At its May meeting, HPNA hosted a discussion between District 9 council candidates Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley. Erin McGann, a more recently announced candidate for District 9, and any other candidate who emerges will be invited to a similar HPNA forum at a later date to be determined. Official filing for candidates does not start until July 21.
The discussion consisted of opening remarks, questions crafted by the HPNA Steering Committee and submitted to the candidates beforehand, questions from the audience, and closing remarks.
Candidates’ answers are excerpted below. The questions are italicized. Because of space considerations, I elected to concentrate on the questions crafted by the Steering Committee. Those interested in hearing the entire discussion can contact me for the audio file (email@example.com)
Please share your thoughts regarding the role of the city manager in the new 10-1 form of city governance. Does a strong city manager enhance or limit single district council members in providing constituent services? How could the relationship between the city manager and council members be improved?
Councilmember Chris Riley: One of my frustrations is that the City Council in its current at-large system has not really done that well in regard to city services. When I was growing up, Jake Pickle was always a mentor. One thing that he was known for was his great constituent services. This council has had a harder time doing that. I’m hopeful with this new 10-1 system that there will be a councilmember to go to, someone whom you know. This council member needs to be responsive, needs to go to the city manager, and needs to know that he is going to get a good response.
I think that the city manager needs to be proactive about providing information to the council. We’ve had some issues with that over the way things have been working. The manager needs to be responsive when the council acts; we need to get a good and timely response.
The last thing I’ll say is that the manager needs to be open to change, especially at this time as we enter a new system. Our citizens have clearly indicated that they want a change in the way our city government is handled. Our manager frankly has not been that open to change in the past. Staff don’t feel free to speak up. We need to get better about embracing change, both within city staff and in regard to changes requested by council members.
Council Member Kathie Tovo: A lot of our job really is constituent services. One of the things my staff spends a lot of time doing is responding to various queries that come in. It is really important to have a city manager whose staff understands that they need to work with us a little more directly.
The question asks about a strong city manager form of government and some people have asked about whether it would be appropriate to consider at this point a strong mayor form of government. I really support the balance as it currently exists; but there is at times a tension between the city manager and the administrative functions of the city and the council and its policies. Our city manager has several times said he has not worked in a city where the council brought forth so many initiatives and that just shocked me. Part of how we respond to our constituents’ needs is by introducing initiatives or responding with new programs or other kinds of resources that we feel are appropriate. He indicated to me that in the previous cities those kinds of things really came through the staff or it came through more of a committee function.
I feel that our elected officials need to be accountable to the people. They need to be able to respond to the needs that they see in the community. [She discussed two examples: cemetery cleanup and a safer housing initiative.] In the new system, I think the current balance we have works but we have to elect council members who are going to stand up and say, My constituents want this to be a public discussion and we are going to put it on the agenda.
A recent neighborhood poll revealed that two issues that concern Hyde Park residents the most are neighborhood preservation and development. Other central Austin neighborhoods have also indicated that these issues are a concern in District 9. Older, affordable single-family homes continue to be lost as developers replace them with poorly formed new houses, super duplexes, and other structures that are out of character in our neighborhoods. What have you done during your career as a council member to preserve the character of central Austin neighborhoods? What do you plan to do if elected as the District 9 representative?
Kathie Tovo: I got involved in local issues through my neighborhood association (Bouldin Creek). We had tremendous development pressures. There was a lot of discussion within the neighborhood about how we could preserve the character of that ‘hood. Long before I was on council, neighborhood preservation was a focus of mine. I was involved as a citizen down at city hall advocating for the McMansion ordinance, and a lot of other zoning and land use issues, and also as a planning commissioner.
As a council member, I have stood with neighborhoods time and time again on controversial zoning cases that I thought really threatened neighborhood preservation and character. [She discussed two examples: the rezoning of property in the Allendale-Brentwood area for Little Woodrows and an amendment to the downtown Austin plan.] Austin will grow but it is up to us to decide how it does and make sure it happens in accord with our community values.
