Another Forum ... or Two
Campaign trail mixes with a flurry of forums
The City Council candidate forums just keep on coming. Last Thursday's "last" one – the Crime and Safety forum at City Hall – was abruptly superseded by a Northeast neighborhoods forum on Sunday night, and by the time you read this, we will have endured a KXAN-TV "debate" (among a dozen candidates) on Wednesday. Depending on who's counting and what's being counted, there will have been somewhere between 30 and 50 forums by Saturday's election day – with likely run-offs still to come. Under the circumstances, the candidates might be forgiven for slipping into automatic pilot for their generally "one-minute answers" allowed on occasions that inevitably cram the entire, overstuffed group into a couple of hours.
The Crime and Safety forum, sponsored by neighborhood groups most directly involved with the Austin Police Department's outreach programs, is usually a pretty lively affair, although Thursday's middling attendance might have been suppressed somewhat by the simultaneous immigrants' rights march through Downtown, which briefly rerouted traffic away from City Hall just as the forum began. For whatever reason, this one was mostly a drone. Questions concerned speed limits, panhandling, police response and staffing, door-to-door solicitation, and gun rights, the sort of minefield that had the candidates tap-dancing to balance individual rights with public safety, the right to bear arms with the need for safe public spaces. There were ritual obeisances on all sides to the Second Amendment, though Place 1 incumbent Lee Leffingwell pointed out that City Hall's status as a part-time municipal court prevents guns there, and challenger Jason Meeker declared most forcibly that we should be limiting the presence of guns, not looking for ways to multiply them. Place 3 candidate Ken Weiss seized the opposite ground, reiterating his response to the forum questionnaire that the law should allow weapons where they're "needed most, like government buildings, schools, churches, hospitals, financial institutions, and other places." Considering the metal detectors in the entryway, we presume the candidate wasn't packing this particular evening.
Sunday evening's forum, held at a Windsor Park Methodist church, was sponsored by a new group calling itself the Northeast Austin Business and Community Alliance, which formed primarily in response to a pending proposal for a low-income housing project in the 5900 block of Manor Road (currently the site of a private park). There's been a substantial neighborhood outcry against the project, which would require a zoning change, and the most prominent forum questions (posed by emcee David Kobierowski) concerned whether the candidates would submit to "the neighborhoods'" will on such matters. Most said they are inclined to support "the neighborhood" but need more information on this particular project – which presumably will be forthcoming as it moves to the Planning Commission and the City Council over the next few weeks. Those with the most City Hall experience – e.g., Leffingwell and former Planning commissioners and Place 4 candidates Cid Galindo and Robin Cravey – pointed out that identifying in a given case who in fact speaks for "the neighborhood" (not to mention the interests of the whole city) is not always immediately obvious.
Also of note: Place 3 incumbent Jennifer Kim declared her support of the proposed November charter amendment to end the tax-incentive waivers for the Domain retail project – effectively reversing her Dec. 6 vote for a council resolution (passed 7-0) that would end future retail incentive programs but honor the existing Domain agreement.