Point Austin: "Is There Anything We Can't Do?"
The mayor and City Council members consider their rookie year
January is traditionally a moment for cultural and political inventory – witness our "Top 10" issue last week – so it's useful to consider a snapshot review of Year One of the 10-1 City Council. As it happens, thanks to the Austin Monitor, over the last few weeks council members have been reflecting on their accomplishments and setting a few goals for the new year. In taking stock of their performance thus far, it seems fair to consider those self-assessments as part of the mix.
The most ambitious stock-taking belongs to Mayor Steve Adler, who issued an email press release summarizing council accomplishments for 2015, in such areas as affordability, mobility, "reform," and sustainability. The mayor somewhat mixes confirmed achievements with aspirational goals, but his is a useful checklist. Adler leads with homeless veterans – that is, the end-of-year completion of a concerted effort among the city, advocacy groups, and real estate professionals to find a home for more than 200 homeless Austin veterans. Adler credits the Austin Apartment Association and especially the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) for their work in connecting veterans with available apartments.
The mayor might also have mentioned that this project (not strictly a council effort) was initiated last year by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and it's worth adding that amid an always-shifting population, such a goal remains a moving target. But it is undoubtedly, as Adler says, a major accomplishment for the city, and "if we can make real progress on an issue that people used to think was hopeless, then is there anything we can't do?"
Some other items on the mayor's list also turn up on council members' self-assessments. A few selections, with notes:
• Homestead property tax exemption and tax cuts: Not all the council members cite these contested achievements (CMs Ellen Troxclair and Sheri Gallo say it wasn't enough); others also mention the increased exemption for elderly and disabled homeowners (begun under the previous council).
• Living wages for city employees: Council increased the base wages from $11.39 to $13.03 – still low, but important for many longtime workers.
• Affordable housing efforts: These include various projects (the Pilot Knob PUD agreement to include some 1,000 affordable units; the easing of rules on accessory dwelling units; moving forward on homestead preservation districts), as well as a still-unfulfilled push for more units generally.
• Mobility projects: This area is a little thinner: Adler cites as city accomplishments the CAMPO 2040 plan (a ritualized regional planning project) and Google's decision to test self-driving cars locally. At best, we might grade all current anti-congestion efforts as incomplete or worse – a discouraged Gallo told the Monitor: "I don't think the traffic we have will ever get better."
• Reform: Under this vague category, the mayor cites 10-1 itself (more accurately attributed to the preceding council) and he also points to Council's new committee system. His colleagues aren't so enthusiastic: Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and CMs Delia Garza, Sabino Renteria, and Greg Casar all describe the committee structure as cumbersome and redundant. "It felt like running from meeting to meeting," said Garza, and several members have said they intend to cut back committee sessions this year.
• Sustainability: Most of the CMs are justly proud that Council has extended the city's moves toward more renewable energy; the mayor cites both the acquisition of solar contracts (600 megawatts by 2019) and the more than 1,300 MW of wind energy (10% of the state's usage). There was also the city's engagement in the U.N. Climate Conference. CM Leslie Pool, who attended the conference with Adler, notes that Austin's own climate plan had laid the groundwork for that participation.
The year-end enthusiasm tends to disguise substantive policy differences. The most audible outlier is CM Don Zimmerman, who loses plenty of votes, but not before doing what he can to monkey-wrench the process. Zimmerman insisted to the Monitor, "Staff runs the city, not your City Council," and he wants Council to draft the budget, and Council to assume even more detailed review of individual contracts, normally a managerial duty. (Although Troxclair is an occasional ally, on that issue he's mostly alone.)
Other issues have also split the dais. On land use, there have been sharp divisions on development, with the mayor and Eastside CMs (Garza, Renteria, Casar), who support greater housing supply, and the free-marketeers (Troxclair, Zimmerman, Gallo), forming shifting and temporary alliances against the traditional neighborhood-defenders (Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen, Pool, and Tovo). Those lines surfaced in the debate over ADUs, and have delayed any final solution on short-term rentals, scheduled to return in 2016.
And the most recent controversy – over transportation network companies, or "ridesharing" – has been particularly vexing, with many moving parts and multiple interests (Uber and Lyft and cab companies, drivers and riders, safety vs. efficiency) all competing for Council attention and favor. In December, Council kicked the TNC can to the new year – when it's unlikely to get any easier.