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Ora Houston

Houston: Council should be nonpartisan

Wednesday, January 2, 2019 by Jo Clifton

In her final speech from the Council dais, Ora Houston urged her colleagues to encourage diversity at every level and to put partisan issues aside. The city’s first representative of District 1 said it is important to look at and care for the city as a whole and not concentrate so much on individual districts.

District 1, the top of the city’s eastern crescent, has a mix of ethnic groups and languages, and Houston has tried to reach out throughout her four-year tenure to as many of those people as she could.

She told the Austin Monitor that after her election in 2014, she met with other District 1 candidates who were willing to talk with her and she asked what she could do for them. She said Council, which is elected on a nonpartisan basis, should remain nonpartisan and that she could see that nonpartisanship being lost.

“The perception is the people who were elected were from this blue demographic. The mayor even said we’ve got another Democrat on the Council,” Houston said, referring to Paige Ellis’ defeat of Republican Frank Ward for the District 8 seat. Ellis campaigned as a Democrat to a greater extent than Council members have in the past.

During a later conversation, Houston noted that West Austin, with its Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer land, had gotten much more attention and protection then the Blackland Prairie on the east side of town. She said the aquifer land and the prairie land are like yin and yang – they go together, and both must be protected.

“But as we continue to grow and respond to growth, many places are going to be developed and covered over,” Houston said, expressing the hope that the city would recognize the importance of preservation beyond the aquifer lands. “So when we think about the environment we can’t just think about West Austin.”

Although the city set aside a certain amount of its east-side land for preservation, a 2017 report to the Environmental Commission showed that the prairie land needs considerably more attention if it is going to recover from damage it has undergone.

Though she is retiring and had attended her final meeting as a member of Council, Houston was still engaged and had an appointment with District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan that afternoon to show him around parts of her district that need attention.

Houston also complained that rising property taxes are very hard on homeowners in District 1, noting that there has been “a bull’s-eye of density on our backs and nobody on this City Council had a problem putting more density there.”

She also commented on the Austin Independent School District, noting that education is the key to a better life and that Austin schools are not doing enough to give poor children a quality education.

“I tell people all the time that I grew up here in Austin and went to segregated schools, and I got a better education in segregated schools than kids are getting today in segregated schools – because the schools are still segregated. There are no integrated schools. The school district fought until the ’70s not to integrate and so we still have a very segregated school system, and the district won’t change boundaries …. Kids need to be around different children to see what the possibilities are. And so that’s why I always talk about, ‘Let’s not just build income-accessible housing for people at the low-income strata; let’s see some mixed-income housing for the people who are at that low income so students have something to aspire to.’”

This coming year does not mark Houston’s first retirement. As her personal webpage notes, “Houston’s long professional history of service-oriented work includes 27 years with the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation and, prior to that, working as a caseworker with Child Protective Services and Austin Travis County MHMR. After retirement Houston worked in the office of Texas Senator Gonzalo Barrientos from 1999 to 2003.”

Houston has plans for the future and they do not include answering questions from people who might call her for advice about city matters. She made it clear that she will not be answering her phone for people asking such questions for the next three months.

On the positive side, Houston has some travel plans. She already has her plane ticket to go to Birmingham, Alabama, in May with the Union of Black Episcopalians, which will visit a number of sites important in the history of the Civil Rights movement, including the black history museum at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Houston intends to tour the country by train, starting with a trip to Chicago and then the West Coast before returning to Austin.

So, while Houston may not be at City Hall for a while, she has strong convictions and it would be no surprise if she shows up again one of these days to tell us what we’re doing wrong and explain how we can fix it.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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