Local election campaigns have been notoriously unexciting of late: Unchallenged incumbents. Token opponents. Abysmal voter turnout. Our last City Council contest, in 2009, which filled the mayoral chair and three council seats, garnered a whopping 13% of registered voters, or 7.5% of the population.
In that context, it's amazing that this spring's city campaign features an actual race. While Place 1 and Place 4 incumbents Chris Riley and Laura Morrison – barring a campaign gaffe as sensational as trampling a salamander at the Austin Environmental Forum – are essentially coasting to re-election, Place 3 Council Member Randi Shade's fate is not nearly as assured. Despite being a cash-flush incumbent, Shade heads into election day vulnerable on political and personal fronts. That's partly a product of her swing vote on some controversial issues, most prominently the Water Treatment Plant No. 4 project and the settlement with the family of Nathaniel Sanders II. More recently, there's the public relations fallout of some embarrassing emails criticizing speakers at City Hall, released in the wake of the media fracas over whether council members were meeting or communicating inappropriately.
After months of speculation over whether Shade would face a viable opponent – and before the email headlines, it looked unlikely – she now faces two. Challenger Kathie Tovo, tested in the world of neighborhood politics (as a leader of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association and the Austin Neighborhoods Council as well as a planning commissioner), has also been intimately involved with a current hot issue – public schools – having advocated against school closures on the Austin Independent School District's Facility Master Plan Task Force. Nor can we discount altogether the candidacy of Max Nofziger, who as a former council member (1987-1996) enjoys high name recognition among the voting population and is a woolly reminder of the council's none-too-distant but radically different past.
Kris Bailey is also running for Place 3. Bailey ran as the Libertarian candidate in last year's House District 47 race and has espoused a similar call for limited government. He's campaigned on a policy of non-enforcement of marijuana laws, arguing police resources could better be directed elsewhere (although how he plans to affect that change remains to be seen). He's also called for a similar streamlining of building code and sound permits.
With the budget crisis still pressing down from the federal level to the state and inevitably to the city, money's on everybody's mind; the city financial staff just announced that next year's budget projections are once again in the red. Under those circumstances, Shade says maintaining core city services – "clean, safe neighborhoods, a park system that works, libraries" – will be her budget priorities this season, focusing on "the sort of meat-and-potatoes stuff" the city provides.
With the new council entering this budget season facing an anticipated $10 million revenue gap, they'll have their work cut out for them. Shade says every budget year since she's been on the dais has been a challenge, and she points to various financial accomplishments she's helped achieve: revamping the city's social service contract spending, making the budget less dependent on volatile sales tax revenue, and last year, declining to raise property taxes to the "rollback" rate (the highest increase allowed without a special election). "It was important to acknowledge the fact that property values for the first time in a long time had actually gone down," she says.
Shade points to areas still needing improvement, foremost among them "budget creep." "We go through this process on the budget, and then literally three weeks later, you start seeing items from council added to the budget," she says, which in turn leads to hiring additional consultants and contractors since they weren't vetted with other needs in the first place. She also notes that in looking for budget savings, she'll be looking for efficiencies in departments like Code Compliance and the one-stop (permitting) shop, departments that don't impact services as directly as libraries or parks. "It takes a little bit of time to figure out where are the levers that you can have some control over," she says.
On the budget, Tovo strikes a populist tone, calling for "a real change in how our council makes decisions about taxpayers' dollars," and citing "a host of what I would consider to be bad decisions that have increased costs for Austinites." For instance, she says: "I'd much rather put more money into the social services budget. ... Before I vote for a subsidy for Formula One, I would increase our budget for basic services." (In November, council voted unanimously to reimburse the $13.5 million cost of extending water and wastewater services to the F1 site, with the understanding the city would recoup their costs through water sales; no other city subsidies have since been offered.)
Nofziger describes city government as "top-heavy with management" and vows he would take a 10% pay cut as a council member. When he previously served on council he moved to cut council pay. "It was highly unpopular among [my] colleagues, but it passed." Nofziger says it's important for the leadership to share in sacrifice, "so we're not just handing out the hurt."
