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Mayoral candidates stress leadership on familiar Austin concerns

Wednesday, October 24, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

While common topics such as Austin’s transportation issues and the fate of the city’s CodeNEXT rewrite have been talking points at all recent forums for the four contested City Council seats, at Monday’s forum for the two most prominent candidates for mayor the question of leadership and setting a vision for the city was threaded through discussion on those familiar issues.

The forum at Wesley United Methodist Church started with introductions and a brief question-and-answer session for five of the lesser-known and experienced candidates for mayor – Todd Phelps, Gus Peña, Alan Pease, Travis Duncan and Alexander Strenger.

Peña – a regular presence at City Council meetings – called out City Council for passing a $4.1 billion budget and not preventing gentrification in historic neighborhoods, while Duncan said Austin is suffering from a “dysfunctional democracy” with a tone that comes from the top. Phelps continued his push for a 20 percent homestead property tax exemption as a remedy for displacement and criticized Adler for not meeting his 2014 campaign promise on that issue.

Pease criticized the city’s priorities moving away from transit and affordability. Strenger took the podium with a championship belt reading “Mayor” draped over his shoulder and criticized the city’s cooperation with ride-share companies and incentives for developers and large corporations.

The session then moved to a nearly hourlong session between Mayor Steve Adler and former City Council Member Laura Morrison.

On the question of how the city can move forward after abandoning CodeNEXT in August, both Morrison and Adler blamed a flawed process that disenchanted residents who felt special interests had too much influence in shaping the rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code.

Adler pointed to factionalism as the main force preventing consensus and said there are components of the document that can be used when the process restarts.

“In half the neighborhoods in the city, people would tell me CodeNEXT couldn’t move forward, or shouldn’t, because it was the product of greedy developers who were just out to put money in their pockets,” he said. “I would go to other neighborhoods and hear it shouldn’t go forward because it was being pushed by racist NIMBYs. Neither of those are true. The vast majority of people in this city would have been able to reach consensus on a process. We’ll get there. We just need a process people can trust where they feel like they are heard.”

Morrison said misplaced priorities for managing growth played a large part in community disapproval of CodeNEXT, and a reset of those priorities needs to come first.

“Right out of the block, the first version of CodeNEXT was projecting that 100,000 people would be displaced over the next 10 years. We were clear it was supposed to be a community-driven process,” she said. “We knew there were going to be controversial issues, so we put processes in place that would require they bring forward public discussion on the controversial issues so they could be settled before spending $8.5 million and having to scrap it. It needs to be community-driven, needs to settle on the priorities, so it helps us grow stronger instead of displacing people.”

On the issue of the city’s ongoing negotiations with police officers on a new contract, both agreed on a need for better community oversight and pay that preserves Austin’s current place as a top-paying city for its size.

Morrison said it is a mayor’s responsibility to lead the conversation and narrative around a bargaining process so both sides have clear expectations.

“We need to pay our officers in such a way that they get the respect they deserve and we’re not going to have churning and turnover,” she said. “We need the leadership that will have that hard conversation in the open. It may not be politically comfortable to do that, but I think that it is the kind of thing that will provide the negotiating team on both sides with an answer of where they need to go to get this thing done.”

Adler said staffing levels and a greater emphasis on community policing also need to be considered.

“It is important that we preserve the competitive edge we have as a city in making sure we pay our officers more than any other peer city,” he said. “We need a sufficient number of officers and need enough so we can do community policing well, so when an officer goes into a neighborhood, they know the people well and it’s not an unfamiliar situation with unfamiliar people, and so the community knows that police officer and they’re not an unfamiliar person. We need to have sufficient detectives, and we’re short on those right now. We need a contract that lets us have the correct number of officers.”

Other questions from organizers and the audience dealt with ways to control and reduce the effects of flooding, preventing Austin’s musicians and artists from being priced out of the city, and looking for ways improve community input in making policy decisions.

On the ever-present issue of affordability, the conversation turned to how each candidate would encourage neighborhoods around the city to buy into accepting an increase in affordable housing units in their communities.

Adler said building dialogue around the goodwill of most residents would be crucial to adding mixed-income opportunities throughout the city.

“Most of the residents in most of the neighborhoods genuinely want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to live in all parts of our city,” he said. “People recognize that children that are growing up in mixed-income opportunities do better. One of the most important things to do is find ways to help communities come together to give them tools they can use and really listen to how they would place those mixed-income opportunities in their area, but also to be strong as a community to demonstrate that the community will still exist.”

Morrison said the city needs to think about adding affordable housing equitably in all areas of the city – not just in East Austin where it has been concentrated in recent years – by considering different criteria to define affordability in different parts of the city.

“You see neighborhoods all across the city crying to the Council to make the affordable housing requirements in certain zoning deals stronger, and wanting more affordable housing from the Grove to Plaza Saltillo,” she said. “We need to set our goals for affordable housing in number of units and the different levels in all parts of town and ask the community; this is the target, tell us how we’re going to meet that target. There’s many tools for meeting it, not just putting stuff up on public land. It’s not just bond-funded projects but there are also opportunities for increasing height in some areas that would then allow you to do some density bonuses. My challenge to the smaller community areas would be to say, here’s all the tools. Now tell us how we’re going to incorporate that affordable housing into your area.”

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