'A Mayor Who Listens'

Sheryl Cole talks about her skills, her record, and what she learned on her 'house party tour'

'A Mayor Who Listens'
Photo by Jana Birchum

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole's entry into the mayor's race brings to five the number of people running for the seat. First elected to Council in 2006, Cole was the first African-American woman to sit on the dais and, if elected in November, would be only the second woman to serve as Austin mayor. With her bid now official, Cole – a lawyer and a CPA – adds her name to an expanded list of leading contenders in the race, along with Council colleague Mike Martinez and attorney Steve Adler. Rounding out the field are rancher/musician Todd Phelps, and Air Force veteran and aircraft mechanic Randall Stephens. The formal filing for City Council races doesn't begin until July 21, so there could be more mayoral hopefuls.

We sat down with Cole for a Q&A two days after her rousing kickoff across from Lee Elementary, where the mayor pro tem cut her teeth on community service as a PTA president.

Austin Chronicle: What went into your decision to run for mayor, and why did you wait until the end of May to throw your hat in the ring?

Sheryl Cole: This community has been very good to Kevin and me. We have been blessed, and some debts you can only pay forward. I did the 10 house party tour and I wanted to do that to listen to the interests and concerns of citizens. I think it's important to have a mayor who can listen and bring people together, and I think I'm that mayor.

AC: Can you cite some examples or occasions where you've brought people together?

SC: Of course there's the affordable housing bonds, there's the Waller creek revitalization project, there's a lot of racially charged incidents – from Texas Relays to officer-involved shootings, especially of African-Americans. There've been a number of zoning cases where I've worked to develop a consensus. The most recent one was when the state wanted to develop property it owns off of 35th Street, and the neighbors were really concerned that it would set a precedent for intense development – a developer wanted to build more intensely than the neighborhood wanted. I conducted a mediation ... and I think everybody came out pleased. So I've done it in different areas involving City Council business all around.

AC: What talents and skills do you bring to the table that your opponents don't?

SC: I won't necessarily say that my opponents don't have these skills, but I do think that I listen well and look for win-win solutions, and I bring people together. I bring a financial background as a CPA to the table and I've spent a lot of time as chair of the [City Council] Audit and Finance Committee, dealing with the financial integrity of the city.

AC: Given everything the city is working on now with urban rail, housing, affordability, transportation, and water, what in your opinion is the most critical issue facing the city right now?

SC: I think you've named all of the most critical issues. Depending on the particular time of day or year that we're looking at, even one of those issues could rise to the top, but the critical four are affordability, transportation, water, and also diversity. I think the most critical question is, will we tackle these together? Will we reach some consensus on what needs to be done about these challenges?

So when you talk about transportation, we have to work as a region and keep all the options on the table. And I've evolved as a council member to think about transportation in expanded terms to include carshare and cycling.

AC: Just on the ridesharing issue, what's taken the city so long to open the door to other transportation companies, like Lyft, which just started here ...

SC: Illegally.

AC: And Uber, I hear a lot of raves about Uber in other cities. What's the holdup here?

SC: One of the big challenges with the other transportation entities – and I support them coming to Austin – but the real challenge has been trying to make sure that the people who elect to use them are safe, and it's very difficult for them to get liability insurance because they're not a commercial business.

AC: How are other cities able to accomplish it?

SC: It doesn't look like they've really dealt with the liability issue head on. For me that's the holdup because you don't want anything to happen if someone is injured and there's no insurance to cover it.

AC: How do you feel about adding urban rail to the November ballot?

SC: I support putting public transit on the ballot in November. Rail has been a divisive issue in the past, but it also has the power to connect our community and give mobility options. Given our current constraints, we need to consider all transportation options.

AC: Is there anything that the city has on its plate right now that isn't rising to the level of urgency that it should? You mentioned race relations [at your kickoff]. Is that an issue that the city really hasn't been able to wrap its arms around?

SC: I think Austin is a very diverse city, a very liberal community, but I think we are challenged when it comes to giving people of diverse backgrounds a real seat at the table – real inclusion and a real voice. You might have noticed that there was a discussion in today's paper about the fact that our population is rising but our African-American population is declining. Usually when you see a rise in population you see an increase in all ethnic groups, so the question is, why is that happening?

AC: Why do you think it's happening?

SC: I think it's affordability. And also issues that we need to address that we talked about before – [a lack of] real inclusion and a seat at the table. It's a cultural gap, too – for young people it's concerts, music, everything.

AC: When you were on your house party tour, what sort of things did you learn that surprised you?

SC: I was surprised by the divide between the city and City Hall. I have to admit that, even when I look back on the years I've been on Council, I spent so much time shepherding the comprehensive plan, dealing with Austin Energy, or Council committee work that involves financial issues and transportation issues, that I lost focus. And the house parties just gave me a new perspective on what the citizens want. And I need to be more responsive to them.

AC: There does seem to be a sense that oftentimes when there's a hearing or some other type of meeting, that the city is just going through the motions of outreach but they're not really listening, or they've already made up their minds about what's going to happen. I'm hearing that about the CodeNext process, for example. Did you hear things like that, too?

SC: There was an almost consistent theme in every district that the city needed to be more responsive to the concerns of the neighborhoods and the citizens. I was just surprised there was that big of a gap. It was really enlightening. I'm so glad I did it. And I think you need a mayor who can listen to that and actually bring people together.

AC: You've taken some positions on high-profile environmental or neighborhood issues that have gone against the neighborhoods, as the neighborhood associations may have seen it, or gone against the environmental community, yet at the same you still have a good relationship with people in those communities.

