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Spelman to run for third term, plans to focus on economy, affordability

Friday, November 18, 2011 by Mark Richardson

Bill Spelman, who returned to the Austin City Council in 2009 after serving an earlier term (1997-2000), announced Thursday that he will run for re-election to Place 5 in May, 2012. Spelman is a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, where he teaches courses on urban policy and public management; he also serves as a consultant to law enforcement on public safety issues.


Spelman sat down with In Fact Daily earlier this week in a wide-ranging conversation about his accomplishments in his current term, what has changed about the Council in the decade between terms, and what he sees as the challenges facing Austin if he is elected to another term.


The main challenge, he said, is the economy; more specifically, improving the business climate while keeping Austin an affordable city.


“The biggest problem I think we’re dealing with right now is the national economic situation and the ramifications it has for all of us,” he said. “Interest rates are still flat, our jobless rate is better than it is in most cities in the country but it’s not as good as we’ve become accustomed to and jobs are still scarce.


“An area I’m really concerned about is affordability. It’s very easy for a local government to allow its programs to get bigger and lose its way as far as cost-efficiency is concerned.”

Spelman believes that city government can take a significant role in shaping the business climate.


“That means that in addition to improving the business climate, the thing in front of the City Council and City Manager is to try and provide the best value for the least money that we possibly can. The affordability of city government is a huge deal.”


“We need to do what we can do to keep businesses working,” he said. “(Things like) maintain and grow infrastructure, provide a high quality of life, and take on our serious urban problems directly. We still have the traffic congestion problem, and we’re working on that. Eventually, we’ll have a rail proposal.


“We have to keep doing all of that good government stuff, including maintaining the business climate and improving transportation,” Spelman said.


He also believes that the city must take the current drought and the damage it could cause seriously


“I think it’s a huge problem,” he said. “We’ve got the Stage 2 plan, which we’ve been in for a while, and we’re probably going to be in every year for the foreseeable future. But we don’t have the Stage 3 program in place yet. Lake Travis is still going down and there’s no appreciable water coming into Lake Buchanan or Travis. If that continues, then we’re going to have to find some means of continuing to conserve water beyond our Stage 2 plan. “


The long term consequences of the drought could affect both the city’s economy and its environment.


“We haven’t really thought through how it is going to affect our urban forest, or how it could have a huge effect on our economic development, especially how it could affect our water-intensive industries such as chip manufacturing,” he said. “They may not come here if they can’t be sure they will have access to the water they need.


“It could also really affect our quality of life, if trees start dying all around town and the place starts looking more like Phoenix than Austin,” he said.


Spelman said things have changed significantly in Austin since his first term as a Council member in 1997.


“We were in the middle of a shooting war between the development community and the environmental community,” he said. “And there was no consensus as to what kind of building was appropriate or whether growth was a good idea. Everything was part of the environmentalist-developer conflict.


“What we did was make a series of one-off deals and put the SOS ordinance in place. And that problem subsided over time. Now on individual land use cases, you still get SOS and RECA (Real Estate Council of Austin) arguing with each other, buts it’s nowhere near the same level of heat as it was back then.”


Nowadays, he said the issues are more about where and how Austin should grow, as opposed to whether or not it should grow.


“The two polar opposites are sprawl development and infill development,” he said. “The developers can make money either way. It can take some adjustment, but you have to do one or the other: You have some people who want to do infill and others who want to sprawl, and vice versa. But so long as we can accommodate the gazillion people who are showing up in town – somewhere –then the development community will be OK and our housing rates will not become insanely unaffordable.”


He said though the problem has changed, the fix remains the same.


“Just as the solution to our problems between the environmentalists and the developers was to get them together and talking — and we eventually came to an armistice if not a long-term peace — we have to come to a similar accommodation among those driving the city’s growth.”


Spelman served on the Austin City Council between 1997 and 2000, and was reelected without opposition in 2009. He holds a B.A. in political science from UCLA, an M.P.P. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard.


In addition to his Council duties, Spelman is a member of the Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee of the National League of Cities.


Spelman served from 1997 to 2005 as executive director of the Texas Institute for Public Problem Solving, which trained officers throughout Texas in the practice of community policing. Before coming to UT in 1988, he spent seven years with the Police Executive Research Forum, a national association of big-city police chiefs.


Spelman’s reelection team will be headed by Jim Wick, Shawn Badgley, and political consultants David Butts and Mark Yznaga. His treasurer is Martha Smiley.

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