer to inspect what's wrong and fix it."

Asked if he would wait until the City Council has complete information about leasing and selling land at RMMA before making a decision, Blanchette said, "I spent a lot of time on staff work in the Air Force…I don't make decisions till I get all the facts."

Blanchette, whose house was bulldozed by the city, said the City Charter provides the city attorney to protect the City Council members and the City of Austin. "We spent millions to lobby the Legislature but nothing to protect your rights," Blanchette said. "When the city does something to a citizen that's illegal, we need attorneys to look out for our rights."

Gloria Mata Pennington

Pennington, 62, said she moved to Austin with her husband in 1962 and still lives in the same house on Shoal Creek Boulevard. She was a stay-at-home mom and PTA president who went to work for the city's Parks and Recreation Department in 1976, rising to manager of senior programs. "I know how to prepare and monitor the general fund budget and federal grants," she said. "I know the issues and the players. That puts me a step ahead of candidates who have to learn those things."

The candidate said she was concerned about neighborhood infrastructure and would "deliver on a promise for more sidewalks."

Asked about affordable housing, Pennington said she would support it for both low- and moderate-income people. She said she supports mixed-use development. "Eliminating constant use of automobiles is the way to go," she said.

Rafael Quintanilla

"I'm running because I think Austin deserves to be a great city and I can help that along," said attorney Quintanilla, 53. "We talk about being the next great technopolis but we're behind in infrastructure to get around," he said, naming water and wastewater and sidewalks as two deficiencies in some areas.

Noting his 35 years in Austin, Quintanilla said, "I am rooted here and will spend the rest of my life here. I've worked 20 years in a variety of community service organizations." (See In Fact Daily profile, Feb. 17, 2000.) He said he had successfully managed a state agency of 200 employees and spent more than four years on the Planning Commission in the early 1980s. "Neighborhood and developer concerns need to be balanced," he said. "We cannot assume that every project is a great project for that location."

Quintanilla said he has spent 10 years on the Citizens Health Care Network and noted that some "$50 million a year is spent on health care. We must provide accessible and affordable health care." He said his work as a hearings examiner at the Texas Public Utility Commission gives him a good grasp of the issues facing the city's electric utility.

Asked if he supported swapping land over the aquifer for land at RMMA, Quintanilla replied, "I would not unless the neighborhood supports it." Asked if he would support the creation of a redevelopment authority for RMMA, he replied, "If the Coalition supports it, I'd support it. I don't know why anyone would oppose it."

Place 5 candidates jockey for chance to win a council seat

Mueller Neighborhood Coalition offers forum

All five candidates vying to succeed Place 5 Council Member Bill Spelman made their pitches to the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition last night, although In Fact Daily missed the presentation by Amy Babich, who was interviewed earlier.

Amy Juliet Babich

Babich, age 47, has lived "car free" in Austin since 1976 and done the same in Philadelphia, Santa Barbara and Riverside, Calif. She works for the Texas State Library and co-owns Easy Street Recumbents, a bicycle sales business.

Her transportation platform includes making it a city priority to facilitate nonmotorized transportation, spending as much on sidewalks as is spent to park private cars, and promoting bicycling for transportation with car-free bikeways. She would supplement Capital Metro's transit with "city run buses and trams." Babich wants the regional light rail system built and if the initiative fails she would like the money for it to be used on sidewalks, bikeways and trams–not on highways. She opposes building State Highway 130.

Among her environmental issues are protecting the Edwards Aquifer, "but not by sprawling over East Austin." She wants city buildings to have rainwater collection systems and windows that open, and would continue buying land to protect it from development.

Mary Clare Barry

"To preserve neighborhoods we know and love we need a voice at City Hall," said Barry, 49, a former president of the Brentwood Neighborhood Association who has been active in the Austin Neighborhoods Council and a board member of Texas Neighborhoods Together.

Barry has served on the Citizens Planning Implementation Committee, Citizens Bond Committee, Urban Forestry Board and Urban Transportation Commission.