While all three candidates applaud greater scrutiny of the budget – the council is recently initiated the process with several additional, budget-related work sessions – they vary in their approaches to one cost driver: Water Treatment Plant No. 4. "I opposed it on council," Nofziger says. "That was 23 years ago. Well, I'm back, WTP4's back, and we still don't really need it. I'd mothball it," he says. "I think it's at a place in its construction where we could put it on hold until we need it. When you bring on an enormous piece of infrastructure like that too early, the people are paying for it before they need it."
Shade, who joined Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, and Sheryl Cole as the four votes to approve the project, says she's somewhat confounded that the issue's still under debate. "My thought was when we voted it in 2009," following a well-attended Palmer Events Center town hall debate, "the decision was made." She recalls that at council's next meeting, a vote on plant oversight passed unanimously, and a vote on the actual contract passed 5-2, only Chris Riley and Laura Morrison dissenting, and Bill Spelman voting aye and saying he was now dedicated to bringing WTP4 in "on time and with as low a budget as possible." After that sequence, Shade says, she "shifted gears" to work with the most affected neighbors and to bring the project in efficiently and on time. And she says abandoning construction now would be "the height of fiscal irresponsibility. ... [The project] would look like the Intel shell out on Lake Travis."
Tovo takes the middle ground; she emphasizes she "would not have voted for it," but adds "at this point, we've got a very substantial economic investment, and that economic investment has to be protected."
The precarious economy casts its shadow over many city issues, perhaps none more so than Tovo's signature concerns of neighborhood schools and neighborhood affordability. Those are interests Tovo developed serving on the Planning Commission for about a year and a half before resigning to run for council, and also serving on the city's families and children task force, Austin ISD's community committee on neighborhoods and schools, and, most recently, the AISD Facility Master Plan Task Force. It was there, in response to the controversial recommendation to close several local schools, that Tovo co-authored a report offering cost-saving alternatives to school closures (her co-author was community activist Susan Moffat, also the wife of Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro).
Tovo's goal of "completing communities" – her ambition of "making sure we can have communities where people can live close to where they work," equipped with amenities such as affordable child care and quality public schools – faces some steep challenges, including in her own neighborhood. As former Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association president, Tovo's aware of recently released census data showing, for example, that the 78704 ZIP code, which includes Bouldin Creek, decreased in population over the last decade, even as property values rose and urban living became more popular. The change in raw numbers suggests that Austin's upscale inner-city neighborhoods may have become simply too expensive for families with children.
Tovo says "there's a host of complicated reasons" for the population shift, but "certainly the cost of housing increases has had a lot to do with it." One solution she offers to entice families back into the urban core is to encourage multifamily design: "Families will live in a smaller space if it's designed appropriately, if it's designed for families in mind." The obvious local example is the Mueller neighborhood, which has fostered a variety of mixed housing, but Tovo says the city is lacking the "knowledge base" found in cities like Portland, Ore., which, for instance, is hosting a design competition incorporating courtyards and shared spaces into multifamily developments – amenities more friendly to families.
Tovo points to "family-friendly recommendations" that she was able, while on the Planning Commission, to incorporate into the Imagine Austin Comprehen-sive Plan's vision statement, and that were then forwarded to the plan's working groups for further development – "considering particular safety needs of families with children" when contemplating street design, calls to increase the availability of quality education and child care, and, echoing Tovo's campaign call, a proposal to "create complete neighborhoods across Austin with a mix of housing types and land uses, affordable housing and transportation options, and access to schools, retail, employment, community services, and parks and recreation options."
Pressed on how neighborhoods can responsibly incorporate growth – and whether neighborhood associations have in fact been willing to accommodate increased density – Tovo offers the example of Bouldin Creek's negotiations with Fairfield Development, which occurred while she was neighborhood association president. Fairfield was poised to redevelop the Town Lake Hyatt by adding two towers. "They wanted an increase in entitlement, and some of my neighbors' first reaction was 'no way,'" she recalls. Instead, she remembers negotiating a resolution where, in exchange for the NA's acquiescence to Fairfield's request, the developers contributed to an affordable-housing fund administrated by the Bouldin Creek Community Development Corporation. "The property changed hands soon after the zoning change and has not yet been redeveloped," Tovo notes. "If and when the site is redeveloped as per the proposal, the owners would make a contribution. ... At the time of this negotiation, these were the highest affordable housing 'in-lieu-of' fees, and I believe they still exceed those of any other project."
