May 12 Municipal Election: The 'Chronicle' Endorsements
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Brigid Shea has been a strong and effective advocate for the environment, for economic equity, and for open and efficient government in Austin for more than two decades now. She was a founding member of the original SOS Alliance, served a term on the City Council from 1993 to 1996, and since then has been a consultant and policy adviser to the city and to a wide range of businesses and nonprofits.
But when there's an incumbent running for re-election, the race is always really a referendum on that incumbency. And it's on his record that Lee Leffingwell's campaign runs aground. While we don't doubt the mayor's sincerity, heart, or basic goodwill, he has simply been on the wrong side of virtually every contested issue that his council has faced over the past few years.
To name a few: the Domain, where he pressed hard for maintaining the tax subsidies in the development agreement ("a deal is a deal"), despite evidence that developers Endeavor Real Estate and Simon Properties were failing to keep up their end of that deal; the Barton Springs planned unit development; Water Treatment Plant No. 4; White Lodging/Marriott subsidies; rec center privatization deals, the Green Water Treatment Plant site development deal ... the list goes on. There are good reasons for that 91% RECA support, and for development attorneys to be aggressively bundling contributions for Leffingwell's campaign. They're not buying influence; they're showing recognition and appreciation for a mayor who has wholeheartedly supported their interests – which has not always been in the public's best interest.
The most egregious recent example concerns the city's contract with Formula One, when Leffingwell pushed hard for signing the original, developer-written contract which would have, among other things, committed the city to a $4 million annual payment that race organizers subsequently agreed to pay. And his solo protest vote, as the contract was being pulled for yet another clearly needed rewrite on a 6-1 vote, was uncharacteristically impolitic, but also clearly in character: Never mind the naysayers; full speed ahead. [Full disclosure from Publisher Nick Barbaro: My wife, Susan Moffat, was one of the citizens down at council chambers that day, pointing out loopholes and pitfalls in a document that clearly hadn't been vetted before being fast-tracked to council, in a process even the Austin American-Statesman called "sloppy, rushed." I've never been prouder of her.]
It's a shame, because it clearly didn't have to go this way. Leffingwell came to council with strong environmental credentials. He was endorsed by the Chronicle in the 2009 mayoral election and for his two terms as a council member before that. He's a good man. On many issues, we see eye to eye, and we admire and appreciate his good works. (Then again, on those issues, he and Shea agree as well; it's hard to envision any social program that would fare worse under her than him.)
But on core issues of city politics – how to shape the city's built environment, how to pay for that, and how to balance the needs of citizens with those of the business lobby – we have a serious philosophical disagreement: How much can the city expect to get, and how much does it have to give up – in money, green space, affordable housing, public spaces and amenities, and other design and planning objectives – in order to accommodate and support real estate development and construction? Time after time, we've seen that the status quo at City Hall is that we'll readily give up all those things if a well-connected lobbyist shows up with a building plan and a request for a zoning change or a city subsidy.
Somewhere along the way, Mayor Leffingwell swallowed that Kool-Aid, and the result is an economic policy – favoring tax breaks for the rich, privatization of public services and assets, and other big-business-friendly policies, even at the expense of social programs and the environment – that's considered reactionary right-wing on the national scale, yet accepted as business as usual in local politics, where critics may find themselves derided as "anti-growth" for having the temerity to suggest that developers play by the rules, that lobbyists not get special favors, and that private big business not get public handouts.
Here is where we believe Shea can bring significant change to the way business gets done at City Hall. She is an astute businesswoman (hardly "anti-business," she has very strong ties to Austin's small business community) with the energy, vision, and commitment to put the city's best interests ahead of special interests.
Place 2: Mike Martinez
In his second term, Martinez has emerged as a council leader on issues directly affecting workers' rights, worker safety, and working conditions. We applaud the whole council's attention to these matters, but Martinez has been the most outspoken and proactive member on goals like making certain that economic development agreements address wage protections, safety training, and related guarantees. From his position (now chair) on the Capital Metro board, he has also become increasingly active on transportation questions, not only on the vision and planning side (and in working with other jurisdictions), but also in the difficult task of remaking the agency after an internal reorganization and the changes ordered by the Sunset Commission.
