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Council forums unchanged despite new system

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

As campaign season heats up, fills up and bravely goes where no Austin City Council has gone before, 78 candidates are facing very full schedules. Is the new 10-1 District system working? And is it new enough to accommodate this very different city election?

Candidates are also feeling the pressure of sticking with the tried-and-true City Council system in a race with more districts, more candidates and arguably more interest.

The most comprehensive list that the Austin Monitor has been able to obtain so far has mayoral candidates attending 28 forums between Aug. 23 and Oct. 22. That does not count the forums that have already taken place, and it does not factor in other speaking obligations.

And the mayoral candidates are not the only ones feeling the pressure.

Council district candidates are also dealing with an overstuffed election season. And, unlike the mayoral candidates, they have the additional pressure of serving the interests of their district and the city as a whole in a system that has remained unchanged as far back as anyone at City Hall can remember.

To get a sense of how this is working, the Austin Monitor spoke with a small sampling of City Council candidates.

District 1 candidate Ora Houston was one of the first to enter the City Council race. Her first forum was the Austin Board of Realtors’ July 18. That forum went well, she says, with high attendance and plenty of time for candidates to answer questions, make clarifications and get into the issues. Since then, there has been more of a crunch.

“Now that they are coming so fast and furious, sometimes you’ll come into a forum and you’ll have one minute to introduce yourself, three minutes to talk about issues, and three minutes to answer questions… and a minute for a final wrap up,” said Houston. “Sometimes, not that much time.”

Houston has found that there is not enough time to learn about people’s quality-of-life issues.

“This doesn’t seem to help,” she said. “I still think that we are doing some things the way that we used to do things… and not thinking about how we can talk about some things that are citywide and some things that are district-specific.”

District 4 candidate Laura Pressley agrees. She ran for City Council in 2012, and says that this year, the city is in an “interesting transition” as candidates try to balance the needs of their district as well as citywide issues, like traffic.

“It’s a problem,” said Pressley. “The old model of one-size-fits-all for the city doesn’t work anymore, with 10 districts… and the old way is still alive and well.”

Pressley points to forums that pair her district with the wealthier, downtown District 9, though they have different issues. She thinks there is a need to consider each district’s unique challenges, and fitting into the old system has been a struggle. She appreciates the district-specific forums, which allow her to hear her district’s issues and concerns, which she says is the most important thing. That said, she is trying to go to as many of the forums as she can.

“(But) you only have so much time,” said Pressley. “A lot of them overlap. There was a challenge last week for District 4. We had three forums in one night. It was just difficult. It was just really difficult.”

Don Zimmerman, who is running for City Council in District 6 thinks the busy schedule is a “good problem to have.” He calls the level of interest in the election unprecedented, and plans to attend every forum that he can.

“There’s a lot going on, but that’s better than the opposite problem, which is nobody cares,” said Zimmerman. “The problem that we had before, in the suburbs, was that nobody cared about the Austin City Council elections and nobody participated, because it was dominated by downtown Democrats.”

Susana Almanza, who is running for Council in District 3, is taking a different tack. Her campaign is not seeking endorsements from citywide groups that do not have representation in her district. Instead, they are focusing on individual endorsements from people within the district. To that end, Almanza is not attending forums held by endorsing organizations, though she will attend informational non-endorsing forums like the ones held by the League of Women Voters and the City of Austin.

“We can’t continue to pretend that it’s an at-large system. It’s not an at-large system anymore, it’s single-member districts. How are we going to change that structure if we are going to continue to let people who do not have any members in District 3, (and) have not been involved in District 3, try and decide what the issues and concerns are going to be for the district?” asked Almanza. “They are going to have to get involved with the districts.”

Both Almanza and Houston said that advocacy group briefings designed to fill candidates in on their issues and concerns were helpful.

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