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It's Election Day !

Tuesday, November 6, 2001 by

All sides working to turn out the vote

Austin voters go to the polls today to select one of eight candidates to be the city’s next Mayor. Turnout in the special election to replace Mayor Kirk Watson is expected to be five to ten percent. Voters in Austin and the rest of Travis County will also be deciding whether to allow the county to issue up to $185 million in bonds, the majority of which would finance highway right-of-way.

Political consultant Bill Emory of Emory Young & Associates, told In Fact Daily that the early vote throughout the county was 17,396, or 3.3 percent of registered voters. Emory, who is running phone banks to increase turnout for the pro-bond YES! Travis County Bonds, said low turnout is normal in off-year elections. “You usually have between 50,000 and 55,000 votes cast,” he said, predicting only 25,000 to 27,000 would vote in this election out of more than 526,000 registered voters in the county.

Still, Emory was feeling good about the election. “My assumption is we got out early enough,” with information for voters. “I think we’ll be OK,” he said.

Unlike the hotly contested mayoral race in Houston, which has seen two current Council members challenge incumbent Lee Brown, Austin’s mayoral race has been a quiet, near-coronation of former City Council Member Gus Garcia. Garcia warded off most serious potential challengers by letting it be known he would run even before Watson officially announced his plans to resign to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for Texas Attorney General. He then filed paperwork and began raising money as soon as Watson’s decision was made public, eventually raising $100,000 for his campaign.

The following groups and publications have endorsed Garcia: the Austin Police Association, Austin Firefighters Association, Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus, Stonewall Democrats of Austin, the Hispanic Firefighter’s Association, Clean Water Action and Texas Community Project, South Austin Democrats, West Austin Democrats, Austin Neighborhoods Together, the Austin Chronicle, the Austin American-Statesman, Travis County Mexican-American Democrats and The Good Life Magazine.

Garcia’s political clout and name recognition come from decades of activism on local issues. He served on the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees in the 1970’s and help formed the Austin Community College District. As noted by The Good Life editor Ken Martin, “ Garcia was first elected to the City Council in 1991. In 1994, the first time he ran for reelection, he did not draw an opponent, which is unheard of in Austin politics.” By the time he left office in 2000, Garcia was a member of seven different city committees.

In his campaign announcement speech, Garcia cited public safety as his first priority. But in various candidate forums and remarks to local media, Garcia has also shown an interest in using the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office to focus attention on AISD.

The only other candidate with local political experience to seek the office is former City Council Member Eric Mitchell, who waited until just before the deadline to file for a place on the ballot. His campaign has largely consisted of interviews with two local radio stations, KVET-FM and KAZI-FM. Supporters, including Nelson Linder of the NAACP, held a news conference on the steps of City Hall to announce they had essentially “drafted” Mitchell to run in order to express their frustration with the other candidates.

Political consultant David Butts, who advised Garcia, laughingly predicted Monday that Mitchell would outpoll frequent candidate Jennifer Gale. Butts and Paul Saldaña, Garcia’s campaign manager, were making posters Monday night, coloring them in by hand. Both were relaxed and confident of their victory today.

Saldaña said the city has 412, 289 registered voters and 13,635 voted early, or less than 3.2 percent. He said one happy note in the dismal turnout picture was the larger than usual number of voters in East Austin locations. For example, he said 630 voters cast ballots at the HEB on E. 7th Street. Turnout was also fairly good at the Fiesta Mart on E. 38th Street and the HEB at Congress and Oltorf, he said.

Political newcomer Greg Gordon has made a campaign blitz in the final days before the election, spending money on television commercials airing on several local stations. The small-business owner, who describes himself as a “committed conservative,” has based his campaign on “restoring balance to city government” through stimulating the economy and fighting against tax increases. The Travis County Republican Party endorsed Gordon, even though his campaign says he is officially an independent.

Rounding out the field are perennial candidates Gale, Leslie Cochran, Ray Blanchette and David “Breadman” Blakely, plus newcomer Allen Phillips.

A citizens committee charged with delivering an $80 million dollar package to Travis County Commissioners put the Travis County Bond propositions together. But in their effort to split projects equally among the four county precincts and find money to buy land for highway right-of-way, the total package grew to $185 million. If passed, they would result in a property tax increase of $42 per year for the average homeowner in Travis County. Supporters of the proposals say the roads, including SH 130 and SH 45 N, would help alleviate traffic congestion. Opponents, including the SOS Alliance and the Travis County Green Party, have blasted almost all of the road and highway projects as “sprawl roads,” which would primarily benefit builders, developers and construction companies, while encouraging people to live farther away from the central city.

Proposition 1 would set aside $57.4 million dollars for county roadway projects along with drainage and bridge improvements throughout the county. The item in this proposal that has drawn the ire of environmental groups is Travis Cook Road, although it would also set aside money to improve Mozelle Lane and Kennedy Ridge along with repairing older bridges and fixing low-water crossings in East Austin.

Proposition 2 is the only proposition which has gained the endorsement of some environmental groups. It would allocate $28.6 million to buy up parkland in East and Southwest Travis County, plus set aside money to improve two existing parks by adding new ball fields, picnic areas and soccer fields.

Proposition 3 calls for $32.7 million to buy land for the construction of SH 45 N and to widen FM 1826. SH 45 N would run between Anderson Mill Road and FM 685 in northern Travis County. Opponents fear it would contribute to traffic congestion along Mopac.FM 1826, in southwest Travis County, has drawn fire from environmental groups because it is over the Edwards Aquifer.

