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Leffingwell keeps seat with wide electoral margin

Monday, May 12, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Challenger Jason Meeker went down to a bruising defeat in his contest against incumbent Council Member Lee Leffingwell on Saturday, but he said he did accomplish one measure of success: He brought the development debate back to center stage in Council elections.


That strategy did not appear to be enough to win a seat on Council this time, although the grumbling among groups such as Livable City and the Austin Neighborhoods Council would indicate a growing dissatisfaction with the city’s neighborhood planning process and its results.


Leffingwell still won by a decisive 68 percent in Saturday’s election. Council Member Mike Martinez introduced Leffingwell at an election-night watch party at Zocolo’s on West Lynn. Martinez spoke of Leffingwell as a valued Council colleague.


“When I decided to run for office, I didn’t think it could be this good. And one of the reasons I think it’s been the most amazing experience is because of this gentleman right here. This is the how collegiality should work,” Martinez told the crowd. “Our relationship transcends difference on the dais and policy perspectives. It’s been a great experience because he’s a great guy. I’m proud to support him. I was proud to support him and appear in his ad. That’s what we do. We support one another.”


“We both like long walks on the beach,” Leffingwell joked.


Leffingwell told the crowd – which included a decent showing of current City Hall regulars, as well as Mayor Will Wynn – he was encouraged by the support.


“I think that any person who is running for re-election, an incumbent, (should realize) it’s really a referendum on what you have done in your first term,” Leffingwell told the crowd. “So the people out there, the voters of Austin know what my record is, they know what I’ve done. They either like it or don’t like it, and based on these early returns, I believe the voters of Austin like what I’ve done.”


Meeker, spokesman for Responsible Growth for Northcross, ran on a platform that neighborhoods had been shut out of the decisions at City Hall. His positioning in the race clearly raised the profile of an issue that has led to some of the most contentious fights at City Hall: the sometimes-tense balance between developer rights and neighborhood preferences. Most of the city’s biggest battles – the Northcross Wal-Mart, the placement of downtown and waterfront condominium projects and even the fights under the umbrella of the Save Our Springs ordinance – go back to that core balance.


“Economic development and neighborhood preservation should go together,” Meeker said in prepared remarks for the municipal channel. “They shouldn’t overrun each other. So that’s one of my proposals that I’m going to bring to City Hall, to make a change so we will stop having these contentious fights between neighborhoods and development.”


Both Meeker and Leffingwell agree it is an issue. Meeker, for his part, wanted to see the city create a Department of Neighborhoods and a public advocate who could serve as an ombudsman between the city and neighborhood groups.


At an election night party at Mangia Pizza on Mesa Boulevard, Meeker pledged to continue the fight to add those initiatives to the city. He also talked about land use that takes into consideration impact on neighborhoods. For instance, the Mangia’s Pizza site could have easily been a McDonald’s, Meeker said. Both could require the same zoning, but the kind of impact the respective restaurants have on the community is different.


The creation of a department that would identify opportunities for developers to place proper types of development next to neighborhoods would lessen the fights and squabbles, the friction and the lawsuits that go on right now, Meeker said.


Leffingwell was not a big fan of Meeker’s approach to resolve problems such as the Northcross Wal-Mart. RG4N’s efforts involved sometimes-strident commentary, public rallies and even threats of litigation. Asked to respond to the concept of a Department of Neighborhoods to resolve the issue, Leffingwell said he recognized the problem but gave a thumbs-down to Meeker’s suggested solution.


“I have heard him raise that issue (of a Department of Neighborhoods) numerous times during the campaign, and my response is, we have a Department of Neighborhoods: the Department of Neighborhood Planning and Zoning,” Leffingwell said. “Now, if that department is not working the way it’s supposed to, then we need to do some work on it. And obviously…and this is no reflection on the staffers who work there…I know they’re understaffed, we need to do that.


“But I don’t think the answer is to create a new bureaucracy within city government, and who knows what that would cost? We could take a look at other city departments, and I’m sure we’re talking in the multi-milllions of dollars, when all we have to do is go back and take a close hard look at maybe revising some of the procedures and adding staff to our existing Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department.”


Leffingwell said his second term would focus on the work he had begun in his first three years on Council. Leffingwell, the former chair of the Environmental Board, is well known as the Council’s highest profile environmental advocate. He cited energy conservation, water conservation and the city’s zero waste goals as important.


“I think a very big issue in the coming years will be solid waste. We need to dramatically improve our recycling,” Leffingwell said. “We’re initiating a single-stream recycling program later this year. We’ve begun work to dramatically reduce the plastic bags that go into our landfill. And we’re going to be working on other things to try to meet that goal of zero waste by 2040, or sooner, if we can.”

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