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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 by Kara Nuzback
East Austin candidates pack stage at North Door
Candidates went head-to-head in the race to represent East Austin voters in District 3 at the latest in a series of community forums hosted by the Austin Monitor and KUT News.
All of the district’s 12 candidates attended Monday’s question and answer session at the North Door on Brushy Street to talk about affordability and growth in East Austin.
The urban rail project — a hot-button issue throughout the city — was widely opposed. The project is part of Proposition 1, City Council’s bond proposal for $1 billion in transportation improvements, including $600 million to fund a 9.5-mile urban rail line. The route would run from East Riverside Drive to Austin Community College Highland Campus in North Austin, with stops at the convention center, the Capitol and University of Texas.
Ricardo Turullols-Bonilla, 66, is a high-school science teacher who has lived in Austin 10 years. He said he has authored several books about why cities are broken and why people are not happy.
“We have a broken city, and I think the rail is a distraction,” he said.
Most of the candidates simply stated the rail was too expensive and didn’t benefit East Austin residents.
Jose Quintero, 62, is a senior project manager and community activist who has been a member of the Greater East Austin Neighborhood Association and the Mayor’s Gang Task Force. Quintero ran for City Council in 2009, losing to current Council member and mayoral candidate Mike Martinez.
Quintero said the rail would cost the city too much money, and it should instead look for ways to get trucks off Interstate 35 to ease the flow of traffic.
Emergency medical technician and paramedic and native Austinite Mario Cantu, 47, said the city needs more sidewalks and bike trails before it invests in rail. He said in 20 years, the rail would be obsolete, but residents would still be paying for it.
Cantu served as an Austin Neighborhoods Council Representative for two years, and as president of his Homeowners Association for five years.
Chris Hoerster, 49, said the city should rethink the toll on State Highway 130 so it could function as an alternative access route. He also suggested building urban villages outside of downtown to keep the area from becoming too dense.
Hoerster is currently earning his masters in political science, after a 25-year career in the service industry.
Kent Phillips, 33, is a pharmacy technician who studied political science at Texas State University. Phillips ran for the State Senate in 2010 and the Texas House in 2012 as a Libertarian candidate. He opposed the urban rail plan, saying an aboveground transportation plan would not disrupt traffic like the Prop. 1 plan would if it is approved on Election Day.
Fred McGhee, 47, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Austin Community College and a business author, also said he does not support the proposed rail. Until recently, McGhee was a member of the city’s Board of Adjustment, but stepped down to concentrate on his campaign.
Susana Almanza, 62, is a founding member and co-director of People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, or PODER, a grass roots environmental, economic and social justice organization. She also serves on the city’s Parks and Recreation Board and was previously a member of the Environmental Board, the Planning Commission and the Charter Review Committee, among others.
Almanza opposed the rail, saying it would exhaust the city’s debt limit for the next decade. She said high-occupancy vehicle lanes and improved bus service are more affordable ways to deal with the city’s traffic congestion.
Julian Limon Fernandez, 58, said the rail would only benefits students at University of Texas, and when students leave for summer break, the trains would be empty.
“It does us no good in District 3,” he said.
Born and raised in Austin, Fernandez has worked at the satellite office of Texas Senate Representative Gonzalo Barrientos and served in the Air Force Reserves. He has also been a case worker for the Texas Protective and Regulatory Commission.
Jose Valera, 36, did not take a hard stance on the rail. He said he wants the urban rail to succeed, “I’m just not sure that this plan gets us there.”
Valera is a fifth generation East Austinite. Congressman Lloyd Doggett appointed him to the United States Military Academy at West Point, and he served in Iraq in 2003. After graduating from the University of Texas School of Law, Vallera went on to practice intellectual property law at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati. In 2012, he opened Tamale House East with his family.
One of the few candidates in favor of the rail, Shaun Ireland, 31, is the finance and intergovernmental affairs director for DTI Resources. He is also a community activist with a background in business and community advocacy.
Ireland said the city’s population will double in 10 years.
“How are they going to get around?” he asked. He said the bond would take six years to mature and it would be several more years before the city broke ground on the rail. In the meantime, the city could look for affordable ideas to alleviate traffic congestion, such as synchronizing streetlights.
Eric Rangel, 35, is a program specialist with the Texas Department of Transportation. He also spoke up in favor of Prop. 1. He said the rail won’t be an overnight success, but in the meantime, the city can extend bus schedules, build sidewalks and welcome rideshare companies to expand public transportation options.
