City Hall Hustle: Hustler's Diary

While you were watching your 401(k)

Wednesday, Feb. 18: To mark his one-year anniversary as city manager, Marc Ott invited the City Hall press corps into the offices behind the dais ("the bullpen," as staff calls it) for coffee and breakfast tacos. Fact sheets listing Ott's accomplishments ("City response to Hurricanes Ike and Gustav") and fun facts ("What is your favorite restaurant? Sullivan's") lined the tables. Ott sat and spoke while we ate. While hitting several expected notes – opening the budget process, filling several vacancies, lauding the hire of Rhoda Mae Kerr, the Fire Department's first female chief – Ott also said he didn't "have any regrets about decisions I made in the last year." Asked about the line between policy execution (his job) and policy creation (the council's), he said management isn't a science but "more of an art," that there were instances where the "manager needs to participate" in council discussions and instances where council "needs to have a hand in implementation." He also spoke to remarks he made at the previous evening's State of the City dinner, where he spoke about "the other Austin" – that is, east of I-35's "hard line of demarcation." The city needs to intensify its efforts there. "They want the city to pay greater attention, and we need to do this."

Thursday, Feb. 19: Ott rambled around the Mexican American Cultural Center, not east of I-35 but just west of it, on the shores of Lady Bird Lake. A community meeting had been scheduled by the city to discuss more than $20 million in proposed cuts to the city budget, necessitated by the shrinking economy. After starting a half-hour later than the scheduled 6pm, an audience of maybe 45 people had arrived – maybe one-fourth media. Combined, the reporters and city staffers at least equaled the citizens present, a shame for such a sobering presentation. Budget officer Ed Van Eenoo said, "We're not seeing this to be a short-term problem" – raising the prospect of broader budget gaps to come. A majority of speakers opposed further reducing library hours, to which Ott said, "What we're talking about today is a menu, not a set of reductions which is fait accompli."

Monday, Feb. 23: An entirely different scene, on the seventh floor of the Austin Bar Association offices at 816 Con­gress: the Democrat-sponsored mayoral forum, the first of the campaign. Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken were there; Carole Keeton Strayhorn was not. Moderator (and former chair of the Travis County Dems) Chuck Herring claimed, "Clearly her campaign is disorganized and discourteous and/or fearful of an open Democratic forum." That's the biggest news; a late start and lengthy speeches allowed for only a handful of questions, the first also pertaining to bridging Austin's East-West divide. Leffingwell cited the city's African American and Hispanic Quality of Life initiatives, McCracken the affordable-housing requirements included in vertical-mixed-use provisions. On the budget generally, Lef­fing­well said library cuts are "not etched in stone"; McCrack­en again hammered public-safety salaries, a tangential dig at Leffingwell, who has garnered the public-safety union endorsements. In return, Leffingwell called McCracken's tech-heavy digital and energy proposals a "high tech trickle-down" stimulus, arguing, "We need to take a step back" and "figure out how to make growth pay for itself."

Tuesday, Feb. 24: Not to vanish entirely from the media cycle, Strayhorn held a presser outside the Downtown library. Despite blustery winds threatening to drown her out, she continued her populist assault on the city budget, this time against an overstaffed city bureaucracy and "an army of high-paid lobbyists." Saying the mayor and council needed to "tighten their own belts," she derided the five staff members in the mayor's office and three with each council member as bloat. "Why so many in a council-manager form of government?" she asked. Strayhorn said when she served as mayor, she had two aides; neither Austin's population explosion since her tenure nor the fact that with only seven at-large officials, aides basically serve as defacto council members had figured into her consideration. Her case against the city's lobbyist team was less assailable, noting the city's $830,000 in expenses for lobbying the Texas Legislature is highest in the state. "We should not farm out the job of our city leaders to high-paid lobbyists to walk across the street [to the Capitol] and hold meetings with legislators," she said. But who will staff the office in her absence? Asked about her absence from the Democratic forum, she excitedly replied, "I was busy," citing time out "running with the people." (Campaign coordinator Kevin Brown said he spoke with the organizers about an appearance but never confirmed she would appear.) About then, a young woman, apparently one of the library's homeless denizens, asked Strayhorn a question; the candidate left the makeshift microphone stand, and the press conference came to an unscripted end.

See for video of Leffingwell, McCracken, and Strayhorn; see more council news in "City Counseling."

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City Council, Marc Ott, Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken, Carole Keeton Strayhorn

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