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For Adler, 2017 was busy, successful

Friday, January 5, 2018 by Jo Clifton

It was another very busy year for Austin Mayor Steve Adler. He represented the city both in the United States and abroad on climate change. He joined with other Texas mayors in fighting Senate Bill 4, the Texas legislation to punish cities and local officials for failing to cooperate completely with federal immigration officials.

Adler told the Austin Monitor he was not optimistic about winning the immigration law battle at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, he said he thought the court would likely strike one section of the law that threatens to remove local officials from their offices for endorsing policies contradictory to federal law. That same provision prohibits criticism of SB 4 and criticism of federal immigration law. A lower court has already blocked enforcement of that particular provision.

“But there is a bigger effort nationally” on immigration that Austin is involved in, he said, including a fight against President Donald Trump’s travel ban. He said he is more hopeful about the outcome on that.

At home, Adler and his colleagues on City Council spent considerable time this year looking for a new city manager. The adviser they chose to help them with the search, Steve Newton of Russell Reynolds Associates, told them they should keep the names of the candidates secret until they had just one or two finalists.

In their resulting attempt to keep those names from the public, they literally ran away from members of the media and hid in a part of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport that was not accessible to the public. However, the ploy did not work and Austin American-Statesman reporters were able to identify those candidates. The newspaper has also sued the city for violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Adler said, “We were faced with a horrible choice,” and he said that Newton had been correct because some candidates told him they would not have applied if they had known that their names would become public. However, Adler confirmed that those candidates did not include the two finalists.

“This year has been about fighting for the city,” he said, and that includes CodeNEXT, the effort to get a new Land Development Code. It also includes the proposal to increase the size of the Austin Convention Center and fund more services for the homeless. The outcome of that effort, the cause of considerable conflict, remains to be seen.

One of the biggest stories of the year came as a surprise to many and happened in mid-December, when Council unanimously rejected the contract worked out over months between the city and the Austin Police Association. But Adler said he was not surprised by Council’s action.

The mayor said rejection of the contract “was always a risk because the issues were larger than anything the negotiators had the ability to deal with. So our system kind of failed the moment.”

APA rejected further negotiations for the time being, so the Austin Police Department will operate under Chapter 143 of the Texas Government Code.

Adler added that the community needs “to have a larger conversation about public safety and how that fits in with everything that we do.”

For many years, he said, the percentage of the budget that was going to public safety increased. That percentage has gone down consistently since this Council took office, he said.

However, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told the Monitor, “We have consistently advised against using these percentages as a meaningful metric due to the multitude of changes that happen in the General Fund over time. For example, Neighborhood Housing was transitioned to the General Fund from 2012-2015, which helps explain the drop in public safety as a percent of the total budget in those years.”

According to data supplied by the city, 64.5 percent of the General Fund was devoted to public safety in 2012. That dropped to 62.4 percent in 2014. However, the amount of money devoted to public safety grew from more than $447 million in 2012 to more than $499 million in 2014.

Adler’s complaint is that the city does not have a long-range plan. He would like to see a five-year plan or 10-year plan.

“We’ve never had that conversation. We treat every year almost as an ad hoc year,” he said.

In addition, Adler said, Council needs to have strategic goals, and he is very proud and excited that Council has started working on a strategic plan, which he said “goes in the column of really wonky stuff.”

“We’re really going to take the time and effort it takes to really align staff and the budget and the Council,” he said, “and to set real measurable goals and objectives so that the Council” can determine whether it has met the goals it has set.

Adler said he is interested in pursuing an idea suggested by city manager candidate Howard Lazarus, having a two-year budget instead of the traditional yearly budget.

Going back to questions about what policies to pursue with respect to the police, Adler said he wants to hire more police but if Council increases salaries too much it will not be able to do that hiring.

“It’s hard to do both of those two things and if the contract’s already set, then when someone comes to me and says increase your officers … my first question is can I also move the lever of what I pay my officers? But if that’s a fixed lever for me, then my flexibility to increase the number of officers is limited.”

He said Council was discussing these questions with relationship to the budget relatively early. “Those questions that we have did not translate well to the negotiation process that we’ve always gone through to do contracts – because in that contract negotiation what the Council was thinking and feeling I don’t think ever really got translated to what was happening at the table even though what we were thinking and feeling was very public.”

Adler expressed his frustration that if the city wants more transparency, then it has to pay more. “And I think that’s a very different perspective from where the Council is coming from. The Council was just trying to figure out what is good policy for the city, and among the policy objectives is paying our public safety professionals at the very top of what those folks are paid.”

But Adler said he wanted to take some of the extra funds the city puts into policing and have it pay for community policing, and that includes more officers.

Austin experienced nine shootings by police officers in 2017. Most of the people who were shot seemed to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol or experiencing mental illness of some variety. Adler said APD puts each of its officers through twice as much training to deal with mental illness as is required by the state. “And then we have a special extra stipend training for officers,” to learn even more about how to deal with people who are either under the influence or mentally ill. APD has 150 officers with that training.

“I believe that the will is there in the Council to ask every officer that has contact with the public to have significantly greater mental health training,” he said.

However, he said that is clearly not enough and expressed frustration with a state law that says that even if the police had a mental health professional working with them, that mental health professional could not interact with the person whose behavior triggered calling the police.

If the Trump administration cuts funding from various programs that the city depends upon, such as housing and health, Austin and other cities will have to “look to themselves and others” to fill the gaps created by those cuts, Adler said.

Overall, despite the challenges, Adler seemed optimistic about the future as he plans to run for a second term. His campaign has said he will make his official announcement on Jan. 14.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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