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Ellis looks at District 8’s place in transit, homelessness issues in reviewing 2019

Thursday, December 26, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Ask Paige Ellis about one of the first lessons she learned as a new City Council member and her answer is immediate: patience.

The old adage that the wheels of government turn slowly takes on a whole new meaning for someone stepping into public service for the first time. Budgets, workload and the priorities of 10 other Council members and hundreds of city staffers all play a role in determining what gets done, and when.

“You come in here thinking, I’ll just ask the city to do things and they’ll get done,” Ellis said of her first year on Council. “The truth is, you have to learn each department and their individual processes because they need to know how their time is allotted and that Council is on board with what’s being done, so you can’t just call someone up and expect to get something fixed as soon as possible, unless it’s already planned in and on a list, and then you have to schedule a crew to fix that problem. It just took a lot longer to get things happening than I originally would have thought.”

Ellis and District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, two newcomers to Council in 2019, turned two more conservative seats into more progressive directions. That flip also played in a big way at the end of the year with a 7-4 vote to approve the first reading of the city’s revised land use code, which will favor more dense building types along transit corridors.

During her campaign, Ellis, a former environmental consultant, talked openly about her desire to make the city more environmentally responsible. She said the next big step in that direction will come with an expected November vote for a  mass transit plan that, she hopes, will reduce commute times and take more people out of single-occupancy vehicles.

Capital Metro and other transit stakeholders delivered initial options for the plan in 2019, and Ellis said she looks forward to working to ensure the plan that goes before voters includes benefits for her district along with the rest of the city.

“People are generally supportive of having bigger and better transportation options, whether it’s for them or the city as a whole so we can move more people around faster while also wanting to know the details. I’m focused on what my district is going to be able to see in terms of positive results of this,” she said, noting that one of the initial transit plan maps cut off the half of District 8 located west of U.S. Highway 290.

“In a district like mine and there’s not a rail going into the district, are people going to be supportive of a rail going elsewhere? We’re still looking at what that is and what we could do to benefit people in my district, and benefit each district. No matter where you live you should feel some benefit of this kind of plan.”

On the issue of homelessness, Ellis said she has been impressed by the work of the city’s new homeless strategy officer – now working on a consultant basis – and supports the move to buy hotel properties and convert them into transitional housing.

In her own district, she praised the work of The Other Ones Foundation nonprofit and the Oak Hill United Methodist Church for providing shelter and life skills training for the homeless.

Some Council members have raised concerns that the hotel strategy may push the bulk of transitional housing into East Austin, saying all parts of the city should be participating in offering solutions. Ellis said her district could play a larger role, provided residents get a chance to have their say before a decision is made.

“No matter where you find a location, you’re probably going to have neighbors nearby who are going to voice their concerns and offer suggestions,” she said. “People know their neighborhoods, and there’s always the concern of ‘What does that mean?’ and people will say they’re not on board with this and others who say, ‘Yes, please bring this.’ You have to take it case by case and it depends on what it looks like. We all have to step up and can’t push it on other people to solve the problem.”

Late in the year, Ellis became one of six Council members targeted by a recall campaign. While that effort was aimed at all members not facing reelection in 2020 and wasn’t a reaction to her positions specifically, she said there was bound to be resistance to her stance on issues compared to her D8 predecessor, Ellen Troxclair.

“I knew there would be people who were upset that District 8 was a liberal district, and my district is one of the most high-profile. Other Council members have been through this too, when a district flips from one political party to another it’s more high-profile and people are watching more closely,” she said. “I have such support from constituents on both sides and I think when you think about the policies we’ve worked on in a rational way, I’ve been very honest about my position, and we’ll see how things turn out.”

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