Point Austin: What's at Stake?

Municipal election offers a referendum on your priorities

Point Austin
Maybe it's something else we can blame on Barack Obama.

Even though we've just endured weeks of primary campaigning, including a run-off or two, public interest remains high entering the final weeks of the city election campaigns. The handiest barometer is the number of "endorsement" forums held by myriad associations, interest groups, and political clubs around town. Several of the candidates have noted how many forums there have been this year, hosted by the usual suspects (e.g., neighborhood associations and Democratic clubs) as well as numerous tiny interest groups that seem to have appeared out of thin air. It's arguable that the excitement generated by the Obama campaign, and that amplified the voting and caucus numbers, is reverberating at the local level. Of course, it's also arguable in turn that the Obama excitement is partly a response to nearly eight long years in the Bushian desert – if you needed something else to blame on Bush, be my guest.

Whatever the case, it's been a mixed blessing, especially when the forums begin to double up and the attendees all begin to look suspiciously familiar. But it's useful to know how the enviro groups, the public safety unions, the neighborhood associations, and yes, even the real estate crowd are evaluating the various candidates. The endorsement gauntlet is a very uneven guidebook, but the accumulation of information eventually offers some patterns for comparison.

This week, the Chronicle News staff delivers an overview of the municipal ballot you will see on May 10, covering the City Council races, the (rather thin) community college and school board campaigns, and the school district bond propositions. Up front (p.6) we've got our own endorsements, and take them for what they are: the considered (and hard-argued) opinions of about a dozen Chronicle reporters and editors, who have looked closely at the candidates and come to a rough consensus. Read, consider, roll your eyes ... and vote as you will.


Storm Clouds

The designed structure of city government is such that no one election marks a sea change. Only three places on the seven-member council are in play, two featuring incumbents, so any transformation is unlikely to be dramatic. But there will be changes in emphasis and approach, and, more importantly, the major issues that will face the new council will be strikingly different from those of the last two years. My guess is that the issues dominating the city discussion over the next year will be: 1) economic recession and affordability; 2) public safety costs; 3) transit, urban planning, and land use; and 4) addressing the costs of continued growth. These issues mix and overlap, and some are perennial, but this year's conversation will take place in an altered context.

Most prominently, it looks increasingly likely that the city will follow the country into some degree of economic recession, and thus the next budget cycle will be more constrained. Perhaps it will not be as bad as the crunch that closely followed 9/11, but the city had only climbed back to a budget plateau in the past year, so news of diminishing sales-tax receipts is sending predictable shivers through City Hall. That goes double because the Police, Fire, and EMS contracts will be in negotiations over the next several months, and new City Manager Marc Ott has already fired a predictable warning shot about fiscal limitations – while (to his credit) revising the budget drafting process to get more upfront council and public input.

I'm skeptical of the now-conventional wisdom that public safety consumes two-thirds of the city's revenues, on a trend line to bankrupt us all – especially when the percentages depend curiously on how one does the overall accounting. Moreover, the supposedly ravenous public safety unions are currently on record as prioritizing increased staffing over salary increases. That money certainly comes from the same pot, but not only is the city continuing to grow, every citizen survey reflects that Austinites (rightly or wrongly) list police and fire protection as their own first priority – and doubtless those are the first duties of any municipal government.

The point is there are structural costs to city government that simply can't be wished away – or found deeply hidden in legendary, secret "waste and fraud" pockets of budget documents routinely posted on the city website. It's also true that growth (or, if you prefer, "economic development") never quite pays for itself and that state limitations on local governments have increasingly moved costs downward while simultaneously restricting financial tools to address those costs. That means that most of the available money is already spoken for. One comical consequence is the annual headline hand-wringing over the random million or 2 in last-minute funds allotted the council for discretionary spending.


