Brigid Shea: 'A Proven Leader'

Brigid Shea sits down for a Q&A on a wide range of city topics

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AC: What are some other specific things you would have done differently on incentives?

BS: I would have said how else can we work with you? Maybe we can speed up the permitting on the site because frankly, that alone costs companies huge amounts of money. I mean it's kind of shocking how messed up the [city] permitting process is and part of it is because they haven't staffed it properly. I think they're down to a few people – I don't know the exact staffing, but I think there's a lot of different ways we can partner with companies where they get value.

I'll give you another example, with the Marriott [Convention Center hotel]. They'd already bought the land [on Congress Avenue] and they had already bulldozed Las Manitas, which I say is strike one. Then the economy went into a nosedive in 2008, so everybody put everything on hold. In 2010, they came to the city and asked for several variances, which they got, and they asked for a thing of great value, which the city gave them and got nothing in return, which was an increase in height Downtown. That's the point at which I would have said to them, "love you guys, glad you're coming, we're really excited you're going to be building in the Downtown, and let us know when you plan the groundbreaking. Thank you very much. Enjoy the extra height, enjoy that increased value that we just gave you."

Lee said in one of the forums that we do [fee waivers] with everything Downtown, and I thought, well that's Exhibit A right there. If we're giving away increases in height and we get nothing in exchange for it, I don't think that that's a good use of our city assets. So to me that's an example of how you can partner with companies without giving them big cash outlays. Lee says, no money exchanged hands with the $4.3 million fee waiver. That's right – they owed us money, and we didn't get it. And that's a bad thing. Because the same year that Lee announced that deal, the city told the citizens, "I'm sorry, but we don't have enough money to keep your community pools open, and we don't have enough money for your library budgets, and we don't have enough money for the Trail of Lights, so we're going to have to cancel it."

That would have been part of my conversation with Apple – you're wanting us to give you this, and you guys have so much cash, you have to know that we've had to tell our citizens just this last year that we don't have enough money for basic city services that we provide them, and we've had to cancel stuff.

So there's a context in which these things happen, and I feel like Lee hasn't been able to look at it or maybe he's not even thought of it in these terms: We're giving all this stuff away but we're having to tell our citizens, meanwhile, that we don't have enough money for these basic city services for you. There's a way to create these packages for companies where they get things that they want that are valuable to them, where we're not paying through the nose, or we're not forgoing revenue that we really need in the general fund. $4.3 million could have paid for all those things and had money left over. And Lee says he would extend this same consideration to this other hotel, the Manchester Group, and they had already said publicly, we'll come without a subsidy. But Lee says in defense that he's talked with them and they want the same deal the Marriott got. Yeah, because you started that whole thing by giving it to the Marriott and you said publicly you'd give the same thing to them. Of course they'd want it. Why wouldn't they? And to me that's a fundamental issue of leadership.

You don't start out by saying to all these businesses that are coming anyway, "come on in, here's a bunch of money, help yourself." Because you create an expectation that you're going to do that with everyone. Where will this stop? Are we going to be doing fee waivers for Motel 6? Presumably every hotel that wants to build Downtown is going to come in and ask for the same deal. Lee says they're all cash-positive. Over time, after they're built and when the tax revenue starts coming in, yes, but in the intervening years we don't have enough money for basic city services. I don't think it's a good deal for the citizens to do that.

And I do differentiate between that and a strategic investment in a company like Apple. Apple has good-paying jobs, presumably there'll be some ripple effects from that. With Marriott, these are maid jobs, and bus-boy jobs. Maybe the concierge jobs will be better paying but most of the jobs at the hotel are going to be low-paying jobs.

I also think it's no coincidence that Richard Suttle is the lobbyist for both Formula One and the Marriott, and his firm has done the majority of the bundling for Lee and for the other incumbents. Suttle's firm and Michael Whelan's firm have bundled over $60,000, when they should be limited to $25 contributions as lobbyists.

AC: Do you have anything more to say about potential conflicts with your consulting contracts, particularly with your contract proposal in 2002 to work on [Water Treatment Plant 4]?

BS: The fact is, I've been on record for years opposing the plant at this location [in Northwest Austin] and the way the [Burnt Orange Report] story was written, it sounds as though the contract in 2002 was for the massive, excessively expensive plant that we have today. I've talked with [Sierra Club President] Roy Waley about this, and he said in 2002 the Sierra Club didn't even have a position on Water Treatment Plant 4. It wasn't seen as the concern that it is acknowledged to be today, because in 2001 the city hit its highest water use, and there was still a belief that we needed to look at additional sources of water. So it's not like I was out whoring for the current, enormous, ill-advised plant that's being built now. It was a site assessment study in 2002 to determine what would be the appropriate location, and I've always advocated for it to be moved away from this environmentally sensitive land.

Once the water use changed dramatically in 2009, everybody reassessed, or should have reassessed, their view for the need for this plant. People within the water utility were saying we don't need this now. But because of the stranglehold that these big engineering firms have on the city staff, they weren't allowed to speak honestly or openly about it. And in 2010 when the new climate data came out, that's when I wrote the letter to the elected officials and I called Lee and said we really need to reassess and put this on hold. But from the very beginning I've said we should not put a plant in this location, where we had already bought 30,000 acres and put them into permanent preserve land.

