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Tech lobby aims at city politics with town halls

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

All political lenses might be pointed toward the state Capitol right now as the legislature works through a special session, but a local lobbying group is trying to turn the attention of Austin’s growing tech sector toward the happenings at City Hall.

The Austin Tech Alliance, which began operating last year, will hold the first in a series of Tech Town Halls tonight, bringing City Council members up close with tech workers living in their district.

David Edmonson, Austin Tech Alliance’s executive director, said one of the main goals of the town halls is to show tech workers the real-life impacts of the work and policy taking place at the city level.

“The easiest way for a nebulous process to get sort of cleaned up is to meet the people who are involved and find out what their own motivations are and where they come from,” he said. “We’ll find out beginning Tuesday what it is the tech workers are interested in. Making it as real and tangible as possible is important, so I hope we can relate it back to everyday life and show (tech workers) that there are lots of opportunities to get your voice heard.”

Edmonson said his group plans to organize similar meetings with state officials once the special session adjourns later this summer. He said issues like affordability and transit are guaranteed to be discussed during the town halls, along with any city practices that could impact the ability of entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses here. When Austin Tech Alliance was formed Edmonson said most estimates put the number of tech workers in Austin north of 100,000, making them a potentially large and thus far under-mobilized voting bloc.

Council Member Leslie Pool said she hopes her town hall is the first step to increase communication and civic participation by the tech community that lives within her district.

“Not everyone knows that they can pick up the phone and connect with my office or send us an email to give us the opportunity to be creative and make Austin a better place to live and work,” she said via email. “So, I challenge the tech sector to connect with the individual district offices and with the mayor’s office.”

Pool also said she supports exploring ways to work with developers and other talented tech workers to solve problems that hamper other residents’ participation in city matters.

“There might be creative ways that the tech community knows of that can increase diversity of thought,” she wrote. “Is there another suggestion on how to reach those who are home-bound, people who are working traditional – or non-traditional hours and want to participate in making our neighborhoods better? I think our Community Engagement office is open to new ideas.”

With the town halls being open to anyone interested in the topic, the Austin Tech Alliance sessions are likely to serve staff-level tech workers and new entrepreneurs and not high-level decision makers at large companies, said Barbary Brunner, CEO of the Austin Technology Council industry trade group.

Brunner said her group’s policy coalition tried to organize a similar series of community engagement events last year but had trouble building interest around local political issues. She said the high interest in the state legislature’s “bathroom bill” concerning the use of public restrooms by transgender people has taken most attention away from local matters such as Austin’s CodeNEXT process to rewrite its Land Development Code.

“There’s nothing super sexy the Council is working on that people are really engaged in right now,” she said. “It’s the young, excitable workers and entrepreneurs you get to these events and it’s the same sort of issues everyone else cares about. They want affordable housing close by, quality of life in their neighborhoods, and (less) traffic.”

Tonight’s District 7 session with Pool takes place 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at WeWork Domain. A session with Mayor Steve Adler will take place Aug. 24 at Capital Factory, and the group is working to schedule the remaining nine council members as their schedules allow in the midst of budget workshops.

Photo by Gage Skidmore made available through a Creative Commons license.This article has been changed since publication to change the name “Dave” to “David”.

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