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 the event and are providing text of the candidates' answers here.
There are four candidates running for the seat in District 6, which represents Northwest Austin: Dee Harrison, Jennifer Mushtaler, Mackenzie Kelly and Jimmy Flannigan (the incumbent).
We posed these questions to candidates in the order they appear on the ballot.
Harrison: I definitely disagree with the proposed reductions. Instead of seeking sustainable restorative justice solutions, the council cut the budget, and it proposes to move Victim Services out of the police department, undoing an effort that we in crime Victim Services, along with crime victims, survivors, victim rights advocates, the police and the prosecutors, worked for years to put into place.
One of the proposals I read calls for cutting dollars to drunk driving enforcement. That also undermines decades of effort by the friends and families of people and children that were maimed and murdered by drunken drivers in the city of Austin, the state of Texas and all across the country. I believe it was a terrible misstep on the part of the City Council, one that's going to have long lasting repercussions that we can't even begin to conceive of now.
Mushtaler: Absolutely not. First, we need to reinstate our cadet classes. They have recruited one of the most diverse and well-accomplished groups of men and women who were willing to come and serve our community. And we have an attrition rate and a loss rate coupled with open head count that is not allowing them to cover their districts right now, not allowing them to cover their sectors.
There have been cuts to the Austin Parks police. There have been cuts to the lake police. A week ago, I had a patient present to my office who had been raped over the weekend, and I could not get response to come to my office to do an intake for this young lady. Thankfully, we were able to escalate the situation and get a counselor on the phone who was willing to meet with her. But, traffic fatalities are up, the population is growing, and this is not the way to make our community safer.
Kelly: I absolutely do not believe with our current reimagining of the police department. Currently for me, and I think for a lot of the people I've spoken to in our district, part of the role of government is to make us feel safe. Public safety should be paramount. We cannot claim fiscal responsibility at the risk of public safety. We need to support our officers and make meaningful police reform. But we cannot defund our police department without giving them the proper resources in order to do their jobs.
This might look like some sort of additional training, which would result in better decisions when faced with responses to resistance encounters. I don't think that it's a great idea to make knee-jerk reactions or to pander to what-ifs or reimagining what public safety looks like. It's going to ultimately cause our community to see a rise in criminal behavior, like we have already. I'm against defunding the police department or our current reimagining of public safety.
Flannigan: The vote that we took ultimately delayed cadet classes because the training academy is broken. There were whistleblowers that came out at the end of 2019 that led to a December 2019 resolution I co-sponsored. And we are currently letting a citizen task force review those cadet classes. By delaying those classes, we've been able to invest in permanent supportive housing, 911 call diversion, mental health support, substance abuse — a whole manner of different solutions, including the types of counselors that can respond to patients that are in crisis when there aren't police officers available.
It's precisely the type of reform and innovation we're seeking. We have not cut DWI enforcement, we have not cut Victim Services. These are areas we are exploring for ways to do it better, because ultimately the police department over the last 10 years has nearly doubled in budget. But District 6 has not seen a doubling of service. We must find a better way, and that is the type of pragmatic and fiscally responsible reform I am leading as chair of the Public Safety Committee.
Harrison: I do not support Proposition A. All the data that was gathered that went into the making of Project Connect was gathered before COVID. Right now, we're seeing a monster change in the way people work and the way they move around. Everybody's working from home. We're going to have a lot of businesspeople who say, "We can continue to do that." Some people will not be able to work from home, and those are the people we need to address. But our data is skewed. Our data at this point is wrong because of the impact of COVID-19.
I don't think it offers enough for District 6. But I also understand part of our job as council members is to take an overview and represent the whole entire city, not just our district. But no, I do not approve of Proposition A or Project Connect.
Mushtaler: It's on the ballot for the voters to decide. I definitely have concerns with Project Connect. This represents the largest tax increase that we've ever faced. I actually had opportunity to tune into the KUT Views and Brews program where you had Dr. Kara Kockelman on. And that was a really great segment that I encourage a lot of people to watch because it presented both sides.
