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Watson to step down as chair of CAMPO

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

State Sen. Kirk Watson has told a Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) committee that he would not run for re-election as chair of the regional planning organization, a leadership position he has held since 2007.


Watson made his announcement in his opening remarks on Monday afternoon before a special CAMPO-appointed committee that is charged with making recommendations for changing the composition of the CAMPO board.


CAMPO is responsible for coordinating transportation and other mobility plans and projects in Travis, Hays, and Williamson counties. The organization is in the process of expanding by two counties — Bastrop and Caldwell – which are already part of the five-county Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area. 


Watson told members of the special CAMPO Policy Board Composition Committee at Austin City Hall that he would not seek another term as chair of the board when it next meets Jan. 11 to elect officers. Watson also suggested that he and two other legislators on the board – state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and Rep. Diana Maldonado — “transition” off the board to make room for additional locally elected officials, namely new members Bastrop and Caldwell counties.


Finally, Watson recommended that committee members come up with a method to rotate the chair of the overall CAMPO board as a way to promote regional cooperation on transportation projects throughout Central Texas.


“I feel so strongly about that — playing a central role in regionalism and helping with regionalism — that I am not going to continue to serve as chair following the end of this term, which will end in the following January,” Watson said.


Monday was the first meeting of the 11-member committee, which is charged with making formal recommendations concerning the addition of Bastrop and Caldwell counties and changes to the composition of the new CAMPO board.


Watson noted that as recently as 2006, CAMPO’s board – known as the Transportation Policy Board — had nine state legislators among 27 members, a number that has been reduced over the years to make the board less unwieldy. Now, Watson said, it is time for the remaining state-elected officials to drop off.


“I still believe strongly that local elected officials should still decide local transportation priorities,” Watson said. “Mayors, council members, county judges and commissioners are more involved in building transportation infrastructure, and have more access to technical assistance, than members of the Legislature. Adding Bastrop and Caldwell counties will require additional elected officials. This will likely raise the question of why only two of five counties [Travis and Williamson] are represented by a legislator. … At the time we bring in Bastrop and Caldwell counties, it’s a good time to make that change.”


After Watson’s remarks, Caldwell County Judge H.T. Wright said, “I feel like a football player who comes to play for a coach and the first thing that happens is the coach leaves. You’re the reason I’m here,” Wright said, a nod to Watson’s role in leading the effort to expand CAMPO to include Bastrop and Caldwell counties.


Watson said he appreciated the judge’s support but nonetheless said he felt “very strongly (about) the principles that I just laid out, and I think it would be best for the region as a whole if those recommendations were followed.”


Watson then left the meeting and the eight committee members present debated the issues.


Echoing Watson, Rodriguez said he supported the move to eliminate state legislators from the board, but Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe and Wright expressed reservations about dropping them.


“I think it would be a mistake to take state elected representatives off,” Wright said.


Biscoe said, “To me the thorny issue is whether we drop the two [state] reps.”


Countering this, Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald said that it wasn’t necessary to have the state senator and representatives on the CAMPO board to advocate on behalf of the region’s transportation projects. “That’s part of their job to be tuned in,” he said.


Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who chairs the committee, said: “We need to be smaller. If we add counties they’ll want to have their reps.”


Answering questions from committee members, CAMPO Executive Director Joe Cantalupo noted that CAMPO is one of only three of the state’s eight largest Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to include state legislators on its board, with El Paso and San Antonio being the other two.


Summing up the issues the members face, Leffingwell said there seemed to be agreement that Bastrop and Caldwell counties should be added to CAMPO and that the board’s chairmanship should rotate. “The more challenging issue is what is the expanded MPO board going to look like,” he said.


After nearly two hours, the committee agreed to adjourn and meet again on Dec. 14, when members will decide among several proposed scenarios for the new CAMPO board that Cantalupo and his staff will come up with.


After the meeting, In Fact Daily asked Leffingwell if he would consider serving as chair of CAMPO next year to replace Watson. “I’m not declaring myself as a candidate at this point,” he said. “If somebody asked me, which they haven’t done, I would consider it.”


Leffingwell also discussed whether Austin, which has four members on the CAMPO board, is underrepresented. He noted that if representation were based purely on population, Austin, with a population of roughly 800,000, would have eight members simply because the next largest city, Round Rock, with a population of about 100,000, has one member on the board. But Leffingwell said that was a price the city must pay in exchange for regional cooperation.


“Moving to strictly ‘one man, one vote’ is not practical,” Leffingwell said. “If you did it strictly by population, any members you had outside Austin would be irrelevant and they wouldn’t want to participate. They’ve got to feel like they have some power. We’re a little short (in representation) and we’ll continue to be a little short. I think the greater good is we give up a little of our proportional power in exchange for regionalization, which furthers everybody’s goals.”


In his presentation to the committee, Cantalupo also outlined the timeline for the planning organization’s upcoming comprehensive plan, which will spell out transportation and mobility projects for the five-county region through 2035. Expansions and improvements to U.S. 290 East, State Highway 71 East, State Highway 130, and U.S. 183 are key parts of the plan. He said that after the formal vote early in 2010 by the full board to add Bastrop and Caldwell counties as members and to adopt the draft 2035 plan, the public will have an opportunity to review and comment on the document before its adoption, slated for mid-2010.

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