As to the future development of Robert Mueller Municipal Airport (RMMA), Barry said, "It all comes down to improving communications between the city bureaucracy and neighborhoods. I will make the connection with those who represent us stronger." Barry said she would support active neighborhood involvement in whatever master plan is developed. "It's important that citizen groups be at the table from the beginning to the end, and I'd like citizen groups to have the final say," she said.

Linda Jean Curtis

"I lied in the leaflet," said Curtis, 49. "I've been an activist for 27 years, not 20 years." She said there were some fine people running for Place 5, adding, "What we need is something that goes beyond any individual" to change the "process by which decisions get made in Austin."

She said she wants to "bring citizens together and stand up to the mayor," who she faults for alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act in connection with the $100 million water deal made with the Lower Colorado River Authority. "I have petitioned to stop bad things from happening," Curtis said. "Now we need to make good things happen."

Asked how she would "stop the forces for dealmaking," Curtis replied, "I don't know the answer except this has to be done block by block in Austin." She said she would support the establishment of a redevelopment authority for RMMA.

On affordable housing, Curtis said, "If I happen to win this election I will take a major hit in pay, and may not fit into your (RMMA) development. We need to fight for more" affordable housing."

Paul Roger "Chip" Howe

Howe, 48, said he arrived in Austin in 1971 and graduated from UT Austin and had worked in the mental health field, currently as a clinical coordinator for brain-injured adults with the Mary Lee Foundation. He serves on the Mayors Committee for People with Disabilities and is past president of the Association of Child Care Workers, he said.

As a council member, Howe said he would like to meet with every neighborhood organization every three months. "Currently about seven or eight vocal neighborhoods get their way," he said. "I'd like every neighborhood to get their way." He said council meetings should end at 11 p.m. and business should be finished so people could go to work the next day.

Howe said he supports 50 percent affordable housing at RMMA when redeveloped and wants Austin to develop more industries besides technology. "Let's make the city affordable," he said. "I'm the only candidate against light rail," Howe claimed. He promised to present his position at the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Although he had previously been for single-member districts, Howe said he now opposes them. He said they provide a citizen with one representative instead of six and a council member with bad rapport with other council members "could be hurting for three years."

William Patrick Wynn

"I'm passionate about what happens in this town," said Wynn, 38. Although he was born and raised in Beaumont, Wynn says his ancestors had been here since the mid-1800s, including a great uncle who ran a store in Hyde Park. His two biggest reasons for running are his daughters, ages four and one, he said.

Wynn called himself a small business man involved in historic preservation, although that may be a bit too modest, given the plans for one of his partnerships to build a 495,000-square-foot high-rise office project called Congress at 4th that has been estimated to cost $99 million ( Austin American-Statesman June 11, 1999).

As a board member of the Heritage Society of Austin, Wynn said he wants to preserve parts of old Austin. "We face huge issues in the form of traffic and affordability. The next three to five years will determine if we succeed."

In response to a question, Wynn said he supports light rail and is pleased that it will be going to the electorate. "I want as many options as we can get." Asked if he supports creation of a redevelopment authority for RMMA, Wynn replied, "For three to four years I've been calling for an economic development corporation, and Mueller is the prime reason we need it." He said he wants "not a master developer but a master economic development entity. We need to make hay while the sun shines. There will be an economic downtown in Austin and many of us are hoping for that."

Willie Lewis faces two challengers in Place 6 contest to win second term

Mueller Neighborhood Coalition provides forum

Place 6 pits incumbent Council Member Willie Lewis against two challengers to see who will maintain the representation for African Americans on the City Council.

Willie Clyde Lewis

Lewis, 63, claims 42 years in Austin, although he is retired from the U.S. Air Force. Educated in management of human resources, Lewis says he owns residential rental property.

He said the council had "done a fairly good job in almost three years on the council, but I don't agree with everything." Lewis cautioned his opponents to consider some of the things they had been saying they would do if elected, because the City Council did not have the power to do all those things.

