Mayor foresees messy, but effective, City Council
Wednesday, February 25, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT
Austin Mayor Steve Adler says in the wake of what he hopes will be a more efficient and more inclusive City Council, don’t be surprised if there’s a little mess.
“We have conversations that are out for everyone to see. Sometimes conversations and communications are messy,” Adler told Monitor Publisher Michael Kanin last night at North Door, as part of the publication’s “Beers, Brains, and Betterment” series.
“Messy’s a bad word,” he said. “They’re real.”
Adler said this level of transparency will take Council only so far. In order for members to tackle what the mayor believes are the city’s most pressing issues — gentrification and wealth disparity, with mention of the latter prompting a cry of “Shameful!” from someone in the North Door audience — Council needs more support staff.
“There are people who justifiably expect us to be able to deal with these greater challenges,” Adler said. “We need more resources in order to be able to do that.”
Adler already prioritized adding more staff when earlier this year he proposed using the Mayor’s Better Austin Foundation to fund the nearly two dozen new positions he said his office would need. But at the Feb. 12 Council meeting, members resisted, concerned that funding public positions with money from private donors posed ethical issues and that so many new employees would tip power in favor of the mayor’s office.
“It could have the end result … of diluting the voices of the 10 Council members,” Council Member Ellen Troxclair said at the meeting.
The mayor has since told the Monitor he’s dropping the proposal to fund new staff using foundation money, and he didn’t spend much time defending the idea Monday night. But Adler’s far from trashing the idea of adding more employees. Equipping the Council with more policy advisers, he said, is essential.
“To be able to have somebody who is waking up every morning and going to sleep every night, and [affordable housing, for example] is what they’re focusing on and that’s what they’re going to be held accountable for … that’s a good thing,” he said.
Adler said he continues to access staff through the office of City Manager Marc Ott, a move he said has allowed those who work for Ott to assume a more active role in Council.
“Which means they’re just not watching us, and it means they’re getting involved,” Adler said. “My hope is that we have a real good partner in the manager and staff.”
Amid the talk of doing things differently, Adler was adamant about one change he didn’t see coming Council’s way: a strong-mayor system.
“I’m so far away from considering anything like that,” he told Kanin. Adler said the way Austin’s Council is run — with a city manager holding executive power, rather than the mayor — is a setup Council is going to have to learn to utilize.
“We have a system of government, and we need to make this system of government work,” he said.
Adler touted Council’s inherent uniqueness — even if a slew of proposed changes haven’t yet been implemented. “It’s different,” he said, “because the 10-1 system is different. There were large parts of this city that were feeling disengaged and uninvolved, because frankly, they were disengaged and uninvolved.”
He said Council members’ reaches are wider now, because not only is each member responsible for heading a citywide committee on innovation or transportation, for example, but the 10-1 setup means each member is also the face of a specific swath of the city.
“I think that a decision that’s made by a Council that has all of the voices of the city present and participating will be a better decision than a decision that’s made by a Council that only has representation coming from a small geographic area,” Adler said.
“The decisions will be harder to make, the decisions will be messier to make, but at the end of the day, the decisions will be better. And that is the promise and the potential of 10-1.”
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