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Casar looks forward to work on new Council

Monday, January 5, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Much has been made of the fact that District 4’s Greg Casar is the youngest person ever elected to Austin City Council. But despite his age, he is already a familiar face at City Hall. Before he ran for Council, Casar’s role with the Workers Defense Project had given him experience with long City Council meetings and a chance to learn about the city firsthand.

During the election, Casar’s district race was one of the most contentious — his opponent, Laura Pressley, may pay for a recount this afternoon even though she lost by 30 points. When he sat down with the Austin Monitor last month, Casar seemed ready to put the campaign behind him and get to work. He knows there is a lot to sort out right off the bat.

“Everybody is going to figure out what district representation means and looks like,” said Casar. “There is really nitty-gritty stuff about that. … I think a lot of those little decisions that we are going to be making together are going to matter so much. There is going to be a lot of inside-baseball stuff that is going to shape what the Council looks like. That is going to be fascinating.”

Casar is also interested in what will come out of the discussion about affordability that was promised on all of the campaign trails.

“First, what do we even mean when we talk about making this an affordable place to live?” asked Casar.

“This is the first time that all 10 of us, plus the mayor, will talk about it as a Council,” said Casar. “Because the discussion about affordability in (District) 4 is so different from the discussion about affordability in, say, (Districts) 5 or 8.”

He pointed out that, in his district, there are actually large sections where property values have declined, but other issues of affordability persist, like the availability of good jobs. That is a much different scenario than in other parts of the city.

Because of that, Casar spoke about developing a comprehensive vision for affordability. He seemed comfortable with an idea forwarded by Mayor-elect Steve Adler to have experts and stakeholders discuss the topic with Council before any major changes were established.

Casar anticipates CodeNEXT is likely to be a big issue, and knows it has been a flashpoint for Austinites on all sides. In terms of his district specifically, he stresses the importance of outreach in the Land Development Code rewrite.

“We need to work really hard to communicate to this huge batch of constituents that weren’t really involved in city government what (the rewrite) means for them,” said Casar. He explained that he worked hard to engage people from his district during his campaign and hopes to keep them involved throughout his term. Casar says he wants to have more “squeaky wheel” constituents represented at a local level.

“No matter how much that drags meetings out, I think that it’s important to have that sort of engagement. … No matter when I’m done doing this job, I think the district will solve more of its own problems if more people are engaged,” said Casar.

Casar hopes to engage the city about issues that may have taken a backseat in years past. He plans to take topics that may have been considered niche issues previously, such as poverty and immigration, into a more general conversation, because those are things that impact his constituents. Casar says that he would also like to send a positive message about mass transit, though he is concerned about what the rail bond defeat may mean in terms of Austinites’ attitudes toward mass transportation in general.

In addition, Casar would like to take a closer look at how city funds are allocated geographically. He points out that there are portions of his district that have “serious neglect” in terms of city dollars. He suggested that it could be beneficial to map how city dollars have been spent when working on the budget, though he doesn’t want the map to “lead to every district getting just their chunk.”

Like other Council members, Casar says that he is looking forward to learning more about Austin Energy. He explained that he knows relatively little compared to how much he cares about the utility, which he sees as a convergence of affordability, environmental issues, and public and private jobs. Casar is also well aware that the state legislature is also interested in Austin Energy.

“On a lot of other issues, I’ve spoken up, saying, ‘Let’s be progressive, and if they want to strike down 20 progressive Austin ordinances, let’s pass 30 so we still have 10 of them left.’ On Austin Energy, that’s not something like that,” said Casar.

He says that although he can see the reason behind an independent Austin Energy committee, he doesn’t think it is a step that needs to be taken right now. “I know there have been some fruitful and hopeful discussions about what our (Council) committees look like,” said Casar. “The hope being that, since there are more of us, we should be able to get more done.”

In terms of economic development agreements, Casar imagines that they might decline in popularity with the new Council.

“I think our first 380 agreement will be an interesting time,” said Casar. “My feeling, looking out at the races, is there will be very little appetite for one anytime soon.”

When the Monitor spoke with Casar, he had just been elected after a long campaign.

“Honestly, it was all such tunnel vision until Dec. 16. I’m just starting to figure it out,” he said. As Casar takes office, he said that he hopes to study the work of past Council members and is already thinking about what his own legacy might be. For now he’s prepared for the inevitable.

“I look forward to the day that I get called a NIMBY and also bought off by developers within 10 seconds.”

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