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Virden and Alter face off in runoff forum

Wednesday, December 2, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

This week, District 10 voters will get their second opportunity to pick a City Council candidate in a runoff that pits incumbent Alison Alter against candidate Jennifer Virden.

With seven names on the District 10 ballot, a December runoff was almost guaranteed. Alter has represented the district since beating former Council Member Sheri Gallo in 2016. In November, she won just over 34 percent of the vote. Virden, who is a real estate broker and general contractor with decidedly more conservative views, won more than 25 percent of the vote.

Both candidates spoke in a forum hosted by the Austin League of Women Voters and the city’s Ethics Review Commission Tuesday night. They found little common ground.

“One of the jobs that you have as a Council member is to help govern the whole city,” Alter said. She was responding to a question about her responsibility to help her more affluent constituents understand the challenges and frustrations posed by inequality and a lack of affordability in the city.

“I have worked hard to make sure that people understand that we have responsibility as a city to protect our homeless, to protect our elderly, to protect essential workers,” she said. “With the pandemic, we have seen laid bare inequalities that have existed across our city for many, many years.”

Virden had a different take. She said cuts to the Austin Police Department budget have impacted the whole city and that Council voted to put Proposition A on the ballot “knowing it was going to be the largest tax increase in Austin’s history,” affecting affordability for everyone.

“Our first and foremost job on the Council is to represent our district, that’s why we have a 10-1,” Virden countered. “In District 10 we would absolutely have no way to board that train or that project, but we bear the most financial expense for it.”

Virden said she did not believe the police department has a systemic problem “regarding racism and that sort of thing.”

She went on to say that Council’s effort to “reimagine public safety” is “one of the most dangerous things we’ve ever done for the city of Austin.” In particular, she expressed concern about short-staffing in the department.

“I believe the Austin Police Department is just a wonderful group of men and women and they deserve to be treated with respect and fully funded,” she said. “They need to feel that they’re cared for and valued by the citizens that they serve.”

In contrast, Alter said she did believe there was a systemic problem in APD. “That doesn’t mean that every officer on the force is racist. That means we have a system that lends itself to racist outcomes,” she said. She explained the cadet training had been paused to examine and reform the current protocols to help correct that system.

On the topic of homelessness, Alter said she was “just as frustrated” as many of her constituents by the consequences of repealing the camping ban, which she voted against. Since then, she said, she has kept working to address the root of the issue, though she shares concerns that the issue needs a different approach than the current trajectory.

Virden said the camping ban needs to be reinstated and noted that there was no need to “reinvent the wheel” to care for the homeless, pointing to Mobile Loaves and Fishes and Community First! Village and the legal camping area established by the state off U.S. Highway 183.

“That’s not a plan, and that’s not a plan that addresses things quickly,” said Alter. Instead, she pointed to the city’s current strategy of buying hotels and converting them to shelters as a much more effective housing tactic.

Virden said she did not think the hotels were a good use of the city’s money. She said Alter was being “very disingenuous when she says she’s not responsible for this homeless population crisis that we’re having in our city right now.” She pointed to Alter’s votes in favor of allowing panhandling and repealing the sit/lie ordinance. Those former laws and the camping ban, Virden said, “work together to control our homeless population.”

The District 10 forum can be viewed in its entirety in English and in Spanish. Early voting for the Dec. 15 runoff election starts Thursday, Dec. 3.

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