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Place 2 City Council candidates address South Austin neighbors

Thursday, April 20, 2000 by

Five candidates field questions from neighborhood residents

Sixteen days from today voters will decide who gets elected–or gets into a runoff–to sit on the Austin City Council. Last night the candidates strutted their stuff at Becker Elementary School in near South Austin at a forum sponsored by the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association and South Central Coalition.

The crowd varied from 40 to 60 people as the night wore on for more than two hours and the hard-bottomed metal seats got harder still. Ingrid Weigand moderated the event and gave candidates a minute to introduce themselves and pitched the first question, then opened it to questions from the audience. In the Place 2 contest, five of the six candidates appeared, with only Raymond Blanchette missing in action.

Self introductions

Rafael Quintanilla led off, saying, "I've been training for this for 30 years." He said his first activism was registering voters in the Bouldin Neighborhood while a student at the University of Texas.

David "Breadman" Blakely continues to berate the city's water conservation programs, saying people remove restrictors on shower heads, low-flow toilets have to be flushed twice "unless you have diarrhea," and front-loading washing machines "don't get clothes clean." He repeated his pledge several times in the course of the evening to "spend no money without voter approval." "Bring me a problem and a solution and we'll present it to the voters for approval," he said.

Montogomery Lee "Monty" Markland conceded, "I'm as young as I look, 22 and recently engaged." He said, "I'd like special-interest groups to have less influence and citizens to have more." Markland said the city should not be taking on the debt it has in good times because it will come back to haunt the city later.

Raul Ruben Salinas vowed he would "put his skills to work to find nuts and bolts solutions to problems in our neighborhoods." He said affordability was a big issue and he would advocate for working people to get accessible and affordable child care, a living wage, and to bridge the digital divide.

Gloria Mata Pennington continues to play up her experience as a recently retired city employee. "I know the policies, I know the procedures and I know the players," she said. Being on the council would give her the opportunity to "provide service for the community at a different level," she said.

Define Smart Growth and state how you would incorporate neighborhood planning

Blakely defined Smart Growth as "stop growth." Markland did not define it but said he feared it had made Portland unaffordable and would do the same in Austin. Alvarez didn't define it either but said he supported Smart Growth but it is lacking in how it brings neighborhoods into the process. Pennington said Smart Growth is a process to better manage growth. "The problem I'm seeing is people have little trust and little understanding of Smart Growth," she said. Quintanilla defined Smart Growth as "an effort to come up with solutions to growth that's happening each and every day." "We all have to work together to come up with a plan to spread growth out and not overwhelm any area," he said. Quintanilla said growth should be directed to undeveloped areas and to the east.

What are your priorities in health care?

Quintanilla noted that he has spent 15 years working on health issues such as indigent care and is on the board of the People's Community Clinic. Pennington, who supervised the city's senior programs before retiring, said she is a proponent of expanding health-related services and there is a need for a community health plan. Alvarez said indigents need to be informed of how to get care and the community needs to be informed of insurance programs, but "the biggest gap is health care for the working poor." He said anyone can get services from the federally qualified health care clinics on a sliding scale. "It's a matter of getting the word out."

What solutions do you have for traffic?

Quintanilla named better bus service and said he supports several specific improvements, including State Highway 130 and other roadways, as well as light rail. Pennington said, "The list of services Capital Metro provides seems complete; we need to look at why they're not working and fix them." She supports light rail in balance with new highways. Alvarez said traffic is a crisis and "we've got to do a lot of things, not just one thing." He said he would work to implement light rail and wants to expand the Dillo bus service into other parts of town. He wants employers to support ride-sharing, flextime and staggering work hours, and would increase bicycle and pedestrian routes and traffic calming. Markland said he is "hesitant about light rail," which he claims "invariably is met with cost overruns." "We need to focus on getting the bus system to work better," he said. Blakely tried to criticize traffic calming by asking how many wanted speed bumps, and the vast majority of people raised their hands. Only a few hands shot up when he asked who didn't want speed bumps.

What would you do to increase youth programs, especially for teenagers?

