City Hall Hustle: Do You Feel a Draft?

Big-leaguers back Leffingwell; others line up for council places

At high noon on Monday, the campaign floodgates officially opened.

Officiating the deluge was the Draft Lee Lef­fing­well for Mayor political action committee, naming its co-chairs at a City Hall press conference. Falling one week after Brewster McCrack­en's declaration, it seems the draft board members' thinking was if they couldn't beat McCracken in the promptness department – and with a candidate who can't formally declare until next year, lest he trigger a special election, they're correct – then they would find strength in numbers. They named nine – count 'em, nine – campaign co-chairs, including former Mayor Gus Garcia, Dem­ocratic organizer Amy Everhart, and Capital Area Asian American Democrats President Ramey Ko, and unveiled an unwieldy supporters list printed on heavy card-stock posters, which at one point co-founder Joe Pin­nelli picked up and pointed to as the reason they were there to "draft" Leffingwell.

The words from the eight speakers on hand concerned, by turns, Leffingwell's "gravitas," his "true grit," and his "steady hand" as a former airplane pilot – undoubtedly the Right Stuff, as nearly every speaker reminded us, for these dire times. "When I think to myself of who I want to pilot the plane during this tough economic period ahead, the clear answer is Lee Leffingwell," said draft co-founder Ted Siff. "I think he can and will get us safely through the storm with a minimum of turbulence."

The Council Races

The proto-Leffingwell announcement wasn't the only one this week – just the first. In short order came official entries from three candidates in the increasingly crowded 2009 City Council races: Bill Spelman, running for McCracken's vacated Place 5 seat, and Rick Cofer and Chris Riley, both vying for to finish Leffingwell's term in Place 1. The Hustle caught up with all three, inquiring what they would do to forestall further financial fallout.

Spelman, who previously served on the council from 1997 to 2000, named a four-point strategy for containing economic trouble. The first point was really a question: "How do you get a dollar's worth of services with only 75 cents of revenue," he asks, while still being in a position to add back services "when the money does become available in two or three years?" He also proposes helping small businesses, which he notes have created 97% of all new jobs in the U.S. in the last 10 years; "improving affordability at all levels of income throughout the entire city," proposing a neighborhood-facilitated expansion in garage apartments, which he says would be financially helpful to both renters and rentees; and producing "more effective public involvement in our city's decision making" on the dais. "The biomass plant really felt like a watershed moment to me," Spelman said of the wood-burning $2.3 billion energy plant proposed by Austin Energy, which the council only had weeks to vet.

Cofer, who from his perch on the Solid Waste Advis­ory Commission has seen an inordinate amount of hot-button issues recently (switching to single-stream recycling, the controversial BFI landfill expansion, and more), says: "The economic downturn creates challenges and opportunities. I think that means jobs, jobs, jobs. ... The people in this town have always made us what we are. My view of economic development is you invest in your strategic asset, which is Austinites." Cofer aims to build jobs through industry recruiting, but he wants to "expand the conversation" beyond immediate economic concerns. "What can be done to make Austin a better place which doesn't cost money? My opinion is that there are structural barriers in city government that have basically served as obstacles to change. If we're not going to be able to spend money, let's address the root problems. In my perspective, there's a lack of checks and balances between the council, the people, and the staff." To restore this, he proposes increasing City Council's size to nine members under a hybrid single-member/at-large system and shifting more power from city staff to council, especially with regard to the annual budget.

Riley, who has served on the city's Planning Commission and Downtown Commission, spells out a succinct vision for local sufficiency: "We need to promote local jobs through environmentally responsible initiatives. We need to be strategic about our efforts to stimulate the local economy, we need to create green jobs at all income levels, we need to enhance our stewardship of the environment, and we need to make sustainability accessible for everyone. ... We need to tap the resources offered through our citizens boards and commissions. We're all in this together, and it's going to take the active engagement of our citizens to find the solutions we need. ... We need to start taking citizen involvement a lot more seriously. ... What we wind up with are citizens that are continuously on a collision course with staff. Instead of working hand in hand with the boards and commissions, we wind up with the city in an adversarial role."

Back to Basics

Whoever wins will undoubtedly be saddled with tough decisions. While Austin may be weathering the financial storm comparatively well against the rest of the country, ominous signs keep coalescing: Sales-tax revenues continue to come in under projections, forcing the city to call for departmental expense cuts and suspending additional merit pay raises for employees. The harsh reality of the times threatened to spill over in turmoil this week, as a council item from Will Wynn and McCracken would have indefinitely extended City Manager Marc Ott's $4,500 housing allowance while he attempts to sell his former home in Fort Worth, a decision that would have been incredibly tone-deaf with respect to the city's shared sacrifice. (The item will be shelved.)

With the recession all but certainly sliding into May and beyond, voters shouldn't remember the pilot heroics from Leffingwell's supporters but rather, one of Ted Siff's more grim pronouncements: "We need a basic-services mayor during these tough economic times ahead."

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City Council, Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken, Chris Riley, Rick Cofer, Bill Spelman

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