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Leffingwell: The jury’s still out on new system

Wednesday, January 6, 2016 by Jo Clifton

The Austin Monitor sat down with former Mayor Lee Leffingwell at the end of 2015 to get his observations about how the new single-member district system is working and what he thinks City Council’s challenges might be in 2016.

Leffingwell said, “I don’t watch them all the time, but I have seen them in action several times. I think the big worry was always about ward politics – that there would be a tendency to direct all your efforts to benefit your district, and not so much to the city as a whole.

“I’ve seen some evidence that points both ways,” he said. “The jury’s still out on that.”

In some instances, Leffingwell observed, Council members defer to a particular member on a matter within that member’s district, but in other cases they do not. He referred to a particular zoning case in which Council Member Leslie Pool adamantly argued for a particular action, but the rest of Council rejected her plea.

Also, Leffingwell, a golfer, was puzzled by Council’s rejection of the idea of putting a golf course at Decker Lake in spite of Council Member Ora Houston’s passionate advocacy for the project. He said, “I don’t guess it’s formally dead yet, (but) they didn’t defer to her on that.”

With the exception of Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, none of the current Council members had served in city government prior to taking office last January. That was very different from what Leffingwell experienced. As mayor, he served essentially with the same Council members for six years. The only change was Tovo’s election and Randi Shade’s defeat, he noted.

“I think we have to keep in mind, too, it’s going to take a while for them to get up to speed. It takes a while to learn how things go. There was always in the past some kind of mentorship taking place, and that just wasn’t available to these guys. They’ve kind of been on their own. I think it would be expected … that it would take a while for them to learn how the city functions and how the government process works.”

However, he added, “It’s been fairly evident that the line between policymaking and making administrative decisions is real blurry right now. … I would say from what I have seen, there’s a big tendency on the part of the Council to micromanage – some more than others.”

Leffingwell served on the city’s Environmental Board and was the chair of that commission before being elected to Council in 2005 and again in 2008. He was elected mayor in 2009 and re-elected in 2012, serving until the beginning of 2015. Although he was precluded from running again by term limits, Leffingwell indicated at the end of his term that he had served long enough. But he and other former Council members have expressed their unhappiness about the attitudes expressed by some current Council members that the new way is so much better than the old way and that previous Councils didn’t work as hard or didn’t achieve as much as the new group.

Leffingwell said, “There’s been a concern – this is just something I’ve just heard on the street as opposed to witnessing a lot of it – but there seems to be a problem with actually getting things done. People who have projects come to the Council to get things done or (request) action of some kind. … They certainly have an interest, many times a financial interest, in having the Council take action in a reasonable period of time. And so what I hear is that people are concerned about that, that it takes too much time to get some kind of action on a particular project.”

For example, Leffingwell said, “I had one person tell me that they are advising their clients that maybe they ought to hold off on their projects for a year or two, until something changes … waiting for Council to get used to acting in a more expeditious way. You know, a lot of times, postponements take place because people aren’t sure what to do. Maybe as they gain more experience, and there’s more of a personal history in dealing with certain types of cases, they can make up their minds quicker.”

Some members of the current Council frequently abstain on issues. Leffingwell frowns on that practice.

He said, “Abstentions are something that I think ought to be avoided. An abstention is not the same as a recusal. … I think that’s what you’re elected to do – vote on things. A lot of times you have to make a choice between two different options, and both of them are bad. You might not like either one of them, but still I think you have a responsibility to make that decision and cast a vote one way or the other.”

“I’m not going to name names,” he said, but he pointed to the fact that on a past Council, a Council member abstained on a particular item, and said, “‘I am abstaining because I have friends on both sides.’ That is not a good reason to abstain. If you don’t want to vote for something or against it, maybe you ought to get more informed and realize you have a responsibility to make some kind of decision. I don’t think it’s right to just run away from it.”

He added, “The natural extension of that would be everybody could abstain, and that would be some kind of action. That’s another point. An abstention is a vote in a way, because a certain amount of votes are required for the Council to take action. … For example, if you have five people voting for something and four voting against and two abstain, that’s a no vote.”

“Some particular issues are coming up in the next few years that are going to be very important to the city’s future,” he said.

There are critical decisions ahead, he noted, having to do with the operation of the city’s enterprises, Austin Energy and the Austin Water Utility, as well as decisions about transportation.

Transportation is probably the most difficult of all, he said, noting that he has heard rumors that there’s going to be a very large transportation bond issue, maybe next November.

As for the Austin Energy rate case, coming up in 2016, Leffingwell said, “From what I’m hearing, it’s supposed to be a real rate case, conducted the way the Public Utility Commission would handle it. I think that’s going to be kind of critical going forward. The fate of Austin Energy is hanging on how that turns out.”

Regardless of how it turns out, Leffingwell predicted that the matter would go to the Legislature, always the possibility. Besides deregulation, a persistent threat to Austin Energy, he noted that there are some other proposals. One of those, he said, would be “allowing large users to appeal (their rates) to PUC” or allowing customers outside the city to choose providers other than Austin Energy.

Leffingwell is among those who do not think that it is prudent for Austin Water to mandate permanent once-a-week watering, as has been proposed. He said he was “kind of wondering how they’re going to deal with the prospect of the lakes and the water system nearly full, while the utility’s going to continue to be stressed financially. It takes the utility the same amount (of money) whether you use 100 gallons a month or 20,000 gallons a month,” he said. He would like to see the utility be able to make more money in the summertime, as it traditionally has done.

Leffingwell sees a lot of difficult challenges ahead for Council but concluded, “I think it’s going to get better.” He said he expects “most of those (five) folks” who will be running for re-election in 2016 “will be re-elected.”

«Austin Texas Lake Front» av Stuart SeegerFlickr: Austin Texas Lake Front. Lisensiert under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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