Point Austin: The Day That 10-1 Began
The first day of the new Council is celebratory
Bagpipes and drums welcomed the swearing-in ceremony of the 2015 Austin City Council Tuesday evening, and the least we can do is echo the fanfare. A few former mayors were among the celebrants (recognized by the newly former Lee Leffingwell), and of course the departing Council members were all on hand as well, and recognized for their distinguished service to the city.
The evening was primarily ceremonial, with a great many words devoted to thanks and congratulations, and relatively few devoted to policy. The campaign key words returned: accountability, transparency, affordability, and so on. The most persistent theme of the evening was public efficiency – that is, new Mayor Steve Adler and the new members intend to revise the meeting and committee structure in such a way as to shorten the regular meetings and (in theory) to provide public input "earlier in the process." I wish them all the best in those efforts – perhaps they are indeed discovering magical methods not heretofore imagined by previous Councils – although there was an intermittent note of smugness that suggested that not all the new officials had quite yet abandoned campaign mode.
"See how quickly we can move through an agenda?" Adler asked the audience, to applause. I'll suspend judgment until this group catches its first Barton Hills zoning case.
District 6 Objects
The member remarks were quite brief, and mostly devoted to thanking family, friends, and campaign supporters. Most mentioned the long-awaited arrival of geographic districts – in historic terms, and in campaign terms – and several, including the new mayor, noted that the folks on the dais now inevitably look "more like Austin." District 1 CM Ora Houston noted the African-American predecessors that prefigured her current ascension, and District 2 CM Delia Garza recalled the most recent long effort that finally won single-member districts – after seven official tries and many more years of unofficial lobbying.
And there was a good deal of self-congratulatory talk about collaboration and mutual respect among the new members. They promise new proposals on Council organization to appear beginning as early as today (Thursday), and said they'd made good progress in designing new procedures that will lengthen public input while simultaneously shortening public meetings.
And despite the common air of collegiality, there were a couple of notes of dissent, most notably from District 6 CM Don Zimmerman. He objected to Council's traditional award of the largely ceremonial position of Mayor Pro Tem to the longest-tenured member – by default, Kathie Tovo. But his motion to make the selection by lot died for lack of a second. Accordingly, CMs Greg Casar and Sabino Renteria moved Tovo's election, which passed 10-1 – the first official action of Council, and the first split vote as well. Expect quite a few more.
(Parenthetically, it's worth noting that the evening's festivities were preceded during the day by an apparently continuing sideshow: defeated District 4 candidate Laura Pressley's insistence on a recount of a run-off she lost by 30 points. She lost again by 30 points, but declined to concede. See "District 4 Results Confirmed," Jan. 9, and coverage elsewhere at the Newsdesk online.)
Defying the Skeptics
It's just a bit too early to insist upon the necessary transitions from campaigning to governance, but Adler, who spoke longest, reiterated much of his "New Way Forward" stump speech, while acknowledging the work of the previous Council as well as the early collaboration of City Manager Marc Ott and the city staff. (Whether that's an early salvo in a yet-to-be-engaged argument over staff changes, remains to be seen). And he bravely contradicted some straw persons called "skeptics": "Skeptics have said that this Council can't do anything about traffic, that we can't do anything about inequality, that we can't do anything about the permitting process, or about affordability. They've said that this Council cannot come together in order to tackle our biggest challenges, and I disagree."
I'm not sure who's standing among those particular unnamed nattering nabobs of negativity, but based on the experience of the past few months, it would seem to this observer that most of the public "skeptics" of city government – most prominently among them the new mayor himself – were elected in November and December, and are now sitting on the dais.
Let us wish them all very well; they are indeed our elected representatives. "Austin has the brains and the heart and the talent to solve big problems and to seize big opportunities," declared the new mayor, and his peroration determined to turn "challenges" into "opportunities," "to manage our growth so that it doesn't manage us," and to make this city "the civic innovation capital of the world." That's perhaps not quite as catchy (or as readily marketed) as "Live Music Capital," but it is indeed a goal to be embraced. On this first day of the new City Council, it was a good moment to suspend skepticism and embrace possibility.