Lewis said the one thing to know about him is that, "I'm independent. No group tells me how to vote." He said he has been working with neighborhoods about 15 years and served as president of the Pecan Springs-Springdale Hills Neighborhood Association. He also served on the city's Airport Advisory Board.

Asked why the city had not hired someone to oversee redevelopment of Robert Mueller Municipal Airport (RMMA), Lewis said, "I have an item on the agenda this week to direct the city manager" to see to that. Asked why that has taken four years since the RMMA Redevelopment Process and Goals Task Force recommended it, Lewis said the "city manager opposed it because it would be a loss of control. He wants to control total interim use." Later asked his assessment of City Manager Jesus Garza, Lewis said, "As a manager he does a fairly good job, but I think he takes advantage of council members. He splits people to get his way. If it was my decision, we'd have a new city manager and I've told him that."

Nelson Elester Linder

Linder, 41, said he arrived in Austin in 1981 while in the U.S. Army and found the city "relatively affordable," enough so that he could go to school, work full time and graduate from Huston-Tillotson College. Since then he's been an independent insurance salesman, he said.

He said he would focus on social equity, citing a study that indicated "a lot of folks can't pay rent, can't buy food." He said people who make less than $7 an hour can pay for rent, child care and health care. He said child care costs were up 50 percent. He said more blue-collar manufacturing jobs were needed to pay more money so that workers could afford housing and the education to get a good job.

Linder's other main issue is social justice. "Forty percent of all people in the prison system are African Americans," he said. Fifty percent of Hispanics who apply for home loans are denied, and 40 percent of African Americans." He said, "I want to make this a more humane city for everyone."

Danny Thomas

This 49-year-old senior patrol officer makes $51,000 a year working for the Austin Police Department but says he's willing to work for the $30,000 pay of a city council member, putting his 21-year career on hold. "I want open records so the community is aware of what's going on," he said, calling for regular meetings with the presidents of neighborhood organizations.

"I'd make sure that libraries are up to the 21st century," Thomas said. He would work on reducing traffic congestion and make neighborhoods safe for children.

In response to questions, Thomas said he supports light rail and community policing. He said he would bring "integrity, honesty, and availability" to his council duties. Asked if he favored a "citizen run board to examine police brutality," Thomas said, "Yes, if the chief would still be chief. I would not have citizens run the police department, but to have input and build rapport with the community."

Candidate forum tonight…The Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus will hear from City Council candidates tonight at 7 p.m. and then vote to endorse candidates of their choice. The event will be held in the AFL-CIO Building at 11th and Lavaca. For more info, call co-chair Allan Baker at 474-0750 or visit the web site at www.outaustin.org… Sierra Club endorsements…The Austin Sierra Club has announced that it endorses Mayor Kirk Watson for reelection, Place 2 candidate Raul Alvarez to succeed Gus Garcia, Place 5 candidate Clare Barry to succeed Bill Spelman, and Council Member Willie Lewis for reelection… Alvarez fund-raiser… Raul Alvarez, candidate for Place 2 on the Austin City Council, will hold a fund-raiser Thursday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Donn's Depot, 1600 W. 5th Street. The Nash Hernandez Orchestra will provide the music. For more information, call 478-7969… Key campaign staffers…Place 6 council candidate Danny Thomas, a senior patrol officer with the Austin Police Department, has named Linda Dailey as his campaign consultant. Dailey ran in 1999 and had said she would run in 2000 but backed out in favor of Thomas. "We are looking forward to Danny's victory in May, and I will return to the arena at a later date," Dailey tells In Fact Daily. Place 2 candidate Rafael Quintanilla says his stepdaughter, Patricia Camacho, will act as his campaign coordinator but he will hire neither a campaign manager nor a consultant. "I don't think I'll need to do that," he said. "I think I've got it in hand." He said he wrote the copy for his recent slick mailer that was mass mailed all over town and Gilbert Rodriguez did the layout for the piece. Place 5 candidate Linda Curtis is trying to line up a volunteer campaign coordinator. She's using as her campaign slogan the "Little Less Corruption" tag that carried the day for the campaign finance initiative she spearheaded in 1997.

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