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Northwest candidates talk transportation, affordability

Wednesday, September 24, 2014 by Kara Nuzback

Urban planning, pod transportation and green energy peppered Tuesday’s debate among City Council candidates vying to represent District 6 in Northwest Austin. All six candidates attended the forum, hosted by the  Austin Monitor KUT News, KXAN and Univision at the Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline, off U.S. 183.

Jimmy Flannigan, 36, owns Site Street, an online marketing business. A longtime Anderson Mill resident, Flannigan is a co-founder of the Northwest Austin Coalition and has worked with the Austin Chamber Transportation Committee over the past few years.

“I am the only candidate that has actual experience on the issues cities face,” he said.

Flannigan said the biggest problem with city government is a lack of communication with voters outside of downtown. He said, if elected, he would hold regular community meetings in District 6.

Mackenzie Kelly, 28, is a former volunteer firefighter and student at American Military University, where she is pursuing a degree in emergency and disaster management.

Kelly is also a former appointee on Gov. Rick Perry’s Committee for People With Disabilities.

“I care about my community,” she said.

Kelly said her No. 1 goal would be to control spending and make the city more affordable.

“The current City Council is addicted to spending,” she said.

Pete Phillips, 45, serves in the Texas National Guard as the director of threat analysis and force protection/counterterrorism and special security officer. He also sits on the joint Federal/State Antiterrorism Force Protection Working Group, examining potential threats to the Central Texas corridor.

“I’m a strategic leader,” he said.

Phillips said the biggest problem facing District 6 is affordability. He elaborated that people on fixed incomes can’t afford to stay in their homes because of high taxes, and that when residents move to more affordable suburbs like Leander and Cedar Park, they continue to work in the city, adding to traffic congestion.

Matt Stillwell, 38, owns an independent insurance agency in Austin. He has lived in the city since 1990 and in the District 6 area for the past eight years. Stillwell has been involved with the Round Rock Independent School District on the Bond Oversight Committee as well as the School Health Advisory Council. He currently participates in his neighborhood’s Architectural Control Committee. In 2012, Stillwell ran for state representative for House District 136, losing narrowly to Rep. Tony Dale.

Stillwell said the biggest issue facing Austin is growth, and that the city needs to start planning for its inevitable influx with improvements to transportation, infrastructure and affordability.

Jay Wiley, 37, is an entrepreneur and a licensed attorney. He served as an aide to former President George W. Bush and held numerous posts on Capitol Hill. He has also served as a chief of staff in the Texas House of Representatives and as Republican precinct chair with the Travis County Republican Party.

Wiley said the city’s affordability crisis is a consequence of a big, expensive city government.

“I think that we have been ignored as taxpayers for a long time,” he said. If elected, Wiley said he would limit government and prioritize taxpayers.

Don Zimmerman, 54, is a consultant and founder of ZimWin Communications. Zimmerman ran for Texas state representative in 2006 and tax assessor collector in 2008, and was a vocal participant in an illegal taxation lawsuit against the City of Austin during his tenure as Northwest Austin MUD #1 president.

“I’m the only candidate that has kept campaign promises to voters,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said, if elected, he would eliminate the Austin Economic Development Department, which he claims forced taxpayers to subsidize companies like Apple and Neiman Marcus to set up shop in the city. He also vowed to fire the city manager and overhaul city departments to make the government more accountable to voters.

All six candidates agreed that affordability for renters and homeowners is a problem in District 6, and all spoke in favor of a 20 percent homestead exemption. The candidates were split on their opinions of Austin Energy’s role in making sure utilities are affordable.

Kelly, Wiley and Zimmerman spoke out against the utility, saying it charges too much.

Wiley and Kelly added that the utility should be subject to a comprehensive audit.

Zimmerman said residents in cities with competitive marketplaces have lower utility bills, and that Austin Energy wastes money on “unsustainable” green-energy initiatives.

Phillips did not advocate for breaking up Austin Energy, but said Council should not be running the utility; it should instead appoint a panel of experts to govern it.

“Why City Council is running a billion-dollar business day to day is beyond me,” he said.

Stillwell said he understands residents’ concern with utility costs.

“My utility bill was $600 last month,” he said. But, he argued, it would be a mistake to break up the utility. He said Austin Energy allows the city to be a leader in renewable energy sources.

“Which are not unsustainable. Fossil fuels are unsustainable,” he said.

Flannigan also sided with the utility, saying that when compared to energy rates statewide, Austin Energy’s rates by law must be in the lower half. He added that renewable energy sources like solar power cost the city no more to produce than fossil fuels.

Transportation was another hot issue for the District 6 candidates.

Zimmerman and Kelly said the city needs a comprehensive design plan to fix traffic congestion.

“I’m asking for votes because, more than anything, I’m a problem solver,” Zimmerman said.

Kelly said the city needs a long-term solution to its traffic woes, not just Band-Aids for its most congested areas.

Both candidates also opposed Proposition 1, the city’s $1 billion bond initiative to repair roadways and invest in the first phase of an urban rail line downtown.

Wiley said busy corridors that have long been ignored in District 6 will be addressed, thanks to the new 10-1 system of city government.

“The fundamental problem is we haven’t had anyone that’s been accountable to voters,” he said.

Wiley also opposed Prop. 1. He said the city should instead invest in greater connectivity of highways, expand bus routes and invite rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft to do business in the city.

Phillips said, “We need to be innovative.” He proposed investigating JPods — aboveground personal rapid transit vehicles — as a means of transportation. He also pushed his “two-mile smile” initiative to build many small communities within the city that would allow residents to walk wherever they needed to go.

Flannigan said the city should synchronize the timing of traffic lights to allow traffic to flow quickly, and expand bus routes and park and ride facilities.

Stillwell said Austin will continue to grow, and traffic will inevitably get worse. The new City Council will have to do its best to make up for the lack of action of past councils to address rapid growth.

“We need to be open to new ideas,” he said. Stillwell proposed working with the private sector to promote employees working from home, as well as nontraditional shift times to cut down on the number of people on the roadway during rush hour.

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