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Forum shows serious and wacky ideas of those running for office

Tuesday, April 15, 2003 by

At last week’s Austin Neighborhood Council (ANC) forum, City Council candidates began to sound like each other, but offered different ideas on how to improve Austin. All candidates gave general statements affirming that neighborhoods must be protected while promoting Austin’s culture, but none of them scored many points with the audience when answering questions about the future of Austin’s neighborhoods.

Will Bozeman, Austin Neighborhoods Together Political Action Committee (ANT PAC) spokesman, told In Fact Daily, “Feelings are very mixed about the candidates and about whether or not any form of endorsement can be made. We want to be very careful . . . We want to make a strong statement about the issues and the lack of response across the board from candidates and some of the elected officials. There is a lot of dissatisfaction out there right now about where the current Council is with respect to neighborhoods.”

Mayoral candidate Brad Meltzer agreed with cross-dressing perennial candidates Leslie Cochran and Jennifer Gale in saying he wants the Mayor to be more accessible to the public. Cochran plans to listen to the public from a mobile Mayor’s office at a different coffee shop every day. Gale intends to be at different high schools once a week each month and Meltzer wants to host a Mayor’s public access show on television and speak on radio programs. All candidates concurred that Austin will have to plan for the future, cut out waste and reinvent itself. The candidates also stressed that the community and the neighborhood associations should have a say as to what goes on in their neighborhoods.

The mayoral candidates did have different ideas on some issues. When asked about the reduction of code inspectors, Will Wynn suggested the city combine services and proposed that city employees who are already working in the city’s right-of-way look out for code violations. Nofziger said the city needs to increase the number of code inspectors to protect quality of life. Cochran said he had no answer as to how to change Austin’s economy, but added that the answers are in the city. Gale said the city needs businesses that are “remodeling the community” to make sure homes aren’t falling apart, to work with the elderly and to increase the number of Council members to 32. Hermann Luckette, Jr. said the city needs to legalize marijuana, hashish and other soft drugs and put a sin tax on them. The Southwest Texas political science senior also said the city needs rent control.

Place 5 candidates didn’t offer that much new information. Margot Clarke advocated performance-based incentives to companies instead of a “signing bonus” to get companies to move to Austin. Scott Marks suggested a lower speed limit on MoPac to reduce noise levels. He also said the city should make it possible for people to live near their jobs and advocated a homestead exemption. Brewster McCracken said he also advocates a homestead exemption. Jason Pate, who has recently begun to cite statistics, said the city has an obligation to talk and work with neighborhoods. He advocates neighborhood policing and added that communities need to have more power.

Robert Singleton, who vows not to sit on a Council chair should he get elected, said the city needs to increase taxes and lower electric rates. (A friend has told Singleton that when Council members sit in their chairs, their brains are sucked out, he said.) He also said that the city should lend companies money to implement energy-efficient equipment instead of offering rebates. Steve Swanson said neighborhoods need the neighborhood planning process so Austin can be a true democracy. An advocate of empathy, he said the way to deal with the code enforcement problems is for neighbors to get to know each other and for businesses to get to know their neighborhoods. He said that creates a positive impact and would decrease the need for enforcement. Carl Tepper advocated variances being evaluated on a case by case basis.

Place 2 Council Member Raul Alvarez touted his record on the environment and the work he’s done to close the Holly power plant. Steven Adams said he wants to bring “common sense back to Council.” His vision includes getting Lance Armstrong to find money to fund the proposed Lance Armstrong bikeway to help alleviate the city budget deficit. He also said he was against the smoking ordinance. Repeating comments made by Wynn at a previous forum—where he joked that Kyle shouldn’t exist—Adams said neither Hutto nor Kyle should exist. He also quoted from a bumper sticker that Katz has previously quoted: “Love Austin. Live in Buda.”

Candidate Gavino Fernandez, who said he’s running a home-based grassroots campaign, said the city needs Capital Metro to build and improve sidewalks to increase mass transit use. He also supports creating an affordable housing district.

Place 6 Council Member Danny Thomas said he is running on the same platform that won him election three years ago: improve education, promote equality, keep the environment safe and educate the public about how city government works. He said he supports a homestead exemption and said the city needs to do better in public transportation. Thomas, who sits on the Capital Metro Board of Directors, said the transit agency needs to take more chances when making new bus routes to improve services. Challenger Wes Benedict said he advocates using buses instead of light rail. When asked about noise abatement along MoPac, Benedict said the best way to do that is to get businesses out of downtown.

