Brigid Shea: 'A Proven Leader'
Brigid Shea sits down for a Q&A on a wide range of city topics
Austin Chronicle: Let's talk about your key qualifications in running for mayor.
Brigid Shea: I would say I am very experienced, both from my time on the council and my work on city projects. I've actually told people that I think everybody should have the experience of working on a city project so they can see how the city really operates, and you can see where some of the problems are. I've been particularly concerned based on things I've heard with these very large engineering consulting firms, that they have too much influence on city staff, and that the contracting process is, I would say, tilted.
When I first worked on the Austin Clean Water project, we put together a bid and as we were waitng for the rankings to be released, after the bids had been submitted and the staff had reviewed them – there were several other engineering firms that had participated in the bid because ... it was a very large bid of subconsulting firms, and mine was outreach and environmental policy. And as we were waiting we were just sort of chit-chatting and several of the representatives of the different engineering firms said that the word on the street is that this contract was written for Malcolm Pirnie. And I said, really? And they said yeah, they write the contracts so that really only one firm could be most qualified. Now this was back in 2001, but I haven't seen any signs that it's really changed or improved very much. So I was just kind of shocked to see that this was an accepted fact.
AC: Who's Malcolm Pirnie?
BS: Malcolm Pirnie is the engineering firm that didn't get the contract and they pitched a fit at the council meeting. Then they hired Bruce Todd to basically lobby to get the contract back, and this was the firm that was leading this attack on (former Austin Clean Water Program Director Bill Moriarity) and trumping up all these false charges. That said to me that this process is highly political. That was when I realized how much influence these guys have and why it's so important to break that link between the campaign contributions and the award of contracts.
And that's why I proposed in my bundling proposal that the limits also be placed on professional services firms which are the non low-bid contracts; that the limits be placed on them whether they have a contract or are seeking a contract. So my proposal is to break that link between the campaign money and the contracts.
AC: So your qualifications ...
BS: Sorry ... Both experience as a council member and I would say my deep education about how the city operates from my work as a contractor. I know where the problems are in the city. I know where we can find efficiencies and savings. And also my experience in the community – small business woman, PTA leader, active on many many boards, active as an environmental advocate. And I never let my consulting work silence me. I was an outspoken advocate throughout most of this time, even though people said clearly to me, "You're not going to get city business if you keep doing this."
The other thing is my vision. On water, I've been saying for a very long time that we're heading into a water crisis and we really need to change course. And I feel like the current leadership has been unwilling to be honest with people about how severe it is. I don't know if you saw this memo that I sent to former elected officials in 2010 asking them to sign on to a letter urging them not to go forward with Water Treatment Plant 4, but I talk about how serious the water crisis is and I believe it might look like our nuke in the future.
Part of the reason we have such high water rates is because of the enormous debt the water utility has piled up. I actually called Lee around the time we were putting that letter together and said, have you asked the engineers to place their seal of approval that this plant will be viable for the life of the bonds, because I'm concerned we won't have enough water in Lake Travis for it to function properly. Or we'll be under drought restrictions and we won't be able to sell the water, in which case the plant isn't viable if we can't sell the water. And all he would say was, "we have a contract for water with the [Lower Colorado River Authority]." And I said they don't manufacture water, we have a real water crisis. To me that really is evidence of a lack of vision, someone who's not even willing to look at what all the climate data was telling us was going to be a very serious problem that required us to change course.
My vision on energy – I've been a longtime advocate of renewable energy and it's galling to me to see that San Antonio has leapt so far ahead of us on renewables. But they've done it with vision because they brought in a visionary leader. We did not. At the time [Austin Energy General Manager] Larry Weis was being considered, I along with other environmental leaders insisted that we have a panel to review the candidates, and after we interviewed Larry Weis and David Wright – it was a panel of environmental and consumer leaders – we came out and we were unanimous in saying to the news media, neither one of these people is the right person to head up Austin Energy. Neither one of them has the vision or the right experience and ability. And I think it shows with the way the rate case has been handled and with the fact that we have lost our leadership edge among municipal utilities. When Roger Duncan was at Austin Energy we were clearly a national leader and we're no longer viewed that way.
And I do say that the buck stops at the mayor's office on a lot of these things. Part of it is, on the electric rate case, the mayor and council did not give direction to staff to bring back an affordable rate case. I think it's incredibly bad policy to make up for 17 years with one giant increase. It causes rate shock, it causes political turmoil, and we already know the Legislature is itching to go after Austin Energy, and yet Lee has allowed this giant mess to occur on the front steps of the Capitol. I've already heard from a number of people that we're going to be under very serious attack in the next legislative session, and then Lee proposes that we offer a discount for out-of-city ratepayers and hold a hearing out in the community. Well, what do you think we're going to hear back? A bunch of angry people who are demanding they get a discount when no other municipal utility does that. Why would he have set this in motion? To me it's just like walking into a beating at the Legislature and we're inviting it.
