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Mayoral candidates debate immigration, traffic at forum

Friday, April 17, 2009 by Austin Monitor

At Wednesday’s KLRU-KUT-Statesman sponsored mayoral forum, the five candidates (Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, David Buttross and Josiah Ingalls) spent an hour addressing questions from the audience that covered a range of issues from immigration to veterans’ affairs to traffic along I-35.


The leadoff question asked candidates how they would show local leadership on immigration in the absence of a cohesive federal policy. Carole Keeton Strayhorn  told the audience she wanted Austin to remain “an immigrant friendly city,” and pledged to work with immigration groups to ensure that.  As Comptroller, Strayhorn authorized a cost study on undocumented workers, which showed that undocumented workers added $17 billion to the Texas economy while costing about $1 billion in services. She also said that Texas made money on taxes from such workers. 


David Buttross advocated a policy of, “if you work, you stay,” but also said Austin has more illegal immigrants per capita than San Antonio. He said the city needed to count undocumented workers, and “get them working visas and know where they are, but they’re a wonderful part of the Austin economy.” Josiah Ingalls said that Austin should not become a sanctuary city and needed to work on getting its workers documented. He said it was a security issue and that he had faxed Obama a letter to this effect on Easter.


Lee Leffingwell said he supported the current policy of the city, saying “the city of Austin, contrary to some popular belief is not a sanctuary city.” Leffingwell did say it was important that the police department does not take on the role of the INS and seek out illegal immigrants.


Brewster McCracken said it was important that police officers responding to a call do not inquire about immigration status. He said a decade ago gangs were targeting illegal aliens on payday, swiping their cash. The city of Austin partnered with Wells Fargo to get a “vastly reduced price” for wire transfers which he said made it easier for immigrants to carry less cash. “Our job,” he said “is to put local services above federal policy.”


A question coming from an online viewer asked whether the candidates would support enhanced power of the Citizen Review Panel to include subpoena power, “to check police misconduct and disproportional use of violence.” Buttross said he would “encourage that.” Ingalls agreed and said “I think we need to hold the police force more accountable.” In his five years in Austin he said he had seen “many different occasions where there is a complete misuse of power, a complete overuse of power,” and advocated increased accountability for the department.


Leffingwell said he would want to know what the legal issues are but, “this sounds like it would not be a good step to give subpoena power to a citizens board or commission.”


McCracken said, “We have actually through our contract with the police association expanded the powers of the police oversight board.” He said, “there may be some expansion warranted but you may lose some of the checks and balances you have in the court system.”


Strayhorn said there appeared to be no need to expand the subpoena powers. She advocated looking at the funding for the police department, who she said has had to “cut millions and millions of dollars,” to detrimental effect. She said the city is 400 police officers short of having two officers per 1,000 per capita.


Another question from an online viewer wanted to know why the city wasn’t going after federal dollars for I-35 improvements. Strayhorn said, “We need to stop studying these traffic problems and start fixing them.” She derided the city for some of their federal stimulus priorities, like bike lanes and a proposed boardwalk for Lady Bird Lake. Strayhorn also repeated her earlier calls for a full investigation into Capital Metro to find out where their money was going.


Buttross said he owned property at 701 Hillary “where I want to build 1,000 affordable homes and all I need is a rail stop to do it.” He urged increased urban density and complained that the city was making such development “so impossible” that people had to commute from far outside of the city, leading to greater traffic problems. Ingalls derided toll roads and advocated making them free, taking traffic off of 35. He said that “we need to finish the upper deck and lower deck to I-35. We have it in North Austin but we need to have it from one end of the city limit to the other.”


Leffingwell said the stretch of I-35 in Austin was “the most congested from Laredo to Minneapolis,” but that it fell under “the purview of TxDOT and the Federal government.” Leffingwell said council members on the CAMPO board could influence a future plan, however.


McCracken said, “The short answer is, I-35 is not shovel ready,” for stimulus money. He said long-term planning needed to provide alternate traffic routes “if you’re going to rip up I-35.” He noted that the current strategy was to sink the highway. “It has to be done, and it’s going to be prohibitively expensive.”

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