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Sheryl Cole talks about life on the Council

Wednesday, December 24, 2014 by Jo Clifton

When we sat down with Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, the first African-American woman elected to the Austin City Council, we asked her what advice she would give to the new Council members.

She said, “Respect your colleagues. Value their opinions. Try to understand their position before you attack it. Look for compromise and seek win-win solutions. Listen to all sides. From the moment that you raise your hand and take that oath, you are no longer campaigning. You are now governing for the entire city, and therein is the difference.”

Cole recalled with fondness several major initiatives she worked on during her eight-and-a-half years on the Council.

Chief among those was increased financing to complete building the Waller Creek tunnel and the effort to lift 10 percent of downtown out of the floodplain, as well as creation of the Waller Conservancy to help fund parks along the creek. Both of those efforts are ongoing.

Waller Creek runs behind the University of Texas campus, where Cole went to school. She remembered the creek from her college days with affection. When she got to Council, Cole said, she realized that work on the creek had the potential to transform downtown and make a downtown destination park, with accompanying attractions such as recreation and restaurants.

“Being a signature destination for our city, I was very excited about it,” she said.

Voters had already approved bonds for the Waller Creek tunnel, but more was needed to transform the area. Cole began “making the rounds, starting with the PTA moms,” she said. “And I talked to a lot of the environmental community, who are definitely in favor of having a downtown oasis with cleaner water, and then went of course to the downtown community. Just this whole city really seemed to support the project, and so by the time (former Council Member Betty Dunkerley) and I got to the county to talk about the numbers, it was easy to demonstrate that the community supported it.”

In 2007, the city and Travis County created a Tax Increment Financing district along the creek, with 100 percent of the money from increased property values from the city and 50 percent from the county helping to fund construction of the tunnel. The project affects an estimated 10 percent of downtown property and is expected to be a draw for tourists once the tunnel and surrounding parkland is complete.

Cole said affordable housing was another favorite initiative. It took two elections, in 2012 and 2013, to pass the most recent set of affordable housing bonds.

She cited the 2012 bond election as an example of a time when Council came together under her leadership to put forth a package of proposals the city could afford. However, while voters approved bonds for everything else, they narrowly rejected the housing bonds. After that defeat, Cole said she gathered affordable housing stakeholders together, and with their help, the city came back the following year with a slightly smaller proposal that did win voter approval.

So why did the bonds pass in 2013 and not in 2012? “I think we just put together a better campaign, and by campaign I mean I think we explained things better,” Cole said.

Asked about other challenges she and her colleagues had faced together, she said, “One of the big challenges since I’ve been in office was the county attorney’s investigation,” when Council was accused of violating the Open Meetings Act in 2011 and 2012. County Attorney David Escamilla eventually offered all seven Council members on the 2012 Council deferred adjudication, which they accepted, in return for a promise not to prosecute.

They stopped having regular one-on-one meetings with the city manager and with each other.

“It took us away from governing,” Cole said. However, when the Council started having public work sessions, Cole said she thought the city gained some transparency, but collegiality among Council members was lost in the process: “I think it affected the camaraderie.”

Asked what she would not miss, Cole said, “I’m not going to miss not being able to make everybody happy. I’m a pleaser. Not being able to get to a compromise. I’m not going to miss being so tired I can’t sleep. ”

Cole said she was surprised by some of the things she learned this year as she ran for mayor. For example, she said, “I did not know that segments of the community were so dissatisfied,” in particular with economic development incentives.

“There was such a gap from my perspective in what we did, were trying to do and did, versus the perception of what we did,” she said.

“People seem to think that we were creating jobs to bring people here,” but she and her fellow Council members saw it as a way to create jobs “for our needy population.” That includes, of course, people who graduate from the University of Texas and want to stay in Austin. For her, that was a laudable goal, but for some members of the public it wasn’t.

The conversation about economic incentives will likely continue with a new group of people on the dais now.

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