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Then There's This: Away We Go

Who does Austin want to lead the way?

By Amy Smith, Fri., Feb. 3, 2012

Brigid Shea
Brigid Shea

By now, most people who follow local politics know that former Council Member Brigid Shea launched her campaign for mayor this week in a somewhat courageous (or foolish, depending on one's view) attempt to unseat incumbent Lee Leffingwell, who is running for a second term in the May 12 election. For both candidates, the race is destined to be a difficult, punishing journey, but nonetheless informative, engaging, and fun, as political campaigns go.

The two candidates are onetime allies who in the past supported each other's council races – Leffingwell recalls voting for Shea in her 1993 run, and Shea backed Leffingwell's 2005 campaign to succeed former Council Member Daryl Slusher. Shea and Leffingwell have disagreed on several major issues since then, but these disagreements have usually carried a civil tone and taken place while they were sitting across the table from each other. Nevertheless, the race has strong potential for ugliness, although both sides have committed to stay above the fray and to stick to the critical matters facing our beautiful, booming city.

"I look forward to talking about the serious issues facing our community," Leffingwell said in a statement. "I am ready to ask the voters of Austin to look at my record – a record of city hall reforms, of committing to renewable energy, and of creating jobs. And to look at my vision for Austin's future of urban rail, charter reforms, and protecting Austin's quality of life."

It's "the vision thing" that Shea says is lacking in Leffingwell's leadership. She believes her vision – which on paper seems similar to what Leffingwell laid out above – is sharper and more results-oriented. "I'm hoping that we can have a really honest and full discussion about different priorities and different directions, which is what the citizens deserve. I'll be pointing out differences between Lee and myself ... how I would intend to do things differently, but I certainly hope we can keep it focused on the issues and not get into personalities."

Even before Shea officially announced Wednesday night, she had already rankled Leffingwell's staff and supporters with her declaration that the mayor had not taken an active role in responding to the school-closure crisis in the Austin Independent School District. Shea said Leffingwell hasn't sufficiently reached out to other local officials and business leaders across the state to fend off anticipated budget cuts in the next legislative session.

On the grassroots front, Leffingwell has lost some ground with neighborhood and environmental groups who helped him earn victories in previous elections. The dissatisfaction took a turn for the worse over Leffing­well's support of Water Treatment Plant No. 4, and the city's convoluted business dealings with the Formula One racing operation now taking physical shape in Southeast Austin.

Once it appeared that Lef­fing­well would not face a viable opponent this year, Shea began exploring challenging an incumbent with a healthy war chest – he raised nearly $90,000 between last fall and early this year, with campaign-bundling assistance from developer lobbyists. By contrast, Shea had raised $4,200 since naming a campaign treasurer in December.

"We've always said they have the money, but we have the votes," Shea noted, referring to a long line of progressive get-out-the-vote efforts that have turned back better-financed campaigns at the ballot box.

Our Water Future

Shea says she is most particularly concerned about the direction the city is taking in areas of affordability and water conservation. "I've heard from people who are worried about costs going up, about the financial well-being of the city," she said. "We've made bad management decisions about spending money in certain areas, and I feel like we've done a terrible job of managing our water wisely. I want us to be the most water-wise city in the nation."

As things stand now, she said, "the city is in this weird position now of having to sell water in order to pay its bond debt on all the projects at the water utility. And they're having to continually raise rates to do that." Shea points to Leffingwell's lack of leadership on water conservation – including the reuse of treated water and repairing the city's network of leaking pipes – as one reason the utility is in a financial catch-22. "I even had this conversation with Lee," she says, "probably at least two years ago, because I was concerned about the city getting into big bond debt" with the construction of WTP4.

For the record, Shea said she's not hell-bent on shutting down the construction of WTP4, as the council already considered that possibility last year and declined to take action, perhaps missing a strategic opportunity to rein in costs on the $500,000 project. "I think we're stuck with it," she said. "I'll look to find savings where possible because I think we're spending too much money on it. We've got several layers of companies all looking over each other's shoulders on it – it's not a main focus for me, but it's an example of bad management.

"A priority for me," Shea continued, "is to have us be the most water-wise city in the nation. We have the smarts to do it. We have the willingness on the part of the community to do it, and we have an absolute necessity to do it – it's a resource that we have absolutely got to treat for the precious and scarce thing that it is."

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