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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Wednesday, December 28, 2016 by Jo Clifton
Casar cites work on labor issues for 2016
Greg Casar was re-elected to his District 4 City Council seat in November with only token, underfunded opposition – and that fact did not even make it onto the list of highlights he shared with the Austin Monitor.
From his post at the Workers Defense Project, Casar was first elected in 2014 as a champion of working people. And his focus on issues affecting laborers and the less well-heeled has continued.
He told the Monitor that even though people cite transportation as their highest priority and affordability as their second priority when polled, as he goes door to door talking to people in his district, he finds that affordability is overwhelmingly the No. 1 issue.
Casar noted that he was very pleased with the outcome of the Austin Energy rate case and thought the utility did a good job of explaining its programs. However, he said, more people call his office about being unable to pay their electric bills than about any other single thing.
Casar points with pride to the Council’s decision to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13.50 per hour for all workers, including temporary employees, lifeguards and those working on city construction projects. That’s really important to District 4, he said, where one in four people work in construction, giving it the largest share in his district’s economy.
Among the 10 districts, District 4 has the largest percentage of residents — nearly 31 percent — who have less than a high school education, according to a recent report from the Office of the City Auditor. “It’s the critical industry that helps people in my district put food on the table,” he said.
Also in connection with construction workers, Casar said he was pleased that “we got the expedited (building) permitting with better working conditions passed, which I think was important. It’s a really innovative policy solution for improving working conditions in a state where the (Texas) Legislature is really trying to keep us from improving working conditions. And I haven’t heard of anywhere else in the country where they’re trying out this kind of strategy, so it will be exciting and important to see how it goes next year.”
Casar said he expects large construction contractors to seek certification that they are abiding by the working condition guidelines in order to participate in expedited permitting. Staff will come back in 2017 with the proposed guidelines.
Casar noted that in 2015, he was involved with tenant organizing for mobile home park residents. Regarding this year, he said, “It’s really great to see that the city has given funding to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid for safe and fair treatment of tenants.” That actually happened last December, but the effects of the funding were felt in 2016.
Along with District 3 Council Member Pio Renteria, he also worked on including mobile home park residents among those protected by the tenant relocation ordinance.
Another important milestone for Casar was the passage of the Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance, which is designed to help people with criminal records get employment. He admits that there is a possibility that the Legislature will enact a law this session that would override such ordinances. State Rep. Paul Workman (Austin) has pre-filed a bill to do just that.
Though he doesn’t count it as an accomplishment, Casar pointed to work he and other Council members did on the Austin Police Department’s DNA backlog, outsourcing cases to a Dallas County lab. APD’s problems are well-known, and they will continue into the new year because APD decided not to reopen its lab.
Casar said the lab in Dallas will only be able to deal with 20 Austin cases a month, and DPS will process another 20.
Remembering that the department promised that the Dallas lab would deal with a significant amount of the backlog, Casar said, “Twenty is not significant enough.” He pledged to look for other labs to help clear that backlog. In an email to the Monitor, Casar said that he was “very supportive of continuing to pursue all our options to process the necessary backlogged sexual assault evidence quickly and effectively.”
Although policing is “a big national conversation,” Casar said that “it’s very important in District 4,” with the district having areas with a disproportionate amount of violent crime. “Confidence in the police is really important, and I think that is a conversation that is going to be really important next year,” he said.
The district also has a large number of immigrants, and Casar wants to make sure that those immigrants are not too intimidated to report crime. He also said that it is important not to waste police resources on looking for immigrants when they could be tracking down criminals.
Casar said that he was proud that there was near unanimity on the dais for finding emergency funding for immigrant legal services considering that there is such a surge in need for those services at this time. (Only Council Member Ellen Troxclair and outgoing Council Member Don Zimmerman opposed the resolution.)
Casar said, “Heading into the (Donald) Trump administration and the (Gov. Greg) Abbott/(Lt. Gov. Dan) Patrick Legislature, I think it’s going to be very important (for Council to be unified), because I don’t think that they’re going to go easy on us just because we play nice.
“I think it’s going to be important for Austin and other Texas cities to stand up on issues like immigration,” he continued,” and show that we are really serious about police resources being used for criminal issues and not dealing with where people are from.”
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