Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Mayoral candidates visit Oak Hill for OHAN forum

November 1, 2014  

Todd Phelps, Sheryl Cole, Steve Adler, David Orshalick, Randall Stephens, Mike Martinez, and OHAN moderator Darryl Pruett.photo by Will Atkins

by Penny Levers

The Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN) mayoral forum got off to a slightly late start last week because one of the top tier candidates was stuck in traffic. It was a fitting beginning to a debate where traffic and mobility, in addition to affordability, would prove to be the hot topics.

OHAN hosted the debate on October 22, three days into the early voting period at the Southwest Family Fellowship auditorium, the same location they had used to host the District 8 candidate forum back in September. While there was a respectable-sized audience at this last forum, it was sparser than the crowd that came out to check out the District 8 candidates for City Council.

In attendance was City Council members Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole, lawyer Steve Adler, native Austinite and musician Todd Phelps, community activist David Orshalick and Air Force veteran Randall Stephens. In addition to those six candidates, two other names, Ron Culver and Mary Catherine Krenek, will also be on the ballot, but they have not been very active in campaigning and fundraising.

The forum format consisted of opening statements, followed by eight questions selected by OHAN that the candidates were given in advance, and ending with closing statements. OHAN Vice-President Darryl Pruett served as moderator.

For the most part, all of the candidates used their allotted two-minute introductions to highlight their backgrounds and give the audience an idea of their top issues. Mike Martinez led off by recounting his start in 1992 as an Austin firefighter and subsequent turn as President of the Austin Firefighters Association before joining City Council in 2006. He said he was running for mayor because “middle class and working class families need the strongest possible voice” and Austin needs to remain a place where “a family can afford to live and raise kids.”

Steve Adler let the audience know that he was a 36-year resident of Austin and said that he would be “thoughtful, deliberative and pro-active” in dealing with challenges including mobility in the 4th most congested city, and property tax and permitting process reform. He also would like the city to get more involved with education.

Sheryl Cole said that she came to the city on scholarship, as the daughter and granddaughter of maids, and began her public service career with a focus on education as a PTA president, who got involved with the 2004 bond campaign. Like Martinez, Mayor Pro-tem Cole also became a council member in 2006. All three top tier candidates expressed enthusiasm for the new 10-1 council configuration.

Randall Stephens introduced himself as “the new kid on the block” having just arrived in 2002. The self-described blue dog democrat also managed to reference Ronald Reagan in his opening remarks and seemed to advocate selling off Austin Energy. The Avery Ranch resident also claimed to be against the rail bond, in contrast to Martinez, Cole and Adler who say they support it. David Orshalick, who also does not support the rail bond, claimed to be running because he felt “fed-up, cheated and ignored” and oddly called for a “housing boom in the suburbs” to bring down housing prices within the city. Todd Phelps used his time to claim to be the only candidate who has consistently been against the rail bond, while also stressing his native Austinite bona fides.

The first question posed to the candidates was about the supposed “agreement” between the city manager and the council that the manager stay out of policy making while the council would stay out of management. Martinez, who was thrown the ball first, said that there was no agreement, but that there was a City Charter that outlines people’s duties, and that he will “stand up and call staff out when they make bad choices.”

Stephens called for a process to measure the City Manager’s success, while Orshalick likened the council to the Board with the City Manager as CEO, and the citizens as shareholders and claimed that with modern management the city can lower taxes by 20% due to efficiency.

Like Orshalick, Phelps said that the citizens are the boss and the council should be listening to them. Adler, on the other hand, said that “there is no real line between policy and management” and that the City Manager and the council should “work together in the gray area.” Cole said that there is shared power between the two and that the manager is there to implement the policy set forth by the council.

Next, the candidates were asked to describe how they would solicit and receive non-lobbyist opinions. Stephens led off by claiming that he would not accept campaign contributions from outside of Austin or from PACs. This could be construed as somewhat disingenuous as his latest finance report filed on October 6 shows that since mid-July he has gotten exactly two donations to his campaign for a total of $203, the bulk of which was from a person with the same address and last name as him, while the other was from a person with a Leander address.

Orshalick called for a “moderated online forum and outreach” plus a “lobbyist calendar ordinance” so that every contact with lobbyists would get recorded. Phelps claimed that he doesn’t care about lobbyists and would get non-lobbyist input by “hanging out with people at the Broken Spoke.”

Steve Adler claimed that he would not take anything from lobbyists and has taken no PAC contributions or bundled contributions to his campaign. Cole and Martinez disputed the implication that PAC funding was akin to being influenced by lobbyists. Cole claimed to have only taken two PAC contributions and, casting a glance at Adler, said with a smile that she would gladly trade all her PAC money for Adler’s self funded donations (nearly $300,000). Martinez said that his PAC funding came from day laborers, electrical workers, firefighters and teachers.