But she did a really good job of articulating some of the concerns in bringing in this technology: $100 million per mile to tunnel underground, a five-member board appointment, no guarantee of federal funding. There's a lot to consider here. As far as District 6 is concerned, I think the incumbent failed to advocate for us. We really didn't get much out of this project at all — Four Points gets a Park & Ride.
Kelly: I don't support Project Connect in its present form. It doesn't offer much of anything to D6. In fact, we could help solve problems with transportation dead zones with different bus routes being placed throughout the district better than we can serve our people here with Project Connect. It shouldn't be financed with property taxes. It's way too expensive, and the economy is in a serious recession.
Public transit is high-risk in a pandemic. The project doesn't reflect future transportation needs or innovation. Austin should be innovative in its transportation needs. We should be a leader. Using antiquated rail lines does not make us a leader, and putting a massive property tax increase on the ballot in the middle of a pandemic recession and with an unemployment rate that exceeds 7.2% shows a lack of understanding and consideration to the residents of Austin.
Flannigan: I'm proud to support Project Connect. I worked hard representing the city and the district and the region to ensure that we had a plan that was built for the future. We have not seen a plan like this come before the Austin voters, and it provides a level of infrastructure that is a multi-generational investment for the future.
The funding mechanism is innovative. It will help solve the problem that other communities have failed, where you don't fund the future maintenance and operations. That's taken care of. And an independent board to oversee the project so we can eliminate politics from those future decisions.
It's a really fantastic program. And ultimately, we are going to get back to a place in this country where there is a vaccine, where people are going back to work. I think in the first couple of months, we all thought Zoom was the future. And now we know we've got to get back face to face with our friends and our colleagues at work. People will go back to work. We're already seeing the traffic go up. The unemployment rate is now down under 6%. Our economy is already starting to recover, but for some key industries, and this is ultimately going to help our most critical, essential workers get to and from work.
Harrison: We have several Asian-American community centers. We have one of the largest Buddhist populations in the state and its headquarters is right off Parmer Road and Burnet, I believe — I've driven by it and been there several times. We also have another one in Jollyville.
We need to have a concerted effort because the Asian-American community is growing by leaps and bounds inside the state of Texas, not just the city of Austin. We can look to our partners at the city of Houston because they've done an Asian-American community outreach for years and it's very successful. The state legislature also has an Asian-American caucus.
Mushtaler: The Asian-American community is growing here for the same reasons that all of the Austin city is growing: for the job opportunities, for the quality of life, for the education opportunities for their families. And this is a neat opportunity to incorporate diverse culture into our communities, to celebrate each other. I was very proud of our dance team and they're supporting culture, and they were able to perform at one of the Asian festivals a few years ago. So I think this is a really great opportunity, and I would like to see that grow.
Kelly: So, my daughter actually goes to school where she's the minority. The largest community of the population of her school is Asian-American. And I believe that reaching out well in school is imperative for ensuring their future success in that community. I agree it's important to meet people where they are, such as at community centers and to do outreach. But I've seen successful school programs to help engage those families in the community.
It's absolutely correct that the tech industry has brought more of an Asian-American population to District 6. But as I spoke with my daughter's best friend's family recently, they told us that they are here for a better quality of life. They want better for their kids. They want better for their family. And that's the real American dream. Everybody wants better than what they have. And we should absolutely do everything in our power to support that.
Flannigan: I have worked incredibly hard over the last four years to engage and represent the Asian community because, like you said, District 6 represents the largest Asian community in the city. I have led on initiatives at the council level expanding the Asian American Resource Center, ensuring those dollars get into bond elections, pushing through public-private partnerships to try and expand that program even further. I have a weekly live show, The Clawback Live, and I have brought on multiple Asian community artists and creatives, always paying my musicians when they perform on my show.
As a president of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, I worked closely with the Asian Chamber of Commerce through the MECA Chamber Alliance at the city to ensure Asian business owners are fully engaged in accessing the resources of the city. I'm supported by Amy Wong Mok of the Asian-American Cultural Center on Jollyville, and I have also been endorsed by the Asian Democrats of Central Texas.
And as chair of the Community Advancement Network, we are creating a language access fund to go beyond one or two languages and include as much of the Asian language diaspora as possible. No one has worked harder for the Asian community on the council than I have.