Watch: Where candidates running for Austin City Council District 5 stand on three big issues
Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen is not running for reelection this year, which means the District 5 seat is up for grabs.
Her policy adviser, Ken Craig, is running to replace her, as are state legislative staffer Ryan Alter, filmmaker Aaron Velazquez Webman, communications adviser Stephanie Bazan, retired entrepreneur Bill Welch and independent consultant and coffee shop manager Brian Anderson II.
Four of the five candidates attended a forum hosted by KUT and the Austin Monitor to share how they would address key issues in Austin if they are elected to office.
Here’s where they stand on three major issues.
The responses have been edited lightly for brevity and clarity. Candidates are listed in the order they will appear on the ballot.
Brian Anderson II could not attend the forum, but sent written responses afterward.
How do you feel about Project Connect? When was the last time you rode public transit?
Alter: “Sadly, the most recent time, I wasn't in Austin because I was somewhere where it was available. I was in Seattle, and it was great. We got on the light rail and hopped around and it was wonderful. In Austin, it would have been right before the pandemic. … But Project Connect, I think is a good big long-term vision. It's going to take a long time to implement, and the voters have clearly told us that this is the vision that they want. But it is, like I said, a long-term deal. It's not going to solve our problems overnight. It was a long time getting here, and it'll be a long time getting out. But I do think we need to really show the public and deliver at least a piece of that really on time and in a high-quality manner, maybe it's the blue line, to show everybody this is what we can achieve with your investment and get people excited to then move forward on the others.”
Welch: “It was just last week I was on public transit, but also it was in another city. Because of the transit we have here, it doesn't go where I want to go, and it's not very efficient. In fact, it's been several years since the last time I rode public transit in Austin, and it was a terrible experience. It wasn't as clean as I wanted. It was very inefficient. I voted for Project Connect, and I feel duped. I bought a bill of goods, and they are way over budget. They're offering less than they promised. … They’re just not serving the needs of the community the way I'd hoped it would.”
Craig: “It's actually been a couple of months. With having to get to different places quickly, I've been in my truck. Now, when I was working downtown, I actually did use the bus very frequently, because it's a seven-minute walk from my house to pick it up. And it drives me out four minutes from my work, so that was great. That leads to the question about Project Connect. I think Project Connect is a great framework for not only just large-scale transportation, but also to building affordable communities, mixed communities of people, where people can live, do business and enjoy cultural recreation opportunities. From that framework, we can move on to dealing with first-mile and last-mile issues, which Capital Metro did, like the Pickup service and those who might want to use e-bikes. I think it's a great overdue opportunity for us to do something affordable.”
Bazan: “I do support Project Connect, I think that everyone should have access to quality public transportation that's reliable, comprehensive and sustainable. When I was a little kid, we had to call a cab one time when our car was in the shop, because there wasn't a bus that could take us to school. So that was really expensive for my mom to have to pay for a cab to get us to school. And so I think that with Project Connect, it's important that it's implemented equitably, and completed on time and on budget, and that we meet community expectations. As far as when I got to ride the bus most recently, it was to get to the Austin FC Game. … But certainly we need more opportunities and things like that, because I don't think it's as reliable as we need it to be right now, if you're trying to get to work or something on time.”
Webman: “I think that everyone agrees that we need better transportation infrastructure in Austin. Project Connect, unfortunately, is not the right way forward. I'm biased against it for a lot of reasons. A lot of voters feel duped. A lot of people who would have supported it before like myself actually realized now that it's a complete mistake. When you see the numbers go from six to seven million to $10 million plus, and you start to see the numbers just go up and up and up and up. And then you start to see these promises of these vague things of what they should do on time or on budget. They never will be on time. They never will be on budget. Property taxes are going up because of it. And frankly, we've seen these kinds of promises done all over the country. They fail almost every time. I mean, every time I can probably say. And with regard to the last time I've been on public transit in Austin … I don't think I've ever ridden on public transit because we have such bad infrastructure here.”
