A Civil Action
Place 3 campaign a relative oasis in the council storm
Amid the burgeoning fireworks of the Place 1 and Place 4 council races, the Place 3 defense of incumbent Jackie Goodman against challengers Linda Curtis and Billy Sifuentes has been positively placid.
Curtis did take Goodman to court, seeking to invalidate petitions enabling her to run for another term. That legal challenge is not entirely resolved, and may shadow the election and its aftermath -- but otherwise, this campaign entered its last week almost as quietly as Mayor Pro Tem Goodman from the dais when she takes the microphone. Some edginess between Goodman and Curtis remains: Goodman says Curtis has used campaign forums for irrelevant showboating, and Curtis is clearly tired of being berated by the media as an exotic species of political activist: the "Gadfly." (She's been attacked, for example, as promoting public financing under Prop. 1 for her own benefit, but vows that should it pass, she would accept no funds from the program.) She believes her persistent focus on democratizing "the process" has been a benefit to the city's election system, and it is the primary message she brings to every campaign occasion.
Sifuentes' campaign has almost disappeared beneath the petition uproar, but he told the Chronicle last week that he has been gratified by the support he's drawing around the city, and hopes that the last week of community forums will give him the visibility he needs to gain some traction. "Whatever these legal issues," he said, "Goodman and I have a lot of city interests in common, and I am gratified by the civil tone of the race. I hope we can run the city as positively as we have run the campaign." He says he wants to bring "fresh ideas" to the council: "I am not seeking to be a long-term officeholder. I want to make an immediate contribution of good judgment and common sense, and do the right thing for the future of the city. And I have no allegiance to any particular group or organization."
Not surprisingly for a retired police officer, Sifuentes emphasizes public safety as his No. 1 priority -- but directly behind it, he said, is health and human services for Austinites who have been left behind by the economic boom. Because of budget constrictions, he wants the city to work more closely with citywide volunteer agencies to address the problems of homelessness and indigent health care, and he supports a nine- or 10-county regional hospital taxing district. He also suggested a regional "policing district for homeland defense," saying the money could come from an allotment of CapMetro funds; he's opposed to any light rail plan, and supports instead the full completion of the SH 130 highway project as well as both SH 45 North and South.
Curtis, who describes herself with a smile as "an angry outsider," declares front-and-center that her No. 1 issue is "the democratic process." By that, she means not only a fair and common standard for city petitions, but a demand that the council do much more of its business in the open and with more public input. Indeed, she essentially advocates direct democracy: If the council isn't voting right, she says, she'll take the petitions to the streets and go directly to the voters.
"The big problem that I've got with Jackie and the whole council," she said, "is the way in which they operate, with insufficient open government. They need to run a democratic show that includes all the people -- not just the so-called 'left-of-center progressives,' but all the communities. When you exclude people, what results is crappy decisions." In that vein, she denounced the recent repayment of lost HUD funds for Vision Village with city housing trust money, and sees that outcome and the Intel building fiasco as a direct consequence of too much private deal-making. She described Goodman as "a good woman, doing good things" on the council, but concluded that the current council "has been there too long, they're not doing their job in uprooting political corruption, the special interests. Goodman needs to do something else, and we need new blood on the council."
Of course, Goodman disagrees. One of the reasons she decided to run again, she says, is that the city is entering a difficult financial period, and that she wants to protect core services while not "gutting" broader programs in a time of spending contraction. "It will be easy to shoot from the hip in cutting expenditures," she said. "We will have to prioritize, and we don't want to tighten our belts until we cut off our oxygen." She opposes city layoffs -- "that hits us twice, when we've had enough layoffs elsewhere across the city" -- but says the council should try to use the downturn as "an opportunity to catch its breath from explosive development and tailor expenditures to specific circumstances." She cites a laundry list of programs that can't simply be suspended, such as infrastructure improvement, mass transit, incentives for small business, environmental protection. "We need to take advantage of the downturn to stabilize our situation, assess our gains, and try to work with staff to put together the missing pieces in a more orderly way."
Sunday night's Channel 6 televised forum, in the rigid Q&A format (in heavy rotation this week on your Austin city network), shows the three candidates mostly reiterating these positions, with some differences in emphasis. While Curtis and Goodman both support single-member districts, Sifuentes is opposed until we're provided a definite map. Sifuentes and Goodman support the police oversight under the city manager as it devolved out of the council, but Curtis came down hard in favor of independent oversight and open records. The warning from the League of Women Voters moderator to "avoid personal attacks" seemed superfluous: The Place 3 candidates entered the campaign's last days studiously polite to each other, if not equally "trusting" of the council they hope to join.
Earlier I asked Goodman how she accounted for the relative civility of the Place 3 campaigners. She shrugged, "What is the point of starting a war?"