Nineteen of the 20 candidates attended the forum, and addressed the audience in turn. Mayoral candidate Christopher Keating did not attend.

But panel awards Smart Growth points

Candidates for Mayor faced questions about the city’s looming budget deficit during Sunday night’s candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Austin Ethics Commission. And while all candidates said the city budget would be a top priority, few offered specifics about where they would cut spending or which departments would be most likely to suffer layoffs. A tape of the forum will run at 9pm and midnight tonight on Channel 6.

Businessmen Marc Katz and Brad Meltzer repeated their calls to cut red tape and trim excess spending. While Katz did not have any specific programs to be cut, he blamed the budget problem on the current City Council. “As we face a debt that faces the very core of our city, the first thing that we need to look at is ‘how did we get here?’ I normally think that the people in charge take the responsibility for how we got here,” he said. Katz said he would work with city staff to identify areas to be cut, starting at the top. “We’re not heavy with services, we’re heavy with administration,” he said. “We’re heavy with consultants. We’re heavy with advisors.” Katz did not say if he believed cuts in those areas would be enough to bridge the estimated $70 million gap between revenues and expenses during the city’s upcoming fiscal year.

Former Council Member Max Nofziger said of the three options listed by the LWV, none could be ruled out. Those included raising taxes, laying off workers and reducing services. “The new Mayor and City Council will have to review all the options,” he said. “This budget deficit is so incredibly large that everything is on the table. It’s going to be a very difficult task to balance this budget so that services are not curtailed.”

Current City Council Member Will Wynn stressed his commitment to preserving public safety spending. “I do not suggest that we can cut any of the personnel in our public safety departments,” he said. But other services would be considered. “This is the summer that our citizens will truly define what is a core city service and what isn’t. Clearly, there were some departments that we grew disproportionately during the boom,” Wynn said “I suggest that we will bring those departments back down during these times and perhaps there may be some city layoffs.”

Layoffs are only one option to reduce personnel costs. While candidates recognized they are a strong possibility, there were few suggestions on specific departments to target or a methodology for determining where to make cuts. Nofziger said he would cut his own salary and staff, and would also rely heavily on City Manager Toby Futrell when deciding whether to go to shorter work-weeks, reduce employee benefits, cap overtime or eliminate city jobs. “She, I think, understands the City of Austin very well,” Nofziger said. “I think she is exactly the right person to have on board due to her experience at this critical time.”

Wynn, however, described his relationship with the City Manager as one of “dynamic tension.” “I’m proud to have police, firefighters and paramedics coming to me with their own ideas to help me balance out suggestions from the City Manager,” Wynn said. “I have city line employees coming to me giving me suggestions on cost reductions . . . that perhaps can reduce what may be a gut-wrenching decision on layoffs.” Katz also pointed to the current city staff as a source for ideas on how to reduce costs, but did not offer any personnel cost-reduction ideas of his own. “We can keep the people and we don’t have to raise taxes,” he promised. He also hinted that Wynn’s endorsements from the Austin Police Association and local union officials would harm his ability to cut the budget. “I am not shackled with political weight. I have not been endorsed by the political powers that be—that are for no change,” he said. “I am a businessman that can run this thing effectively.”

Austin wants its share before new members added

CAMPO Chair Gonzalo Barrientos averted an argument over representation on the Capital Area Metropolitan Policy Organization’s Policy Advisory Committee (CAMPO PAC) last night by proposing a meeting among the six signatories on the planning agency’s Joint Powers Agreement.

Last night was CAMPO’s first meeting since the City Council decided it could not support the new proportion of representation that has come with the new census. Under the proposal, the membership on the transportation board would tip more firmly toward suburban interests, with the addition of another representative from both Hays and Williamson counties.

The proposed agreement would give Travis County 14 members, Hays County 2 members and Williamson County 5 members. CAMPO would appoint another 3 at-large members. That puts a total of 24 members on the committee, with only four City of Austin representatives.