Anderson: "I ride transit almost every day (the Rapid 803, to be specific) and I have not owned a car for 12 years. My sister lives in Austin as well, so I occasionally borrow her car when transit isn't feasible/reasonable for the day's needs. And that's why I'm thrilled about Project Connect! A good transit system serves and buttresses regular working-class folks and families, which is critical more than ever in Austin, as rent and the costs of owning and maintaining a car have skyrocketed. For the $10 billion we’re about to spend on Project Connect, it has never been more critical for our city council to have a member that has lived in and studied transit (I have a minor in Architecture and my undergraduate policy thesis was correlating density and quality of life) – and currently uses transit every day."
What is your opinion on the I-35 Capital Express accrual expansion plans?
Alter: “I think if we're going to invest billions of dollars into 35, the end product just has to be something that makes us better than we are today. I think what that means for us is, we can't spend billions of dollars on Project Connect and then spend billions of dollars just to expand I-35 in a manner that works against that investment in Project Connect. We need them to work hand in hand, and for it to actually support multimodal transportation. And so have whatever we build along 35 allow for our multimodal options to lower emissions for our region. Our climate is too important and the need is too great for us to just continue to keep doing the things we've been doing and polluting into our region. And lastly, I think we have to end the over a century of racism that this road has cemented in our community.”
Welch: “It's the only plan I know of that makes any sense right now. One of my great concerns about it is the pain that it's going to cause when they do it. The end result — will it be as efficient as they say it will be? I'm not sure. But I do like what they did in Dallas, with the Dallas freeway that goes through and they have the parklands that connect the East and West. … But I am really concerned and would like to hear what are the plans for dealing with the volume of traffic that's going to be backed up as they're doing construction. If there's a better alternative, I want to hear it, but there isn't as far as I know, so I'm supportive to that extent.”
Craig: “I do believe frankly, that it's worth another look to see what we're going to do in the middle of town. There is only a limit to the number of lanes you can add. Physics, geography will constrain us. My main concern about the project is what it means for South Austin. ... The way those intersections are constructed, we have choke points there, and it really constricts the east-west connectivity, as well as it's not conducive to any kind of alternative modes.”
Bazan: “I believe that we should review alternatives to the plan to add more lanes. There's just so much data to show that more lanes does not equal better. I think that it's a really big problem for us trying to reach our climate goals. It also will affect small businesses and other people who are along 35. If we're adding more lanes, though, I would tend to be for no wider, no higher. I think that we need to try to heal the scar of 35 as much as we can, and then look to connectivity, as has been mentioned before, that east to west connectivity, and then what it's going to do for South Austin. We really need to think about how these changes will affect Austinites, because I think sometimes in the conversation with 35, we're looking at it as just a pass-through, and really, as local leaders, we should be looking at how our community is going to access and get around.”
Webman: “It's just like Project Connect. These plans, when they're a little bit more vague, they're hard to track, they're hard to figure out exactly what kind of second, third-order consequences will come from it. We have to be really, really, really, really careful before we implement any of these big projects. Not sure how powerful the city can be in deterring the I-35 expansion, but to the extent that it's possible, and it's the right thing to do, I think that it's worth fighting against. That said, I really, really, really need to learn more. ... I really want to learn more before I make a declarative decision or definitive decision on this specific issue.”
Anderson: "The challenges we’re facing in the I-35 expansion mirror that of Project Connect – policymakers and urban planners at TX-DOT have not lived in cities where they regularly use transit, which limits vision and execution. I am against expanding I-35 because there is a better way to manage our traffic and access to our urban center. Stretching from Canada to the Panama Canal, I-35 is one of the largest freight highways in the Western Hemisphere. That is why the organization Rethink I-35 and I are aligned in our vision to see I-35 rerouted through either 130 or 183, sending all the through-traffic West of our thriving urban center. I would go further to press for not just a boulevard to take I-35’s place but to send it underground with an above-ground park (like in Dallas and elsewhere) from MLK past Lady Bird Lake and Riverside Dr."