Sabino “Pio” Renteria, 64, is a community activist and retired IBM computer tech. He also supported the rail, saying Austin traffic will only become worse in the future. He also supported building more sidewalks and waiving tolls for trucks on SH-130 to clear I-35 for residents commuting within the city.
The candidates were also asked to address rapid growth in East Austin and how they would keep the district affordable, if elected.
Rangel said the rail project would help affordability because residents would pay less to ride the rail than to own and insure a car.
Ireland said the city would be able to fund affordable housing projects if it wasn’t constantly overpaying for services.
Turullols-Bonilla said residents could change their living habits, such as doing away with traditional gardens that require watering, to help the city become more affordable.
Hoerster has worked with Caritas of Austin as a housing specialist. He said the answer to affordability is to leave downtown and develop affordable housing in the suburbs.
“You can’t stop growth,” he said.
Almanza is president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and a lifelong resident of East Austin. She said the answer to affordability is raising minimum wage to $15 per hour.
She also said the city needs to manage its population influx, and “make sure growth pays for itself.”
Quintero said the city has the money to establish affordable housing.
“The question is, where is the money?” he said. Quintero said he would bring transparency and accountability to city council if elected.
He also said Austin should stop giving financial incentives to companies who develop in the city.
“We get nothing from it,” he said.
Phillips agreed, saying “Corporate incentives must stop.”
“Why are we paying money to bring more people here?” he asked. Phillips said the money should be spent on infrastructure improvements.
He also said tax money the city gets from large festivals, such as South By Southwest, could be used to fund affordable housing projects.
Cantu said renters live in substandard conditions, and the city should mandate homeowners pay for repairs and weatherization to cut the cost of utilities.
“We also need to slow down the growth,” he said. “We’re going a little too fast.”
Fernandez said he would bring compassion to city government, and would seek to protect the elderly and disabled from being displaced because of rising property taxes.
“We must do something to help them out,” he said.
Renteria is vice-chair of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Association. He said the city needs to address homeowners’ trend of selling their properties for far more than what they paid and leaving the city.
“We’re going to be without a culture,” he said.
Valera said he wants to protect longtime residents of East Austin from being displaced due to the area’s rising popularity and ever-increasing property tax. He said new constructions could help fund affordable housing initiatives, and the city needs a new, more equitable land code.
McGhee said this is not the first time in Austin’s history the city has experienced rapid growth, and he has personally worked to preserve public land in Austin.
McGhee has served as a board member for the Austin History Center Association, a member of the Charter Revision Committee, and founding president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association.
A question about urban farms sparked shouts from some audience members who were vocally opposed to the proposed Festival Beach Food Forest pilot project. The Food Forest would be located on the south side of the Festival Beach Community Garden, east of I-35, near Lady Bird Lake. The project would include more than 2 acres of land with fruit trees, a butterfly garden and a stormwater filtration system.
Eleven candidates spoke in favor of urban farms, but some of them said those farms should be restricted to the farmer’s own property. Others who said they supported urban farms didn’t broach the subject of the Food Forest.
Almanza and Renteria incited “boos” from the audience when they said they supported the Food Forest.
Renteria said he is a member of the Festival Beach Community Garden, and urban farms are a good way to education children and provide nutritious food to the community.
“We were urban farmers before ‘urban farm’ was a hip word,” Almanza said. “I support the Food Forest, too.”
Quintero was the only candidate who said he did not support urban farming.
“This is a compact city,” he said.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Affordability: A multi-faceted discussion that centers around the relative cost-of-living in a given municipality. In Austin, this debate has returned discussions on such divers concepts as land use, density, living wages, and public transportation.
Austin City Council November 2014 Elections: The November 2014 Austin City Council elections marked a shift from an all-at-large City Council to one elected based mostly on geographic districts. The city's Mayor remains elected at-large.
East Austin: East Austin is the quadrant of Austin that, generally speaking, is east of IH-35.
Montopolis: An East Austin neighborhood bounded by Grove Street to the west, Texas State Highway 71 to the south and the Southeast Austin neighborhood and U.S. Route 183 to the east. It is located in District 3.
Urban Rail 2014: An effort undertaken to secure funding for the first leg of what would more-or-less be a light rail system for the City of Austin. It marked the third such major attempt in a decade.