The Austin Chronicle

Council's Got ... Talent?

At intermission, we talk to the headliners

By Wells Dunbar, July 13, 2007, News

Between the rained-out barbecues and the gray layers of humidity sticking to the city like a waterlogged diaper, you'd be excused for forgetting it's summer. Except for one sunny signifier: Turn on the tube, and a certain midseason replacement reminds us that America's Got Talent! Yup, everyone loves a good talent show. And as networks seek to strip-mine every last advertising dollar from the prehistoric TV revenue model before it's TiVoed and YouTubed out of existence, that strangely American, shameless parade of individualism – the talent show – is back with a vengeance.

Our City Council has reshuffled its schedule as well: They started their annual summer break late last month, and their meetings won't grace Channel 6's earnest narrowcasting until July 26. But you can't keep these natural performers out of the spotlight. The hiatus being an appropriate time to examine their achievements thus far and their designs on the latter half of the year, we conducted an informal survey of our mayor and six council members. Asking them to dazzle us with this year's greatest hits, we asked each of them the same four questions:

1) What initiatives of yours are you most proud of?

2) What's been this council's biggest missed opportunity?

3) What areas does council need to focus on once you return?

4) What specific initiatives will you be bringing forward?

There was some overlap – everyone agreed that the budget, now being drafted by city staff, would be a priority. But how much of a balancing act will be required to close the perceived budget gap (some $27.5 million in the first forecast prepared by talent judge Toby Futrell) is subject to quite a bit of skepticism and debate. There were some surprises, with council members emphasizing unexpected areas, and a few announcements of ambitious new initiatives.

Who will end the council season with the most applause and accolades? And who will overreach, stumbling like a cheeseburger-scarfing David Hasselhoff? Find out tonight on City Council's Got ... Talent?

Will Wynn

Signature act: Impersonating Al Gore

Perhaps better suited to The Bachelor than to a talent show, the mayor is the establishment embodiment of all that's hot about Austin right now: A most eligible Downtown resident, he's presided over growth altering Austin's urban fabric much more than the Nineties dot-com swell did. But the boom Downtown has its political drawbacks, such as getting Wynn bludgeoned more than his colleagues over the Las Manitas loan. To leave a legacy beyond million-dollar condos, the mayor has vigorously promoted plug-in hybrid vehicles and energy conservation through his nationally groundbreaking Austin Climate Protection Plan. His final term ends in 2009, and "succession" will be next year's City Hall preoccupation.

Most important initiatives: "I'm most proud of the Austin Climate Protection Plan – although there's a lot of work to be done with it. Different pieces are getting brought forward for more specific action. But I'm pleased with the spot we find ourselves in."

Missed opportunity: "With the Legislature in town these last six months, the biggest disappointment for me, from a city perspective, was not getting Senator [Kirk] Watson's SH 130 legislation across the goal line. Having said that, it was ambitious as hell; maybe it was a two-session package. We worked hard at it; it wasn't like we were asleep at the wheel. ... I've also felt frustration over the last six months at how slow the gestation is on some of these important things we're doing. It took seemingly forever [deciding] on parkland dedication fees; hundreds if not thousands of units slipped in under the wire Downtown [without contributing] because of how slowly that crept along."

Council's focus: "We need to focus on the budget. Reasons why we historically don't meet during the month of July are twofold: to give staff the time they need to produce the budget and also to allow council offices to get a little bit of rest, to prep for what's going to be six weeks of a hell of a lot of detail."

His focus: "I'm really looking forward to a series of issues I hope to be able to bring forward in coordination with other council members' offices: continuation of the business retention program and follow-up on the Congress Avenue retention program [i.e., the Las Manitas loan program] and figuring out how to harness the economic opportunity of the redevelopment occurring in the urban core in a way to benefit small businesses. I want to make sure live-music venues play a large part in that; whether that's part of the business retention stuff, I don't have my arms around yet, but it will continue to be important. ... Figuring out the next step on rail Downtown is really, really important, especially if we look forward to a November '08 [rail] election. I think this late summer, early fall we'll make significant progress on setting the stage for next phase of rail. And I trust we're not going to take our eye off the job-creation ball."

