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Place 3 challenger takes heat during Council radio debate

Thursday, May 5, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

If the best way to gauge how well you’re doing in a political campaign is by counting how many of your opponents are coming after you, Kathie Tovo may one day look back at yesterday’s City Council Place 3 radio debate on 91.7 KOOP as the day she ceased to be an upstart and became a contender.


Tovo’s opponents — particularly incumbent Council Member Randi Shade and former Council Member Max Nofziger — took several shots at the former planning commissioner during the one-hour debate on KOOP’s “A Neighborly Conversation,” refuting claims she has made about them, questioning her integrity on issues of public funding, and doubting her experience.


Nofziger came at Tovo the hardest, citing her lack of experience in the electric utility business. Nofziger said, by contrast, he’s spent 32 years “helping to turn Austin Energy away from fossil fuels and to energy efficiency and renewable power.”


“Considering that it is a $1.4 billion part of our budget and that we have a rate case coming up, something we haven’t had since 1994, what experience do you bring to the citizens in this critical area?” Nofziger asked.


Tovo responded by stressing her support for “using more renewable energy resources and divesting our interest in the coal plant as well as the nuclear plant” but was forced to concede Nofziger’s primary point. “In terms of direct experience in an electric utility, I don’t have any,” she said. “But I am a smart and educated person, I know how to research, and beyond that I know how to call on subject-area experts who do have that kind of expertise.”


“So, basically, turning on your light switch,” said Nofziger.  


At this point, Tovo turned the tables, asking Nofziger why, in a city as “dynamic and changing” as Austin, “someone who is so invested and involved in the city hasn’t been active recently?”


“I’ve been involved for 32 years in the city,” said Nofziger, “and my experience is a current as your next month’s electric bill. … The city may have changed to some degree but we always need good public policy, and that’s my area of expertise. Even before I got on the City Council, I was active and saved the citizens in the lignite bond election alone $800 million before I took office.”


Nofziger later told In Fact Daily he was referring to an election in October 1983. In that election, a majority of Austin voters rejected a refuse fueled generation plant as well as bonds for additional facilities at the Fayette power plant that would have been fueled by lignite from Bastrop County. The Lower Colorado River Authority later decided to drop its plans also.


“What’s the biggest issue that you’ve ever decided that saved the citizens money?” Nofziger asked Tovo.


That question seemed to knock her on her heels. She protested lightly that Nofziger’s dispute with her was taking time away from a question she had for Shade, but eventually she answered.


“We all bring different areas of expertise to this job, and mine has been broad and ranging, and I know how to work with the community and have done so in a variety of capacities,” Tovo said. “Very recently, I served on AISD’s facilities master plan task force and was a voice in the minority looking at ways we might find cost savings that don’t involve school closures.”


Shade’s dispute with Tovo, meanwhile, started out as a defense. Tovo has made Shade’s perceived unwillingness to listen to her constituents the center of her campaign (Tovo “believes in a City Council that listens and respects citizen voices,” according to her Web site). Yesterday, she continued that line of attack, pointing to the incumbent’s support of the controversial Park PUD on Barton Springs Road. Council approved that zoning request on a 6-1 vote, with only Council Member Laura Morrison dissenting.


“When I talk about listening and respecting … I’m talking about listening and respecting the viewpoints that are brought to the Council,” Tovo said. “With regard to the Park PUD, the Council overrode the staff recommendation, the neighborhood plan, the other community members who spoke up about that issue and said that was a bad precedent community-wide, and they also overrode the Planning Commission’s vote.”


But Shade turned the tables on the challenger, accusing her of being similarly “indifferent” to others’ opinions. After Tovo said she would “probably not” vote in favor of any proposal that would give subsidies or incentives to the Formula 1 racetrack — “subsidies” Tovo has claimed Shade supports and that would cost the city $40 million over 10 years — she asked Shade what her vote on such a proposal would be.


Shade responded, “You said if a proposal were brought before you, you would do a cost-benefit analysis, you would look at what the proposal is, and get lots of input from lots of people. My answer would be the same.” 


“I said I would ‘probably not’ vote for it,” Tovo replied.


“So you’ve already made a decision in spite of the fact that you’ve asked for all this input and you’re going to do this cost-benefit analysis,” Shade said. “So you’ve already made up your mind … does that show listening and respect?”

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