Blakely again said to bring him problems and solutions and he'd get voters to vote on it. Markland said the city needs to work on public-private partnerships for after-school care. Alvarez said more educational and recreational opportunities for youth are needed, and young people need to be shown opportunities in the high-tech, music and entertainment industries in Austin. Pennington named programs the city already has and called for more tutoring. "I'm concerned about the digital divide," she said. Quintanilla said a teen's life is "already in motion" and the focus needs to be on early childhood development so children are prepared to keep studying and graduate. He called for partnerships with AISD to increase counselors who can deal with emotional issues, and for employers to provide summer jobs and mentoring.

Place 5 City Council candidates pitch to South Austin neighbors

A diverse group offers radically different solutions

The Place 5 candidates hoping to succeed Council Member Bill Spelman on the dais pitched their positions to the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association and South Central Coalition last night without the presence of Amy Juliet Babich, who is a strong advocate for bicycle and pedestrian programs.

Self introductions

Roger Paul "Chip" Howe ran down his résumé and said his two main issues are "affordability and accountability." He repeated his usual stump speech by offering to meet with groups every three months to get their priorities and then work on them.

William Patrick Wynn said he left his home town of Beaumont, which had destroyed its environment and tax base, and first moved to Austin in 1981. Noting a historical trend for Austin to double its population every 20 years, Wynn said it was critical to guide the city through the next five years. "The problems are too large for one voice to have the answers," he said.

Mary Clare Barry said, "I want to be the voice for neighborhoods at city hall," noting that she is a former neighborhood association president, active in Austin Neighborhoods Council, and vice president of Texas Neighborhoods Together. "We can't turn back the hand of time but we need to provide leadership to grow the way we want to grow," she said.

Linda Jean Curtis said that in 30 years as an activist she had always worked in other people's campaigns but jumped into this contest at the last minute because she has something to contribute. "I think there needs to be somebody who will take on Mayor (Kirk) Watson and the processes and procedures that are undemocratic," she said.

Define Smart Growth and state how you would incorporate neighborhood planning.

Curtis said her definition is "it has been impossible if you have neighborhoods that don't get a hearing at City Hall." "I don't see how we can have Smart Growth unless people come together for a plan," she said. "CSC ( Computer Sciences Corp.) downtown to me is not Smart Growth." Barry said, "I think there's a real breakdown in communications between those of us who live here and upper management at the city. It makes no sense to spend time on a plan if the staff decides the parameters. Those plans need to come from us. We need to be able to depend on the City Council to back us up." Howe said the council "should not dictate what's best" for neighborhoods. "I'm totally against light rail," he said. Wynn said, "I've learned more about Austin in the last six weeks of campaigning than in the last six years, and one thing I've learned is how poor communication is between neighborhoods and city staff. We face gigantic issues in traffic and affordability and we have to give resources to neighborhoods." Wynn said, "How we deliver affordable housing and how we deal with our neighborhoods will determine how successful we are–period. The affordability issue is approaching sinfulness now."

The City Council picks a city manager and after that doesn't have much say. What ideas do you have to increase the City Council's understanding of what's going on?

Barry said while there has been discussion of the Charter Revision Commission's recommendation for single-member districts, "I think we need to talk about a strong-mayor form of government. What we have is a strong-manager form of government." Barry said, "I promise I will be a micro-manager. I'm very tired of being at the podium advocating for my neighborhood while city staff is at the other podium telling me why what I'm advocating is not doable. I'd like to put the strong-mayor system on the ballot." Curtis said, "What we can do in this election is use this campaign to kick off a campaign for reform…a movement to get signatures and get on the ballot to do things the council will not do. I would lead that." Wynn said he recalls the divided, divisive City Councils of the past. "This council is the first in history to effectively agree to work on the quality of life. There's been a sea-change in Austin, a recognition we're in this together, and in business recognizing we need to protect the environment. We've only got three years behind us with an aligned council."

A 7-0 council is not the way to go. Sometimes you have to stand up for what's right. What principles will you stand up for?

