Point Austin: Adler’s 2017 Austin Checklist
As 2018 dawns, the mayor compiles a list of accomplishments
As he did last year, Mayor Steve Adler recently issued his list of "accomplishments," running the gamut from "Defending Austin" (e.g., on matters of climate change and immigration) to "Reform & Progress" (ranging from under-the-wire appointment of a new city manager to "had a cameo in a rap video"). This year's list is released under much different circumstances, most notably the beginning of the mayor's campaign for re-election (formal announcement to come Jan. 14 at the sentimental venue of Saengerrunde Hall).
But there were also very different expectations for the national context at the turn of 2017, prominently the early anticipation that, with the comical disarray of the Republican primary campaign, Hillary Clinton would be the next president. If that had in fact occurred, there was local speculation that Adler would be tapped for some role in a new Clinton administration, and we would have been planning a special election for Austin mayor sometime last spring.
As the poet says, "The best laid schemes of mice and men ...." The abruptly changing national context has certainly had its effect on local initiatives, and Adler's list reflects the ensuing storms. Austin has joined cities around the world in the fight against man-made climate change, and become by default a "sanctuary city" – a polemical term more useful to our federal and state antagonists, who have made political pawns of undocumented immigrants (over the decades, how many of our relatives have been such?), when the truth is, we haven't been sanctuary enough. Several items on the mayor's "Defending Austin" list cite immigration matters as accomplishments, and good for him and the City Council – although it's fair to say that these have thus far been largely rhetorical victories: opposing federal and state crackdowns, lobbying for DACA and immigration reform, funding legal defense of immigrants .... None of it nearly enough.
The mayor doesn't yet have an official opponent for November, although at least a couple of things on the list reflect high-profile matters that would likely become campaign issues: CodeNEXT and the "Downtown Puzzle." On the former, Adler cites "continues to advocate for community consensus on CodeNEXT process" without yet endorsing the ongoing product; the Puzzle gets a couple of citations (with no mention of its central component, an expanded Convention Center), as an original, non-taxpayer source of funding to address homelessness, and then again for its wider ambition to support music and cultural venues. Opponents on both issues are currently maneuvering to make those two items central to any mayoral campaign – as yet, they do not have a champion, against an obviously popular mayor and a decidedly mixed public opinion over these signature questions.
Implicit in the overall list is a persistent Austin contradiction: We never stop bragging about what a wonderful home we have, while simultaneously telling outsiders to stay away and complaining loudly that our public officials are making a mess of everything. Nonetheless, despite many 2018 challenges, at this moment Adler's re-election prospects appear formidable; he's personally very popular and none of the city's nagging problems have yet undermined our general prosperity ("Lowest unemployment rate since 2000"). And it certainly doesn't hurt Adler that, unlike fellow Council incumbents campaigning again, he'll once more boast an unmatchable personal war chest.
Nothing but Good Times Ahead
Over the long term, the achievements that will matter most importantly for the city – and beyond the mayor, credit goes to council members and citizen advocacy – are the mobility infrastructure (from sidewalks to highways) and the steady increase in renewable energy. A distressing amount of money still goes to Westside sprawl instead of inner-urban mass transit (blame the voters as well as the officials), but on the latter Austin can be justly proud not only of steadily moving toward more clean energy locally, but of spurring the national market to shift away from fossil fuels to increasingly affordable renewables. If the U.S. and the world are to be saved from our own environmental recklessness, it appears that cities must lead the way.
Closer to home, mayor and Council face the immediate challenge of resolving the impasse over the Austin Police Association contract – we are in serious danger of throwing away 20 years of progress toward the good in search of the perfect, and it remains unclear how to square that circle. Next month, new City Manager Spencer Cronk (and his interim predecessor and CFO Elaine Hart) will soon have to begin trying to squeeze those still-expanding public safety costs into an overall budget expected to be at least as tight as last year's, when rising structural costs left little for Council to fight over in August and September. Align that with the continuing school funding crisis, and we'll have plenty to worry about in 2018.
"We're still Austin, Texas," insists the mayor, "and we're getting better at it all the time." Or as Oat Willie says, "Onward, through the fog."
Mayor Adler’s full “Year in Review” is available at www.mayoradler.com.