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Austin Neighborhoods Council endorses candidates

Tuesday, September 30, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Austin Neighborhoods Council endorsements are in. At a time when the city is experiencing rapid growth, a rewrite of the Land Development Code and, of course, a City Council changeover, the questions and answers at the forum paint a picture of where ANC stands on those issues and what it is looking for in representatives on City Council.

The forum, which included 38 of the 78 candidates running for Council seats, had time for each candidate to answer one question selected for them by ANC. Members of the Council then had the opportunity to vote for every candidate who participated in the forum. Those votes were used to decide endorsements.

Mayoral candidates Steve Adler, Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez, David Orshalick and Todd Phelps participated in the forum, but at the end of the day it was Adler who walked away with an endorsement.

In his introduction, Adler let those present know where he stood, striking out against the city’s property tax and permitting process.

“I think we need to protect neighborhoods from incursions of density that don’t add to affordability,” said Adler. “We need to end planning by exception and variance, and we need to stop the use of PUDs and other devices to get around the rules.”

Adler’s question pointedly asked him about his work “fighting against environmental protections and being supported by developer and business interests.”

“Why should we trust you, as mayor, to strengthen and enforce our environmental protections and shield our neighborhoods from overdevelopment?” asked moderator Lou McCreary.

Adler told ANC that he would support and defend the SOS Ordinance, and had never done anything inconsistent with that stance. He said there was nothing in cases he previously handled that ran contrary to his commitment to the environment, then cited cases in which he had actively fought for the environment. Adler added that, according to a Statesman analysis, he had the lowest attorney and developer contributions of the three candidates who had raised the most money, and was not accepting donations from political action committees or bundlers.

In District 1, Ora Houston earned the ANC endorsement. Houston was asked how she would decelerate growth in Austin and preserve neighborhoods and neighborhood plans. Houston said the rapid growth Austin has seen recently was “almost unsustainable at this point.” She said that it was time for the development community, environmental community and neighborhoods to “sit down and have a conversation.”

“We live in silos in this city, and we’ve lived in silos for a long, long time, and we don’t want to recognize it,” said Houston. “In order to make a holistic picture of the city of Austin, we’ve got to dismantle those silos and begin talking.”

District 1 candidates Andrew Bucknall and DeWayne Lofton also participated.

In District 2, Delia Garza was the only candidate to participate in the forum, and won the endorsement. She was asked the same question as Houston.

“I’m for the Austin Chamber taking that gas pedal off of recruiting businesses … We can’t just have growth for the sake of growth,” said Garza, who said she would support recruiting businesses that would help lower-income families, and that the city should divert incentives to small businesses, if it was going to give any. She added that the new 10-1 system would be “huge” on its own, giving a voice to neighborhoods that hadn’t had a voice before.

ANC endorsed Mario Cantu in District 3 over candidates Chris Hoerster, Shaun Ireland, Fred McGhee, Kent Phillips, Eric Rangel and Sabino Renteria.

Cantu’s question regarded the city’s “long history of overdevelopment without adequate infrastructure” and recent floods in Onion Creek, specifically what he would do to prevent overdevelopment upstream. Cantu said he would make sure public safety resources were in place to respond to floods as a priority.

“To this day we don’t know exactly how (the Halloween Flood) took place. If it was me, I would treat that as a homicide,” Cantu said. “Where did that water come from? If you ask me, it’s impervious cover, and that’s one thing we need to look at. When we have density and infill, we can create a lot of impervious cover. And when you have that, you can create flooding in neighborhoods.”

In District 4, ANC endorsed Laura Pressley. The only other candidate to participate from District 4 was Greg Casar. Pressley was asked whether she would commit to “restructuring the Planning Department with a personnel shake-up” and “reconstituting the Land Development Advisory Committee for CodeNEXT.”

Pressley said that the current CodeNEXT advisory committee was “overweighted with developers” and that neighborhood plans were at risk. She also said the Planning Commission had been taking the wrong role as of late.

“We have kind of a reversal of roles right now, where the Planning Department is driving the city instead of our neighborhoods. That’s a problem,” said Pressley. She added that the lobbying ordinance needed to be changed, and that she was committed to making that change.

Ann Kitchen won the ANC endorsement in District 5 over Dan Buda, Dave Floyd and Mike Rodriguez. She was asked about her vision for CodeNEXT and how it applied to sustainability.

Kitchen said she would fix the code and the Planning and Development review process at the same time. She said the city needed a simpler code, less deal-making, fewer variances and fewer waivers, which would result in a faster, less-costly permitting process.

“The bottom line is a code and a process that aligns with the Imagine Austin Plan,” said Kitchen, who emphasized keeping neighborhood plans and environmental ordinances in place.

Though both Jimmy Flannigan and Matt Stillwell participated in the forum, ANC did not endorse a candidate in District 6.

In District 7, Melissa Zone got the ANC endorsement. Jeb Boyt, Leslie Pool and Pete Salazar also participated in the forum. Zone emphasized her 20 years of work in neighborhood planning. She was asked whether she thought the new City Council would have sufficient control over the code rewrite process, and how she would change the process to protect neighborhoods.

Zone said that it was CodeNEXT that made her decide to run for office, and stressed the importance of having a Council member who could read and understand the Land Development Code.

“You need a Council person that has neighborhood planning’s interest at heart … Staff cannot run anything past me without me knowing where the mistakes are,” said Zone. “What you need is someone that can interpret Land Development Code regulations without having to rely on developers, staff or any of the current establishment.”

ANC endorsed Ed Scruggs over Eliza May in District 8, and Kathie Tovo over Chris Riley in District 9.

Members of ANC asked Scruggs how he had been involved in his neighborhood. Scruggs responded that Circle C, where he lives, is “a different animal” and that he worked to forcibly remove control of the HOA from the developers to the homeowners. Scruggs also pointed to his founding of Circle C Democrats, saying “that helped change the debate in the southwest” and made the area much more politically diverse.

“It’s not the same area I moved into several years ago,” said Scruggs.

Tovo was asked whether she would continue to question economic incentives and what changes she would make to the city’s economic development policies to “mitigate the ills of rapid growth in Austin.”

“We have evidence that Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, and I really question whether we should be using incentives right now to attract corporations at a time when we have many, many businesses coming here regardless,” said Tovo, who said she had already worked to revise the city’s economic development policy and would continue to do so if necessary.

Jason Meeker won the endorsement in District 10 over opponents Tina Cannon, Mandy Dealey, Sheri Gallo and Bill Worsham. Meeker touted his advocacy for neighborhoods over the years. Meeker was asked whether he thought the new Council would have sufficient control over the CodeNEXT process and how, if elected, he would change the process to protect neighborhoods.

Meeker said that he thought it was crucial to keep Austinites informed about the code rewrite and important to create a “touchback” that would take the community character descriptions provided by neighborhoods back to the neighborhoods, to make sure they are accurate and what the community intended. As for protecting neighborhoods, Meeker said that would be accomplished by electing people who valued them.

“I don’t understand why we have to give up our trees and our protections just to make Austin jam-packed and overcrowded with people. Do you think Buda or growth in Pflugerville is going to slow down if we decimate what makes Austin special? … I don’t think so. We need to protect those things as we move forward and try to make room for future residents,” said Meeker.

Unfortunately, with 78 candidates running for City Council, there isn’t space to cover all of them in every story. Find more information about all the candidates and your district at our site, the Hall Monitor.

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