On that score, while we understand the anger of Cap Metro's employees' union over the privatization directed by the Legislature, it was an outcome imposed upon the agency by the union's insistence on an external audit, as well as by the state's institutional hostility to unionism. We don't believe it can be blamed on Martinez, who has led the board's insistence that the agency protect its work force, as much as possible, from the negative consequences.
Indeed, his approach to that delicate balance has belied the occasional and unfair characterization of Martinez as somehow beholden to union or other special interest priorities on the council; we believe that overall, he has tried his best to balance competing interests with the goal of the broadest benefit for the whole city. (Already an advocate for more affordable housing, he has also become a leader on animal welfare issues.) Some of us still believe that he is among those members too willing to prioritize economic development over neighborhood quality of life, and some of us note our objections to his support for Water Treatment Plant No. 4 and the Formula One deal. But on the whole, Martinez has been a hard-working, insightful, and effective council member.
Place 5: Bill Spelman
Incumbent Spelman jokes that "karma" reverberating from his 2009 campaign – when he was unopposed – now has him facing no fewer than six challengers. He's got the reputation of being a policy wonk, and that's not just an academic stereotype; he does have a tendency to complicate arguments with layered charts and dais dissertations. But he also knows his stuff, and he has been indispensable on certain subjects, most particularly on pushing to rethink the city's public safety priorities, a subject on which he is in fact a national expert. (Moreover, he believes that there might be more effective and more efficient ways to combat crime than the reflexive "More cops!" and has not wilted under dismissive public criticism that suggests otherwise.) Some of us did strongly object to his vote against moving the election to November and its much higher turnout, which he defends: "I don't believe the Legislature had the authority to supersede the [city] charter."
Spelman's been generally effective on budgetary issues, and his alertness to significant detail on sometimes arcane council subjects (e.g., zoning) is a real asset. As for his own accomplishments, he points to progress on social equity – improving access to capital and regulating payday lending – as well as the city's nationally innovative regulation of crisis pregnancy centers, important not only for protecting women's rights and health care but also for upholding consumer protection. He'll also be a watchdog on transportation solutions; he's enthusiastic about mass transit but skeptical of quick fixes.
Of Spelman's half-dozen challengers, only Dom Chavez and Tina Cannon show any signs of actually understanding city policy issues and also comprehending that being a council member is a real job which requires hard work and substantive knowledge. Chavez, however, firmly opposes virtually all progressive or even nuanced solutions to city problems, especially on public safety and transportation – his mantras are more cops and more roads. Cannon is learning quickly on the trail, but as of yet, she still lacks sufficient knowledge of actual city policies and procedures to be ready to take on (for example) utility rates or bond priorities. We believe Spelman is the best choice for another term.
Place 6: Sheryl Cole
In 2009, we wrote: "We hope Cole chooses to become a more vocal and assertive leader – rather than staying in her comfort zone working quietly behind the scenes." Most of us (but not all) are convinced that change has happened, symbolically represented by her ascension to the post of mayor pro tem. Three years ago, she cited her leadership on the Waller Creek project as her proudest accomplishment. She's still engaged in that effort, but she now more immediately cites her work on (broadly speaking) alleviating the city's racial and economic inequities, ranging from job creation (e.g., the U.S. Farathane deal supporting employment for "the hardest to employ") to pressing the Austin Police Department to effectively address its problematic policing of minority youth.
It's worth noting that her leadership on such issues appears to have helped inspire non-minority council members to be more proactive as well. Especially if we finally succeed in moving to geographic representation, it will be all the more important to make certain that substantive attention to racially charged controversies does not fall by default to minority council members. (Cole remains cautious on single-member districts, due to the possibility that African-American citizens' influence could be inadvertently diluted by a new system that in theory is supposed to strengthen that influence. She also voted against moving city elections to November without a separate charter vote.)
Recently, she's been hard at work on the Austin Energy conundrum, and last week presided over council's first (consensus) vote for a substantive change – an adjustment of the AE's debt-to-equity ratio, which is not without risk but should serve to save considerable funds going forward. It's a first but important step. She's also been strong on advocating for public education, a role that will only grow in importance as we enter the next legislative biennium.
Cole's opponent, Shaun Ireland, while apparently well-meaning, has little knowledge and no experience of actual city policies and their real-world consequences.