Shade offers a similarly nuanced perspective but says "the city's land code has definitely driven up the cost of doing things like additions to your house – family-friendly options that make it easier for families to stay in the central part of the city." She cites the city's "McMansion" ordinance, limiting homes to the larger of 2,300 square feet or an alternative floor-to-area ratio, as an example. "I'm from Dallas, and a McMansion is significantly bigger. ... We do land code changes [in Austin] pretty regularly and at a pretty quick clip without regard to the impact on affordability on exactly these kind of family-friendly housing options, be they multifamily or single family." A broader issue, she says, is increasing community involvement in such planning issues. "That's been the biggest challenge for me in my time at City Hall and a big motivator for me to run in the first place – and I think it's why I have the opposition I have from the Austin Neighborhoods Council." (The ANC endorsed Tovo, a former vice president of the association.) "There are many, many, many, many more people who are not engaged in that process than are engaged with the neighborhood associations," Shade says. She offers an example from her own neighborhood, that of the Galaxy Cafe moving into a former Laundromat on West Lynn Street. "The Galaxy Cafe was something the neighborhood association was against, [but] the vast majority of the neighborhood was actually in favor of it. ... I think there are a lot of people who are troubled by the fact they want more density, more family-friendly options, but it's too difficult to sometimes go through the arguments. So of course it's easier to go buy a house in Circle C. That's what happens."
Nofziger agrees that "rents are going up, the cost of housing is going up. Everything is." In his judgment, however, city spending is largely to blame. On the campaign trail, he's taken to toting around a graph charting Austin's spending over the years. From Austin's founding in 1839, he says, "it takes 150 years to get to a billion-dollar budget – I was on the council in 1990, when we had a billion-dollar budget. It took 10 years after that to get to a $2 billion budget. Now we're at a $2.8 [billion], $2.9 billion budget" – and that's not including additional capital projects he opposes, like the proposed urban rail. (It's also not adjusted for inflation, which would undoubtedly make for a much less sensational graph.) "I think a financial tsunami is headed our way," Nofziger warns. "And I think we need to have people in place who have dealt with that before."
About that rail election, proposed by Mayor Lee Leffingwell for fall 2012: Tovo and Shade both support the urban rail proposal in principle, though both have plenty of questions. Nofziger, however, played a prominent role in opposing Capital Metro's initial 2000 urban rail referendum, and he remains opposed to the latest version of the project.
He does offer alternative proposals. Specifically, he envisions an array of electric vehicle subsidies he believes will simultaneously boost the local economy by transforming Austin into "the electric vehicle capital of the world." He envisions a $60 million incentives program over the next three years, subsidizing electric-powered bikes and cars for citizens and replacing Capital Metro's current fleet with "battery-powered, smaller, more nimble buses." (City Council appoints two members to the eight-member Cap Metro board, and he'd want to be one.) He also wants Cap Metro to offer free fares – likely to be a fairly uphill proposition after the agency's recent financial difficulties. Nofziger's plan is more limited but undoubtedly much cheaper than a rail project, and, he adds, "we don't have to wait a year and a half before we have an election on this."
Nofziger also proposes a grand solar power initiative for Austin Energy: a $500 million, 10-year program installing solar panels on rooftops citywide, in a bid to make Austin also the nation's photovoltaic capital. He envisions paying for the program by cutting the city's ongoing investment in Austin Energy's $2.3 billion biomass plant in East Texas and selling AE's stake in the Fayette coal plant. If his solar proposals seemingly further Austin Energy's identity crisis of trying to be a money-earner and conservation booster simultaneously, Nofziger says the utility can recoup its solar investments and outsourcing by selling additional electricity ... to power all of those electric cars, bringing his vision full circle. It's admittedly a little far-fetched, but honestly – who's to say a billion-dollar rail line isn't?
Tovo says she supports "a public transportation system that includes urban rail," but still has several questions: management, funding, etc. – many of the same questions currently under review by city staff. "It is too expensive of a project to fall on the backs of Austin taxpayers," she says, calling for federal funds and partnerships to help offset the cost.