Mike Martinez

Signature act: The Public-Safety Shuffle

In his first year on the council stage, the Place 2 bruiser has shown the most independence. He's asked the city manager for itemized spending, transformed the once terrorism-defined Public Safety Task Force into a panel of powerful community leaders, and created a task force to look at amending the City Charter – and possibly city elections by way of single-member districts. He's also in a tricky political position on public safety: As the former president of the Austin Firefighters Association, he negotiated one of the contracts currently straining the budget he is now asked to balance. Moreover, his full-contact personal style, also a holdover from union days, tends to cost him political points with the bureaucratic judges – namely the city manager.

Most important initiatives: "The Public Safety Task Force was a big deal; being able to get that group of folks together itself was a minor accomplishment. ... [But] the biggest thing to happen this year – and we [council members] had little to do with it – was hiring a police chief. I don't think council should have had more input in the selection process. But Lee [Leffingwell] and I have suggested, in the future, we look at making our key hires of department directors in the same way [through a nationwide search]. The [Austin] Water Utility director's position is vacant, and there are tons of citizens who feel that position's no less significant than police chief – it's a critical hire for us."

Missed opportunity: "I think we're starting to have more of a backbone with how developments relate to the good of the city. The two-star energy-rating requirement on new construction [in the Climate Protection Plan] – that's something that was unheard of in the past. We have to start being a little more forceful with developers. We welcome growth and development – but not without community benefits."

Council's focus: "For the next two months, it's the budget. I see a budget shortfall that's significant and isn't going to be glossed over. Then we're going to have to deal with whatever shortfall there is after the budget's adopted. Already a lot of departments are stretched thin, and some may have to stretch out even more. We also need to start preparing now for major negotiations with all public-safety groups next October."

His focus: "The Charter Revision Task Force really needs to start meeting. ... What happens in this conversation is I'll say 'single-member districts,' and the dilemma of the African-American community being too small and geographically dispersed to create a district comes up. But I would never support something like that [lessened council diversity]. ... I think we can come up with a formula – a hybrid, possibly with some at-large seats and single-member districts – to create more diversity. We just need to get the task force going."

Betty Dunkerley

Signature act: Throwing the city manager's voice

Dunkerley works best behind the scenes, focusing on the economic initiatives and number crunching that characterized her work for city staff prior to her current gig. With those bureaucratic bona fides, once she decides to get onstage – most recently, in developing the Waller Creek tunnel with Sheryl Cole – she lets loose with the full force of staff behind her, often in duets with her co-tap dancer City Manager Toby Futrell. Reviewing the year, her tune is definitely upbeat.

Most important initiatives: "My initiatives are always everyone else's initiatives. One thing is implementing the big bond package we passed – it's a tremendous accomplishment. We'll hopefully be filling our first bonds in September. It's the first time we've ever had affordable-housing bonds, which is very important for me. There's lots of open-space money; we're continuing an ongoing, bang-up job in acquiring open space. Another good thing for our community is the economy – we're continuing to do well. Unemployment is low; most of our citizens have jobs; most of them are doing OK. Along with that, we're continuing to see transformation of land around City Hall [Second Street, Green Water Treatment Plant, Seaholm]."

Missed opportunity: "One problem we're fixing this year [is] with our new police chief. There have been a few rocky things there this year. The new chief looks to bring a lot of new leadership, vigor. ... We also have a lot of tired city employees. We cut a whole lot of positions years ago and really haven't added back to that level – things continue to grow; the workload has increased, but the work force has not increased with that."

Council's focus: "We'll have a balanced budget. I could still probably do it on the back of a napkin! Early in the year, we had a gap – as we always do. As it gets closer to budget time, that gap will narrow. We've got to maintain the level of services we have now – and I want to see the level of internal controls [i.e., financial monitoring] grow. Other than that, we need to focus on having a balanced budget in more ways than one – balancing public-safety and social-services spending with other areas, not just a balance in the bottom line."

Her focus: "Like I said, most of mine are shared: improving internal controls, maintaining that balance. Continuing our strong housing program, pooling our federal, city, and bond money to make it a lot easier. And the other big thing we have going right now is the Mueller redevelopment – the children's hospital and medical center looks like the first step to a medical school. The place is going to be phenomenal."

