There's A Runoff Election In District 6 On Austin City Council. Here’s Where Candidates Stand On Three Big Issues.
Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan failed to get more than 50% of the vote and outright win his reelection to the District 6 seat in November. He now faces challenger Mackenzie Kelly in a runoff.
The League of Women Voters hosted a forum for the candidates on Monday. We’ve chosen three of the questions on some of the biggest issues in Austin right now and provided the text of the candidates’ answers below.
Have the mayor and council members who voted to repeal the law banning the homeless from camping ventured out to see the consequences? ... If elected, what will you do to directly address these makeshift campsites?
Flannigan: I have seen the campsites not just in areas where they've been for many years, like on Ben White, but also where we see five or six or seven tents popping up even in District 6. And it is not ideal. It's not what we want to see. It's not safe. It's not healthy, not for the folks who are experiencing homelessness.
And nobody wants to have to see it. And you don't have to invent a lot of reasons why. Just basic empathy for folks who have fallen on hard times, for folks who have come into challenging situations. They need help and assistance from this community to get back into stability. And that is the system we are building.
Right before the general election, as chair of the Public Safety Committee, I convened city staff, and they ran through two hours of programs and framework that is going to get the city back to a place where homelessness is brief, rare and non-recurring.
But make no mistake, simply banning camping does not solve homelessness. All it does is move these humans, these neighbors back into the shadows where we saw increased levels of crime against these folks when they've committed no other crime. It's been especially damaging for women experiencing homelessness when they are hidden in the shadows. You can imagine the types of offenses being reported upon them.
So, it is not something anybody is happy with, certainly not myself. I've laid out on my website all of the different solutions that we need to expand as we build out this framework, which includes shelter, permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, substance abuse, inpatient mental health and the rest.
Kelly: I am the only candidate who has organized a volunteer cleanup of an abandoned homeless camp in this race currently. I have seen firsthand and spoken to countless numbers of homeless individuals or people experiencing homelessness that are living under the overpasses in our district and across the city.
I can say that we need safe and compassionate solutions, and we need to attack and address the systemic needs of the homeless so that we can lift them up out of their situation. By repealing the camping ban, we are not going to re-criminalize homelessness. We need to give them a specific location to go to where they can have their needs addressed and we can work to lift them up out of that situation.
I also want to add that I met with Alan Graham from the Community First Village, and they are working to end chronic homelessness and they are doing a gosh darn good job of it. And what I really like about their program is that they give a sense of community to people who've lost their sense of community, and they give them a place in society where they're able to thrive. And that's really what we need in order to fix the situation. We don't need knee-jerk reactions not based on data-driven solutions. We need to make sure that these people are set up for future success in our city.
Flannigan: Repealing the ban is criminalizing homelessness. Make no mistake, that is exactly what it is. And until you're able to identify exactly where you want people to go, which does not exist in this community at the scale at this time, that is essentially the challenge.
Until you can say where in District 6 you want to see camping occur, you cannot simply re-criminalize it and think that it's going to make the problem go away. It won't. And I have also spoken to Alan Graham, since we’re going to bring up Alan Graham, and he supported the repeal of the camping ban because he knows that criminalization as it relates to the camping ban is what inhibits folks experiencing homelessness from accessing many of the services that come with addressing homelessness.
You cannot criminalize it because not only does it not solve the problem, not only does it waste police and public safety resources on folks who are otherwise not offending, it also creates barriers to those folks from accessing the services that are being funded.
Since CodeNEXT was scrapped after years of work and we still don’t have a land development code rewrite, if elected what are your plans related to this project?
Flannigan: The original CodeNEXT of course was started before I was a council member, and I worked very hard to try and improve that process heading into 2018 when I actually wrote the resolution to cancel CodeNEXT because it did not meet the test that we needed that balanced density and quality of life and infrastructure. That is what a land development code is supposed to do.
Now, of course, we are waiting for the courts to decide the definition of what a comprehensive rewrite is, and when the courts make that decision, we’ll be able to move forward. … In order to have a conversation about this, you cannot just talk in high level phrases about corridors and solutions. You actually have to put pen to paper and put it on the map. And that is always where the challenge comes.
It’s very easy to say, "Oh, you should put density on a corridor," because the people that you're talking to don't think you mean the corridor that they live on. But in fact, it is kind of a citywide challenge. And in fact, when you talk about transportation infrastructure and people getting around, that's precisely what Prop A was for. And while it was a big investment, it was something I was proud to support.
Kelly: I do think that the land development code needs to be changed, but it needs to be changed in a way that promotes quality of life. A lot of times single-family home ownership is the biggest investment that a family can make. And so their property rights need to be protected.
I'm all about making sure that we have high-density housing in the right places, especially along corridors. But there needs to be improvements to parking, and there needs to be ways for people to get around before it becomes too congested. I did not agree with the current iteration of the land development code because it didn't protect property owners’ rights, and that is something that really needs to be taken into consideration. I also think that the people who own property, because they are paying taxes, should be considered.
Please explain how you think the 2021 Austin Police Department budget varies from the 2020 budget and whether these changes are positive or negative.
Flannigan: Meaningful changes to the department so that police aren't responding to everything is exactly what we're doing. It is often in this conversation where this misinformation campaign about the word "defund" is thrown around when it's in no means what the council did and no council members talk about it in those terms.
We are precisely trying to get our police officers into a place where they are responding specifically to the tasks and jobs for which they are specially trained and best suited. The other jobs where we send officers now, because we send our officers to all manner of social problems to all manner of social service issues — that is not the appropriate service.
In fact, as we're learning through this data-driven process that I'm leading as the chair of the Public Safety Committee, we're learning that you can actually do it at a cheaper cost and get more resources for public safety by taking the busy work away from the officers, by taking officers off the jobs that don't have to be officers, and building out these systems.
The same applies to moving 911 into an unsworn department, which was part of my proposal. I could go on for 20 minutes talking about how exciting this proposal is, because ultimately we're talking about the largest bureaucracy at the city whose budget has doubled in the last 10 years, while the population has grown by just 30%. There has to be a better way.
Kelly: I am the only candidate here who actually successfully completed the Austin Police Department's … Citizen's Police Academy, and I actually have a very deep understanding of what each department there does, why it's necessary and what's required of each department, depending on the response.
I also was recently endorsed by the Austin Police Association and the Austin Police Retired Officers Association. In part due to that understanding, I would characterize reimagining public safety in the way that our current council progressed in doing that as the defunding of the police department.
While I agree that we need meaningful reforms and that 911 should not be a catch-all for every single thing that happens, we cannot do that at the expense of public safety. So, by cutting different departments and moving them and by not allowing the academies to continue and also by our police department numbers going down — it’s 2020, and our officer staffing is where it was in 2015 with a city that's rapidly growing. We cannot do these things without data-driven and fact-based solutions.
We need to refund the police department and ensure that we have the proper amount of staffing for our communities so that our community is not experiencing longer wait times for services or response times, and also ensure that we make meaningful changes to the department so that the police aren't responding to everything.
This post has been updated.