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Place 1 candidates spar over urban rail, single districts, bond issues

Tuesday, April 12, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The candidate forum at City Hall on Friday night, hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Ethics Commission, had a wide range of questions but a small audience in Council chambers.


Answers to the standard questions were somewhat predictable in Place 1. No one favored the use of nuclear power for Austin. Most were open to the concept, or even supportive, of the idea of single-member districts. And no one seemed keen on providing city tax breaks to the Formula 1 venture.


In Place 1, incumbent Chris Riley faced off with Roger Chan and Josiah Ingalls. Norman Jacobson, once again, was a no show for the event.


Riley, a local attorney and downtown resident, is seeking his first full term (after completing Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s unfinished term). In his remarks, Riley stressed his long-time ties to the city and his involvement both on commissions and as a current city representative to the Capital Metro, CAMPO and CapCOG boards. He noted his experience would help the city face continuing challenges, and his desire to continue working on issues.


Riley considered Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s single-member district proposal reasonable and wanted to engage a legal review to make sure the boundaries comply with federal voting rights.


“Our city is just too large for every area of the city to get the attention it really wants so geographic districts would be really helpful,” Riley said. “It is time to get this proposal back before the voters.”


Riley expressed confidence in the broad community engagement portion of the current comprehensive plan but noted the work groups would be the real point where the success or failure of the plan would be obvious.


The incumbent also expressed support for a review of infrastructure, and a support of some aspect of urban rail, in the proposed 2012 city bond issue. He was open to working with Austin ISD from the perspective of Council and Capital Metro to help resolve some of the district’s budget problems. And Riley agreed that city boards and commissions should probably go through a periodic sunset review process. And, for its part, Council should pay more attention to commission work plans.

Asked about historic property tax exemptions, Riley said the exemptions were created in a time when the city was losing much of its historic fabric, and that exemptions helped homeowners with the more expensive upkeep, but also noted that a review was necessary during “very difficult (economic) times.”


Ingalls, who has made a run at mayor and the State Board of Education, said he was committed to accountability and transparency in local government. According to his website, Ingalls serves as president of an organization based around the School for All Children Act.


In his comments, Ingalls supported single-member districts but called for setting the time line to take it to the voters for this November and not next November. He criticized the comprehensive plan as being corrupted by the hiring of outside consultants and limited in scope because it failed to measure its own implications; instead, providing a “choose one option” approach.


Asked about infrastructure, Ingalls said the state of Austin’s bridges was a serious concern, one that needed to be addressed as part of the city’s overall approach to traffic problems. “We’re facing a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.


The city’s commitment to density, Ingalls said, had lacked a concern for the displacement of those who lived in Austin’s neighborhoods. And he accused Council of intentionally putting loopholes in bond language, such as one that allowed bond monies to be used to operate the Long Center, rather than improve the park land around the center. He called for a cap on issued bonds.


Ingalls also called support of the Formula 1 track inconsistent with Austin’s green city image and said funds to lay water lines out to the track would be better served devoted to city health and human services. He did not note that the budget of the Water Utility is separate from the General Fund, from which the city funds health and human services. 


Chan, who came to the city in 2000 as an assistant city manager, said the situation of Austin is similar now as it was in 2000: a city facing challenging economic times, combined with robust growth. He also stressed his experience working in city government in Washington DC as a plus.


Chan was the most critical of Council and the city management, often agreeing with Ingalls. He expressed support for single-member districts, agreed with Ingalls the city needed to do a better job of soliciting feedback from local experts on the comprehensive plan and said the city had failed to manage its resources properly, which he said was a good argument in favor of single-member districts.


Chan was critical of the city management “raiding enterprise funds” in order to balance the budget, saying that the city’s residents bore the brunt of such decisions.


“We’re all paying for that now in terms of uncertain rates and uncertain purposes,” Chan said of the city’s enterprise departments.


Unlike most candidates, Chan was less sympathetic to Austin ISD’s woes, contrasting their budget problems with those of the city. The answer was not more money but better money management, Chan said.


“We need to take a very careful look on how the money is spent,” Chan said. “They need to manage their resources better just like the city needs to.”


Chan, who was assistant manager when the bond issue went out for parks improvements, agreed the bonds to fund the Long Center construction and Butler Park improvements had not gone as planned. If the city had been fiscally prudent, the bonds would have been funded differently and they would have included better oversight, Chan said.


The city’s municipal channel has committed to playing the forums at regular intervals. The videos also can be accessed at

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