KUT and the Austin Monitor held a series of forums over the past few weeks with candidates running for Austin City Council. Not everyone can watch an hour-long forum, though, so we picked three big questions from each event and are providing text of the candidates' answers here.
Three candidates are running for the District 4 seat: Greg Casar (the incumbent), Ramesses II Setepenre and Louis Herrin III. We posed these questions to candidates in the order they appear on the ballot.
Casar: I was amongst the first number of council members to tell the chief that he should resign. The City Council, by charter doesn't have the ability to vote on that issue. But I think for our community to heal and for things to truly get better, we need change; we need new police leadership. And I believe that all of the changes that we might make, it will be hard for people to fully believe that they will be implemented under the current system that it is that we have.
When I sponsored the criminal justice reform change to stop having so many arrests and fines for low-level marijuana possession, there was resistance to that. When we said we don't want protesters getting hurt, we have protesters needlessly get hurt. And then an assistant chief got to resign with benefits after they were accused of horrible things. And so we need that change for us to really get to public safety and trust in the community.
Setepenre: Absolutely. I believe in demoting the police chief via the firing of the city manager, because what we've seen in these peaceful protests — firing at unarmed, peaceful protesters as well as firing at medics — is otherwise a war crime. So I don't understand how you can justify these actions by any stretch of the imagination as a political figure or as police chief. So we need new leadership.
Herrin: I would not vote to replace our current police chief. He grew up in the department. He knows the city. And we need a strong police cheif. Just look at just a few years ago when we had the bombings going on. Everybody was for him. Now we have some issues that we need to work out. We need to upgrade our department to make sure everything is right.
But no, I will not vote to fire him. And anybody who says they do — the other two candidates who are running — they're only doing it for politics. They are not looking at the whole picture. And they want to defund the police. I support the police.
Casar: Nobody should lose their home because of the pandemic. So many people have lost their jobs or even lost a loved one. I'm in touch with people all the time that are suffering in so many ways right now. The city is pulling it out of our rainy day fund. Seventy million dollars across city programs to make sure that people in need get the help that they need. And it's still not enough.
We have to push the U.S. Senate to vote to send more relief. We have to pull even more money out of our budget while we wait on the federal government. The governor is actually sitting on $5 billion in COVID relief funds that he has refused to allocate out to communities in need.
So we have to keep advocating and pushing because people, especially in District 4, are suffering more from the virus or have a way higher infectivity rate than, for example, the western parts of town. And there's more people that are having trouble making ends meet. So we have to keep pushing to get through this hard time.
Setepenre: I believe that city government should really listen to medical as well as economic experts. And we really need to formulate a plan where the cure is not worse than the disease. So we really need a small business resuscitation. We need medical access. We need hazard pay for those who, like me, have worked throughout this pandemic nonstop.
We really need to amp up the city government, as well as state government, as well as the federal government, listening to experts, not just opinions of politicians who have no scope of knowledge, infectious disease experience or economic experience. We're really need to form a plan here.
Herrin: The city should do as much as much as possible. As a city we cannot — we need to make life easy for as many people as possible. We need to. ... I'm an engineer. I look at everybody should do what they need to do. The city should set limits. We need to open up small business. We need to be very liberal. Help them with their phone bills. Their light bills. Their utility bills. Help them out as much as we can.
Casar: In a city as prosperous as Austin, no one should have to live on the streets. Period. And I believe we can end homelessness in our community and not violate people's basic human and civil rights. The criminalization of just being poor and having nowhere to go. It just wasn't right. We know that in our hearts.
And so the important thing was to change our priorities from thinking that jail is a home and actually investing in the permanent supportive housing and the services that we badly need and that we haven't invested enough in in generations. We know this works because, in fact, modern day homelessness, as we know it really became a thing in the '80s when the social safety net and those housing programs were shredded at the state and federal levels.
And so it's not a new idea to end homelessness. We can actually address this issue without violating anybody's human or civil rights.
Setepenre: Well, I believe that I'm the only candidate with experience being homeless, so I have more right and experience to speak on the subject rather than playing armchair anthropologist. Homelessness is a complex issue with many different facets from mental health issues to drug usage or lack of family support or social capital to lack of education, living-wage jobs or opportunities to climb up the socioeconomic ladder, etc. etc. So the road to homelessness has many ramps to it, but little ramps to exit it.
And so we need to foster and change our way of policing homelessness. Yes, having people camp out is not going to solve the problem, but neither is criminalizing homelessness. How about instead of putting people in jail for their low socioeconomic status, how about we build micro apartments and give them proper accommodations and education and social capital so that they can get out of poverty, out of homelessness? Otherwise, we're not solving anything.
Herrin: I am for the camping ban. You know, when the City Council says you can camp anywhere on the city sidewalk in front of businesses, it hurts businesses. But on homelessness, my deal is for the people who want to get off homeless, who actually want to get off, to start training programs, to work with groups like Mobile Loaves and Fishes. There's veteran groups that have set up things like the Mobile Loaves and Fishes and offered setting up job training, set up so they can find houses.
You know, there's a lot of things to do ... but I am for training people to get out of homelessness and to work that way.