Point Austin: Open Questions

Campaign questionnaires offer a window into the city's political obsessions

Free art
Free art (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Artists should work for free.

That's one curious conclusion one might come to by reading City Council campaign questionnaires, a preoccupation I pursued over the last couple of weeks while attending campaign forums that sometimes felt like a political version of speed dating. Although there's no standardized procedure for the dozens of public forums leading up to the May 12 election, several of the more prominent groups (and a few of the less prominent) submit advance questionnaires to the candidates, who return their answers prior to the forum. With any luck, the groups also post the answers to their websites, so voters (and obsessives like me) can seek them out for more detail about the candidates' positions than, say, "Cut the budget!" or "More money for roads!"

It was on such a questionnaire that I learned, for example, that Austin artists should see it as their responsibility to balance the city budget. In fairness, only a couple of Place 5 candidates – John F. Duffy and Audrey "Tina" Cannon – suggested this strategy for saving city funds, but it caught my eye because it's such a commonplace in generic budget discussions: "Why are we spending so much money on art?!?" Duffy suggested cutting funding from the Art in Public Places program, "as this city is home to hundreds if not thousands of artists who would love to decorate the city for free if only they were allowed to." Slightly more generous, Cannon suggested the city could have saved on the Seaholm "art wall" by "collaborat[ing] with the local art community and put[ting] together a coalition to reduce costs and at the same time highlight local artists."

I'm not trying to single out these two candidates – only making the broader argument that so many of our budget discussions seize on relatively minor expenditures or city amenities – art installations or boardwalks, for example – as somehow "wasteful." The truth is, as a city we spend almost nothing on public art (a very selective 2% of major structures), and artists (like musicians, in the nominal Music Capital of The World) are routinely expected to donate their time and talents to every charitable occasion – and also to feel honored to be asked to work for nothing. A great city celebrates (and commissions) great art, and incidentally profits from it – witness, for one example, Chicago's Millen­nium Park, which cost too much money until it was built and is now cheap at any price.

If a Tree Falls ...

Campaign questionnaires, of course, can say as much about the questioners as about the candidates. Reading those of the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Austin Neighborhoods Council, one might conclude that the most important issue facing the city right now is the heritage tree ordinance (which regulates removal). Fresh from a symbolic battle over one Down­town tree (see Amy Smith's "The Tree in the Way," Oct. 21, 2011), in a relatively brief questionnaire RECA asked no fewer than nine questions about possible ordinance loosening. In its traditionally detailed document, the ANC asks only two heritage tree questions – essentially, whether restrictions should be tighter – but it's clear enough that the two organizations retain their effectively opposed positions.

These opposing questions, which seem very specific, are in fact all about subtext and context – our ongoing public argument about growth and development, how fast it should happen and at what cost, and whether there are ways to mitigate the inevitable changes to the cityscape. Without getting into great detail, the candidates (not all of them quite so attuned to the ordinance nuances as their questioners) run the range of responses, mostly landing somewhere in the middle: Let the ordinance work for a while, and make exceptions only when necessary.

Enjoy the Ride

For the record, the ANC questionnaire is much the most detailed and policy-wonkish, very useful for already-educated voters but also heavy with the scent of recent, particular battlegrounds (e.g., the Barton Springs Road planned unit development) that may not provide precise carryover to the next zoning battle. The questionnaires also vary, obviously, with the core interests of the group at hand. Partisan voting histories, for example, are carefully scrutinized in the joint questionnaire submitted by eight Democratic clubs, who took a very dim view of the Ron Paul enthusiasts queuing up for all the council races. And the League of Bicycling Voters wanted to know which of the candidates would take part in its upcoming "Political Pedal," the annual Downtown bike ride designed to highlight biking issues and allow mingling of candidates and bicyclists. For the record, all that responded said they'd be there, this Friday, 4:45pm at City Hall (details at www.lobv.org/calendar) – the event starts with brief speeches, but ends with beer at Billy's Brew & Que, so you can mingle, hear, exercise, and be rewarded.

I've tried to provide a broader range of the candidate's various backgrounds, experience, and specific positions – and endorsements thus far – in the overview in this issue (see "It's Your City Council.") Please have a look, and check the organizational websites for more details and, where applicable, the questionnaires.

See if they asked your favorite questions.

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