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Daugherty, policy-obsessed viral sensation, starts fourth term with broad agenda

Friday, January 6, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

In October, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty shot to international viral fame thanks to a campaign ad that sold him as an unmitigated policy geek. And based on his outlook for 2017, that was no act.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Daugherty weighed in on everything from transportation, the tax rate, his solution for affordability issues, reforming county leadership and managing the fallout from the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab debacle.

The Precinct 3 Republican narrowly won re-election on Nov. 8 to secure a fourth term in office. (He served two terms last decade before losing his seat in 2008, then triumphantly reclaiming it in 2012.) His accomplishments – such as fulfilling a long-standing pledge to help start construction of State Highway 45 Southwest – certainly buoyed his campaign, but then of course so did the ad featuring his wife, Charlyn, that briefly captured the world’s attention.

The tongue-in-cheek tone of the spot emerged as a self-effacing beacon in the middle of a national election loaded with vindictive rancor and landed Daugherty, Charlyn and even his Democratic rival, David Holmes, in front of the microphones and cameras of news outlets big and small. He ultimately clinched his victory by fewer than 4 percentage points.

Daugherty signaled to the Monitor that he will continue to focus on policy and cooperative solutions with his four Democratic colleagues on the dais.

“I think 2017 for me will be really trying to concentrate on county government and things that I think that we really need to get a handle on,” he said. The first of those issues, he noted, is overhauling the leadership structure among the county’s various departments.

“For us to continue to operate county government without a county administrator is just crazy,” he said.

A consultant’s report in 2014 recommended the creation of a county administrator position to more efficiently manage county staff, much as a city manager does. The report estimated it could save the county millions of dollars per year. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt favors the idea but is moving cautiously while trying to build more support for it on the dais.

“I do think that it’ll be slower than what I like,” Daugherty predicted. “But that’s just county government.”

While he’s prepared to be patient on that task, he said that finding a solution to APD’s DNA lab crisis deserves priority. The lab shut down last summer after an audit revealed major flaws in testing procedures. Because the findings dramatically affect cases both past, present and future within the county’s criminal justice pipeline, the Commissioners Court is scrambling along with City Council to absorb requests to retest evidence, while also establishing a long-term replacement for the defunct DNA lab.

“We’ve got to do that, and we’ve got to do that as fast as we can,” Daugherty said. “It really costs us a lot if we don’t make sure we get that taken care of.”

Costs – and how to keep them down – are a recurring theme with the fiscally conservative western Travis County commissioner. He hinted to the Monitor that he will work to keep the price tag on any potential county bond referendum this coming November as low as possible. The court has already taken steps to schedule that election, but its fortunes could be complicated in light of the city’s successful $720 million transportation bond that passed in November, as well as a potential Austin Independent School District bond question in May.

Daugherty also speculated that, even if voters don’t approve a November bond, they could see a higher tax bill after the next budget is written.

“I think that this may be a year where there are things that you just can’t get around, unless, of course, you just stop funding things. And there aren’t a lot of places that I see where you find a lot of efficiencies,” he said.

Outside of taxes – which are where the Commissioners Court wields its heaviest hammer – Daugherty endorsed other strategies for addressing the cost of living in Travis County.

“Use every imaginable incentive that you can for residential development.” he said. “If you can put enough product on the ground, it can’t help but lighten the load for affordability, because we’ve just got way more demand than we have supply.”

Daugherty’s eagerness to spark a housing boom parallels his desire to see more roads built. The champion of SH 45 SW and longtime critic of public transit investments knocked opposition to plans that would expand MoPac Expressway south of Cesar Chavez Street. He said he too is discouraged by proposals to double-deck the roadway over Lady Bird Lake but added that he considers aesthetic concerns to be secondary when it comes to transportation planning.

“Wherever we can put capacity, that ought to be our first priority,” Daugherty said. To that end, he noted that he’s working to see the construction of a connector between State Highway 71 and Hamilton Pool Road in his precinct, an idea that could draw heated opposition from residents and environmental activists.

Daugherty also dismissed any concerns that he could be politically isolated by the elevation of new Commissioner Jeff Travillion, a Democrat who is bringing fresh vigor to the Precinct 1 seat.

“I do believe that I have enough people skills to get through and to get by, even if there’s something that I may feel differently about,” he said. “And I don’t take myself so seriously. Everybody knows that.”

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