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Forum draws candidates out on some nonstandard issues

Monday, March 23, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Better Austin Today (BATPAC) promised a candidate forum that would be a People’s Forum for Austin’s May election. So while no single issue emerged during Sunday’s two-hour event, candidates did have a chance to address a broad range of issues.

Most of the candidates did show up for the event although Carole Keeton Strayhorn was a no-show. Her campaign signs, on the other hand, have begun pop up all around town. And Jose Quintero, a last-minute challenger to incumbent Mike Martinez, also was absent from the Sunday event, held at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

With this forum one among many, candidates attempted to play to their strengths. For instance, when posed a question about unregistered sub-par group home facilities, mayoral candidate David Buttross noted that exact issue was one he wanted with the ownership of a nursing care facility. Asked about what needed to be done to improve Austin, mayoral candidate Brewster McCracken noted it was jobs, which led to his major platform plank of drawing clean energy industry to Austin.

City web site

And Lee Leffingwell, the third of four mayoral candidates present at the meeting, noted that the overhaul of the city website was launched at his initiative, after a proposition failed to make government more transparent. A website consultant’s contract is on this week’s Council agenda, to the tune of $704,000.

The question posed about the website was whether the city should spend that money, given the difficult financial times. Most candidates were supportive – noting that much of the money came from a various sources — with the exception of one-time-Council-member-turned-candidate Bill Spelman.

Spelman, a professor in the LBJ School who is running to fill the seat being vacated by McCracken, often appeared the most comfortable of the candidates, possibly because he runs without an opponent and possibly because of his three years on Council. Spelman said he would not support the web site consultant contract, adding the city would be better served to hire in-house talent, instead of repeatedly going to outside vendors to fix whatever happened to be wrong with the current website.

That drew rare applause from the audience. Spelman built on a response from future colleague Martinez—who noted that $500,000 may be coming from Austin Energy funds – instead of taking it out of the typical general revenue stream. Spelman said those utility funds were just as vital to the impending budget as any other revenue coming into the city. “Often I see the Council saying that revenue doesn’t count because it comes from Austin Energy. It’s not free money,” Spelman told In Fact Daily after the forum, because it comes from ratepayers.

Candidates Chris Riley and Perla Cavazos are both vying to fill Lee Leffingwell’s Council seat, and both have served on the Planning Commission. The two were asked whether CURE zoning should be put up for city discussion, possibly including input on whether such a high floor-to-area ratio was necessary.

Both had to say they were generally supportive of CURE, which applies only to the Central Business District. Cavazos said she was not completely opposed to it, knowing that density was being traded for community benefits. But she could tell the audience that when the CURE zoning came too close to residential neighborhoods – such as in the case of Ranch 616 on Seventh Street – she had voted against it. Instead, she favored DMU zoning for the large-scale residential property.

Riley, who spent a long stint on Planning Commission, including terms as chair, is a well-known supporter of a denser central city. Riley said the benefit of the denser zoning downtown is compact living. He, too, mentioned the community benefits that developers offer in exchange for higher density. Riley said any allowance for additional density should come from a “carefully crafted program.”

Billboard questions

And candidates did not always avoid controversy. Asked about the billboard ordinance, Martinez told the group that he carried recent revisions. As a resident of East Austin, Martinez said a multitude of billboards – he cited the intersection and Airport Boulevard and MLK Boulevard as one example – were unsightly, with a long line of unused dilapidated billboards lining the boulevard. State law prohibits the city from taking down those billboards before the end of their useful life.

Martinez said he would prefer to see a good relocation program – which would end up meaning some billboards in East Austin would come down – to other options with limited results. He also admitted the definition of a Hill Country Scenic Roadway under the proposed ordinance had been a bit loser than intended, noting that he did not see the intersection of Slaughter Lane and Interstate 35 as a scenic Hill Country roadway. That drew laughs.

McCracken said he, Spelman, Cole and Martinez all favored relocation as an effective way to deal with cutting the number of billboards. Under the relocation program, for every one that goes up, two must come down. McCracken also took a swipe Leffingwell, saying Leffingwell may have chosen to indicate he favored attrition during the candidates’ forum, but he had been a co-sponsor on the code amendment to put the relocation program in place.

Animal shelter

The panel did have one heckler, who was less than happy with the decision to relocate the city’s animal shelter to a site in East Austin. McCracken noted that the issue was discussed at the bond advisory committee, and Leffingwell agreed, saying that the relocation to the city-owned land on Levander Loop was no surprise.

McCracken also noted that the property – also in the flood plain – also put animals in an uncomfortable position of being cold and wet when it rained, and that fireworks from downtown events often distracted and scared pets. Both Leffingwell and Cole noted that the Town Lake location was intended to serve as a satellite adoption location. Cole, like Spelman, also supported more off-site adoption events, which have put adoption rates in the San Francisco area up at 90 percent.

When Martinez, along the same lines, noted he was opposed to the shelter location in East Austin on a variety of grounds, but that the animal incinerator was a new development, a man in the audience shouted, “Liar!” That caused Martinez to note, rather wryly, that people were heckling him, even when he supported their position. The moderator called for an end to public outbursts.

Asked specifically about whether Council members should recuse themselves from various votes, McCracken said this was a question a particular community activist had put to him at several forums. He noted that he was the member of a church that had an expansion administratively approved by the City Manager. At the time, he had no determined conflict of interest because he did not make money off the deal.

McCracken also added that this was the same person who said Barack Obama, John McCain and the United Nations were conspiring on a new world order. McCracken added that, as far he knew, Obama and McCain did not agree on much.

In responses to other questions, Leffingwell put environmental protection as his top priority, protecting both the fragile aquifer on the west and Blackland Prairies on the east. Martinez used the question about the website to talk about the need for form-based code. Riley spoke of his support of the Capitol view corridors, although sometimes negotiations were needed. And Osemene, probably the only true conservative in the races, frequently referred to his small government stance.

Josiah Ingalls, the fourth candidate for mayor present at the forum, told the small audience he was in favor of regulating both the location of billboards and the speech on those billboards.

Candidates filled out the BAT questions. Those questionnaires can be found here at http://www.betteraustintoday.org .

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