Former Austin City Council member Laura Morrison is challenging Mayor Steve Adler this Election Day. Both candidates talked with KUT about why they are running and where they stand on some pressing issues in Austin.
The following transcribed excerpts from the candidates' responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
First, we asked them why want to be mayor.
Adler said he wants to finish work that got started during his current term:
"We have real significant challenges in this city, and we need to act on those challenges in a big way. Our city has not historically done that well. But this 10-1 Council has done that – begun to take really big steps on mobility and affordability. These things take time to implement, and I am hopeful of having the opportunity to finish the work we started."
Morrison said she is concerned about the path the city is on:
"Folks see things getting more expensive, traffic becoming unbearable, local businesses having to close, neighbors having to move. And frankly there are a lot of people in this town that are concerned about whether the future of Austin even includes them. And I think it's time that we really changed the priority from the mayor's office to really understand that, and work on the strength of our community as we grow and the people who are here now."
Morrison said she believes there are significant differences between how she would lead the city and how Adler has done so:
"In terms of really searching out and understanding your position and being clear about your position, and being willing to disagree with people, but being clear about pulling everyone to the table to have community-driven solutions as opposed to top-down solutions, to find that common ground. So, that's one very clear difference in the way that we operate as leaders. And then another, I would say, is really focusing on – Let's get some action. Let's find some way to move forward."
Adler said he has not focused on differences between Morrison and himself during the campaign:
"I really don't know the answer to that question. I'm so focused on my race and the message that I'm trying to communicate, which basically is that our challenges are great. We need to act in big ways – and we have over the last several years. And I'm asking for the opportunity to be able to finish that work."
One piece of work left unfinished is CodeNEXT – the most recent attempt to rewrite the city's land development code.
Adler led the effort earlier this year to scrap the plan and ask the City Manager to come up with a new process. He said he was concerned about "misinformation" spread during the process, but thinks a new process won't be a tough sell to the city:
"My sense in going around the community is that as a total community, we're probably not that far away from being able to reach consensus and move forward. My sense is that most people in this city agree on where it is we want to get to and really on most of the ways to get there.
"[There are] some difficult issues we're going to have to work our way through. I don't want to pre-judge the process. We've asked the manager to come back. He's had a unique vantage point as kind of an outsider coming in and watched the last year or so of the process. But we need a process that people will trust, where people will feel like they are heard, a process that will help us get to conclusion so that we can benefit from having a new and better tool than an out-moded 30-year-old land development code."
Morrison called CodeNEXT a "fiasco." She was on the City Council when CodeNEXT was kicked off, but said the original process and priorities were abandoned in the intervening years:
"We had very clear processes and priorities that were set for that and they were abandoned. The process was supposed to be community-driven. There was supposed to be clear conversation about alternatives that we had and how to approach the very controversial issues. That didn't happen. There was supposed to be testing on the ground with the community. That didn't happen. And so the process was abandoned. The priorities were abandoned, too.
"Effectively, they were quite clear that it was a market-driven code. 'Let's change the code so that the market can build as much housing as they want.' And you know, in no city has supply ever been the answer to affordability."
Mobility and traffic consistently top the list of complaints among Austinites.
Adler said he has a strong record on mobility from his first term and has more plans if elected for a second:
"One, we need to implement the 2016 $720 million mobility bond. Over the last two years, we've planted tens of miles of sidewalks and safe routes to schools while we were doing the design and engineering work to work on the corridors that we most travel: North and South Lamar, Burnet Road, Airport, MLK, William Cannon, Slaughter – those kinds of roads.
"Now that that design work has been done, we're going to be starting to plan work on those roads over the next couple of years, and so one of the important things we need to do is implement that bond.
"Second, we need a high-capacity transit system. You'll recall that the last council gave us a failed bond in 2014. It was something that was never going to get the support of the community, and it set us back a little bit. But we've engaged in a pretty extensive community conversation over the last two years and a new version of Project Connect has emerged that is actually a regional plan for high-capacity transit.