Jennifer Kim

Signature act: 'The Ballad of Wal-Mart'

Going into next May's round of elections, Kim's Place 3 seat is considered vulnerable – although with Dunkerley's seat open due to retirement, no one's announced explicitly opposing Kim. Staking out some positions contrary to the prevailing council winds – like her reluctance to build Water Treatment Plant No. 4 – has made her a hero in some public quarters. She's also been an occasional target of the city bureaucracy: Remember the airport-access controversy earlier this year or her role trying to head off firing the city auditor last year for murkily understood, politically motivated reasons? Both fleeting but memorable miniscandals were fueled by mysterious leaks of sensitive city documents that had raised Kim's questions and concerns. Recently, she's repositioned herself as a very vocal opponent of the Northcross Wal-Mart and has been convening groups on affordability and safety for Austin families.

Most important initiatives: "I'm most proud of the affordable-housing density bonuses. We were in a situation where all the zoning cases coming to us had different demands – developers want more height or entitlements – and we'd be negotiating with each one to see how much affordable housing they were willing to support. It was getting to be a dicey situation; you can't exactly say, 'If you do this, I'll support your case.' We were working deal-to-deal like that, and we also got warnings from the City Attorney's Office that it wasn't kosher [to imply a quid pro quo]. So I created the Affordable Housing Incentives Task Force. ... The fact it went so smoothly, that it's progressive and voluntary – it's amazing."

Missed opportunity: "It has to be Northcross Mall. I really think we could've been a little more assertive, more ambitious in bringing neighborhoods and the developer together in a more suitable, visionary plan for this area. ... We missed an opportunity for a public-private partnership on the site. We should have been more aggressive in addressing supercenter hours of operation throughout the whole city."

Council's focus: "Council should focus on race relations – the specific incidents with Kevin Brown and David Morales – [all of Morales'] killers still haven't been found. Even though they're isolated cases, it's very troubling. ... I'm very hopeful with our new [Austin Police Department] chief. I think he'll help mend relations for the minority community."

Her focus: "The Families and Children Task Force we created last council meeting. We're looking at two main things: child care and how expensive that is. Middle-class families are having a hard time because they don't qualify for subsidies. ... All that, as well as housing for middle-class families with children. All the new condos and construction we're seeing are nice but not for families. ... We don't want to become more of an executive-type city [of single professionals]. That's the way we're heading right now."

On her prospective Place 3 campaign: "I understand how [the impression I was looking to bypass Austin-Bergstrom International Airport security] got into the press, due to a miscommunication I had over airport policy. I understand how that would become a story. I probably will talk about it some during the campaign, because there are people that didn't read the correction that ran deep inside of the [Austin American-Statesman]. That experience has made me a better person – the way I conduct myself; it's been a very valuable lesson for me [and] made me more patient in explaining myself."

Lee Leffingwell

Signature act: Talks and conserves a glass of water at the same time

The most visibly environmentally minded council member (his previous city service was on the Environmental Board), Leffingwell pushed a water-conservation program that is one of council's most ambitious new initiatives. But he also pitches his act as consensus building: Among other thankless tasks, he's tried to smooth labor woes at Capital Metro. While likely dancing easily to Place 4 re-election in 2008, his mayoral ambitions for 2009 may put him in a tougher race against also-likely candidate Brewster McCracken. "The race," he says, "is secondary to doing our job."

Most important initiatives: "It would have to be the Water Conservation Task Force results. We finished the recommendations, presented them to council, and got approval; they're now in the process of implementing them. I am very proud of that. Without patting myself on the back – I'm not saying I deserved it – but I was given an award for Conservationist of the Year [by the American Water Works Association's Texas chapter] back in April for this project, which a lot of people worked on."

Missed opportunity: "That's a tough one. Without having thought about that, I just don't know. ... I'm gonna have to pass on that question if you don't mind."

Council's focus: "Obviously, a great part of our focus is going to be on the budget. In my mind, at least, there has been a shift in thinking, budgetwise. There will be much closer scrutiny of small-dollar-amount items up and down the list. We'll see if we can close the gap – if it does exist – when we come back from summer vacation. A full-bore scrub is the only way you can look at it, questioning each item, seeing if there's a genuine community benefit in it or not."

His focus: "Personally, I finished up work on a couple of Barton Springs ordinances – one on redevelopment, the other a broader ordinance. I expect to have both before the Planning Commission in August and hopefully before council in September. The redevelopment ordinance covers existing development, those structures essentially built before there was an [Save Our Springs] Ordinance. It gives an opportunity for redevelopment but not an incentive – an opportunity should they want it, whereas they couldn't if they wanted to before. The Barton Springs Zone Ordinance codifies the city's existing policy for development in the zone and development policies. It's not a change to SOS, but the redevelopment ordinance would be; it requires a 6-1 council vote to enact. It's a big psychological leap [from the SOS Ordinance], but I believe we have reached consensus across the spectrum – it was agreed upon with both Save Our Springs and [the Real Estate Council of Austin] in the room, working together. There's a broad consensus on all the elements."

