May 14 City Council elections
Place 1: Chris Riley
Chris Riley ran in 2009 to finish out the last two years of ascending Mayor Lee Leffingwell's council term, and looking at the robust work he's performed in urban planning, transportation, and design – initiating a trial run of updates to the city's zoning code, acting as an inquisitive voice on the Capital Metro board, and acting as a proponent for sensible urban density – you'd think he'd been in Place 1 a full term.
Riley's intelligence is best displayed when it comes to thinking holistically about those urban issues and their impact on neighborhoods and the environment, occasionally to comic extreme – he was vividly animated on the dais while discussing, of all matters, the design of a decorative wall around an energy substation near the Seaholm redevelopment. And while Riley's urbanist mindset will prove valuable in initiatives like urban rail, or infill redevelopment of properties like Highland Mall, we also agree with calls for him to display more general leadership in his role as council member.
On the other hand, although his lawyerly ability to parse complex proposals benefits the city in the comparatively wonky world of development, it completely failed him in his approach to the Nathaniel Sanders II settlement. His motion to settle the Sanders family's lawsuit over the questionable police shooting death at a lower than expected amount may have made sense in theory, but, in practice, it had a grotesque effect. We recognize that different council members have different strengths, and we don't want to see Riley lose his edge on urban issues. But we do want to see him apply that same passion to all issues affecting the city in his second term.
Our decision is confirmed after surveying Riley's opponents. As a former city manager, Roger Chan carries a certain level of City Hall know-how. But there's a certain arrogance, combined with vagueness, in his policy prescriptions – cutting spending and hiring the right people – and frankly, we're perplexed by his statements that urban rail will never work in Austin as a matter of physics. Josiah Ingalls has improved somewhat since his last quixotic campaign in 2009, but he still lacks a core understanding of city issues; the only issue Norman Jacobson has spoken to – when he's bothered to speak at all – is water fluoridation, and even there, he lacks the knowledge of other local opponents. Moreover, we try not to encourage political hobbyism, which seems evident in both candidacies.
On a council where decisions all too often devolve into mushy consensus, Riley has the opportunity to lead on pressing urban matters in his first full term and on broader city issues as a whole.
Place 3: Kathie Tovo
Randi Shade entered her first term as the anti-Jennifer Kim, the freshman incumbent whom Shade characterized during her campaign challenge as blowing in the wind before casting unpredictable, last-minute votes. Yet, Shade – as a swing vote on several controversial council issues (most prominently, Water Treatment Plant No. 4 and the Nathaniel Sanders II lawsuit settlement) – has herself demonstrated a willingness to bend to the political winds, generally under the guise of "listening to all sides." While she may indeed hear a wide range of views, we suspect her decisions are made far earlier than she chooses to acknowledge, suggesting either an unwillingness to firmly defend her own positions or simply too little frankness.
On the other hand, Shade has been a leader on the difficult and important question of revising the city's social service funding system, on new energy initiatives (the Pecan Street Project), and in taking on the more dubious aspects of the tax exemption program for "historic" properties – for which she should be commended. Like the council, the Chronicle editors remain divided on the wisdom of the WTP4 decision, but it's fair to say Shade has been steadfast not only in her support of the project but in her ongoing outreach to the most directly affected neighborhoods.
Of her major votes, we were most disappointed in the part Shade played (joined by Chris Riley) in the collapse of the city's settlement with the family of Nathaniel Sanders II. Unwilling either to support the staff-negotiated settlement or to make a straightforward case against it, she and Riley instead tried to renegotiate the settlement amount from the dais, making the final vote thus appear not only callous but financial rather than principled.
And while we don't share in the current media obsession with council's private correspondence – which generally reflects a somewhat franker version of its public debates – Shade too often seems to be presenting a public face rather more moderate than the one reflected in her emails. She would do better to simply state her position and stick to it, instead of talking up her ability to be persuaded by a winning argument.
Beyond that, Tovo makes a compelling challenger. Her experiences as a planning commissioner, a neighborhood activist, vice president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, and a member of the Families and Children Task Force, as well as her extensive involvement with Austin ISD, have demonstrated both her commitment to the community and her experience as a problem solver. We applaud her ongoing efforts to keep central city schools open – including her willingness to dissent from the school district's bureaucratic approach – and hope that her leadership will help guide the city as it explores avenues for supporting struggling schools. We also appreciate her intentions to address inner-city development via affordable, family-friendly initiatives, in principle bringing together developers and neighborhoods.