The candidates were then asked for ideas to improve transportation options for Southwest Austin. No candidates disputed the severity of the traffic problems and Cole and Martinez both mentioned their own involvement with measures that were already underway to improve the situation, including funding for MoPac and the turnaround of Capital Metro, respectively. Martinez claims Capital Metro now has $100 million in reserve for future improvements.

Adler threw out a laundry list of solutions, including flex lanes, more bicycle infrastructure, moving forward with Lone Star rail, improved bus service to the area and encouraging telecommuting. The remaining three candidates, who had already expressed opposition to rail, called for more buses and improved roads.

The fourth question sought input from the candidates on what could be done to mitigate potential flooding from Williamson Creek. Mike Martinez mentioned that he had just been exchanging emails with Stephen Bega from the Oak Hill Youth Sports Association (whose fields had suffered significant damage in the October 2013 floods) on that very topic. Martinez emphasized the need to clear sediment so that the water remained in the creek beds. Adler pointed out that the city had collected fees designated for clean up and that we need to be “pro-active, not re-active” and get on board with new FEMA standards. Cole said that this needs to be addressed on a regional basis and we need to co-ordinate with Hays County and that we need warning systems in place citywide.

Next, the candidates were asked to comment on the perception that central Austin groups and environmental groups work together to impede development in Southwest Austin. Cole pointed out that she was a supporter of the Save Our Springs (SOS) redevelopment amendment, which made it easier to redevelop existing buildings in parts of town covered under SOS ordinance. Martinez said he understood how this part of town felt, but that we must respect SOS and “embrace water quality as a community” and said that with new technology it was getting easier to have better water quality. Adler said, “This is what 10-1 is all about, a gift to remake the city, hear new voices and have new priorities.” Phelps said he hadn’t studied the issue, Stephens said he was a problem solver and would be pro-active in communicating, and Orshalick, while supporting SOS, agreed that issues outside of the core of Austin have been ignored and said that the “Y” was a bad intersection when he hit town in 1979 and is still bad.

The following question was whether the candidates were in support of SH-45 SW, a hot-button topic in the southwest part of town. For the proponents of SH-45, there was not much good news, as all three of the major candidates were against the project. Martinez called it “a benefit to Hays County and a detriment to Austin.” Adler said that it “costs too much and does too little and spurs Hays County growth.” Cole cited concerns about water quality and environmental impacts—instead she called for the expansion and renovation of Brodie Lane.

The next to last question was regarding the construction of the outdoor amphitheater at Promiseland West (now LifeAustin) which neighbors felt was given the green light despite considerable neighborhood opposition and which is now a court case. Martinez said that he was very familiar with this case and pointed out “houses of worship have broad protections and that city powers are extremely limited in what they can do.” He also pointed out that since this matter has been taken to court, we have to let the court process run its course. Adler also said that since this is now at the Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi it is inappropriate to comment on it.   Cole echoed this saying that she had to be careful with her comments, but that we need to value neighborhood opinions.

The final question of the evening was on how the candidates would balance restrictions on development in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone against the need for schools in this part of town.

Adler said we need to both build schools and preserve water quality ordinances. Cole again brought up her previous chairing of the AISD Bond Campaign and has consistently been a “champion of schools in this part of town.” Martinez noted that any changes to SOS would need a super majority from council and reiterated that new technology is environmentally superior and should make meeting SOS restrictions easier to do than in the past.

Orshalek led off the closing statements pointing out that he has taken no contributions from developers or downtown interests and that he is for “the Austin way of life” and that city government should be “efficient, effective and for our benefit” and that we don’t want to become a city where “only the wealthy can afford to live here.”

Adler said that we can “choose the status quo or a new direction”, presumably referencing that his two main opponents have been part of the city government for the past eight years. He wants to “re-invent the gut structure” of city government to be more thoughtful and deliberative and in another reference to the current council he added that “nothing good happens after midnight.”

Cole followed up on Adler’s dig by saying that “lots of times we will go to 3 a.m. because we have a crowded agenda and we address what the people want us to address. We must work in a collective, collaborative manner.”

Phelps said that he doesn’t have all the answers and is not a career politician, but he grew up here and believes in common sense.

Martinez called this an “historic election” and in a dig at Adler, said that “we need a mayor with experience to make the system work.” He said he is a “champion for the middle class and 100% honest.”

Stephens closed out the night by saying that “the American Revolution continues at the ballot box.”

Early voting continues through October 31st and Election Day is Tuesday, November 4 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. As the Supreme Court’s unsigned ruling re-instated the Texas voter ID law right before early voting began, all voters must bring an approved form of identification. There is still time to get a voter ID card at local DPS offices if you need to. For all questions regarding acceptable ID and polling places, go to www.traviscountyclerk.org.


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