And even after the contracts were awarded, an engineer I've worked with on a lot of projects called me and asked me twice, on two different occasions [to work on the project], and I said no. And he said, we have a contract, it's not a bid. And I said I don't care, it's the wrong place to put it. I don't want to have anything to do with it. But I said I'll tell you what you should do and that is make sure you've got the best karst aquifer scientist working on it because you're gonna screw up the aquifer up there. That's exactly what happened. They punched a hole in the northern Edwards [Aquifer] and they've drained the springs that feed Bull Creek into the tunnel shaft. I don't know how you can fix that.

AC: Did they get the best karst aquifer scientist?

BS: Lauren Ross is working with them but I don't know that she can fix this.

But honestly, this is not a referendum on my consulting work. I think it's a referendum on who has the better vision for the future of the city. I tell people, in many ways we're at the same place we were 20 years ago with SOS. We're coming out of a recession, we're poised to see just explosive growth and the question before the citizens is, what kind of future do we want for our city and how are we going to protect the things that we most value? How are we going to have a thriving city where our grandkids and our elders can still afford to live? But Lee's campaign is just desperate to distract people and talk about my consulting work. Well, I provided a really good value for the city, a 7-to-1 return on what they paid me versus what I brought in on the federal grants. I think it's better than what most people can show for the work they do for the city, plus the [Austin Clean Water] program itself was named one of the top 10 infrastructure projects in the nation for the last 75 years. But they really want to try to divert people's attention from the fact that they don't have a plan for water, they don't have a plan for energy, and in fact are making a huge mess of our most significant asset, and I don't think they've provided the kind of vision that the community really wants and needs. I think I offer the experience, the leadership, the proven track record, the vision, and the initiative to get things done.

AC: Let's move to single-member districts. Did you have a position on it to begin with?

BS: I've always been a big supporter of it. I honestly hadn't studied the proposals that were out there, and the Charter Review Commission was going through the process of looking at various scenarios, and it wasn't until probably about a month ago or three weeks ago that I decided I was going to support 10-1.

AC: And why was that?

I met with the group [Austinites for Geographic Representation] and we had very lengthy conversations. I had been talking at length with other folks who had concerns about the 10-1 plan, and when I finally met with AGR I felt like they answered all the concerns and that they had really done their homework. They've been extremely thoughtful, they've been very thorough, they've worked with lawyers that are experts on redistricting and on independent redistricting boards. They took the language from the California redistricting board and have tweaked it for Austin and they've gone out and done the work in the community to garner support.

The chief reason that these initiatives have failed in the past is two-fold because they haven't really had any clear group that was working for it and was campaigning hard for it, and so they clearly have that now with the 10-1 coalition. People [in past initiatives] were always suspicious, because either they didn't like the lines that were drawn or they were suspicious of what lines would be drawn, and so it failed for those reasons. And I think that by pairing the 10-1 plan with the independent redistricting board, that's very well thought out. I'm impressed with all the provisions they've put in place to protect it from being influenced by people who would then want to run for office, because you can't run for office if you're part of the redistricting board; you can't run for office if you've had anything to do with redistricting lines. I just feel they've been very smart and strategic and they've done their homework, and I felt it was the right thing to do.

I've always been a supporter [of single-member districts] because I feel like it holds the opportunity for reducing the really corrosive influence of special-interest money because you don't need quite as much money to run for smaller districts as you do citywide, and I think it also holds the promise of people being able to actually hold their representatives accountable. To me, that's been a huge problem. When people are elected city-wide, who are they accountable to?

AC: There was a minority report written by members of the committee supporting 10-2-1, and some of them are your supporters.

I don't hear anybody still supporting that. This is what I've said to people – what's the alternative? What are people supporting as an alternative? And I never got any sense that there was any agreement. I've since heard that there's going to be a group called Austinites for Fair Geographic Representation that will be a hybrid. And I don't know who'll be on that, or when it's going to be launched. I do know there have been concerns in the Asian community that they don't believe they can elect an Asian representative from a 10-1 equation, and I feel like the folks from the AGR answered that question fairly effectively. I mean, Asians have been elected to districts very similar to this where there wasn't necessarily an Asian population. I don't think there are barriers to Asians being elected on a 10-1 configuration, based on the information that I've gotten from the 10-1 folks.

AC: Have you lost any supporters because of your position?

Yes, one key supporter [political consultant David Butts], who I still consider a friend and I say that our friendship is bigger than this issue. He believes it would be bad ultimately for the progressive coalition that has been able to elect what we would think of as generally good people to the council. In the past, really before [passage of the Save Our Springs water quality ordinance] the council was dominated by real estate and development interests, and that hasn't been the case in the people we've elected since then. But the polices have still been tilted toward real estate and development interests.

AC: And what is your position on whether we have a November election or a May election?