Although she's become the designated candidate of the anti-WTP4 lobby, her expressed campaign position ("protecting the city's investment") differs little from that of the incumbent. Given Tovo's neighborhood association/Austin Neighborhoods Council leadership history, some of us are concerned an alliance between Tovo and Laura Morrison (both former ANC leaders) could effectively cede City Council authority to the Planning Commission in cases where a council super-majority is required to overturn a Planning Commission recommendation, as with the Park PUD (an admittedly imperfect case). And in the Bradford-Nohra zoning case, Tovo voted to apply historic zoning to a Hyde Park home over the owners' wishes; again, while a complex case, some of us strongly opposed the neighborhood association's attempts to prevent demolition as an infringement on basic property rights. Nevertheless, we hope Tovo's collaborative approach to public activism truly reflects an open-mindedness and creativity she would bring with her to the dais – and specifically, that her approach to land use helps, not hinders, her goals of expanding affordable family housing in the urban core.
We think Max Nofziger is an engaging, even indispensable Austinite – a voice of the city's history – but we're finding it difficult to take him seriously as a 2011 City Council candidate. He appears to be campaigning either on nostalgia or else a "cost-slashing" approach to government akin to that taking place right now at the Capitol, with GOP machetes. He declares he will block urban rail, mothball WTP4, and cut back on biomass – in favor of an expansive turn to solar power and electric vehicles (programs the city is already heavily invested in). Moreover, while he denounces the anticipated cost of urban rail, it was his own prominent opposition to the 2000 Capital Metro light-rail project that helped postpone a coherent mass transit program for yet another decade, greatly multiplying the difficulty and the cost.
Kris Bailey is an inexperienced, single-issue candidate (though he's tried to broaden his focus as the campaign proceeds), and while we agree with his position that the Austin Police Department should stop busting people for simple marijuana possession, that's not a sufficient qualification for public office.
While as a group we remain somewhat split on our judgments of both Shade and Tovo, our consensus is that Tovo is narrowly the best choice in this race.
Place 4: Laura Morrison
Where you stand on incumbent Council Member Laura Morrison may largely be determined by your judgment of "neighborhood" issues, and more specifically of the influence of neighborhood associations on city priorities. Are NA's the solid ground of Austin's participatory politics or special interest groups that defend narrow homeowners' prerogatives at the expense of their neighbors and the whole community? Since the answer often is "both," the same tension marks the record of Morrison, who has been both the stout defender of neighborhoods and the spokeswoman for fighting neighborhood change, an advocate for comprehensive planning who would yet empower neighborhoods to override collaborative community plans. She's a forthright supporter of the anti-"McMansion" ordinance and the historic landmark tax exemption – both policies being mixed blessings, and we find ourselves with a mixed judgment on Morrison as well.
In this race, she is also blessed in her opponents. Eric Rangel is a personable young man who appears to be running for the experience and his first shot at the family business (his father and sister are Caldwell County officials), on a platform of glittering generalities. Toby Ryan ("K. Toby Ryan Hill") is a rock deejay (101X) who says the council is harming the local music industry via sound ordinances and Downtown parking policies – certainly worth debating – but his largely invisible and inaudible campaign appears more whimsical than real.
Overall, Morrison has been a hard-working and solidly competent public official, with a record of advocacy for social services and environmental stewardship that merits continued voter support.
The Travis County Ballot
Austin City Council
• Josiah James Ingalls
• Chris Riley
• Roger Chan
• Norman Jacobson
• Kathie Tovo
• Michael "Max" Nofziger
• Kris Bailey
• Randi Shade
• Laura Morrison
• Eric J. Rangel
• K. Toby Ryan Hill
City Council/Alderman: Manor, Pflugerville, Jonestown, Sunset Valley
School Board: Eanes, Del Valle, Lago Vista, Leander, Manor, Round Rock ISDs
Bond Elections for: Eanes ISD School Construction, Lakeway Library
Travis County Emergency Services District No. 14: Adopt 1% local sales tax.