Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
The Bottom Line: brad meltzer tries to cut to the chase in the mayor's race
The campaign swag shows Brad Meltzer with a broad, winning smile, but in person the candidate is anything but cheerful as he lays out what he sees as Austin's dismal state. "I love Austin, I've been raising my children here" -- the younger is graduating from high school next month -- "and they can't even find jobs. Friends in the restaurant business are not doing well, Rotary friends of mine are looking for second jobs, apartments are offering up to three months free rent, and we're in the Top 5 in the country for empty office and industrial space. And I can see why Austin is in the shape it's in -- because of the misdirection of city government."
Guess what comes next. "I've owned and operated several successful businesses during my lengthy career," Meltzer says. "I want to run Austin like a successful business."
Last week in this space, you may remember, Marc Katz made this same time-honored claim of the citizen-politico. But while Katz and Meltzer both own restaurants, Katz's is a local institution that has long reflected the quirks and passions of its owner, while Meltzer's restaurants -- the Benihana outlets here and in San Antonio -- are franchises, identical to those in any city, and bear Meltzer's stamp not at all. In a way, that speaks to Meltzer's message as a candidate; nobody in this race is, it would seem, less interested than he in keeping Austin weird or special or different.
To him, the city is a business that he can run as well as any other enterprise, and that should be run the way other cities are run, using the basic principles of executives everywhere. "I want the mayor to be more like a CEO, and the council more like a board of directors, and run Austin like a business," he says, in a tone that suggests any sane person would see the wisdom of this. (When I pointed out that under Austin's city charter the city manager, and not the mayor, is the chief executive, he replied "No, she's not. She's the chief operating officer, the president." Apparently Meltzer intends to be a "strong mayor" in the statutory sense.)
From Meltzer, Austin's reputed uniqueness sounds more like a negative; he doesn't see protecting our local quality of life as an excuse for "city red tape" -- the beast he promises to slay posthaste if elected, though others argue it exists precisely to safeguard quality of life. He compares his experiences opening his two Benihana restaurants. In Austin, "because of City Hall red tape," his contractor went bankrupt and the opening was delayed for months. In San Antonio "I was able to talk to the City Council and the building department, and although I'm not a licensed contractor or architect, I was able to build and retrofit my own restaurant, faster and cheaper and without the red tape in Austin."
A Tangle of Red Tape
On this issue, Meltzer sounds not only like Katz but also like presumed front-runner Will Wynn, who has directed campaign fire at the bureaucracy in City Hall (or, more specifically, One Texas Center, home of the city's planning and development staff). But Meltzer argues that a lack of leadership from people like Wynn has led us to "a crisis situation. I want to see that something's happening, that the city will pay attention to this. Once we cut all this red tape, we can show the citizens we've accomplished something of great magnitude."
Meltzer plans to occupy the bully pulpit, holding "meetings, on Channel 6, with the community involved" to discuss the red-tape crisis, "and get citizens' recommendations and make it the No. 1 priority when I'm mayor. I'm prepared to go on [radio] talk shows weekly. I want us to be doing this not behind closed doors but in open forums. That's the way I want to conduct business."
In this nod to open government, Meltzer is like Austin politicians on both the right and the left. And while his Rotarian focus on business as metaphor would suggest Meltzer belongs in the center-right mainstream that reigns everywhere but Austin City Hall, he does have some street cred on issues that matter to progressive Austin voters. In addition to his restaurants, Meltzer owns several affordable-housing properties and sits on the housing task force chaired by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman -- the focus of much conservative ire, but a politician of whom Meltzer is quite fond. (He has suggested that he would have supported Goodman had she run for mayor.)
Brad's Progressive Side
"We need to make housing more affordable, and it will be more affordable to everyone when I'm mayor," he says. He also suggests -- though without committing to specifics -- that Austin Energy could be (even) more focused on environmentally sensitive ways of doing business. "Are we getting the biggest bang for our buck?" he asks rhetorically. "Can't we also figure out a way to get rid of the Holly Power Plant? Can't we look at more renewable energy options?"
But Meltzer wants Austin to be more like the suburbs in certain critical ways. "People of wealth have also been moving out of Austin because they don't want to deal with building here" -- that is, with the red tape -- "and paying the burdensome taxes. So we don't want to keep promoting other cities [in the region], and then have their citizens come here and say 'Look how bad the traffic is on I-35.' We need to get back to our reputation as a city that is affordable enough that people want to live here instead of in the suburbs."
Those people are the average Joes and Janes with whom Meltzer identifies. "I'm the gentleman who's running to stick his neck out, and not to be the friend of everyone on the inside," he says. "I want to represent the voter who knows what's been happening to Austin in the last three years and wants it to get back to business, to treat Austinites with dignity and not regulation, to have empathy for the amount of taxes we've paid. By putting me in, the voters will, in a big way, show the other council members that we can eliminate the need for new taxes, that we must cut the city's red tape, and that we have to make housing affordable for all segments of our population. And that's going to be done with smart leadership."