BS: I'm fine with a November election. I do think it was right to have the voters choose. I agree with the people who say the council should not have been able to arbitrarily extend their terms for six months. But the thing that really struck me about the stories that I read on several occasions, most of them written by Marty Toohey, is that many people believe that the mayor was doing this to improve his chances for reelection. And I don't think that's a legitimate reason. I think they made a good case on money and on coordination and on all of that, but I don't think they should have been able to just vote themselves six months more in office, so I think it was right to have the voters have a say.

AC: You were quoted in In Fact Daily saying you believe that November draws a poorer quality of voters.

BS: What I said was – I think that was from a couple of the endorsement meetings – I said that I have heard political observers say that you get a larger number of people who are not as aware of what's going on in city elections in a November race, and that that might affect the outcome. I was really just repeating, frankly, what I've been hearing from political consultants who are concerned about it.

AC: Okay. Anything else?

On the Formula One deal, one of the things that we've researched is the mayor and council did change a policy from 2009 on how the city pays for the very, very large infrastructure that it extends to new development, with very large water and sewer lines. And they made it a 100% reimbursable policy and so what that means is that we'll be paying 100% of the cost of the $13 million dollars-plus to extend the water and sewer line to Formula One. And I just think that's wrong. Those guys clearly could afford to pay their share and Lee says that it was smart growth, and my answer is we have a policy that is unfair, that requires our citizens to foot the bill when they shouldn't have to foot the full cost, and we shouldn't have to quibble about whether it's smart growth or not. It's not a good policy and I'll work to change it.

I also think on this Green Water Treatment Plant [proposed land sale] that's happening right now, we absolutely have to hold these developers to what they bid on. The reason they were selected through the bid process was because they committed to 25 percent of affordable housing and if they come back and say, well we're going to do more units and so we'll actually get the same number it just won't be the same percentage. I would make clear that either it's the percentage or the number – whichever is larger because we have a huge crisis of affordable housing.

I don't know if you've seen the letter that Dean Rindy sent to council, but by his calculation – and I haven't checked it – but by his calculation the city is paying $55 million more to make that land available. It's going to cost the city an additional $55 million to relocate the electric substation and for remediation, and I think some of the infrastructure. I'll need to go back and look at Dean's letter. But I think we've got to be very strategic and very careful, particularly with the land we own along Lady Bird Lake. That's part of our inheritance. And the more we carve it up and sell it off, the more we lose one of the things that really draws people to Austin, which is this beautiful green corridor that everyone, most everyone, can still see because we haven't allowed a huge, exclusive wall of privilege to be built all along the lake. And I think we rob future generations of the enjoyment of that if we allow this giant wall of privilege to be built all along the lake.

And I have said – and I think it's really worth repeating – that part of why we are such an attractive, appealing city for people to move to, and for businesses to relocate to, is because we as a community fought and won, prevailed, on the issue of protecting our environment. It's great for our economy, and we did that in the course of the SOS initiative 20 years ago this summer.

At the start of that initiative people who were against were clearly saying, we can't afford to protect our environment when it comes to growing our economy. after SOS, I've lost track of the number of developers who've said you were right and we were wrong, because we can't sell real estate in a crappy place to live. It's better for us that we've protected our environment and we have such a shining emerald city.

And I say that's a really important building block, and the citizens did it. It was an enormous citizen uprising 20 years ago that achieved that, and today we stand on the shoulders of that accomplishment. So I say again, people aren't moving here because of what the city council has done or because of what the mayor is doing. They're moving here because the citizens have fought for so long to protect what's beautiful and unique and special about this place.

AC: When you criticize the council is that a blanket criticsm?

Well, I hold the mayor accountable. I think the person in the mayor's office sets the standard and frequently brings the council along. But a lot of these votes that I talk about have been unanimous or nearly unanimous. And the mayor can't do it by himself. He has to have at least three other votes, but in a lot of the cases it's been unanimous.

AC: So you're criticizing council members who could potentially be future allies.

The mayor takes the lead. I hold him chiefly responsible.

I do want to also address the biomass plant [which council approved in August 2008]. I think there are potentially very serious problems with the biomass plant. We've seen news stories from East Texas where there was a fire and workers were injured. And then there were blog posts on the story– I don't know if you saw the blog posts.

There were people who wrote, I worked at that plant and they're cutting corners and they're rushing to get it built and they're going to have problems. I don't know who's watching this. So my point is, are we going to have another nuke on our hands where it wasn't built properly and nobody was paying attention? If we're on the hook for $2.3 billion for this plant we better have somebody paying attention and frankly, I want [the city] to release the details of the contract.

AC: Like they did in Gainesville [Florida].

Exactly. And there was a large coalition at the time, CCARE (Coalition for Clean, Affordable Reliable Energy) that was saying, "let us see the provision of the contract where we're able to get out of the contract." This isn't the kind of thing we should be having to guess at and understand. To me this comes down to a leadership issue as well.

If Lee wanted that information released, I believe he could get it released. The mayor's office was powerful when Kirk Watson was mayor. Now I hear Lee saying in a lot of these forums, "Well, we don't have the power to do that." Well, you do have the power if you use the bully pulpit of the mayor's office.

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Brigid Shea, City Council, election, Lee Leffingwell, energy, water, education, Formula One, biomass, Green Water Treatment Plant

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