The Long Shadow of Wal-Mart
Place 1 candidates differ on development, environment
No one would argue that City Council Member Lee Leffingwell is without accomplishments. In his first term, the Place 1 incumbent can point to his work on a water conservation plan, moving forward the new water treatment plant, revisions to the Save Our Springs Ordinance, and a ban on coal-tar sealants on parking lots. Going forward, he's looking at reducing plastic-bag use in retail outlets, merging the various police forces, and upgrading the state of acute mental-health care in Austin.
But there is a difference between just doing something as a public official and doing the best possible job. That's the skeptical message presented by Leffingwell's challenger Jason Meeker, who argues that Leffingwell has fallen short. Meeker points most specifically to the shortcomings of Leffingwell (and the rest of the council) in the fight to prevent the construction of a Wal-Mart at Northcross Mall.
Considering recent history, Meeker will have to make his case overwhelmingly; the recent Democratic primary suggests that Austin voters remain quite reluctant to turn out local incumbents. And while one recent poll showed Leffingwell at less than majority support (among three candidates), his numbers were still almost three times Meeker's. The money imbalance was even greater, with the incumbent enjoying a 14-to-1 fundraising advantage as of March 31.
Conventional wisdom reflects that the third candidate, Allen Demling, is the also-ran, as he arrives with no résumé of high-profile activism or political experience. Sporting a shaved head, long beard, and an emphasis on bicycling, he could easily be written off as this year's Keep Austin Weird candidate. But while the holder of a master's in mechanical engineering may not wear a suit and tie, he's quite coherent when he talks about maintaining Austin's cultural uniqueness and improving mass and alternative transportation, and accordingly, he garnered the endorsement of the League of Bicycling Voters. Demling may eventually grow into a formidable candidate, but in the short term, voters are likely to consider the 41/2-year resident of Austin a bit too inexperienced.
The Argument Continues
While Demling hasn't directly attacked Leffingwell, Meeker has been swinging at the incumbent since he first hinted he was running, when his decision grew from his role as spokesman for Responsible Growth for Northcross. He has been both cheered and vilified for that activism, which concluded with an unsuccessful court case alleging that city staff erred in approving Lincoln Property's site plan for redeveloping the moribund mall. The city spent almost half a million dollars retaining the law firm of Scott, Douglass & McConnico – some are angered that the city spent that much tax money fighting its own citizens; others blame RG4N for forcing the city into the expenditure.
Meeker insists that his real opponents are "City Hall insiders" presumably backing Leffingwell. "I'm not running because of what Wal-Mart wants to do with my neighborhood," Meeker said in February. "I'm running because these kinds of things are going to keep happening in neighborhoods all over Austin. I am running because if something like this happens to your neighborhood or to your small business, you need someone on the inside for you, who will listen to you, and who will work for you, and who will fight for you. You don't have that now.
"My criticism, not just of Lee Leffingwell but the entire council, is that no public effort was made to push back on the developer to work with the citizens," Meeker later told the Chronicle. "Mike Martinez and Lee Leffingwell put out a 60-day moratorium [in 2006] for negotiations to occur between Wal-Mart, Lincoln Property, and the citizens. Nothing occurred during that 60-day period. Nothing. I'm not laying that at the feet of Lee Leffingwell and saying that he didn't do enough – I don't know that Lincoln Property wasn't willing to do it – but what I'm saying is that the entire council, including Lee Leffingwell, didn't publicly stand with the neighborhoods and say, 'Look, nothing's happening.'"
The project "met all the requirements of city code," replied Leffingwell. "They didn't need any zoning changes; they didn't need any variances; they were completely compliant. In that case, the staff is required by law to approve the site plan. ... We had no discretion in that case." Critics argue that city staff dragged its feet on the Big Box Ordinance – which in theory might have blocked the Wal-Mart had it been enacted in time – and that the council, Leffingwell included, sat on its hands. Leffingwell has responded that "some things just take that long," and, "If the staff held it back, I have no knowledge of it." In any event, with the ordinance now in place, with Leffingwell's support, future big-box projects will be subject to greater public review.
Meeker has also offered two centerpiece proposals: the creation of a Department of Neighborhoods and an Office of Public Advocate. Seattle; Louisville, Ky.; and Portland, Ore., have neighborhood departments, and on his website, Meeker lifts the Seattle office description and substitutes "Austin": "The Department of Neighborhoods works to bring government closer to the residents of Austin by engaging them in civic participation; helping them become empowered to make positive contributions to their communities; and by involving more of Austin's underrepresented residents, including communities of color and immigrants, in civic discourse, processes, and opportunities." "Wouldn't that be a great way to tackle many of the problems we've recently faced?" Meeker asks.
Meeker proposes the public advocate as a new elected office. "The officeholder would be an ombudsman, or go-between, for the citizens and the city government. The council members would still answer to citizens, of course, and respond to their requests. ... In many ways, the Office of Public Advocate would be a 'council monitor' like the Office of Police Monitor."
Running the Numbers
Leffingwell also addresses development issues. "We can absorb more density in the city limits, Downtown, while still supporting the Capitol view corridors and Lady Bird Lake and protecting existing neighborhoods." On the council, he has also been a strong advocate of city support for social services. "They fill a need that is absolutely essential in our city, providing a safety net, where others – the federal and state governments – have sort of constructed some big holes in that net, and we have to pick it up." The issue has special meaning to him – shortly before his election in 2005, his wife, apparently struggling with depression, committed suicide. "Two years ago it was pointed out, and I was one of those who pointed it out, that we had zero emergency psych beds, public, in the city of Austin. We're the only city in Texas that was in that situation. ... We now have a continuum of care programs, which the city is participating in to provide emergency psych programs." With a recession looming and sales-tax revenues slipping, the next council could well be faced with harder budget choices and social services standing in line behind public safety and infrastructure.
On budgetary matters, Meeker attacks two of the initiatives of which Leffingwell is most proud: the water conservation plan and the new water treatment plant. Leffingwell calls the plan to reduce usage by 10% over the next 10 years "aggressive," but Meeker says: "We need to take a hard look at some of the decisions that right now are before us. If we had a more aggressive program ... in doing so, we could push off the building of the water treatment plant. That's $500 million at least. That extra money that you'd be spending on your water bill, that's money in your pocket that can be spent on local business." Meeker derides it as a "1 percent per year" program; Leffingwell took offense: "It's a 10 percent reduction over 10 years, and most of the savings would be realized in the first few years."
More broadly, Leffingwell says the budget needs to be considered as a whole. "What are we going to do if we have a shortfall? That's the $64,000 question," he asks. "Obviously, the city has to balance its budget every year. We don't have any latitude on that. Tax increases are not really an option [because of state law restrictions]. ... Obviously, worst-case scenarios, we have to include a couple of things. Number one, we do have what's called a budget stabilization fund. That was good, prudent financial planning by the people who established that fund a few years ago. It contains about $40 million or so. ... We could dip into that some, especially if we can look ahead and see that this is probably going to be a short-lived recession. But ultimately, we would have to look at cuts in services like we did in early 2000. ... I don't have a cookie-cutter answer for you."