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Riley seizes the day

Friday, January 4, 2013 by Michael Kanin

From Austin City Council Member Chris Riley’s perspective, the most important issues of 2012 were decided on a single day.


On Nov. 6, Austinites went to the polls and said yes to a slate of ballot and bond questions that included a new form of City Council government, a move of Council elections from May to November and millions of dollars for various infrastructure projects. They said no only once: to $73.8 million in general obligation bonds to fund affordable housing initiatives.


An avid bicyclist, Riley also looked toward advances in Austin’s bike infrastructure, as well as the final implementation of the Imagine Austin plan.


And, when prompted, he spoke about the probable end of Travis County Attorney David Escamilla’s investigation into potential violations of Texas’ Open Meetings Act by City Council members.


However, in assessing 2012, Riley was clearly focused on the results of the November elections. Unlike many of his colleagues, he pointed to what could have been. “There had been some discussion about moving forward with an urban rail decision at this time,” he said. “Obviously, that didn’t happen. I think that was partly because we weren’t ready with a package to present to the voters, and it was also partly due to the need to focus on devoting resources to the medical school.”


As part of the November vote, Austinites also granted the Travis County health district, Central Health, a property tax hike to fund millions of dollars in bonds that will support the creation of a new University of Texas medical school.


Riley insisted that the push for rail is only sidetracked. Without any commitment, he added that he hopes voters would approve some funding for an urban rail system in an possible election in November 2014.


Like many of his colleagues, Riley also noted changes to utility rates. He said that a much-debated (and delayed) rate hike by Austin Energy put the electric utility on a “solid financial footing for the future.”


A rate hike at Austin Water Utility was also a key in “coming up with a system that makes sense.”


Riley viewed the failure of the $78 million in affordable housing bonds from a wide angle. “I’d like to think that the failure of those housing bonds was a temporary setback, and one that we can recover from before too long,” he said. “It was a very long ballot, (and) I think the discussions about that item may have just gotten lost in the noise of the other items. I think housing remains a very high-priority issue for the whole community.”


Riley pointed to a trip taken by a wide-range of officials – both public and private – to view Miami’s very effective homeless program. “(It) really stepped up the discussion about how we can move forward here,” he said.


This past fall, Riley and City Manager Marc Ott also headed to the Netherlands to take in the impressive amount of bike infrastructure assembled by the Dutch. A Dutch engineer also traveled to Austin. Looking forward, Riley hopes to use the exchange to continue his pursuit of improved travel options for bicyclists.


“We were able to show that if we focus on the short trips, and set goals for shifting the mode share for those short trips, we can have a significant impact on the congestion of numerous intersections in the central city,” he said. “A lot of people are skeptical about why we should devote resources to bikes; they say only a few people are using them. But what we’re able to demonstrate is that if you can just peel off a significant number of those short trips to bikes – which seems like a realistic goal – then you can have a dramatic impact on a lot of intersections, which benefits everyone.”


Riley, a former chair of the city’s Planning Commission, said the passage of the city’s new comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, was a major milestone for the year. “Bringing that process to a successful conclusion was huge,” said Riley, who noted that the effort had been in the works for many years. “I mean, the last time we went through a similar effort, we got right up to the end, and it just collapsed under its own weight.”


Still, nothing may have offered any one on the Austin City Council as much relief as the end of Escamilla’s investigation into potential Open Meetings violations. That came this fall, when Riley and five other sitting Council members, plus one who had retired, signed deferred prosecution agreements. Under the deal, Escamilla agreed not to move forward with charges so long as the affected Council members stay out of Open Meetings trouble for two years.


By that time, of course, Riley and likely many of his colleagues will be engaged in other work – thanks largely to the decisions made on Nov. 6.

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