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Brigid Shea: 'A Proven Leader'

Brigid Shea sits down for a Q&A on a wide range of city topics

By Amy Smith, Fri., April 27, 2012

Brigid Shea
Brigid Shea
Photo by John Anderson

Austin Chronicle: Let's talk about your key qualifications in running for mayor.

Brigid Shea: I would say I am very experienced, both from my time on the council and my work on city projects. I've actually told people that I think everybody should have the experience of working on a city project so they can see how the city really operates, and you can see where some of the problems are. I've been particularly concerned based on things I've heard with these very large engineering consulting firms, that they have too much influence on city staff, and that the contracting process is, I would say, tilted.

When I first worked on the Austin Clean Water project, we put together a bid and as we were waitng for the rankings to be released, after the bids had been submitted and the staff had reviewed them – there were several other engineering firms that had participated in the bid because ... it was a very large bid of subconsulting firms, and mine was outreach and environmental policy. And as we were waiting we were just sort of chit-chatting and several of the representatives of the different engineering firms said that the word on the street is that this contract was written for Malcolm Pirnie. And I said, really? And they said yeah, they write the contracts so that really only one firm could be most qualified. Now this was back in 2001, but I haven't seen any signs that it's really changed or improved very much. So I was just kind of shocked to see that this was an accepted fact.

AC: Who's Malcolm Pirnie?

BS: Malcolm Pirnie is the engineering firm that didn't get the contract and they pitched a fit at the council meeting. Then they hired Bruce Todd to basically lobby to get the contract back, and this was the firm that was leading this attack on (former Austin Clean Water Program Director Bill Moriarity) and trumping up all these false charges. That said to me that this process is highly political. That was when I realized how much influence these guys have and why it's so important to break that link between the campaign contributions and the award of contracts.

And that's why I proposed in my bundling proposal that the limits also be placed on professional services firms which are the non low-bid contracts; that the limits be placed on them whether they have a contract or are seeking a contract. So my proposal is to break that link between the campaign money and the contracts.

AC: So your qualifications ...

BS: Sorry ... Both experience as a council member and I would say my deep education about how the city operates from my work as a contractor. I know where the problems are in the city. I know where we can find efficiencies and savings. And also my experience in the community – small business woman, PTA leader, active on many many boards, active as an environmental advocate. And I never let my consulting work silence me. I was an outspoken advocate throughout most of this time, even though people said clearly to me, "You're not going to get city business if you keep doing this."

The other thing is my vision. On water, I've been saying for a very long time that we're heading into a water crisis and we really need to change course. And I feel like the current leadership has been unwilling to be honest with people about how severe it is. I don't know if you saw this memo that I sent to former elected officials in 2010 asking them to sign on to a letter urging them not to go forward with Water Treatment Plant 4, but I talk about how serious the water crisis is and I believe it might look like our nuke in the future.

Part of the reason we have such high water rates is because of the enormous debt the water utility has piled up. I actually called Lee around the time we were putting that letter together and said, have you asked the engineers to place their seal of approval that this plant will be viable for the life of the bonds, because I'm concerned we won't have enough water in Lake Travis for it to function properly. Or we'll be under drought restrictions and we won't be able to sell the water, in which case the plant isn't viable if we can't sell the water. And all he would say was, "we have a contract for water with the [Lower Colorado River Authority]." And I said they don't manufacture water, we have a real water crisis. To me that really is evidence of a lack of vision, someone who's not even willing to look at what all the climate data was telling us was going to be a very serious problem that required us to change course.

My vision on energy – I've been a longtime advocate of renewable energy and it's galling to me to see that San Antonio has leapt so far ahead of us on renewables. But they've done it with vision because they brought in a visionary leader. We did not. At the time [Austin Energy General Manager] Larry Weis was being considered, I along with other environmental leaders insisted that we have a panel to review the candidates, and after we interviewed Larry Weis and David Wright – it was a panel of environmental and consumer leaders – we came out and we were unanimous in saying to the news media, neither one of these people is the right person to head up Austin Energy. Neither one of them has the vision or the right experience and ability. And I think it shows with the way the rate case has been handled and with the fact that we have lost our leadership edge among municipal utilities. When Roger Duncan was at Austin Energy we were clearly a national leader and we're no longer viewed that way.

And I do say that the buck stops at the mayor's office on a lot of these things. Part of it is, on the electric rate case, the mayor and council did not give direction to staff to bring back an affordable rate case. I think it's incredibly bad policy to make up for 17 years with one giant increase. It causes rate shock, it causes political turmoil, and we already know the Legislature is itching to go after Austin Energy, and yet Lee has allowed this giant mess to occur on the front steps of the Capitol. I've already heard from a number of people that we're going to be under very serious attack in the next legislative session, and then Lee proposes that we offer a discount for out-of-city ratepayers and hold a hearing out in the community. Well, what do you think we're going to hear back? A bunch of angry people who are demanding they get a discount when no other municipal utility does that. Why would he have set this in motion? To me it's just like walking into a beating at the Legislature and we're inviting it.

On schools, I was a schools advocate the first time I ran [for council]. I initiated joint use of the facilities with the school district, I initiated joint meetings, and they must have fallen by the wayside because Lee did revive them. But the difference, I would say, is that he wrote a letter to [Superintendent Meria] Carstarphen saying please don't close these schools and let's have coordinated meetings. What I would do is, since we know that the Legislature is going to cut funding again, we don't need to sit and wait for it to happen. In fact, we need to get out in front of it and what I would do is use the bully pulpit of the mayor's office to organize the mayors, the business leaders and the county judges and other local officials from the large cities across the state to create a coalition to speak to the Legislature and say to them, with one message – if you cut funding for school children again, you not only hurt the children, you hurt our economies.

You drive people out of our cities, you destabilize our property tax base, you hurt our ability to recruit businesses. And if you cut funding across the state of Texas you hurt the economy of the State of Texas. I'm not naïve to think they care about the school children – because they already showed us how they feel – but I think they care about the economy.

On affordability, I've identified very specific things we can do and I've identified city policies that shift the cost of paying for new development onto existing residents I think those policies are wrong. In the case of the 100 percent reimbursement policy that the utility has, no other community in Central Texas has a 100 percent reimbursable policy. I don't think it's fair to continually ask our citizens to keep paying the cost of new development. Lee says these are all cash-positive but it's driving up the cost of utilities and the cost of living.

On traffic, I just feel we have not made relieving congestion a priority. It's one of the top 10 lists I hate to be on – most congested city of our size in the nation, year after year after year.

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