Small Comforts

All of the above is by way of introduction to your choices on election day and more broadly to what's at stake in trying to assemble a workable city government. Although most of the political air has been understandably sucked into this year's presidential campaign, much of what will happen to Austinites on our day-to-day ground is more directly determined by our local governments trying to administer our local resources. The current record is very mixed. We seem finally to be making some tentative progress on mass transit and even more tentative advances on climate protection and resource conservation. On basic matters of social equity – e.g., affordability and social services – we seem to be backsliding, and what's more worrisome is that the available leadership, in and out of office, appears largely bereft of effective ideas to make progress.

Our broadest safety net, United Way, is in the midst of a radical restructuring that may reap benefits down the line but in the short term has left crucial services at the mercy of either local government or scarce, independent funding. And while every candidate, without exception, supports "affordable housing" as a basic principle, when asked for specific proposals, pretty much all we get is the current incremental approach of targeted public incentives and crossed fingers. That's perhaps grudging acknowledgment that in a capitalist economy – not to mention a municipal budget founded upon property wealth – real estate rules. That's worth remembering if the recession indeed deepens and the current public aversion to subsidies for "economic development" abruptly goes into hiding.


Hard Choices

All of these subjects have indeed come up in the Chronicle's discussions with candidates and to a lesser degree in the tightly time-constricted public forums with various interest groups. But upon reflection, much of the discussion of economic realities has been around the margins of the debate. Maybe we should spend the last couple of weeks trying to determine which of the available candidates has the experience and judgment to manage responsibly the city's limited resources in what looks likely to be another rough economic period.

I'll offer just a few of my own thoughts to supplement the staff reporting you'll find within on the individual races:

In Place 1, incumbent Lee Leffingwell is opposed by Northcross firebrand Jason Meeker, who has tried to cast his challenge as an "outsider" scaling the corrupt battlements of City Hall, and by the youthful Allen Demling, who has focused primarily on transportation (bicycling) and cultural (music) issues and has admittedly no experience in the details of city government or budgeting. Leffingwell has been a reliable, steady, but uncharismatic official, and there are those who insist he has not been aggressive or proactive enough in carrying his own initiatives on matters like resource conservation – or indeed denounce him for supporting the construction of a new ("wasteful") water treatment plant. The choice seems to be between experienced pragmatism or inexperienced idealism.

In Place 3, incumbent Jennifer Kim's substantive opposition comes from Randi Shade, who charges, with considerable justice, that Kim's term has been marked by indecision, inaccessibility, and a disturbing tendency either to undermine her colleagues for whimsical reasons or else bail on them at the last moment because of shifting political winds. On the other hand, Shade is largely an unknown quantity herself but with an undeniably strong government and business résumé and a reputation for being able to bring disparate people and interests together to do good work – notably on public policy matters like poverty and affordability. The choice here seems to be between a known but unreliable incumbent – with an undoubted edge in direct experience – and an uncertain but impressive challenger who at a minimum would bring a fresh air of collaboration to the dais.

The Place 4 race, to replace Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, has attracted six candidates and will likely go to a run-off. The three substantive candidates – Laura Morrison, Robin Cravey, and Cid Galindo – are all clearly qualified, boast extended experience in public policy and local government, and will be fighting it out to run again in a few weeks. Cravey has the longest local history, and a longstanding cultural identity with an increasingly remote Austintatious resonance. Morrison is the designated champion of neighborhoods, who wants to prove that can translate to populism rather than provincialism. Galindo is the urban planner who has founded his campaign on professional expertise and directly engaging the city's future. Your choice will depend on which of those strengths best belong on this particular council.

Those are inevitably misleading thumbnails, but after myriad public forums and coverage here and elsewhere, I suspect most of us enter the voting booth with something like these efficient capsules in mind. I hope what the News staff offers you today will help you engage that moment with a sense of what's best for all of us.


MORE CITY COUNCIL ELECTION PREVIEW

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council election, Austin Community College, bond propositions, Austin Independent School District, Election

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