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Mayor recaps ’12, enters final stretch on Council

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 by Jo Clifton

Whether they knew it or not, Austin voters in November cut Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s final term by about half a year.


Austinites not only approved a charter amendment to adopt single-member districts to elect future Councils, but they also made changes to municipal election cycles that would result in shortening Leffingwell’s mayoral term from the slated end of May 2015.


That’s because with the charter changes he will serve until a new mayor takes office, presumably in January 2015. So Austinites will have the 71-year-old Leffingwell around a little longer than they expected when they voted in May to return him to Council as mayor.


Recently, we sat down with the popular mayor to get his take on the 2012 and glimpse of ahead to what he sees as some key issues that the city will face this year.


Leffingwell cited as big stories many that City Hall followers could guess: the inaugural Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix, job growth and economic development and, of course, the change in Austin’s government structure.


The charter election will “permanently change the face of Austin city government,” Leffingwell said of the revisions that would expand City Council to 11 members, with all but the at-large mayor elected from defined geographic districts. “I don’t think you can overestimate the significance of that—for good or bad, time will tell. But basically the geographic representation (is a big change), along with changing our elections from May to November, which is going to be a totally different electorate. There will be similarities, but I think you’re going to see campaigns change strategies as a result of that.”


Asked whether he had heard the murmurings about the likelihood that Austin would go to a strong mayor form of government because of the 10-1 configuration, Leffingwell said, “Yes, I’ve heard that. And as somebody said, necessity is the mother of invention. And I think that as a result of this system … you’ll see a move towards, not to, but towards, a strong mayor form of government. Because I think it will be driven by the need to function.”


He said he could envision still having a council-manager form of government with the manager as the chief executive but giving the mayor some additional powers in relation to policy matters. “If you want to go to an extreme, and I’m not saying I advocate, but just as an example, the budget is normally the council’s purview. It could be something like the mayor would have more authority, maybe even line-item vetoes. I’m not saying that’s going to happen or even that I support it or not, but that would be the kind of thing that would give the mayor a bigger role in the policy making process without directly eliminating the council-manager.”  


“I can say that because I won’t benefit by it,” he added with a chuckle, referring to the fact that the change to single-member districts are slated to begin after he leaves office.


He said it is unknown how realistic the timetable set by City Auditor Kenneth Mory may be. It includes the appointment of a committee that will draw boundaries and presenting the plan to the Department of Justice for necessary approval in the spring of 2014.


“I think elections will occur in 2014 as scheduled, but there’s a possibility there could be hang-ups, and I don’t know what would happen in that case,” he said. “I think regardless, there’s going to be kind of a learning period there, a period of transition, that would anticipate is going to be confusing to say the least.


Leffingwell counted among the city’s successes this past year economic development and a robust economy. To cite one measure: Austin’s latest unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, substantially less than state and national averages.


“Our job creation has really been the best in the country,” Leffingwell said. “In ….as far back as eight years, our job creation has been better than any of the top 50 (U.S. cities).”


He defended the city’s sometimes-controversial economic inventive program, which rewards tax rebates to selected companies in exchange for creating local jobs. The “economic incentive program is used more like a scalpel than a hammer.” He said the three larger Texas cities – Houston, Dallas and San Antonio – have approved far more economic incentive deals than Austin in recent years. “And I think we can do that because we have a lot of other things going for us (to attract companies). But if we were to just totally abandon it, we would be adversely affected.”


In 2012, the city reached agreements with Apple, HID Global and Visa that would create up to 4,700 new jobs in the next decade, reported the city’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office. It seems likely the momentum will continue with more jobs announcements forthcoming in 2013.


Leffingwell said he was gratified that the city voters approved general obligation bond proposals totaling roughly $310 million to build or improve parks, transportation, public safety facilities, public libraries and a film studio. However, one bond proposal, $78 million for affordable housing, failed, the first time voters turned away a bond issue in recent memory — and a time of skyrocketing rents citywide.


“I think if it had been a smaller number I think it might have passed,” he said. “I think the community values of Austinites are such that they do support (affordable housing initiatives).”


Leffingwell said Austin’s hosting of Formula 1 “exceeded expectations.”


“There were a lot of unknowns. … How would we be able to control entry to the venue, exit from the venue? Would there be long traffic delays, etc.? And none of that turned out to be the case. The turnout was excellent (with) 117,000 on race day and big numbers on the first two days, compared to other places around the world.”


“I know there’s been some discussion on economic impact,” he said. “I’m confident those (official) numbers (coming from the state comptroller of public accounts) are going to be good.”


And, he saluted the Circuit of the Americas, the owner of the racetrack in southeastern Travis County that the city annexed in December. “They developed a world-class venue in record time that I’m confident is going to serve Central Texas well for a long time.”


Among the issues Leffingwell sees tackling in the coming year include changing Austin Energy’s governance to an independent board as well as transportation improvements to relieve Austin’s increasingly congested roadways.


The mayor said changing governance of Austin Energy is a top priority for him.  “I think it’s a priority for me to get that completed before I leave this place. I think it’s real important, essential even, to the survival of Austin Energy as a municipally owned utility.”


However, he added, “I think there’s going to be resistance to doing that, in the community, and I think we have to be able to make the case; I think we will have support for that outside of city government,” he continued, “and we have to convince the public and I don’t know how that’s going to play out right now.”


Another top priority: “I’m going to continue to work with the (CAMPO) transit working group to try to improve transportation options, not just in the City of Austin but in the region. But certainly the City of Austin will be a big part of my focus.”


Asked whether he would advocate another referendum on building a rail service, Leffingwell said 2013 was not the year for such an election. Leffingwell was among city officials who toyed with putting a rail project up for vote in November, but backed off, indicating more time was needed more time to build support.


“I’m certainly not going to set a date . . . but I would think November of 2014 (is an appropriate time) because in 2013 I certainly wouldn’t advocate another one.”

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