Watch: Where candidates running for Austin City Council District 9 stand on three big issues
The Austin City Council District 9 seat is up for election, and eight candidates are running for the spot on the dais.
Greg Smith currently leads the race, according to campaign finance reports. Ben Leffler trails behind with his cash-on-hand numbers. The other six people in this race are Zohaib “Zo” Qadri, Kym Olson, Tom Wald, Joah Spearman, Zena Mitchell and Linda Guerrero.
All eight 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. Guerrero came to the forum after it began. Her answers are only featured once.
Here’s where the candidates 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.
What will you do to fill staffing vacancies and retain qualified city staff and first responders?
Mitchell: “I think we have to provide affordable housing for more income levels. So I think the housing is part of it. … We need to leverage some of the properties that the city of Austin owns.”
Qadri: “Staff asked for a pay raise to $22 an hour from the city and they fought for $22. The city gave them $20. I think leveling up the pay grade for city staff is really important. … It's about being equitable and giving them what they deserve and that they've worked so hard for.”
Smith: “We've borderline ruined the relationship between the City Council and the police department. And, you know, that really scares me as a resident. And there's got to be some real repairing done there before we start to attract those types of folks to want to work for the city again.”
Spearman: “I think that there are a number of things that we have not done as a city that would address both the wage disparities that exist and then also the openings and the fact that not enough people can afford to live in the city because there's not enough access to land to build adequate housing here.”
Olson: “Basically, I don't understand why we're paying so much money to the city, and we can't pay our employees. This makes no sense whatsoever. I would really want full transparency to figure out where this money is coming from. And a full-blown outside audit conducted just to see where our money's going and why we don't have any employees and why we can't beef up the programs that need it.”
Leffler: “We absolutely need to continue to raise the minimum wage. But unfortunately, what we know is that it's going to be really difficult to get, within our limited budgets, to $30, $35 an hour or really what a truly livable wage in Austin is. I think we can look at the city currently how it's budgeted, potentially budgeted positions and certain departments that aren't filled right now to try to find some efficiencies there. But ultimately, we have to bring down the cost of housing this city. ”
Wald: “We need to work toward pay parity, and we need to signal that to our employees. So pay parity between the public employees and private sector. And then I would say that this is different for each department. Some departments, we should really allow for more remote work options.”
Traffic deaths have been one of the throughline issues facing the city. What's the solution there?
Mitchell: “We could have a separate police force to address traffic issues, as well as maybe we could start having tiers of police forces, of the employees in the police force, that address different things.”
Qadri: “We need more crosswalks, sidewalks. We need to be more of a pedestrian-friendly city. I don't think we need more policing, like in terms of traffic enforcement. We need to make sure that our police are guardians, not warriors.”
Smith: “We want more traffic control, yet we've got less police officers than we've had in 20 years. … We cannot provide the type of safety that is needed in all aspects of public safety, when we've got numbers that are dwindling like that.”
Spearman: “I do think that the city has not tried to maximize building and accommodating developments that would foster more housing for people who are willing to live car-free, people who can embrace the walkability and even bikeability of the city. So I think that that's an area that we can focus on to reduce both traffic congestion and traffic deaths.”
Olson: “We don't have enough officers to cover what we need to, and I don't think we're going to until we actually build back an alliance with them and get a contract passed. I mean, you can't really hire people if you don't know what you're going to make next year, what benefits you have. We need better police, and now we’re getting the worst of the worst.”
Leffler: “Whether we need to take some lanes out or add protected bike lanes or other transit options, widen sidewalks. All of the built environment can help calm traffic and make it safer. Adding more crosswalks and pedestrian hybrid beacons for folks to be able to safely get across streets.”
Wald: “I think the longer-term solution really is to provide safer roads, the actual infrastructure of the roads. But enforcement absolutely does play a role.”
How should we be thinking about the issue of Project Connect going forward?
Mitchell: “I think that we do have to consider the environmental problems. Going under Lady Bird Lake does seem kind of questionable. But I think the Austin Transit Partnership, that'll be the group that looks over the money and works with us.”
Qadri: “It's one of those things that is necessary to do right by the city, because the city will only continue to grow. And if we keep putting this off, the price tag will only continue to get higher, and people will just continue to suffer.”
Smith: “We have to stay the course. I don't like that the cost is ballooning. But for now, we've got to stay the course and the opportunities to be able to build on density, on those corridors and move people around and and help the environment with less cars and safer streets. We’ve got to have the intestinal fortitude to continue to move forward."
Spearman: “This is something that Austin voters have been waiting for for years. We have a real opportunity to do something massive and we need to do it.”
Olson: “Project Connect is another smoking mirrors or cloak-and-dagger kind of project that needs full transparency. They haven't had a single mile marker of success to show. Way over budget, way behind time”
Leffler: “Project Connect represents not just generational opportunity for our transit system, but also a huge opportunity to provide workforce housing, with no car dependence that can get on a train and get downtown, which is great for the environment as well.”
Guerrero: “I think my greatest concern is the environmental possibilities and unintended consequences with Project Connect, especially the idea of digging under Lady Bird Lake. I have a huge concern about that.”
Wald: “I do trust the staff and the transit agencies working on this to shape the project and build off the parts that we can. The most expensive increase was from the South Congress section, and maybe we can delay that a little bit until we can figure out some more cost effective solutions or get a win at the state legislature to help decrease the cost.”