On schools, I was a schools advocate the first time I ran [for council]. I initiated joint use of the facilities with the school district, I initiated joint meetings, and they must have fallen by the wayside because Lee did revive them. But the difference, I would say, is that he wrote a letter to [Superintendent Meria] Carstarphen saying please don't close these schools and let's have coordinated meetings. What I would do is, since we know that the Legislature is going to cut funding again, we don't need to sit and wait for it to happen. In fact, we need to get out in front of it and what I would do is use the bully pulpit of the mayor's office to organize the mayors, the business leaders and the county judges and other local officials from the large cities across the state to create a coalition to speak to the Legislature and say to them, with one message – if you cut funding for school children again, you not only hurt the children, you hurt our economies.
You drive people out of our cities, you destabilize our property tax base, you hurt our ability to recruit businesses. And if you cut funding across the state of Texas you hurt the economy of the State of Texas. I'm not naïve to think they care about the school children – because they already showed us how they feel – but I think they care about the economy.
On affordability, I've identified very specific things we can do and I've identified city policies that shift the cost of paying for new development onto existing residents I think those policies are wrong. In the case of the 100 percent reimbursement policy that the utility has, no other community in Central Texas has a 100 percent reimbursable policy. I don't think it's fair to continually ask our citizens to keep paying the cost of new development. Lee says these are all cash-positive but it's driving up the cost of utilities and the cost of living.
On traffic, I just feel we have not made relieving congestion a priority. It's one of the top 10 lists I hate to be on – most congested city of our size in the nation, year after year after year.
AC: What would you do about it?
BS: I would work with the CTRMA [Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority] until they were sick of seeing me to try to find ways to get trucks off of I-35. We have this huge toll road to the east and half the time you can take a nap on it. Every time I've driven on it I'm practically the only car on it. So I want to do whatever it takes to get the trucks off of I-35 and shift them onto [State Highway] 130, so that would be a big relief right there. And then I'd work with TxDOT and whoever else I needed to to find ways to restripe I-35 and MoPac, using the shoulders, using areas where it's clearly wide enough for additional lane widths, and make that capacity available to everyone, not just people who can pay a toll, or who are willing to pay a toll.
And I've also met with folks at UT. We have one of the leading transportation think tanks in the country here – the Center for Transportation Research – and I found them because I was Googling what are called reversible flow lanes, where at rush hour you basically use your existing road capacity – they have these in Dallas and Houston and other large cities – and at rush hour you reverse the flow of the lanes. You have to mark it properly and do it in such a way that it's safe, but it gives you immediate additional capacity on your roadway without costing much money.
Anyway I met with these guys and they've got the real traffic data – it's not modeling, it's the actual traffic data – and they said they could do a study in a couple of months for $60,000 or $70,000 and be able to tell you exactly how much additional capacity you'd be able to get. These are just a few examples of the initiatives I would take on issues that have been vexing and where we haven't had sufficient leadership.
So on experience, on vision, on leadership – I am a proven leader. I'm not afraid to take a stand. and I have a track record for getting things done. I've got the right commitments to preserve quality of life, to keep Austin affordable, and I'm willing to ask tough questions. I want us to be known as a city where the mayor is a really sharp negotiator, and I'm afraid that now we're known as the place where we're pushovers. People can walk in and pretty much get whatever they want.
AC: Okay, what are the challenges that you see, that you're experiencing now in running against an incumbent who has served on the council for seven years?
BS: Well part of it is his ability to use the power of the mayor's office for publicity and frankly to take credit for all the good things that are happening in Austin. He doesn't want to take responsibility for the bad things. And honestly I don't think people are moving to Austin because of Lee. I also say that I believe in giving credit where it's due, and the Chamber of Commerce should get tremendous credit for having had a very effective recruitment plan to bring new businesses to town. They've done an excellent job. I'm a member of the Clean Energy Council and they've been very strategic about going after companies that will really add to our clean tech and clean energy cluster and grow our reputation in that arena. I've been saying for awhile we should declare ourselves the clean energy capital of the world, like we did the live music capital of the world, and then make it so.
And that's part of the vision that the Clean Energy Council has been pursuing, but it's been very strategic. They've worked closely with the state and it hasn't required much of the city. I think there have been small [incentive] packages, but they've been pretty small – not these big giveaways that cause people to say, "what are we doing, why are we paying all this money?"
