Council: Midterm Report Cards

The Chronicle grades new Council members

by Jana Birchum / Thinkstock

City Council worked through its final week before the July break with minimal fuss, putting to rest a few persistent issues and cleaning up the matters left over from the lengthy June 18 agenda – in a special-called meeting on Tuesday, June 23, and a plumped Thursday's Austin Energy session, June 25, they pretty much cleared the decks for a month. They approved the eventual creation of an online database for campaign finance contributions, restructured Watershed Protection's "drainage fee" (rates to be determined at budget time), and hired an independent firm (Navigant Consulting) to review Austin Energy's generation plan and natural gas plant proposal.

While it's premature to make a firm evaluation of the new Council prior to budget decisions – that's where the city rubber really meets the road – they've done enough to receive a six-month summary. It's undoubtedly a mixed report card; they've been better at some things than others, and their raw inexperience – only Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo has done this before, and it shows – is slowly being tempered by having to address truly complex problems and obstreperous constituents who can't all be pleased simultaneously. Who knew?

Ora Houston (District 1): Houston was a very popular candidate, and has deep roots in her East/Northeast district. Her strongest traits have been her insistence on neglected needs and on seeing city problems from the bottom up. She's also made a no-longer-amusing fetish of being "anti-acronym," and her questioning of staff over contract details can seem willfully naive, even obtuse.

Delia Garza (D2): Her marks may be incomplete, as maternity leave took her away from the dais for a substantial period, but when present she's been the staunchest defender of Eastside districts and residents, and the least likely to roll over for the mayor's blandishments about tax cuts or Westsiders' attempts to micromanage staff and contracts. Her argument that the homestead exemption was both premature and inequitable will get its test in August, when budget balancing gets serious.

Pio Renteria (D3): Renteria is the most soft-spoken, even deferential, CM, but he's been very good on affordable housing and on trying to find ways to leverage city code and city resources to enable innovative solutions (on "accessory dwelling units," he knows whereof he speaks – he lives in one). His eagerness to help constituents led him astray into the ill-conceived barbecue-smoke-abatement project – meatier heads prevailed; internal D3 politics may provide an obstacle going forward.

Greg Casar (D4): Casar has parlayed his young activist/organizer background into "organizing" the dais, looking for ways to bridge differences and bring benefits to his mostly working-class constituents. (His years spent negotiating Workers Defense Project initiatives with previous Councils are bearing fruit.) He's triggered living-wage initiatives and renters' assistance as a counter-balance to the homestead exemption; whether his colleagues will find these "affordable" when the numbers begin to crunch is yet to be seen.

Ann Kitchen (D5): Former legislator Kitchen has done good work on the Council reorganization (based on the Legislature model, not a precise fit) and has also been effective on transportation matters (especially the intractable transportation networking/taxicab nexus). She's also been an amusingly persistent voice on Council getting its work done during reasonable hours (including dinner breaks); if she can engage colleagues to quit dithering and postponing, she'll work miracles.

Don Zimmerman (D6): Zimmerman certainly speaks his mind: Emissary of the Tea Party far right, for a while he was the only CM willing to advocate firmly and unequivocally for his priorities (cutting taxes and shrinking government) while others were still feeling their way. He's also managed to anger most of his colleagues and many of his constituents (lately with his bitter reaction to gay marriage), with his presumptions of greater knowledge and his routine condescension to staff, whatever their expertise. But he may have turned up real inequities in the district distribution of road bond monies, and that bears closer review.

Leslie Pool (D7): Pool represents a "homeowners" West/Northwest district, socially progressive but conservative on housing matters, and has been somewhat outflanked by the mayor's and Eastside CMs' pressure for more housing units. She's stoutly pushed back against Zimmerman's rhetorical assaults on the library and social services, and her knowledge of the "Grove at Shoal Creek" development project will be indispensable going forward. She formed an impromptu alliance with Casar against contract micromanagement – meaning less dithering, more getting done.

Ellen Troxclair (D8): Troxclair's politics are akin to Zimmerman's, but her style is more subdued, and he indirectly provides rhetorical cover for her budget-and-tax-cutting priorities. She led on the failed 20% homestead exemption, imagining huge budget cuts (e.g., for staff vacancies) that didn't materialize, while speaking for Southwest constituents who feel (rightly or wrongly) overtaxed and underserved. She's complained that ongoing city business didn't simply restart from zero with the new Council, and is pledged to no tax rate hikes whatsoever.

Kathie Tovo (D9): Tovo has been somewhat flummoxed by her greenhorn colleagues' levels of inexperience, on everything from timely decisions to projected expenses. She has tried (very politely) to walk a fine line between becoming the Dais Explainer and just throwing up her hands in frustration. Like Pool, she tends to align her priorities with single-family neighborhoods while promoting "affordability" – a difficult balance when it's not an outright contradiction. She repeatedly warned her colleagues – mostly in vain – that budget-balancing only looks easy from a distance; come August, she will likely be biting her tongue from saying, "I told you so."

Sheri Gallo (D10): On the dais, Gallo is the last of the old-school Republicans, emphasizing fiscal conservatism in a non-ideological fashion, and at least rhetorically committed to full city services (if they're "affordable"). She's been dogged on fine-screening any floodplain buyouts, but has assured animal welfare advocates that she wouldn't dream of cutting those programs (she and Zimmerman both have rescue pets); we'll see if that promise is keepable. She adamantly supported the campaign-promised 20% homestead exemption.

Mayor Steve Adler: The mayor is stoutly proud of delivering on his phased-in homestead exemption, the pending challenge to commercial appraisals, and his own leadership on Council reorganization in producing a "more deliberative" style of decision-making (when it's not just decision-dodging). Some CMs praise his soft-spoken meeting style; in recent weeks, others have chafed at what can be repeated postponements and attempts to accommodate everyone while accomplishing rather little. He's pushed successfully on increasing housing supply (an extremely uphill battle), and the combination of exemption/drainage fee restructuring may in fact make small dents in Austin's "affordability crisis." Budget fights – and deeper judgments – to come.

Have there been unacknowledged costs (beyond the additional staffers added to mayor and CM offices, early on)? Last week, Austin Monitor Editor Elizabeth Pagano reviewed the meetings record ("New Council introduces era of more meetings," June 24) and summarized: "The amount of time the new Council had spent in meetings from February through June 23, 2015, increased approximately 121 percent over the previous Council during the same span in 2014 – from 152.6 hours to 337.9 hours." Every one of those meetings requires dedicated departmental staff time, support staff, videographers (mostly on contract), custodial staff, etc. Come August, we'll presumably know more about those costs, and when and how the bills come due.

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Ora Houston, Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, Greg Casar, Ann Kitchen, Don Zimmerman, Leslie Pool, Ellen Troxclair, Kathie Tovo, Sheri Gallo, Steve Adler, City Council

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