That didn’t sit well with the City Council. Mayor Gus Garcia told CAMPO last night, “We have concerns about the fact that the initial discussions that we’ve had do not consider weighted voting on some issues,” Garcia told his colleagues. “What has been lost in the discussion is the fact the city has well over 50 percent of the population, but only 16 percent of the representation.” Accordingly, the Mayor has said the PAC should have weighted voting, with the city having a 40 percent share when decisions are made about roads within the City of Austin.

Barrientos (D-Austin), immediately proposed that the six signatories on CAMPO’s Joint Powers Agreement—the Texas Department of Transportation, City of Austin, Travis County, Williamson County, Hays County and Capital Metro—meet together at the Capitol before the next CAMPO meeting to hammer out the issue of proportional representation. CAMPO will not have a meeting next month, giving the six signatories until June to work out an agreement. The City Council had previously decided that such a meeting would be necessary.

As Barrientos pointed out, letting the signatories hash out their disagreements only made sense. No CAMPO agreement can go forward without the six entities’ support. Last month, CAMPO members agreed to allow Barrientos to appoint a Blue Ribbon committee to address some of the representation issues. Now, it’s likely those issues will be forwarded to the signatories. In addition to Austin's complaint, five issues will be on the table for consideration:

• Adding one representative from Hays County, possibly the mayor of San Marcos;

• Adding Bastrop and Caldwell counties as ex-officio members to CAMPO;

• Clarifying that Austin and Round Rock do not get an additional member because of the “50,000 or more” population clause in the current JPA; • Clarifying the membership of state representatives, relative to “wholly or partially” in counties located in the CAMPO area; and

• Deleting five ex-officio members who have never participated in CAMPO proceedings—Capital Metro’s General Manager, the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transportation Authority, the Texas Department of Transportation’s Planning and Programming Division and the University of Texas.

Hays County Commissioner Bill Burnett protested waiting on the final vote, saying that the San Marcos mayor had been named as the second Hays County representative by Hays County Commissioners. He wanted to make sure the mayor was on board as soon as possible.

A sixth issue on the list, changing the name of the Policy Advisory Committee to the Transportation Policy Board, was approved with by-law changes last night.

Barrientos said he would coordinate a meeting at the Capitol for representatives of the six signatories. Travis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner pointed out that many of the signatories will have to meet beforehand to agree on their own position on the issues.

The next scheduled meeting for CAMPO is in June. The May meeting was canceled because the board had no items on the agenda to consider next monthHealth District hearing tomorrow . . . The bill to create a Central Texas Health Care District will have its hearing, finally, before the House County Affairs Committee. State Rep. Elliott Naishtat will lay out the bill on Wednesday sometime after 8am, in room E2.016. Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos filed the companion legislation. The clock is ticking . . . Pool clock ticking too . . . City Manager Toby Futrell closed Barton Springs Pool for 90 days on Jan. 19, saying, “I am doing it because I don’t believe we can have a responsible and reasoned dialogue if the debate is over whether or not to close the pool. In order to open up the focus for us to get to the bottom of this, I’m going to close the pool for 90 days.” (See In Fact Daily Jan. 20, 2003.) Since then, state and federal experts have insisted that the pool is safe, but have not issued the final written report that Futrell feels she must see before opening the gates. (See In Fact Daily, April 1, 2003, March 28, 2003.) Council Member Daryl Slusher said Monday that he is also attempting to finish his report on the safety of the springs and Barton Creek before the 90 days expires on Saturday . . . Early Voting starts tomorrow . . . Ready or not, voting starts Wednesday and will continue through April 29. Election Day is May 3. To check out how to use the new voting system called eSlate™, follow the link on the headline page . . . Alvarez throwing a party . . . Council Member and candidate Raul Alvarez is celebrating the opening of the Early Voting polls with a party at MexicArte Museum, 5th and Congress, from 5:30-7pm Wednesday . . . Meetings . . . City meetings are scarce this week, but the Zoning and Platting Commission will meet tonight at 6pm at the usual spot at One Texas Center . . . CAMPO notes . . .CAMPO has signed a resolution of support for the four projects Hays County will take to the Texas Transportation Commission at the end of May. Those projects, totaling a little more than $42.2 million, will include the reconstruction of four-lane roadways on US 290, between RM 12 and the Travis County line; RM 12, from San Marcos city limits to RM 32; FM 1626, from the Travis County line to FM 967; and FM 967, from FM 1626 to Loop 4.

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In Fact News,

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