Place 1: Significant Minor Victories
If it seems like Chris Riley was just up for election, he was, relatively speaking. Riley last ran in 2009, when he bested Perla Cavazos with a 66% showing. That campaign was to complete the final two years of Lee Leffingwell's term, as Leffingwell decided to run for mayor. Should incumbent Riley win re-election – as is almost certainly assured – it would be his first full term.
Riley calls the last two years "exciting and challenging." For accomplishments, he's quick to point to his involvement on regional transportation issues; he sits alongside Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez as one of two council members on the Capital Metro board (a duty that Riley likens to taking on a second job) and has worked with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Capital Area Council of Governments. That focus on urban issues carries over to initiatives including changes to zoning code, design, community gardens, and urban agriculture. "On a lot of little issues like that, it feels like we've achieved minor victories," he says, "which actually add up to some pretty significant things." He also lauds the city's efforts to end chronic homelessness, saying "this is the first time I feel it's really in reach."
Riley's most viable opponent is Roger Chan, who served as assistant city manager from 2000 to 2002. Since then, Chan has held a variety of positions: "educator, business developer, sales executive, speech writer, public speaker, and public official," as listed on his website. "Honestly, I've just been chomping at the bit to straighten some of these things out," he says, "because some of them are really simple."
The candidates are at loggerheads on urban rail. Known for using his bicycle as his primary personal transportation, Riley is naturally excited by the prospect of a rail election in 2012, with the caveat that rail is "not the silver bullet that's going to solve all of our traffic issues," but rather part of a multimodal system; additionally, he says rail's proposed Riverside (to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport) route can "demonstrate that significant growth can be accommodated right in one of our central corridors in a way that's transit-friendly and provide appealing, walkable destinations." Chan maintains rail will never work broadly in Austin because the city is too hilly (see "Trying To Catch the Chan Train," April 22).
Any potential rail project will be expensive, and with the city bracing for another tough budget year, Riley sees communication and collaboration as key to solving funding woes: For instance, council's ongoing overhaul of social service contracts, he said, may result in some partnerships to assist programs at the financially troubled school district. Also, council work sessions tackling the budget on a "department-by-department basis" will be effective, he says. Chan argues budget woes can be solved by living within the city's means. "From the national level to the state to the city, all of them are way overspent," he says. "I've always had to live on a balanced budget."
Chan says many of the problems affecting the city are easily fixable by getting the right people in place. He takes a quixotic view not only of the open meetings controversy that led to council's premeeting work sessions, but also the open meetings complaint, if not the role of council itself. "They are a policy board; they are not an enforcement or administrative board – it is a part-time job. They should not be holding court like they're the Supreme Court," he says. "All these work sessions should be unnecessary if the person knows what they're doing." Chan also supports a change to single-member districts, but he maintains the switch must also be accompanied by a change to a strong-mayor form of government (under which the mayor replaces the city manager as chief executive) from our current council-city manager form. "Single-member districts and a strong-mayor form of government are not separate entities. They are indeed the same."
Riley doesn't advocate changing the council-manager form of government but does support "moving to a mixed system of at-large and single-member districts." On an issue SMDs are intended to facilitate – bringing new, neighborhood-based voices to City Hall – he remains suitably urbanist. Offering his pilot rezoning program of Airport Boulevard as an example, he cites contributions from the Congress for the New Urbanism as a new voice in civic debate, "because that is a particular perspective on development regulations that is often different from the typical neighborhood approach. ... You still have the same leadership running certain organizations – it's the same faces, so I'm not suggesting we're in a radically different state of affairs than the past. But I do see more folks getting involved, and I feel hopeful about having a broader discussion on these issues in the future."
Riley's sometimes arcane approach to policy matters was most tested in his response to the Nathaniel Sanders II police-shooting case, when he led an unsuccessful and much criticized motion to settle with the Sanders family for $500,000 – $250,000 less than the originally negotiated offer. "I wish the Sanders case had settled," he says. "I remain hopeful that it will settle. ... At the time, it was my feeling the settlement that was on the table would not be seen in the spirit of a settlement where we 'agree to disagree' – it would've actually been seen as a victory for one side, and that was in part because of the comments on the counsel for the plaintiffs."
Two other candidates are running for Place 1. Josiah Ingalls first appeared on the political scene in 2009, finishing a distant fifth in a five-way campaign for mayor. He has called for more budget oversight, a reduction of "excessive bond spending," an end to local funding of Capital Metro, and for opposition to installation of full-body scanners at the airport. He also calls for "a resolution that would mandate that the City posts full meeting minutes and full video footage of City Council meetings on the City's website," which in fact is current city practice. A fourth candidate, Norman Jacobson, filed with the city clerk but until recently had not made any public appearances; his few statements since have revolved around removing fluoride from Austin's tap water.