Brewster McCracken

Signature act: Juggles projects and politics

Crafting vertical mixed-use standards and implementing them neighborhood by neighborhood, McCracken's song-and-dance chops on growth and development are second to none. If his routine has any weak points, some of his rhetoric (e.g., his Monday morning quarterbacking the latest Las Manitas fracas) has been decried as equivocations designed to appeal to everyone; his long-anticipated run for mayor means observers read vote calculation into his every action. His juggling act attracts controversy, but judges are undecided on whether that's due to politics or because he's so proactive.

Most important initiative: "This has been the six-month VMU roadshow. We've made 27 VMU neighborhood appearances [explaining the ordinance so neighborhoods can opt in or out]. We're about at the point where we'll start voting on individual applications. ... The other big thing I was working on was the Emerging Technology Committee, [which deals with] digital media and clean energy. It's a different approach than other industries. With most others, you're attracting big employers; here, it's the small start-up companies."

Missed opportunity: "There are some things left in an uncertain state. We're transitioning to the next step in figuring out an urban rail complement to commuter rail. There are ideas we're working on – using sales proceeds from the Green Water Treatment Plant to fund a streetcar system, a peer review of Cap Metro initiated by Senator [Kirk] Watson, which started out at [the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization]. But at the moment, there's not an analogous path we're heading down on an urban rail component. [We're also] getting people to understand the budget situation. The initial presentation as a $27 million gap had people asking, 'How the hell does this happen with a booming economy?' Well, that's exactly why it's happening – because of a booming economy! There are still a lot of people who don't understand why we have the gap. From my understanding, it's very close to being closed, but it might involve deferring some costs."

Council's focus: "I think we'll be spending a lot of time looking though VMU opt-ins and opt-outs and affordable-housing density bonus applications. Senator Watson has us on a pretty rigorous schedule at CAMPO for the Transportation Improvement Program vote – what happens with our roads in the Phase 2 toll system. We are working through the Planned Unit Development Ordinance revisions – the modernization of what constitutes a PUD – and changes to the ordinance. That will come to us in September or October. We're also working through what I'd loosely call the lessons learned from Northcross – what did we learn about our land development code when it comes to major redevelopment sites? We have a lot of large sites with redevelopment potential – Southwood Mall, Highland Mall, big spots along Lamar. We're asking, 'What did we learn from this experience?'"

Sheryl Cole

Signature act: Saws electric bills in half

The Place 6 council member prefaces her performance by saying, "I haven't been slacking!" While her work cajoling Travis County to help build the Waller Creek tunnel is her most high-profile initiative, in her freshman year, Cole was responsible for a string of achievements in diverse areas, outside the parochial bounds of the "traditional" minority seat – environmental initiatives like promoting compact fluorescent lightbulb usage. She's also disarmingly forthcoming about her first year in office: "I had visions of City Council meetings talking about zoning issues or constituents coming to you with specific concerns. But I get calls about police shootings."

Most important initiatives: "There's Waller Creek, the Barton Springs master plan, compact fluorescent lightbulbs, the Big Box Ordinance, Austin CarShare, and sickle-cell anemia funding. I haven't been slacking, Wells!"

Missed opportunity: "I wish we would have developed the Downtown master plan in phases or districts – so that we would have had something to work with sooner. I wish we gave more concrete direction, so we could've gotten feedback sooner. Like if we said, 'Give me the Town Lake overlay,' or, 'Define the historic district,' or, 'Tell us how government land should be integrated' – a phased-in approach. But right now we're waiting for everything. They've got a lot to do. I think we should've defined the scope and gotten something we could've worked with sooner – like height issues, Capitol-view corridors, or affordable housing."

Council's focus: "We're going to continue to focus on growth issues, the demands of growth."

Her focus: "I will continue to bring forward environmental and economic development initiatives. Specifically, I'm helping create a website promoting small and minority businesses – like a diversity tour, talking about the minority businesses, educating Austin to what's out there already. I'll also be bringing some health initiatives forward, along with a Colorado River project in East Austin, part of making sure our urban creeks and beds are clean."

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