Proposition 4 includes $66.2 million to buy land for SH 130, which would run on a north-south route through eastern Travis County, allowing some traffic to bypass the crowded portion of I-35 in downtown Austin. Supporters believe it’s essential to divert 18-wheelers from I-35 and create a new north-south thoroughfare, while opponents question exactly how much it would help I-35 traffic congestion. They’re also opposed to the current price tag for the right-of-way, which has escalated since the roadway was first proposed.

Consultant Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions, is working against the bonds. He too is employing phone banks to spur more citizens to vote. He said, “The most likely item to go down is Prop 3 . . . Personally, I think the rest of it’s going to pass, with the suddenly large early vote turnout.” Blizzard was referring to an upswing in votes on Thursday and Friday, the last two days of early voting. He predicted that as many as 60,000 voters might vote, counting early voters.

He said the NO campaign had very little money “until the past week,” finally spending about $20,000. “We spent it down to the last dime,” but no more, he noted.

Polls open at 7am this morning and are open until 7pm tonight. The Travis County Clerk’s Office has a list of polling places on its web site at www.traviscounty.org. Votes will be counted at Palmer Auditorium.

Rainey Street study

May lose funding

Sense of urgency has gone

The city’s interest in shaping Rainey Street’s future may have fizzled with the city’s own belt tightening, Austan Librach, director of the Transportation, Planning & Sustainability Department, told the Historic Landmark Commission at its work session last night.

The City Council had budgeted $100,000 for a study of Rainey Street in June 2000. The same motion included approval of the Seaholm Master Plan. Both were to be completed by ROMA. Urban planner Jana McCann told various commissions over the summer that the study of the 80 acres—bordered by Interstate 35, Cesar Chavez, Trinity Street and Town Lake—was more a study of alternatives than a master plan, as had been the case with the Seaholm property.

Unlike ROMA’s previous projects—the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport and the Seaholm Plant—the Rainey Street area still is primarily in the hands of private owners. Rainey Street is a National Register District. McCann said the ROMA plan would outline the support for three options: preservation of the current historic neighborhood with some appropriate in-fill development, a mixture of historic and new retail or commercial projects and the razing of area structures to allow full redevelopment.

The city’s study of Rainey Street plan was delayed, first by the efforts of private developers and later by difficulties securing the consultant, then put on hold. Now the city is rethinking whether the plan will occur at all, Librach said.

“At this point, we are looking to reassess whether to continue the study or to take back those funds,” Librach said. “We may need to end that study and put the money back into the general fund as part of my five percent cut to the department. Over the next few days, we’ll be assessing that and what to do.”

Those five percent cuts to the departments are part of the city’s efforts to handle “the toughest budget year since the mid-80s,” Librach told commissioners. He warned the commission that budget cuts were likely to affect the longer-range planning functions for historic preservation. Deeper cuts could mean releasing employees from the department, Librach said.

McCann promised commissions during the summer that the Rainey Street study would start by July. Librach told the Historic Landmark Commission that the department’s efforts were “not very far along” and that the city would not lose much in the way of funds if the study were cancelled. Librach admitted the changing economic climate in Austin—and the failure of developers to deliver on the prices promised on land in the area—had mitigated the urgency to get the study done.

Preserving Rainey Street has been one of the top priorities for the Historic Landmark Commission. Commissioner Laurie Limbacher said she would like to see the commission pursue grant funds if the city chose to pass on funding the study for the area.

“I already know what I think should be done,” Limbacher told Librach. “The economic climate may have changed. The sense of urgency has diminished, but I still think it’s an issue that the city will have to face at some time.”

Developers’ efforts to buy property in the Rainey Street area had polarized the neighborhood and “raised expectations about what properties were worth,” Librach told the board. The efforts had left a lot of hurt feelings among neighbors. Chair Lauretta Dowd asked whether the funds for Rainey Street could be directed to other similar efforts. Librach said his preference would be to return the funds to the city’s General Fund.

Did you miss this week's news ? See top of page. Click on the day you want to see.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Election watch parties . . . Mayoral candidate Gus Garcia will meet with supporters at Threadgill’s World Headquarters, 301 W Riverside Dr around 9pm. Then he will walk across the street to Jalisco Restaurant & Bar, at 414 Barton Springs Rd. After addressing supporters there, Garcia plans to head to Palmer Auditorium at around 9:45 or 10pm. Candidate Greg Gordon will start the evening at Saba Blue Water Café, 208 W. 4th St #D. He plans to move to Palmer about 9:30pm. It’s anybody’s guess where candidate Eric Mitchell will be, but Nelson Linder, who has managed the non-campaign, plans to hang out with other Mitchell supporters at the Millennium Entertainment Complex, 1156 Hargrave St. Bond proponents will spend the evening at Palmer, while the anti-bond coalition will gather at Aussie’s, 306 Barton Springs Road . . . Houston to decide light rail question. . . Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is building a 7.5-mile Main Street line, without voter approval. However, according to the Houston Chronicle, 67.9 percent of respondents told pollsters they support continuing construction of that line with 24.6 percent opposed. “Support for the rail line has risen nearly 10 percentage points since a similar poll in September,” the newspaper reports. Houstonians will be asked to vote on two rather unusual ballot items relating to light rail. The Chronicle reports, “City Proposition 1, which City Council placed on the ballot at Mayor Lee Brown's request, would require a vote in the entire Metropolitan Transit Authority service area before light rail can be expanded beyond the 7.5-mile Main Street line under construction. Proposition 3, on the ballot by petition, would require a vote on the Main Street line. If the Main Street line were rejected in that subsequent vote, Metro might be required to rip up work already done.” So those who favor rail are being asked to vote for Prop 1 and against 3. If both pass, Houston will probably have new legal headaches . . . Oops! We’re sorry . . . Planner John Hickman of John F. Hickman & Associates advises us that he is a professional planner, not a traffic engineer, as we said Friday. He does work on transportation, parking and urban planning issues.

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