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Crime forum highlights community concerns

Tuesday, May 6, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The questions from community leaders at last week’s City Council forum – which focused on issues related to crime – were as interesting, or perhaps even more interesting, than the responses of candidates at the forum.


With a less than a week to go before Election Day, community groups are suffering from serious forum fatigue when it comes to the upcoming city election. What raised the stakes at Thursday’s forum – and made it more relevant than the pat answers of most forums — was the specificity of the questions from the panel, all members of the Austin Police Chief’s Forum.


Panel members represented West Campus, North Central and South Austin. This was a forum about crime and ways to address crime, and that is different across the city. In West Campus, for instance, residents want specifics about responses to the loud parties. In North Central Austin, a forum participant was concerned that neighborhood groups were not taken seriously when it came to chronic crime issues. And a representative from South Austin noted that burglars were using door-to-door solicitations to case potential homes.


The answers provided a contrast in styles, especially in the match-up between incumbent Jennifer Kim and challenger Randi Shade in Place 3. Kim, who has sounded somewhat nervous in a number of recent appearances, appeared to have carefully crafted her introduction, point-by-point, for the specific group. Shade was much more relaxed in her tone when she discussed her background qualifications for the job.


In the crowded race for Place 4, Cid Galindo had the endorsement of the public safety groups coming into the crime forum, but his tone and answers were stiffer than either opponents Robin Cravey and Laura Morrison, who both appeared to be more relaxed with the group.


As to specifics, the questions teased out a number of differences among the opponents. Asked to suggest how to handle crime hot spots, incumbent Lee Leffingwell stood staunchly behind Chief Art Acevedo, both supporting Acevedo’s recent realignment of police divisions to address high-crime areas and the use of fixed monitored cameras.


Place 1 opponent Jason Meeker suggested more neighborhood policing and additional communication with City Hall. Allen Demling suggested a more equitable distribution of city support services. He also suggested a more visible presence of police officers in appropriate areas.


In Place 3, Ken Weiss used his introduce to talk about his experience running the four shelters in San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina. Kim gave a laundry list if her priorities: small businesses; families and children; and protecting the environment and neighborhoods. She also noted her opposition to toll roads and the Northcross Wal-Mart.


Shade spoke of her unique experience as a CEO in the non-profit, public and private sectors. She also noted that during her experience running AmeriCorps, she had taken a particular interest in community policing, even in the early ‘90s. She also said crime was not simply an East Austin problem; it was a citywide problem that needed to be addressed collectively.


Asked to address the chronic crime problems in North Central Austin, Weiss spoke philosophically about all areas of the city sharing in the burden, as well the assignment of officers to clean out the criminals in the neighborhood. That drew applause.


Shade spoke of linking public safety planning with land use planning. She also noted the need to distinguish between service providers and halfway houses that were doing a good job and those that were not. Kim noted that she had met with the North Austin Civic Association and that she would be willing to use liens to address chronic nuisance properties.


In Place 4, Galindo hit his urban planner and green builder credentials, his four years on the Planning Commission and his endorsement from the three public safety groups which he attributed to the fact that his platform emphasizes “safety comes first.” He touted himself as being the only candidate to create a comprehensive traffic plan to address Austin’s congestion issue.


Cravey offered up his own history in Austin, including a stint driving a taxi for Roy’s Cabs, noting he sometimes had relied on police while he was on the job “to help me get out of a jam” with a difficult customer.


Perennial candidate Jennifer Gale promised just about everything but the kitchen sink, took credit for the University of Texas-Medical Branch idea, ending a Capital Metro bus strike and persuading the county to put medians on Highway 71. She mentioned at least twice that former Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman had agreed to serve as her executive assistant. Another Place 4 contender, Ken Vasseau spoke of using eminent domain to address blighted areas and create affordable and safe housing.


Morrison spoke of her involvement in groups such as the Austin Neighborhoods Council, which had made additional outreach efforts during her two-year term as president to bring in the East Austin neighborhoods. She also mentioned her work on the McMansions committee and HousingWorks policy committee crafting language on affordable housing initiatives.


Sam Osemene is a parole officer who has lived almost 20 years in Austin. He pledged to do a better job on Council, which he has openly defined as smaller government. Too much government from the City Council had led to a loss of personal freedom, he said.


“This election isn’t about who raised the most money or who got the most endorsements,” said Osemene, who pledged conservative principles. “It’s about the candidate who has the best common sense to solve the problem, and I’m the best candidate to do that.”


Asked how to handle difficult neighborhood situations – given the assumption that neighborhoods had little standing in the process to enforce laws, codes and ordinances – Osemene promised full notification when a halfway house or serious criminal offender moved into a neighborhood. Morrison said Council should be forced to be accountable for the commitments it makes to neighborhoods so that neighborhoods would know laws are enforceable.


Cravey spoke of his experience as part of the neighborhood’s commander’s forum, which provided a way for neighborhoods to speak directly to the officers in their neighborhoods. Galindo stressed neighborhood-level programs that would have the most impact.


Voters may cast ballots today and Tuesday or on Election Day, which is Saturday.

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