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Political vets line up to take on City Hall, educate Austinites on transit and other key issues

Tuesday, July 7, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

A new nonprofit group appears ready to oppose ongoing City Council actions concerning mass transit, public safety, land use and city finances, promising a targeted education campaign in the coming months.

The group Voices of Austin, a 501(c)(4) organized earlier this year by local political leaders, touts the findings of a recent poll of just over 400 Austinites that claims 80 percent of respondents say they are not satisfied with the direction of city government. The group, led by Gonzalo Barrientos, former state representative and senator, and former City Council Member Ora Houston, announced the survey findings at an online press conference last week, though neither the sponsor nor the polling company involved were named.

“A definite majority of Austin voters disagree with current City Hall politics. Over 80 percent of Austinites feel unsafe in their neighborhoods and downtown. Clearly we need better, not fewer police. Over 70 percent of Austinites want traffic to be improved to optimize vehicle transportation, yet our city government does not sufficiently debate traffic congestion,” Barrientos said. “Instead they discuss mobility, which to them means narrower, less drivable streets and a probable 25 percent (property) tax increase for trains that will take years to build and make downtown traffic a mess for decades.”

Houston, who opted not to run for reelection to her District 1 seat, said Council is acting against residents’ best interests with recent actions to defund the Austin Police Department.

“Any serious consideration of reducing the number of peace officers in Austin must be balanced by the fact that more than 80 percent of Austinites in every district in the city feel unsafe in their neighborhoods and downtown,” she said. “Austinites want a police department that is well trained, free of bias and professional, not fewer officers.”

William “Peck” Young, a longtime political consultant who is serving as executive director, said the group hopes to raise $500,000-$750,000 this year for education campaigns around its four issues. He said potential budgeting discrepancies need to be investigated and addressed before the city moves forward with ambitious and costly efforts like the multibillion-dollar Project Connect transit plan that is expected to go before voters for approval in November.

Young also criticized the proposed revisions to the city’s land use code, the fate of which is currently being decided by the courts, because of concerns that its focus on increased density will raise property taxes and increase Austin’s affordability problem.

“We’re not going to tell you to vote yes or no … but we are going to do public education on this. We have people doing research on this and we’re going to say some very specific things about what’s going on. We’re going to do it in very specific areas,” he said. “We thought the City Council didn’t seem to be in line with anyone we talked to, nor did we feel good about where they were going and the issues they were following. The zoning business was out of sync with anyone that we talked to in the minority community or any part of the city. We couldn’t find anyone who thought that building an elaborate and expensive system of subways, that anyone could afford that. Everyone is upset about not being able to get around and we have a transportation department that wants to make it harder instead of easier.”

The group’s organizational structure limits its activities concerning political causes, and also allows it to keep the identities of donors from being made public.

Young said like the survey that was conducted in January, all donations will come only from city residents who are concerned about actions being taken at City Hall.

“Everybody who’s involved with us is someone who has history and a stake in Austin. I’m not going to tell you some of them don’t have a house that’s outside the city limit. We’re not being funded by somebody from New York or Chicago or San Antonio for that matter.”

This story has been changed since publication to correct the name of the nonprofit, which is ‘Voices of Austin’ not ‘Voices for Austin’.

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