Anyway, yesterday was a perfect example. Lee announced the plan to fix our leaking water pipes. I've been talking about that since I announced, saying we've got to be the most water wise city in the nation. And there's so much more we need to do and can do on water conservation, water reuse and fixing our leaking water pipes. So he announces it with much fanfare yesterday. The fact is, it had been in the budget for the utility. Paul Robbins did a study last year where he looked at what the city was doing about its aging infrastructure and how much are they fixing? They were fixing about four miles of water pipe a year. And then last September, in the budget for this fiscal year, they increased it to 14.5 miles per year. Well, at that rate it's going to take us 60 to 70 years to fix the pipes that we know now are a problem, and it doesn't include any of the pipes that are breaking because of the shifting ground because of the drought. So he's able to use that as a photo-op to say, "look what I'm doing."
And he's done that on many, many things and I just think that the media hasn't been attuned enough to make sure that people are aware that this is happening in the context of a campaign. People need to be skeptical about all these photo-ops. So I think that that's a challenge but I also think it raises questions about how he's using the mayor's office as a campaign tool. I am astonished that he has the security detail escort him to all of his campaign events. I'd like to know how much he's spending on that and if he's paying for it out of his campaign.
AC: Have you raised that question?
BS: I haven't asked him but I've been struck that at every campaign event, his security detail shows up, sits through the meeting, stays the whole time, then drives him to his next event.
AC: How large is this detail?
One person with him at all the time. I don't know exactly what happens when he's not on the campaign trail but it's my understanding that detail is there all day long at his council office.
AC: Have other mayors had details?
BS: Not that I'm aware of. Maybe there's some Homeland Security, Orange Alert, to explain it, but people found out what it was costing taxpayers of Texas for Rick Perry to have that kind of security while he campaigned. I think people would be interested to know what it's costing them.
The other part is, just how they're packing the Democratic club endorsement groups and I think if you compared membership you'd see probably a good 60 percent overlap. Michael [King] was writing about that in his piece. A good 60 percent overlap for most of the clubs. There are some that are geographic or demographic, like Young Democrats have to be a certain age, or UT Democrats have to be a current student.
AC: Okay, you've talked about your chief differences with the mayor, just in these last few minutes. are those all of them?
BS: On the other differences I would really say it's on a willingness to ask the hard questions, because I think a lot of these deals need to be scrutinized, more than they have been. [Former County Judge Bill Aleshire] was at a forum, and Lee said we were fully informed on Apple and we had all the facts, and Aleshire asked him, did you call the mayor of Phoenix, and Lee said no. But all we heard on the news was that we were competing with Phoenix and we had to hurry up. Well then the Statesman writes that the mayor and the people of Phoenix weren't even aware they were being considered. That's not a sign to me of someone who is fully informed, or who's asking the necessary questions.
And then on listening, I would say that if you disagree with Lee, he is not only unwilling to listen, has has thrown people out of the council chambers. I don't know of any mayor who has thrown as many people out as he has.
AC: Bruce Todd threw out a few people.
BS: As many as Lee?
AC: I don't know, but let's talk about incentives. You opposed incentives for the Marriott and then when Apple came along you were first quoted as saying that this is the kind of business that Austin needs to be attracting. And then after the deal was done, you said it wasn't negotiated well, so there's a sense that you want it both ways.
BS: Well I do distinguish. And what I say on my piece on affordability, I say we've got to spend smart, because we don't have an unlimited supply of money. And I do support strategic incentives to attract the kinds of industry that will be beneficial for us in the long term and that will produce good-paying jobs. So it's not a blanket all or nothing.
I do think we've got to be discerning and that we have to spend people's money wisely, and that's really the differentiator on the Marriott deal. And on the Apple deal, when the reporter called me, I said you know, I don't have all the facts but this is the kind of industry we'd want to attract so I'd certainly want to look at it and work with them. But I said to him I'd also like to know what Phoenix is doing. And I never saw what he quoted me as saying, but I did say to him both those bookends – I want to know more about it, I want to know what Phoenix is doing, but this is certainly the kind of industry we want to attract.
What I've said to people is that when Apple came in, I would say to them guys, we love you – great company, great products, great paying jobs, but let's have a really honest conversation. It will not go over well in the community for you or for us if the company that's sitting on a greater cash reserves than most of the nations on the planet asks us for a big tax giveaway. It's not the way we want to welcome companies to town, to have you be hated and us be hated because of the nature of our partnership. So let's find a better way to partner. Let's see if we can come up with a better way to partner that benefits both of us where we're not going to be hated by the citizens. I think it was a terrible way to welcome Apple to town to have them be trashed on the radio talk shows and trashed on the news blogs and have people actively resenting that we gave this money to the company that's literally got the largest cash reserves of any corporation outside of banks in the history of the planet.
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.