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Leffingwell, Meeker clash over campaign contributions

Monday, April 21, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Place 1 challenger Jason Meeker and incumbent Lee Leffingwell punctuated an otherwise low key Austin City Council Candidate Forum Thursday night with accusations of improper fundraising. The counter-charges came during a forum sponsored by the Ethics Review Commission and moderated by the League of Women voters, held in the City Council Chambers.


The candidates answered a variety of campaign questions regarding affordable housing, transportation, business subsidies, and other topics. However, at the end of a question about the future of Austin neighborhoods, Meeker accused Leffingwell of ignoring the needs of Austin’s neighborhoods and repeated his request that the Council member return $9,300 donated to his campaign by members of the law firm Armbrust & Brown.


“He accepted the donations at a time when Armbrust & Brown represented Lincoln properties in the lawsuit against them and the city by Responsible Growth for Northcross,” said Meeker, who is an active member of the organization. “He should return the money immediately.”


Leffingwell was not immediately able to answer the charge because of the order of the questioning, but in his closing comments, he made it clear where he stood.


“We receive campaign contributions from a number of different people, but there is no quid pro quo,” he said. “People donate to my campaign because they support me, not the other way around. And, we also make certain all our campaign contributions are legal. My opponent has had an ethics complaint filed over some of his donations.” (See In Fact Daily, April 16, 2008)


Leffingwell and Meeker also disagreed over the need to build Water Treatment Plant 4.


“We are preparing to build Water Treatment Plant 4 near Lake Travis,” Leffingwell said. “This project will be a major improvement towards the city’s future infrastructure. It uses the best water from Lake Travis, it takes advantage of gravity to feed water to the city, which will save electricity and in turn save on hydrocarbons.”


Leffingwell also noted that he led the effort to halt construction of the WTP4 at the Bull Creek headwaters. However, Meeker argued that the plant was not needed.


“Water Treatment Plant 4 is going to cost the city $500 million for something it really doesn’t need,” Meeker said. “Council Member Leffingwell led the city in a water conservation effort that only seeks to reduce consumption by 1 percent on peak days. We need to work on getting Austin’s consumption down to the level of other cities.”


Meeker claimed the city has already spent almost $100,000 on WTP4 without turning a single shovel of dirt.


Place 3


In the Place 3, challenger Randi Shade said Austin’s neighborhoods feel duped by the city over neighborhood planning.


“The neighborhoods have worked long and hard to develop plans for how they want their areas to grow, only to see the city ignore them,” Shade said. “The entire system needs an overhaul.”


Incumbent Jennifer Kim said she was proud of her work with the city’s neighborhood associations.


“We need to update the neighborhood plan system,” Kim said. “We need to make sure the plans are taken into account by city planners. It’s a top priority.”


Asked about dealing with traffic congestion in the Austin area, Shade said it presents a conundrum.


“It seems everybody hates the problem, traffic congestion,” she said. “But they also hate the solution. We need to design our transportation system to get people out of cars and onto buses, bikes and rail.”


Kim said the current plans for transportation improvements do not address congestion.


“It’s mainly ‘Hurry up and get to the bottleneck,’” she said. “We need mass transportation in order to have a more sustainable city.”


Place 4


The Place 4 candidates outlined their positions on single-member districts and affordable housing during the debate, with some differences emerging over the level of affordability the city should promote.


“We have to make sure there’s affordability throughout the income range,” said Cid Galindo. “From 80 percent and above MFI, the market can do well in providing that. From 60 to 80 percent, we need to work with the development community with inclusionary housing policies. And we need to use the $55 million affordable housing bond for those at 60 percent MFI and below.”


Laura Morrision suggested the Council focus its efforts on assisting those families at 30 percent of MFI or below. “We need to use the tools that we have very strongly…for example, our homestead preservation act that Rep. Rodriguez passed for us is still languishing and not yet enacted,” she said. “We also have to develop new tools.”


Robin Cravey called for a new chapter in the city’s comprehensive plan to specifically deal with affordable housing. “I really like to talk about middle-class housing, where the model is that we provide housing for all people on the income level. The middle price range is affordable to folks making the median family income. And then 50 percent below that is affordable to people below the median family income…and then 50 percent above that is the market-rate housing,” he said. “That’s the model we need to use.”


Cravey also reiterated his support for single-member districts. “I’m very much for it,” he said. “We need better representation and more representation.”


Former Austin Neighborhoods Council President Laura Morrison said she also would back a switch to a geographically-based system of electing members of the council.


“It’s clear there is a sense of failure in representation and accessibility to Council Members,” she said. “I’ve come to believe that we really need to give the voters an option for a hybrid system that would have some at-large or sector representatives and some single-member districts.”


And Galindo went one step further, suggesting an even more drastic change to the city’s system of government. Along with considering single-member districts in 2010, Galindo said “we also need to look at the strong-mayor system, which most major cities in America have…and we need to look at the way we govern our electric utility and our other for-profit operations,” he said.


Galindo also proposed a shake-up in way the city provides services by dividing the city up into distinct geographic regions. “I believe we need to move to a system of sector-based city management,” he said pointing to APD’s system of dividing the city into sectors for patrol units. “I think if we follow that model with code enforcement, public works, and several of our other departments, we can have a citizen representative in each of those sectors that can serve as a voice for those citizens in that area that have concerns.”

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