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Spelman heads for Place 5 Council seat with no opposition

Monday, March 2, 2009 by Michael Mmay

Former Place 5 City Council member Bill Spelman wants his old job back, and it looks at this point like no one is going to stop him. Spelman doesn’t have an opponent so far, and there is freedom that comes with that. In a wide-ranging conversation with In Fact Daily, Spelman was not shy about wading into the tougher issues facing the city, like where to cut the city budget if the economy doesn’t improve. “We’re doing better than most cities,” he says. “But we have to prepare ourselves for hard times. I think the next budget year is going to be worse than this one.”


With city leaders already cutting back on everything from hiring new employees to library hours, Spelman says the Council is going to have to make tough choices in the years ahead. “Some budget cuts are easy,” he says. “But some are hard. We only have contracts with our public safety employees. It’s always easier to cut into libraries or parks, where the employees don’t have contracts. But at some point we’re going to run out of options. I don’t think the public safety contracts should be on the table now, but if the economy gets worse, we’re going to have to investigate that.”


It’s not that Spelman doesn’t think public safety is important. This is a man who left the City Council in 2000 to run a national community-policing program. He just thinks that Texas’ collective bargaining rules – which only allow the police, fire and EMS unions to negotiate contracts – skew city priorities.


Spelman is what you might call a progressive pragmatist; it is an attitude he also brings to the recent Wildflower PUD controversy. He believes the Council did the right thing by postponing a vote on the project, rather than killing it outright. “The developers can already build retail with single-family housing in back,” he said. “I’d like to see something better than that. The developers say they are willing to set a higher standard, and they say they have a plan that will protect the aquifer, but they didn’t prove their case. So, right now, I’m not sure which vote would have better protected the environment.”


Spelman is in a rare position. He’s been on the Council, but he’s spent most of the decade teaching public policy at the LBJ School at UT. It’s given him a different perspective on what city government should be doing.


“It’s hard to see the big picture when you are making decisions everyday,” he says. “On Council, you’re always stuck in the weeds, having to make a decision about this zoning case or that one. And you can make good decisions about which weeds to cut, but the important stuff happens at a higher level.”


And that’s certainly true of land use in general. He points out that the Envision Central Texas survey showed that most Austinites prefer a compact city to a sprawling one – in theory. In reality, neighbors almost always challenge density, and Spelman says they have good reason to worry about “having the neighborhood be less comfortable, or a project that might reduce property values.” He says he’s seen his own neighborhood, Hyde Park, blighted by ugly apartment buildings.


Spelman believes, though, that there needs to be a city process where neighborhoods can really grapple with the consequences. If the city sprawls, everyone will have to pay for that infrastructure in his or her taxes. He says it’s possible to “increase density without screwing up existing neighborhoods.”


Spelman says he would like to take another look at design standards, and find an approach that would customize the standards by neighborhood. “For instance,” he says, “it would be possible to create apartment buildings in Hyde Park that still have that ‘California Bungalow’ style.”


Spelman knows these types of compromises will be a tough sell. But he feels that the nonpartisan flavor of the times – the Obama effect – has paved the way for his brand of progressive pragmatism.


The filing deadline for Place 5 is March 9. The City Council election is on May 9.

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