Wynn said when he talked about the council's alignment he referred to unanimity on issues like Proposition 2 to preserve land. "Alignment is not in 7-0 votes but in figuring out how to protect the environment and quality of life." Wynn said, "I think we will see council members stepping up and taking on a passionate issue or two, a division of labor" (as if this is not what council members have always done). "When we have that specialization and passion we will have 5-2 votes." Curtis told Wynn, "You're a nice man, but what's covered over with 7-0 votes is philosophical. No one will take on growth. Is it possible to slow growth? I think it is. I'm not saying send people where they came from…but I'll be damned if I let them use that to cover over the growth strategy–which is what the LCRA ( Lower Colorado River Authority) water deal was all about."

What do you think of a proposal to make South 1st Street six lanes with a median?

Wynn said, "We would deserve to be haunted if we ever proposed something like that through South 1st or anywhere else." Howe said his proposal for easing traffic is an express bus system. Barry said, "That's an outrageous idea." She said she has been watching transportation planning for 20 years. "The problem with transportation planning is unless you're involved you don't know about it…When I'm on the council I will keep a close eye on transportation plans. I don't like what's in them or how they come about."

How would you organize your council office to get back to people who call or e-mail?

Curtis said, "I will work my staff like dogs, because I work like a dog…Talking to people is the No. 1 priority of council people…We need to turn around the political culture to address concerns." Barry said, "I expect my office to be the office of the neighborhoods." Howe said he would do it through open communication and coordination. Wynn said, "We need to very quickly figure out how not to get a hundred e-mails from a neighborhood that has a problem, figure out how to cut through the burden to return 200-300 e-mails a day. I would hope the community would like to have as effective a council as possible, and possibly coordinate communications."

What is your position on affordable housing?

Wynn said Austin can learn from Atlanta, which saw close-in property values skyrocket from demand for houses where people could get to work without a long commute. "If we address the traffic crisis it will help with affordability. And we need to subsidize affordable housing. Eighty-percent of median income is a good start but it doesn't get to the working poor, who will be driven from the city." Howe said, "A living wage would help. We should cap increases in property taxes to equal the cost of living and put more money into the housing trust fund." Barry said, "Affordability is the No. 1 issue." She said Texas Neighborhoods Together would sponsor legislation in the next session of the Legislature that's "called affordability but it's about gentrification," which would work by adjusting taxes based on the length of time an owner has lived in a dwelling. Curtis said, "I'm absolutely committed to the living wage." She said, "The housing trust fund should be $10 million, as recommended by Austin Interfaith."

Would you vote yes or no to use city funds to purchase rights of way for State Highway 130?

Wynn said, "Yes, if it's the eastern alignment and the product we want." Howe said, yes, combined with a bus system. Both Barry and Curtis said, "No."

Place 6 City Council candidates answer to South Austin neighbors

Thomas misses out on the opportunity

Incumbent Council Member Willie Clyde Lewis and challenger Nelson Elester Linder faced off last night before the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association and South Central Coalition, without benefit of competition from Austin police officer Danny Thomas, who like Linder wants to take Lewis' place on the council.

Self introductions

Lewis said, "I declared myself an independent. I owe allegiance to no one. I do what's right if it's politically correct or not." He claimed that of 20 endorsements made so far, "I have 19." Linder said he came to Austin in 1981 from Georgia after leaving the U.S. Army and wants to stress the issue of social equity and sharing prosperity. "Many cannot afford housing," he said.

Define Smart Growth and state how you would incorporate neighborhood planning.

Linder said, "It's about having a balance in neighborhoods, the economy, and social policies." He said, "People are our greatest resource." He said he would listen, take notes and stay in touch. Lewis said, "The concept is to control growth, to try to do infill in a smart way, not the traditional way with a half-acre lot because there's not enough room any more." He said the goal is to complete the remainder of neighborhood plans over the next four years, "so when a builder comes in there will not be a fight because the builder will know what the neighborhood wants."

Will you accept neighborhood plans and give them the force of law, so a development proposal has to adhere to the plan, and while neighborhood plans are being developed will you accept a moratorium on variances?

