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 two candidates running for the seat in District 7, which represents North Central Austin: Leslie Pool (the incumbent) and Morgan Witt.
We posed these questions to candidates in the order they appear on the ballot.
Leslie Pool: What it means to me is returning our police department to their core values and their core mission, which is public safety. They should be guardians, not warriors. To that end, I was one of the three main council members who brought the proposals to reimagine and reform the police department budget.
The cuts that we made were $21.5 million with some additional funds that the city manager had also cut in his draft budget. We didn't cut $150 million, although that's a cudgel that Governor Abbott has liked to use against the city of Austin. We did shift funds into transition accounts so that when we, for example, make the forensic science lab independent, the money is there.
But that work isn't going to stop. What we did do, as everybody knows, is we took the unexpended balances and the unfilled vacancies. We didn't change anything about the numbers of the officers that are on the street.
Morgan Witt: Reimagining public safety to me as a true commitment to systemic social reform, not just within law enforcement and APD, but across all systems that, you know, help Austin function. And I want to focus on the commitment part, right?
The APD budget that passed was a really important first step. But we also need to talk about the actual implementation of some of those intentions, making sure that they're implemented in a timely and effective manner. We also have to look at where is the dedicated commitment to that.
The community has been calling for change for years. Police violence and lack of accountability and transparency are not new. And yet the police budget has almost doubled in the last four to six years with little correlation to crime, as we saw from Audrey McGlinchy's recent article. So I want to see that. And I want to see commitment to systemic, equitable change in all areas, not just within the police department.
Pool: Obviously I led on those cuts and voted for them. So, yeah, I was one of the leaders in making those changes. I did get an update from the city manager with regard to the training academy. That is one of the areas that I had specifically been pressing the urgency with the city manager on the rewriting of that curriculum. And he has gotten an update. This is a public memo. So I'm not sharing something that you wouldn't get otherwise. But it looks like there is good progress being made on the internal audit review of the academy.
And it looks like priority actions and timeline will be offered to us soon. And that includes the Office of Police Oversight and Equity Office. Looks like that update and review will be completed by January 2021.
Anyway, the point is the public may not be seeing the work that's being done, and that is as it should be. This work is difficult and it's nuanced and it's important and complex. I think the staff is doing a great job with the difficult challenges in front of them.
Witt: I do [agree with the decision to shift the APD budget]. And the reason is because it's well documented that when you invest in your community and you invest in the services that help people thrive and prosper in the community, crime goes down. People's well-being and health are improved.
To the point of Audrey McGlinchy's recent article today about spending on police and crime — there is no correlation between the two. And so at the end of the day, we really need to think about two things. One, what are we doing to support everybody in our community? And two, what works? We need to be using data to inform our decisions and make sure that we are effective in supporting the community and also keeping it safe.
Pool: It's pretty divisive and rightly so. For example, the transition areas that were discussed in CodeNEXT and in [land development code] 2.0, they were exceedingly problematic. I didn't support how staff was imposing them. They were doing it without residents' agreement and the adoption process was being done in violation of Texas statutes, despite clear evidence and rhetoric pointing this out to city legal. They were very aware.
Judge Soifer's ruling is on appeal. I did not agree with sending good money after bad to challenge that ruling. It's one of the district courts in Houston. Not for any particular reason, just because they're reassigning dockets because of COVID. But we should probably hear sometime early in 2021 on that ruling.
But there's no case law that the city legal could bring to backup their contention that a comprehensive rewrite of the land development code did not require notice or protest rights. Those are fundamentals in state law. And at the least we can do is follow the state law.
Witt: It's extremely important because if we're going to be thinking about how we make Austin a more livable and equitable city for everybody who's living here, housing is a big part of that. And we need to recognize that our land development code was not designed to be inclusive or to allow organic development of neighborhoods. It was designed to exclude, to segregate and to discriminate.
So we have to make changes to that. And in order to do that, we really need to focus on fair housing and community input. Fair housing means that our neighborhood plans need to have, in their bylaws, language around fair housing. Only one neighborhood plan right now has something about fair housing.
And as far as community input, we need to ensure that everybody in the community has input. Right now, less than half of neighborhood plans are approved by more than 1% of the neighborhoods that they represent. In fact, in one of them, only 19 people participated in voting in the plan that affected 13,000 people. So how are we being more equitable in the way that we gather community input?
Pool: Well, environmental legislation has been a hallmark of my almost six years on the council. I brought the updates to the Austin Energy Resource Generation Climate Protection Plan in 2015 and 2017, and that included the solar — the advances in solar — and making sure that we had reduced our emissions by 2050. Climate plan, the community climate plan.
I brought that in 2017. Austin's Climate Protection Plan and Green New Deal was last year. Austin's Community Resilience Plan was this year and we now have a community resilience officer in the Equity Office to work on making sure that we can bounce back from the kind of dislocations that a pandemic brings because we know that it will happen again. It's happened in the past. It'll happen again.
I commissioned a feasibility study on biomethane and the measures Texas Gas Service can take to reduce natural gas leaks — those emissions. And then in the area of trying to reduce concrete and TXDOT projects, I voted against the Oak Hill flyover, which is a 12-lane flyover. Lots of concrete going in at the Y, and there were only two of us on the council that voted against that. It was me and council member [Greg] Casar — just too much concrete.
Witt: I think environmental protection and addressing climate change is another one of those areas where we've seen some incremental changes. But we're not addressing the fundamental systemic issues that are facing us. We have to recognize that all of our transportation and housing systems are not only designed and equitable, but are based out of industrialization.
So if you look at things like the Climate Equity Plan, it's almost completely focused on electric cars. That's not reorienting the way we travel around the city. We have to make public and active transportation more accessible and more affordable. We have to invest in things like electric bikes.
But we also have to be looking at the way that we're developing. If we continue to sprawl over the Hill Country, we're going to be doing exponentially more damage to the environment than if we do thoughtful, environmentally friendly and equitable development within our city limits. So, you know, again, we have these nice attempts, but we need to be more systemic in the way that we think about environmental justice and climate change.