How would you address the challenges the Austin Police Department is facing with regards to recruitment?
Alter: “It's really troubling the number of vacancies that we have at APD. It's not serving our citizens to have those number of vacancies, and I think it comes from a couple of things. Part of it is the relationship or really lack thereof right now between council and APD. I think it also comes from just what we're asking of police officers right now. We're asking them to be social workers and mental health professionals and do a lot of things that they not only are not necessarily trained to do, but it's not within their bailiwick. So what I think we should do is take the pressure off of APD a little bit and really think holistically about our public safety and have the right response professional be utilized, especially for responses to mental health crises and things like that, and make it a more enjoyable place to work.”
Welch: “I believe that this situation that we're in is a self-inflicted wound committed by our current City Council and the bad policies that have been enacted to defund and to turn against our police officers. We need to be supportive of them, and we have to recognize it's a profession. They need to be trained and be held to a professional standard, but we don't need to go overboard with this. The most recent proposal to create a police monitoring group that has no experience and no relationship whatsoever to policing is insane. Who wants to be overseen by somebody who knows nothing about your business? We need to be smarter about how we deal with the police and be more supportive of the important role that they play. And certainly hold them accountable to be the professionals that we expect in our community, but I think they are for the most part.”
Craig: “When you're competing with basically a nationwide shortage of cadets, you really have to be creative and broadening the scope of the recruiting base. That’s really key. I saw that back in 2013, when I went to the Citizens Police Academy. We started meeting, started running them. We need to broaden it. Now, we also need to make sure that people understand the curriculum. The folks who are going through now are much happier with the curriculum than the folks who are coming and kind of frankly dropping out because of the way that it was forcing them to have the mindset, and it's much more community-oriented. Now we need to continue to improve that. We also need to continue to take some of the pressure off. One of the things I'm most pleased with is having done work in shepherding the Austin Cares Program, which does bring mental health responses rather than a law enforcement response to people who are not posing a public safety threat and having a mental health crisis. Also, making sure that we can do something about residency bonuses to make people feel more that they're part of the community.”
Bazan: “I think that we can have a great police force that is supported and also have communities that really feel safe. I think that it is important that we do support our current officers and make sure that we're supplying some of the other services around mental health and some of these other areas that they're being pulled to help with so that they can focus on serving the public, being peace officers. I think that as far as recruiting goes, we do need to work together to fill those vacancies and make sure that we have more officers who represent the people in the city that they're serving. Part of those opportunities, we get back to housing and making sure that we have good housing opportunities for the people who serve us day to day.”
Webman: “We as a culture have become quite hostile to police, and a lot of the policies at City Hall have reflected that kind of increasing hostility that our culture has become. Of course, everyone would agree that we have to hold bad individual police accountable, including police. The problem with being hostile to the police, though, is making it unattractive and unappealing to apply to a police force when it's already so dangerous. This is not a very fun job. It's a very hard job. But we've lost the sense of respect that we should have as a society for police officers. They're lacking resources for their training facilities. There's so many other things that we can go into. But generally speaking, we have to stop being hostile as a city towards the police as the first step in trying to figure out how to recruit quality cadets or no one's going to apply.”
Anderson: "Policing is in a crisis across the country, in every major city. A lot of this is predetermined by our nation’s unique in the world gun laws (or lack thereof), lack of social security, and our criminalization of poverty. This is not just an HR or leadership issue. Police legitimacy and effectiveness is complex and multifaceted. And in complete hypocrisy, the Texas Legislature continues to bind our ability to self-govern. But we can make improvements by doing at least three things: 1) Embedding specialized social workers in response teams, which will provide a diversity of perspectives and can mitigate escalation; 2) Increase rewards, recognition, and promotion potential for officers that resolve high-stakes issues without fatal force; 3) establish an innovation committee made up of the best officers, police leadership, local activists, and management leaders to regularly assess and advise on intrinsic and evolving issues facing APD."