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Are Incumbent Council Candidates Campaigning on the Clock?

Bryan Winter/KUT
Four candidates for city office in the November elections currently have seats on the Austin City Council, but does that prominence give them an unfair advantage?

Of the seven current Austin City Council members, four are running for city office this November. Their current positions give them the name recognition, branding and political resumes an unknown challenger may not have.

But they also tow a fine line between their everyday council duties and their campaign duties.

While campaigning, officials still need to perform their regular duties.

So, last week, after a city council work session, the council members-turned-candidates appeared at a rally supporting changes to the city's clean energy policies, calling for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and new energy efficiency requirements. Though Austin Energy agreed with the policies, the utility thought they were being rushed. Still council members at the rally talked tough and pushed for lower, more affordable rates.

But some people attending the rally didn't know it was a rally. Some thought it was a campaign event for council members Mike Martinez, Chris Riley and Sheryl Cole – all of them are running for office under the new district system.

Even city employees refused, at first, to validate parking because they said the event "sure looked like and sounded like a campaign stop.”

Austin political consultant Mark Littlefield says candidates know there are two major lines they shouldn't cross. Candidates can talk freely about policy, he says, but they can’t mention the magic word: vote.

The second line they shouldn't cross has to do with who's paying for whatever event an official is attending

"Nothing on the tax-payers' property or the tax-payers' dime,” Littlefield says.

In November, Austinites will be asked to borrow $1 billion in bonds for transportation projects via Proposition 1 – $400 million would be for road improvements and $600 million would be for matching funds for the first phase of a rail system.

Last month, at a different rally, council member and mayoral candidate Mike Martinez seemed to be asking the public to vote for the proposition.

"We ask for your support for Proposition 1, and we thank you all so much for being a part of this day,” he said.

Did he cross a line as an elected official who also happens to be a candidate? How is the public supposed to know if something is a push for policy or a push for a political campaign?

Littlefield says he's not an attorney, but adds that, as far as messaging goes, public officials are a predictable lot.

“On the public perception line, I think it's just easier if the public always assumes that this is politics,” he says.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.