The Austin EcoNetwork debate at Threadgill’s South showcasing the two mayoral candidates – Steve Adler and Mike Martinez – on environmental matters, featured no grand revelations, but distinctions in nuance and strategy.
The debate, hosted and moderated Thursday evening by EcoNet’s Brandi Clark Burton and Andrew Dobbs of Texas Campaign for the Environment (co-sponsored by channelAustin), before a full house in Threadgill’s event room, ranged over the candidates’ views on the Save Our Springs ordinance, utility and land planning, conservation programs, recycling, even (briefly) coyote management. Overall the exchanges suggested no sharp oppositions between the opponents on environmental principles, but should help Austinites determine what strengths and priorities the two men would bring to the mayor’s job.
Dobbs began by emphasizing that the evening was a “debate not a forum,” and urged the candidates to make clear where they differ on environmental experience and policy. Moderators began by challenging Adler on the 2004 Lowe’s case – his legal work on behalf of the construction of a Sunset Valley home center over the aquifer – and Martinez on the Decker Lake golf course proposal currently before City Council. Some audience members arriving on those notes might have been instantly lost over the details of two long separated and very different episodes, but in the enviro-heavy room, most seemed familiar with the issues.
As he has done many times, Adler defended his role in the case as coming in near the end to resolve a bitter dispute among developers, environmental groups, and (legally on opposite sides) Sunset Valley and Austin. The Lowe’s eventually got built, under somewhat stronger regulation – Adler argued that he did the best he could to bring the parties together and find common ground, and remains proud of the outcome. Asked if he regretted his involvement in the case, he said his only regret was that his opposition is now using the case as a means to misstate the history and to attack his candidacy.
Martinez responded that if you have to “defend and justify,” you should just “own up” to a mistaken position.
On Decker Lake – the proposal before Council to allow a private firm to develop golf courses on a long fallow piece of Northeast city property, Martinez said he is waiting on more detail in the Dec. 11 meeting, especially on the contentious water issue, before he’ll make a decision. He acknowledged the environmental risks, but argued that he also must consider the economic development needs of the nearby residents, who are clamoring for the jobs and amenities that other parts of Austin take for granted.
Adler argued that sounds as though the Council is on the verge of another bad, “rushed” decision – comparing Water Treatment Plant No. 4 and the East Texas biomass power purchase – and called them a consequence of an “ad hoc” pattern at City Hall, making decisions on the spur of the moment and not within a larger vision or plan. (Martinez noted that the Decker Lake proposal has been part of the city’s plans since the late Sixties, but lacked funding – therefore is not “ad hoc.”)
Martinez played defense on the WTP4 history, reiterating that it was a mistake not to tie initiating construction of the plant to water demand levels (as his staff urged him to do), and though the plant is needed long-term for infrastructure replacement, energy reduction, and future growth, that long-term has not arrived. Adler reiterated that he believes that decision, and others in the last eight years, are a consequence of current Council’s ad hoc approach to problems, and city needs to change the process.
A few more highlights:
• Martinez noted the week’s tentative plan, worked out by Council committee and Austin Energy staff, to achieve the city’s target of moving more quickly to all renewable energy. He said he is skeptical of AE’s insistence that it first requires a new gas plant to maintain ERCOT’s dispatchable standards, and wants more detail. Adler said he doubts the soundness of the plan.
• Pressed by Clark Burton for elaboration on his repeated demand for a “new business model” for AE and the water utility, Adler floundered. He reiterated the institutional conundrum of needing conservation of water and energy while simultaneously needing to sell water and energy (and supporting city programs with the funds), but deferred to utility expertise and future discussions for what that business model might actually look like. Martinez said the city has worked steadily to adjust the business model (witness the day’s announcement on AE) and to reduce reliance on the utility fund transfer; he had a better grasp of the details, but this is not a problem subject to a single solution. Both candidates talked about balancing AE’s power production with “distributed production” (e.g., residential solar), and Martinez said we’re on the verge of residents becoming “prosumers” – producers and consumers.
• Both candidates said they want to move to a “fossil-fuel-free” Austin and abhor nuclear power; Martinez said it is doable by 2025, Adler said “as soon as possible.”
• Martinez said water conservation requires tiered rates for which low-users pay less, high users pay closer to the actual cost of the water; Adler suggested the same goals could be achieved by education and outreach, using “the bully pulpit” of mayor to popularize conservation.
• On recycling, both said they would support “fines,” if necessary, for those residents who were not otherwise complying with recycling goals; Adler was more reluctant, called it a last resort.
• Both support moving the Pure Casting foundry out of its East Austin neighborhood, but Martinez noted expense and regulatory difficulty of establishing foundry elsewhere; Adler said to move it would be an “incredibly powerful symbol” and hopes to “dive into it.”
• Both support heritage tree ordinance to save and expand current tree canopy.
• Both believe “No Kill” extends to wildlife protection (e.g., coyotes) to the extent possible (no steel leg traps); Martinez cited his sponsorship of ordinance to forbid use of “bullhooks” on circus elephants.
• Both cited the need to balance “special events” with residential use of public parks and streets; Martinez cited just-announced moratorium on new events, Adler said this is not “a new problem” and reflects need for better city planning.
In closing, Adler reiterated a version of his stump speech, that Austin has reached a “tipping point” and needs a “new way forward,” and that 10-1 is a “historic opportunity to reinvent city government." Martinez said that he will bring “new leadership” to City Hall, but that the candidates are “not running for dictatorship” and will need to have the experience of building coalitions and collaboration while making the “tough choices” that are the nature of government.
A live-tweet snapshot of the EcoNetwork debate is available on Twitter @PointAustin (#atxmayor), and the televised version will soon be posted on the EcoNetwork web site and rebroadcast on the city’s channelAustin site (cable access 16) several times next week.
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