Chris Riley: I was president of the neighborhood association downtown for five years. I was appointed to the Planning Commission; I served there for six years including two years as its chair. When it comes to neighborhood preservation, even going beyond zoning cases, I have always strived to be accessible and responsive to neighborhoods. There are so many issues about neighborhoods that go well beyond any particular zoning case. There are issues about noise that come up; there are issues about parking. [He gave examples of issues for which he sponsored resolutions: relocation of billboards, noise from refrigerator trucks, notification of a contact team whenever fee in lieu was approved instead of a sidewalk being built, and extension of the life of demolition permits.]
One area that has been a particular interest of mine is dealing with parking issues and that continues to be a big problem, especially in areas that are close to a commercial corridor. I sponsored the ordinance implementing a parking benefits district program that’s now in place in places like West Campus. Now, as a result of that program, they are generating hundreds of thousands of dollars per year that they are putting toward creating a better sidewalk network.
The cost of living, and housing in particular, continues to rise in Austin. It seems that our secret is out—Austin is a great place to live—yet affordability continues to be a challenge in the face of rising demand for centrally located housing. Please share your views on housing affordability and what you would do as the district representative to address the imbalance between supply and demand, create affordable housing opportunities for low income households, and help prevent current residents from being taxed out of their homes. What is your approach to balance affordability with preservation of neighborhood character?
Chris Riley: This is a huge issue and at the top of our list. A lot of it came up in the context of the occupancy limits ordinance that we put in place. I was a co-sponsor of that item. We needed to put that in place but it really wasn’t going to address the underlying problem. The underlying problem is that there is a huge pressure, development pressure, on the area. A lot of people want to live around here and they want to live in places that are fairly close to the university and the central city, and they are willing to live in fairly small units. We are going to see those pressures manifest in other sorts of ways.
And in order to really address the problem we have got to make meaningful progress towards the goals that are set out there in our comprehensive plan. It envisions a variety of housing options available all across the city to meet the changing needs and preferences of our ever-growing and changing population. We’ve got a lot of great single-family housing; we’ve got some medium size apartment buildings; we’ve got some high rises in West Campus and downtown, but there’s not a lot in between. Other cities have a broad spectrum of what they call the missing middle type of housing options that include things like row houses and triplexes and 4-plexes. That’s the sort of thing that we’re going to have to get better at allowing here in Austin. I’ve been sponsoring efforts to make more housing options available all across the city [He discussed micro-units as an option.]
One option I think we should be considering is easing up on some of the parking requirements. If someone is willing to live in a smaller unit and give up their car, that option ought to be available to them at least in some place like a transit corridor. [He discussed other examples of housing options that included not owning a car.)
West Campus has been kind of a laboratory for a lot of creative affordable housing options. [He discussed the fee in lieu program used in West Campus.] We’ve had a lot of success with other affordability programs elsewhere.
Kathie Tovo: On council, I’ve been very supportive of our affordable housing efforts. When the bond failed in 2012, I advocated that we find some money within our surplus of that year to provide some matching money for some of the projects that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. A few meetings ago I sponsored a resolution to look at several tracts of publicly owned land and to look at them across a variety of criteria to see which might be available for the development of family-friendly housing. One of the criteria I identified had to do with our schools. One of the ways that the city can really work with school districts to try to effect changes is to look at the areas of town where we have those under-enrolled schools, which are primarily in the central city, and try to put some family-friendly housing in there.
One of the frustrations for me was watching the council not use the tools that we had in our toolbox. [She discussed two examples: the downtown density bonus program and how developers ask for rezoning instead of using that program and the planned unit development program, which requires a community benefit, one of which is affordable housing.] We have tremendous development taking place throughout our community and it’s appropriate to ask, as people are asking, if developers are coming forward and asking to build a higher building, a bigger building, and that’s compatible and appropriate given their context, we should be asking for them to help us meet this huge gap in housing in our community.
Then I want to address the parts of the question that talked about current residents being taxed out of their homes. In the last budget cycle, we did a lot of work to try to keep that tax rate level. It wasn’t easy and it took several of us really combing through that budget identifying places for cuts. There are other things we need to keep our eye on such as utility rates. I fought back against the huge Austin Energy rate increase. We do invest as a city in incentives for businesses. At a time when lots of businesses are coming to Austin without those, I think we need to seriously reevaluate whether or not to support them and provide public resources in the form of incentives. I certainly have supported some incentives, but the last few, I haven’t, because I think we are at a point in Austin where we’re experiencing such growth—it’s such an appealing place to come—that we don’t need to provide those.