"Now, we've begun a further 12- to-18-month conversation on that plan. Hopefully it'll be an iterative process, and it will get better and more refined. It focuses at this point on making sure that we have dedicated pathways so that high-capacity transit is not stuck in traffic with cars, but it's silent at this point as to what mode would be selected. That's something that we can deal with down the road because regardless of what mode we use – whether it be urban rail or bus rapid transit or whatever the mode is – we need dedicated pathways for it.
"And I hope that in 2020, we're working as a region where Hays County, Williamson County – all the cities in Central Texas – are all moving forward for a regional mobility plan built around high-capacity transit. I very much want to be part of trying to make sure that that happens.
"And then the last thing we need to focus on is I 35."
Morrison said her concerns about mobility and affordability go hand in hand:
"It needs to be all-hands-on-deck. Obviously, we need to be working all the way from bike lanes and our trails to making our streets work as efficiently as possible. But the big lift and the big missing link that we have in this town that needs to be hit head on is high-capacity transit.
"Obviously, we've had some failures in that regard. The real key to being successful is to have it be a community-driven, community-embraced solution.
"A few other keys that have to be addressed upfront are number one: We may well see where we end up planning to have our hubs that property values rise. So we need to make sure that we have a proactive anti-displacement program in place, because I do not want to see, and I doubt the community is going to want to see, us put a system in that then drives the people that live here out. It needs to serve the people that live here.
"Another is we need to be very careful about our local businesses, many of whom are struggling. It's important that we make sure that for those that might be along construction routes that we have a very proactive program in place to stabilize those local businesses during that construction and make sure that the construction planning minimizes disruption. And previously it's been like, 'Do you want rail or do you not want rail?' And we haven't had the broader discussion about the fact that it is a critical environmental issue for us now.
"Transportation and vehicle traffic is soon to be the second biggest contributor by the City of Austin to greenhouse gases. We need to have a discussion about the fact that it's really good for public health to get people out of their cars and to have people in more actively engaged transportation and job equity and access. I would look forward to leading a much broader conversation about what the system does for us."
Mobility is one of the concerns raised if Amazon were to choose Austin as the location for its second headquarters. Austin made the cut of 20 cities, but the final decision has not yet been made.
Morrison said she is not in favor of Amazon's HQ2 landing in Austin:
"Organically growing our community is a lot healthier than what would happen with Amazon coming here. And that is a surge of 50,000 high-paid jobs all at once, putting pressure on the job market, pressure on the housing market. There have already been some studies that show we could expect housing prices to go up pretty darn quickly. Certainly, we don't have the transportation capacity and infrastructure to handle our [current] population, much 50,000 new people and all that would come with that."
Adler said he would be OK with Amazon's HQ2 in Austin, as long as Amazon is willing to help Austin with some of its challenges:
"Our two most significant challenges are affordability and mobility, and [we don't want to do] anything to exacerbate those two challenges. But if Amazon wanted to enter into a conversation that would be about them and their scale and size and about them being able to help deliver to this city a solution or an answer to mobility or affordability in this city, well then that was a conversation that I would certainly engage in. Beyond that, that has not changed. We need to take a look at those challenges and be sure we don't do anything that exacerbates them."
The investigation into serial bombings earlier this year highlighted the fact that communities of color here do not feel as if they are included in the city's prosperity.
Morrison said part of the solution is to bring everyone to the table when discussing issues significant to Austin such as transportation, affordability and housing:
"When I say community, I mean the whole community and ensuring that we have equity at the center as a focus of those discussions. When I worked with ANC [Austin Neighborhoods Council] and was the president, we had lots of participation from neighborhoods that were traditionally communities of color. What becomes clear is that there are some common issues; there are some issues that are different. There are issues that are really the same but just look different in different neighborhoods or from different perspectives.
