Li retires from city but not from public service
Tuesday, October 6, 2015 by Jo Clifton
After more than 20 years with the state of Texas and nearly 10 years with the city of Austin, Watershed Protection Director Victoria Li has retired. She said some of her proudest achievements include introduction of value engineering to the department, creation of the city’s flooding website and development of a rain garden program for students in minority neighborhoods.
But at 59, she is not ready to quit contributing to her community and the world. Li sat down with the Austin Monitor last week to discuss her career and her plans for the future.
Li grew up in Taiwan and came to Austin at the age of 21 to pursue a master’s degree in engineering at the University of Texas.
After getting her master’s, Li went to work for the engineering firm Espey Huston for about two years. After that, Li said, she went to the agency charged with studying and preventing air pollution, the Texas Air Control Board, where she worked on modeling pollution to gauge its health impact and got to know Sen. Kirk Watson, who was chairman of the board’s governing body.
As Li moved up to become director of permits, the agency’s name was changed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The other change Li recalled was that the commission, which had been controlled by Democrats, became all Republican. That change prompted Li to apply for the job of executive director at the Texas Board of Professional Engineers, a job that she kept from 2000 to 2005.
At that time, she decided she needed to devote her energies to taking care of real estate that she and her ex-husband owned, so, Li said, she took early retirement from the state. But during that time, she served on both the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Smart Growth Task Force, in addition to serving on the Travis County Hospital District Board.
As a result of that service, she got to know City Manager Toby Futrell, who recruited her to work for the city, where her first job included management of the 2006 bond program, she said. After that, Li became assistant director of the Public Works Department, a position that led to her appointment as director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department.
One of the big problems there, she said, was a need to streamline inspections. “City Hall kept getting complaints as things started to boom,” Li said, noting that the department was performing 250,000 inspections a year. But achieving customer satisfaction in the permitting and inspection divisions was difficult. In 2009, Watershed Protection was split off to become its own department, with Li continuing as its director. Since then, she has focused on protection of creeks, Lady Bird Lake and overall water quality as well as on questions concerning flooding.
She said she is very happy with the department’s diversity program, which includes city engineers working with elementary and middle schools in minority neighborhoods to create rain gardens. Li said, “It’s science education combined with water quality and environmental protection, and the kids love it.”
Another thing that Li is really proud of is the city’s flooding website, which her department created. The site – which shows the status of each of Austin’s 62 low-water crossings and provides flood alerts and other information – has gotten “millions of hits,” Li said.
Li said she is pleased that City Council created the Flood Mitigation Task Force. “I really hope the Council and the department will take this opportunity to get meaningful feedback from the general public on how we’re managing our limited resources to produce the maximum protection.”
The Task Force, she said, should be asking whether, in situations where there is no engineering solution to solve a flooding problem, “should we take that house down and move the people out … so that we can eliminate the 1 percent of the risk of getting flooded for 2 inches of water? If people’s lives are not in danger, should we do that kind of buyout?”
Looking at those low-water crossings is also important, Li said. “For some areas, you might just want to close them.” Li said she is in favor of creating a bond program to pay for more flood buyouts. She said it would take a lot of public education, “but we should just take care of it.”
Li reflects that, “America has given me a lot,” but she still has some ties to China. “The first year I was here, President Nixon went to China, and (after that) we were able to communicate with China,” she said. Part of that communication included finding her aunts and uncles still living in China and putting them in touch with her father in Taiwan after many years of separation.
Another part of that has been direct contact with a number of Chinese mayors and vice mayors, who came to Austin to study the city’s watershed and air pollution prevention programs, she said. “I really wanted to showcase how Austin was managed” and to make a contribution to helping the Chinese improve their environment, she said.
Li has visited China and said she is planning to go back next April to continue that effort, to see what kind of collaborative work can be accomplished.
Additionally, in 2014, Li became president of the Austin chapter of the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association. In that role, she wrote that although Asian-Americans represent about 5 percent of the population, only .3 percent of corporate officers are Asian-American and less than 1 percent of corporate board members are Asian-American. In her public service, it is clear that she will continue to work to increase those number.
Photo courtesy of the city of Austin website.
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