For her part, Shade has "a lot of concerns about the rail proposal as it's currently being discussed," including the discussion itself. "When I ran in 2008, Brewster [McCracken] and Will [Wynn] called for an election. And when Lee [Leffingwell] was running for mayor, he called for it. I wish we wouldn't do that [ahead of schedule]. ... Obviously it's something the voters should vote on, but you don't want to put something out there that doesn't answer the 30-odd questions that have been raised." She also believes the rail discussion has heretofore largely focused on traffic relief and not the effect on nearby residents.
While there are certainly major policy differences among the candidates, one of the biggest distinctions to be drawn between Shade and her challengers is, unsurprisingly, their opinions regarding the fallout from council's recent email disclosures, as well as the larger debate over open meetings questions.
"I think there will be some lemonade out of this," says Shade. "As best as I can tell, when Kirk Watson instituted the systematic one-on-ones, that was to ensure each council member touched base with every other council member," a process she considers important so that offices don't duplicate one another's efforts. "One of the things I think people really don't understand is how little information you have, sometimes, prior to being able to vote on the agenda." However, she notes, the Watson-era council held more work sessions and retreats. "So as we started losing some of those things," while holding on to the one-on-ones, "I think it started giving the wrong impression that we were avoiding public dialogue," Shade says. But she's hopeful council committee sessions and work sessions – which she notes "have been a little awkward at first" but believes are improving – will allow the council to communicate and collaborate.
Nofziger counters that "City Council [has] really gotten far, far afield from the basic principles of open government" when council members like Shade "talk about how stilted the work sessions are ... how unfamiliar it is to talk with your colleagues in public about the people's business." Nofziger has volunteered to hold a press conference each week at which he will release his own emails.
"Respecting Citizens" is one of the tent poles of Tovo's campaign; she says the disclosures have "been painful for the public as well as our elected leaders. There's been some broken trust with the public over this issue." She also points out that Shade's private emails (recently published in connection with the county attorney's investigation into whether public business was being privately discussed among council members) reflected that at least one exchange had, apparently, occurred among four council members: a correspondence among Shade, Martinez, Leffingwell, and Riley (who did not respond) discussing a lawsuit filed on behalf of the family of Nathaniel Sanders II – the young man shot and killed under highly contested circumstances by Austin Police Officer Leonardo Quintana in May 2009.
Last July, Shade's support of a motion from Riley to settle the Sanders wrongful death lawsuit at $500,000, instead of an initially negotiated $750,000 – followed by the council's rejection of the settlement altogether – sparked much negative public reaction, particularly from African-American community leaders. But the email discussion in question, initiated by Shade, concerned a separate lawsuit filed by Sanders family attorney Adam Loewy – a since-dismissed breach of contact suit filed following council's decision not to settle the wrongful death suit. Shade says that after discussing the suit in a private executive session at a meeting earlier that day, "I just decided I needed to write to the three boys and say, 'Don't beat your chests.' Because it isn't really going to help heal things. Even though we were all so angry. Some people in that room were especially outraged – I'll just leave it at that – at the thought that someone could sue us for doing what the law says we have to do: have a public meeting to vote on something. It said on all the tentative agreements, 'subject to council approval.' It was the most ridiculous lawsuit." In the email, Shade advises "the less any of us beat our chests, demonstrate anger, etc., the better," and posits a public perception of Loewy as a "money-grubbing lawyer." She says while she regrets sending the message to three other members (a quorum), "I didn't think of it as conducting city business because it wasn't related to a vote or anything – it was literally about how I thought you guys should talk about this issue if you're asked about it. It was really me being more of a paranoid Jewish mother than anything."
"The popular wisdom is that you don't challenge an incumbent successfully, but I'm doing the best that I can. ... I know it's rare, but I'm thrilled I'm getting good response." Those words don't come from one of Shade's challengers, but Shade herself in 2008, when she successfully ousted Place 3 incumbent Jennifer Kim. There's an unmistakable irony that Shade's challenge to Kim often focused on somewhat petty, personal failings – Kim's attempt to bypass airport security or her office's decorating budget – and now Shade herself is on the receiving end of similarly personal attacks based on intemperate but often inconsequential embarrassments plucked from her emails – an opposition researcher's dream come true.
Knocking off a well-funded incumbent is a rarity in politics. That's true here in Austin too – but that's not to say it can't happen, especially this year in Place 3.
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