"And so making sure everyone is at the table – and that's actually not even such a great metaphor to use because we need to make sure that we're not just asking people to come to us to have a conversation. We need to be in the community, talking to people where they are – at their churches, at the PTA meetings, in the rec centers and things like that.
"Council Member Ora Houston recently came out and endorsed me. And you know, one of the things that I think she has been so successful at is going out into the community and being known by the community, as opposed to just sort of waiting. And that's the kind of thing we need to do. We need to have equity as a foundation of everything that we do."
Adler said inclusion has been a top priority of his and the 10-1 City Council:
"If we continue to lose people and communities and the diversity that exists in our city, we will lose what it is that is special about this place. That was one of the key focuses that I had coming into this office and one of the key priorities of this 10- 1 Council – almost 40 percent of the council now is coming from the East Side of town with representation - council members of color. Never before in our city had we have seen something like that.
"We've done a lot of things. I initiated the Equity Office in this city government, so now that we have a department that's focused on evaluating everything that happens with that equity lens, using a brand-new equity tool that my office was able to get the grant to be able to develop.
"But it's things like passing the Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance that makes sure that people with an arrest or a criminal record have a better shot at getting a job in our city; $15 an hour living and minimum wage for all city employees, and for companies that do work and extending it to part time and temporary workers in our city. The earned sick leave program.
"We instituted the Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities – 250 some odd specific recommendations, 60 of which have been implemented, 90 of which are in a process of being implemented.
"We've focused on leadership both in the city staff and in my office to make sure that my staff and the leadership of my staff represents the diversity that exists in our city. Working with the African-American Quality of Life Commission, Hispanic Quality of Life Commission to make sure that their recommendations are incorporated earlier into the budget process so that it actually gets reflected. That had not happened before we were in office. Race Equity Training - we've taken a thousand leaders and connectors and stakeholders in our city through programs specifically designed to increase awareness."
It looked as if Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew was headed to Austin, but a last-minute deal derailed those plans. The current investor still owns the rights to bring a team to Austin.
Morrison emphasized that any such deal is not final yet:
"The deal is structured in such a way that Precourt, the entity, won't be paying any property taxes – that's to the city, the county, the school district, ACC and the health care district. And that would amount to, as I understand it, some hundreds of millions of dollars. And folks who are living here now and paying big property tax bills and high rents that cover the property tax are really, really upset about the idea that this outsider from California – a multimillionaire – can come in and get a pass on his property taxes, when we're all struggling to do that.
"Because if that revenue is not coming in, the people that are here are going to have to make that up. So that's a number one concern that I have. I think that the issue was that there are developers lined up right now that would have proposals to put affordable housing with a multi-use development on that land, which has been identified as the number one place for affordable housing on city land. They're ready to do that.
"And so we never had a conversation about 'Do we want to do this giveaway to the millionaire to build the stadium?' Or is our higher priority to actually get some real property tax revenue generating a fair and affordable housing on that land?
Adler said the deal is done and that Major League Soccer is heading to Austin to play in a stadium at the McKalla Place site; it just might be a different team than originally planned:
"The terms that were negotiated, I think, were real good terms. There's no subsidy for the team. There's no tax exemption granted by the city. They're ground-leasing property; they're building a $220 million stadium. They're giving it to the city and then they're leasing it back. This is the best such deal that any city in the country has been able to negotiate, and frankly for the public benefit – which I think is great – of having something that will help bring a socially segregated community together. I think that's a proper use of city land.
"The city's not in the business of selling its land to private people to maximize profit. We take our land – sometimes we put a library on it; sometimes we put a performing arts center on it. We should be devoting our land to the greatest community benefit. And in this case, given its unique location and the unique opportunity, the best community benefit was to have professional Major League Soccer.
"When you look at a community like Austin, which has the second highest rating in the country for the World Cup games, this is something that I think will help bring our community together. Whether or not the soccer team pays property taxes or not is an issue that is between them and the state."