SC: I have examples of some very pro-neighborhood positions, such as urban farms. I took a very pro-neighborhood position with Chester's, the nightclub in East Austin that was having so much trouble with the neighborhoods. I was a sponsor of the recent State Highway 45 resolution, against it; I've consistently been against SH 45, whether it was at City Hall or CAMPO [Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization], so I think I have a good relationship with environmental and neighborhood communities. I don't think I've been all neighborhood/environmental, or all business, I think I've been balanced.

AC: When I think of the neighborhood-friendly people on Council I think of Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison, and generally I think those are the two that people turn to on neighborhood issues.

SC: We have council members who lead on certain issues and Kathie and Laura have led on those issues, but I haven't always been opposed to their positions. I believe in density, I support density Downtown, and I do for environmental reasons. I believe we have to put our growth where we already have the infrastructure. I support density for several reasons – it's part of the comprehensive plan, it addresses transportation, and it preserves our environmental values. And it's also where we already have our infrastructure.

AC: Water Treatment Plant 4 – that was one of the more controversial decisions before Council and it's still a matter of controversy to this day. Do you have any regrets about voting for the plant?

SC: As we grow as a city we have to look at water and our water infrastructure. At the same time, we have had unbelievable water conservation, which I fully support. The environmental community was right when they asserted that we did not have the urgency for that plant.

AC: Water conservation is one of the reasons water utility officials say the utility is financially strapped. Are there other reasons as well?

SC: I don't think there's any doubt that when you sell less water you have less revenue for the utility. And we have fixed infrastructure costs that have to be covered, and I think it's a challenge to change the model in order to do that. But I think if there's any group of people that can do that it's those serving on the [Council-appointed] Water Resource Planning Task Force. I really wanted to see people on the task force who had fresh and knowledgeable ideas about how to solve our water challenges.

AC: So are you saying you regret voting for WTP 4?

SC: No. Based on the information I had at the time, we needed the risk mitigation. The drought has only complicated matters and led to more conservation, which in turn leads to less water revenues. We still must continue conservation, which is why the environmental community was right about the lack of urgency for the plant at this time.

AC: And then there's the Formula One vote, which became a hot campaign issue in the county judge's race, and may in this race. Any thoughts about how the city handled that?

SC: Because of the work of citizens, [Council Member] Bill Spelman and I led the charge, along with citizens, to make sure that there was no city money involved in that deal. So it was a positive return on investment for the city of Austin. Now to actually use Bill Spelman's language, if I were a state legislator, I wouldn't have voted for Formula One because the money could have been used for education.

AC: You talked about your work with PTAs and schools at your campaign kickoff, what role do you think the city should play in public education?

SC: In general I think there needs to be more collaboration between the city of Austin and the school district, especially when it comes to the financial burden on the taxpayer. And here's one thing I've done about that – as chair of the audit and finance committee I invited all five of the taxing jurisdictions to come and lay out their financial plan over an extended period of time, so that we can plan things like having bond initiatives coincide. As Laura Morrison likes to say, there's five taxing jurisdictions but there's not five pocketbooks. I love that saying. The other thing I think we can do in collaboration with [Austin ISD] is look at health and human services nonprofits that contribute to the improvement of our schools and our city overall, and share those costs. That's just an example.

AC: How long were you a PTA mom?

SC: About five years. I had three [kids] who went through [Lee Elementary]. First I was a member, then I was vice president of membership, and then I was president.

AC: In your opinion was that your most important community service before you became a council member?

SC: I've served on several boards – Leadership Austin, Austin [Area] Urban League, Communities in Schools, I was a co-chair of an AISD bond committee, and a member of a city of Austin Citizen Bond Committee. I do think my service on the PTA prepared me for my service on all those committees as well as City Hall, because that's where I learned the importance of bringing people together. And you know, PTA is not for the faint of heart [laughs]. You think people care a lot about their homes – they care a whole lot about their children. And it's just a place where the parents, the teachers, and the entire community comes together for the next generation. It just makes a big difference.

And not only did it feel like the whole community wrapped their arms around my kids, I got to do that for other kids, too, and it restores that sense of community that I think a lot of people are concerned that we're losing. I heard about that on the house tour – I think that's feeding a lot of the anti-growth concerns, that we're losing our sense of community.

AC: Any ideas why?

SC: It's a lot of things, people are concerned about growth, but we are a city on the rise, and if you have such a city with the creativity, the talent that we have, it's going to attract people. But we're spending too much time in our cars and busy in our own worlds. We still come together as a community, but I don't think it's on the same scale that we used to and I think we have to get back to that.

AC: How do we get that back?

SC: You need a mayor who says that community is important, that we're going to tackle the issues together, a mayor who says there are no easy solutions. I don't have all the answers, but if you come up here with me we can work together.

AC: What were some of the other things you heard from residents when you were doing your house tour? You mentioned [at your kickoff] the Westside concerns about police relations.

SC: Yes, and people on the Westside are concerned about property crime. [More broadly], special events – people are concerned we're having too many special events and they're taking over Downtown and the city. I didn't expect the number of people who had land-use concerns, and they live in apartments and those were mostly code-compliance issues. And the extent that people want their own representatives [on Council].

AC: You went with the 8-2-1 [council election system]. You weren't a 10-1 person, are you happy with it now?

SC: I don't think the city has ever been stronger as we work toward the 10-1 system. I see more enthusiasm now. I supported putting them both on the ballot simply because I thought the voters needed a choice.

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