Lewis said neighborhood plans would become part of the Land Development Code and zoning is part of that. "Those are the types of things that become law," he said. "As far as a moratorium, we've done some in some neighborhoods and given exceptions where the neighborhood allowed." Linder said, "I want neighborhoods to have as much power as possible but there's a danger and we need balance. Above all that there's a city and things (need to be) kept in balance."

What do you want on East 11th and 12th streets, and why has it taken so long?

Linder said, "In general, the city has not respected East Austin. I'm for them deciding their own future within certain guidelines, to get more aggressive development in East Austin with less government influence." Lewis said East 11th and 12th were declared slum and blight areas, a master plan was done, and a federal loan was obtained to give development a jump start. "When 6th Street started just a few places opened up and remodeled. Now nothing on 6th Street is empty. That's what we see for East 11th and 12th."

What do you think of Austin Energy's performance?

"I think Austin Energy is doing a pretty good job," Lewis said. "If we got rid of its input to the general fund we would have to raise taxes about 90 percent." He said the city could opt into electric competition or stay out. "I think we should wait and see what other municipal utilities who opt in do. I think we make too much profit, but it keeps the tax rate down. We lowered the property tax the last two years." Linder said, "I favor competition. Invite the market in and let people decide."

What are your health care priorities?

Linder said he wanted the city clinics funded and wanted a citywide health insurance program, and more social services for children. Lewis said the city has been trying to streamline the clinics. He said it would be "ridiculous to close the South Austin dental clinic." "We should make sure every contractor the city has pays for insurance for its employees," Lewis said.

Could we increase the homestead exemption for city taxes?

Lewis said he wasn't sure if that would require legislation. "I've advocated that the city and county if you own your house for 30 years you should be free of taxes no matter your age. After 30 years, you've paid your taxes and helped the city and should be able to take something from it." Linder ignored the question and talked about needing more social services.

Funding for social services has been flat. What would you do to increase it?

Linder said, "Money that's spent on public safety and social services is upside down." He said child care costs are up 50 percent. "I fear how people survive in this city." Lewis said the city is trying to streamline services but funding has been level. "You have to make the hard decisions," he said. "I tried to get the council not to decrease taxes…If we kept the current rate there would have been $3 million to $3.5 million more, so we could raise the things we need to raise."

Who defined the benefits of Smart Growth and who designed the harm to the handicapped? It's a land grab. Are either of you prepared for rent control?

Lewis said he owns rental property and rents it for below market prices. He said the council had passed rules to require that any housing that is assisted by city funds must be visitable by people with disabilities. Linder said the city "needs a living wage ordinance" and a bigger housing trust fund.

This school (Becker Elementary) is on the hit list with Zavala and Ridgetop. We need to keep them open.

Linder said each council member should adopt a school and council members should be more involved in the community. "They don't have a clue," Linder said. He said, "We need more interagency cooperation to solve problems." Lewis said the school board is a sovereign entity and the council can only make suggestions, but is working with the school district on projects such as J.J. Pickle Elementary, where AISD is building the school, the city is building an activity center and a city park will be used as a playground. Although a joint city-county committee is meeting monthly, Lewis said, "We have not been able to get the school board to come on." He said a priority of his is to get sidewalks built around all elementary schools.

Tow-away zone…If you're going to attend today's City Council meeting–which will be held all day at the Lower Colorado River Authority's headquarters–be careful where you park. Word has it that cars parked in the space reserved for Oyster Landing customers will be towed. The prohibited parking space is on the north side of the Hancock Building. Visitors should use the parking spaces on the opposite side of the street, closest to Lake Austin… Candidate packs house…Place 2 City Council candidate Raul Alvarez drew a jammed-pack crowd of supporters to Jovita's last night for a fund-raiser featuring the music of Alejandro Escovedo and poetry of Raul Salinas. Among the contingent were members of the Austin Firefighters Association, which endorsed Alvarez and is providing volunteers in the campaign; Sabino and Lori Renteria, who worked with Alvarez on the Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan; Ann del Llano of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, and Save Barton Creek Association stalwarts Craig Smith and Mary Ann Neely.

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