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Crowded field competes for District 10 seat

Tuesday, October 13, 2020 by Daniel Salazar

District 10 voters will have no shortage of options for Austin City Council this fall.

City Council Member Alison Alter is facing five challengers to represent West Austin’s District 10: Pooja Sethi, Robert Thomas, Jennifer Virden, Belinda Greene and Ben Easton. With six total candidates on the ballot, it’s the most crowded field of this year’s five Council elections.

Alter, who was first elected in 2016 after defeating Sheri Gallo in a runoff, is now running as the incumbent.

“Covid creates challenges for reaching out to people, but because I’ve developed such deep connections over the last four years working with so many neighborhood leaders and with different associations … it’s going very smoothly,” Alter said in an interview.

Alter said she “fought for neighborhoods” against CodeNEXT and the subsequent Land Development Code rewrite, arguing that density should be concentrated along major corridors and not “deep into the neighborhoods.”

She’s also been active on working with residents on proposed development projects in the district, such as the Camelback and Brackenridge tracts.

“I have been a champion for managing growth responsibly,” she said.

Alter touted her role in getting the Office of Police Oversight created and said she’s made sustainability and combating climate change one of her top priorities. “I’ve been the leader on Council pushing us to be prepared and to prevent wildfires.”

Alter supports the role of Proposition A in reaching the goals of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan.

“Getting to a 50-50 mode shift is going to require the investments in Project Connect to get us to that goal,” she said.

She also defended her votes in favor of last summer’s camping ordinance changes, as well as the public safety budget changes this summer.

“In both cases, we have to demonstrate that we can make progress that ensures everyone’s safety and roots out racism,” she said.

Alter said some of her second-term priorities would include advancing economic resiliency efforts from Covid-19, boosting broadband infrastructure and continuing negotiations over the Brackenridge tract.

Pooja Sethi is an immigration lawyer who’s served on city task forces and committees related to climate, equity and public safety. She’s now on the Asian American Quality of Life Commission.

“There are gaps between the city and certain communities in Austin,” she told the Monitor in an interview. “Being on the ground for many years, I know that I can be someone who can sit on the dais and bring those experiences and those voices.”

“We need someone who can work in all directions, in many different realms … and bridge those voices,” she said. “I truly do know how to have these difficult conversations and really figure out a middle path.”

Sethi supports the camping ordinance changes and the budgetary and functionary changes at the Austin Police Department approved this summer.

She said there should be a new land use code that encourages affordable housing and “density where appropriate.”

“We need to have a Land Development Code that works with a transit plan,” Sethi said. “I truly don’t envision a city working properly unless we’re pushing housing and transit together.”

She said the city should prioritize more grants and expanded outreach efforts to help small businesses hurting in the midst of the pandemic.

“I would also collaborate with our local restaurants and arts programs to utilize our open city spaces for retail and performance spaces,” she said. “Outdoors is where we need to head … moving forward when the weather’s good.”

Sethi also wants to create a District 10 advisory council.

Local businessman and lawyer Robert Thomas is one of a number of candidates who oppose the most recent Land Development Code revision effort, the 2019 camping ordinance and this summer’s cuts to Austin Police Department’s budget.

“Austin has moved in an absolutely bad direction,” Thomas said a forum this month hosted by KUT and the Austin Monitor. “Austin’s policies are not consistent with the values of District 10.”

Thomas said he was skeptical that federal funding or increased ridership would be enough to justify the expenses for Project Connect, Capital Metro’s high-capacity transit plan on the ballot this fall as Proposition A.

“The bottom line is it does too little, (the cost) is too much and is irresponsible,” Thomas said.

He also thinks Proposition B – the transportation infrastructure bond proposal to invest in sidewalks, bikeways and urban trails – was sprung on voters and would cost taxpayers.

“It is absolutely contrary to affordability,” he said. “It is tone-deaf in a time of economic calamity brought on by Covid-19.”

Thomas said the city’s response to the pandemic has been inconsistent and has needlessly hurt small businesses.

“The city gave miscommunication and miscues about what we as citizens should be doing and did not help … small businesses,” he said.

Jennifer Virden, who has worked as an independent real estate broker, said she decided to run for Council after watching the “homeless camping crisis explode.” She’s also motivated to campaign against Proposition A and efforts to defund the police.

“I started to seriously consider that I could do a much better job stewarding my hometown,” she wrote in an email response to questions.

Virden said her 30-year background in business would set her apart from other candidates in the race who are campaigning with similar policy platforms on land use, homelessness, transit and public safety.

“I am not a lawyer or professional politician, which I believe my D10 neighbors and supporters find refreshing,” she said. “It’s important that the rest of the dais feel inclined to work together, and I intend to foster effective working relationships.”

Virden said she would pursue reinstating the delayed Austin Police Department cadet class and oppose increasing residential density through the most recent land code rewrite effort.

“I would also pursue solutions to the frustrating difficulties that homeowners and builders are having navigating the building permitting/review process,” she said.

Belinda Greene, who works in the food service industry, said reallocated police funding and the proposed tax increase through Proposition A “sent me over the edge” toward deciding to run.

“Before it was just kind of an idea that we were kicking around in our house,” she said in an interview.

Greene does not identify as a Republican or a Democrat and said she would bring a more “moderate” tilt to the dais.

“I do consider all sides when it comes to all the issues,” she said. “I cannot just shut down an idea because it’s proposed by a Democrat and vice versa.”

Greene said she has been furloughed since late March. She wants to represent small-business voices who don’t feel heard by City Hall. “That’s the different perspective I can bring as a working person.”

Greene said she would want to focus on bringing more transparency to the city’s budgetary process, encouraging an outside audit of the city’s budget practices.

“In what way can we trim down our budget and still function as a city government that’s not out of control?” she asked.

Ben Easton is a substitute school teacher who is also a software trainer and freelance writer. He uses colorful language to decry what he calls the “Covid-19 shutdown/lockdown idiocy” and the “whole homelessness fiasco,” the latter of which prompted him to run.

“It’s completely f***ed up and that is the reason,” Easton said in an interview. “A year ago when they made their insane decision to lift the camping ban … they allowed public space all over town to become uglyfied and filled with people that are down and out.”

“What makes me different than every other candidate is my willingness to stand up and call a spade a spade and to speak with daily … anger (and) frustration,” he added.

Easton proposes providing temporary shelter to those experiencing homelessness through a “constellation of rehabilitation sanctuaries” in “badass tents” located around the city.

“Whatever is being done presently can be done better in smaller groups that are cleaner, nicer, safer,” he said. “These people are having a really s****y time in their lives, and that is a bummer, but they certainly don’t belong in my face and in your face.”

Easton said one of his policy focuses would be trash cleanup, both from those experiencing homelessness and other causes as well.

“Our city should be immaculate and there should be crews of people handling this,” he said. “It should be clean and green and clear.”

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