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Tovo hit the ground running after winning Place 3 seat in mid-2011

Friday, January 6, 2012 by Michael Kanin

When former Planning Commission Member Kathie Tovo defeated then-incumbent Randi Shade in last year’s race for the Place 3 seat on the Austin City Council, she stepped into a tight spot. By June of this year, not only had Council business been distracted by a lengthy email scandal – which led, in part, to Shade’s departure – but Tovo’s campaign had left the public with the impression that she would force her colleagues to take another look at Water Treatment Plant 4, which was already under construction. She also vowed to oppose the city’s endorsement of a Formula 1 race that had rich and powerful supporters.


Ultimately the treatment plant proved to be too far gone to shutter. And the Council ended up endorsing the Formula 1 race without spending a dime of local tax payer money. In Fact Daily sat down with the Council’s newest member to discuss her first few months behind the dais. She highlighted a handful of issues, including the water plant, Formula 1, and the dynamic left by the scandal that helped propel her onto the City Council.


Tovo said that her decision to run against Shade was fueled, in part, by the shortcomings of her predecessor. “I have a particular interest in affordable housing, I have got a particular interest in more collaborative planning with the school district, and I’m really interested in…the kind of thoughtful planning that means when we have big development projects, we have a significant amount of community benefits,” she said. “I didn’t feel those were priorities that were being advanced by Randi Shade.”


Tovo maintains that her feelings pre-dated the release of reams of emails that illustrated a sometimes combative and condescending picture of Shade’s tenure. “Before the material became public, I hoped to see somebody strong challenging her for her place,” Tovo said. “As time went on…it became clear that it was time to step up and do it myself. I was very interested in serving at some point…it kind of got to a point last year where I felt like it was time, for a variety of reasons.”


Tovo was sworn in on June 28. The Council took its vote on the Formula 1 issue the next day, authorizing endorsement of the project on a 5-2 vote. Tovo joined Council Member Laura Morrison on the dissenting side. After a recent flurry of testosterone-fueled brinksmanship, the race appears headed forward after Texas Comptroller Susan Combs decided to withhold $25 million in state money until the formalities were completed. “I think that the Comptroller’s decision not to provide money up front is certainly one that I support,” Tovo said.


Tovo’s mid-year arrival at City Hall preceded by a campaign that promised a closer look at Water Treatment Plant 4 gave critics of the project hope that the project might be shuttered. Indeed, shortly after her arrival, the Council authorized city staff to conduct a study that would detail the costs of discontinuing the project.


When the results came back, there was enough room to be concerned that the cost of shuttering the plant would outweigh those of completing it. “The water treatment plant issue was probably the toughest issue I’ve faced since I’ve been on council,” she said. “It’s a very controversial issue; it was a controversial decision when the Council voted to build it. It certainly was a controversial issue during the campaign and it was always clear it was going to be a very difficult issue for us to contend with.”


“Many people certainly were disappointed that we didn’t halt construction on it. And I heard from lots of them,” she continued. “Once you’ve had a year’s worth of construction, there’s a considerable investment of tax payer dollars in a project like that, and it was really clear when we got (the reports) that the costs of postponing that were far too high to justify. I wish, like so many others, that we could have made a different decision.”


When she got to City Hall, Tovo says her goal was to “focus on building relationships.” She referenced “clearly divided allegiances” over her campaign — Mayor Lee Leffingwell and then-Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez had supported Shade; Morrison, Council Member Bill Spelman, and, most notably, current Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole got behind Tovo—and noted that, “it wasn’t in the best interest to continue those kind of divisive politics.”


When asked if the council is currently factionalized, Tovo responded that she is told it is better. “I think that there are some voting patterns that seem to repeat, I’m certainly aware of that,” she continued. “My philosophy, and one my staff exhibits too, is that we’re trying hard to work with all of the offices, when we have issues we can work on together.”


Still, there were other communication concerns. Tovo said that she wasn’t aware of the internal dynamics of council discussion before her election. However, she noted that she heard that the email scandal, and related concerns about quorum violations related to the state’s Open Meetings Act have changed the way business is done at Second and Lavaca streets.


As the Council prepared to make a major decision about moving its traditional May election date to coincide with the November general election, a new-found cautiousness brought about by an investigation by Travis County Attorney David Escamilla over potential violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act left Tovo out of key conversations. “There were three and three and me,” she said.


The implication is that the Council broke in to two deliberative groups of three. That maxed out the number of council members that could discuss the issue without violating the Open Meetings Act. Tovo was left on her own.


All in all, Tovo says that her first half-year on the job has been “fascinating and exciting,” adding “Certainly, it’s been a transition.”

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