Speech: League of Women Voters

League of Women Voters Speech
It’s great to be with you tonight. It’s an exciting time at City Hall. For the first time, each of ten new council districts has their own special and community voice.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the work that all of you and the League of Women Voters did in passing our new system of government, 10-ONE. Your support of both this new system, and our independent citizens’ redistricting committee, has led us to today. Look around this room and please take a moment to give yourselves a hand.

It’s an honor to be here at the 23rd Annual State of the City Dinner as the representative of the new council, as the ONE in 10-ONE.

I will talk to the community in mid-April about the first 100 days of the new government, about where the city is and where I hope it will go, but this evening I want to talk about how your new government is starting — about our new council, our new council members, and the progress we’ve made together.

If ever there was proof that the people can change their government, we are living it now. And it is a wonderful thing.

We are just over two (2) months into this grand change, and this council has accomplished major things. First, we unanimously passed sweeping changes to how business is done at council. Sweeping changes to how resolutions and ordinances make their way through the council. We did this to make the process more thoughtful and deliberate, but also to improve the quality and frequency of citizen engagement, input and feedback.

You may have heard the words “Let’s send that to committee” over the past few weeks if you’ve been watching the council, and that’s exactly what we have been going for – proposals that aren’t fully vetted need more time for consideration and greater opportunity for public debate and discussion.

Together, your council formed 10 committees, and each council member chairs one of those committees. Each council member serves as a vice chair to one of those committees. The appointments for each committee were made in consultation with the council members. I know that each council member will embrace their city-wide responsibility, and I expect each council member to develop a city-wide constituency for their committee.

Instead of having to wait until the very end of the ordinance/resolution process for public testimony, scrambling to make sure that your voice is heard at council just before a vote is taken, you’ll now be able to participate sooner and in a more meaningful way at a committee level.

You’ll be able to have more of a hand in crafting our ordinances and resolutions if you participate on a city board and commission because all board/commission initiatives will automatically be posted on a committee agenda (and not disappear or evaporate into the universe as could happen now).

Council will now be more thoughtful, especially on items that are generated from council and sometimes have only been vetted for a few days.

These Members will not fulfill the fear of some that our new system would devolve into ward politics. With committees, their focus simply cannot be on their own district but will, as part of an additional primary responsibility, also be on a host of issues and perspectives that affect each Austinite regardless of where they might live.

We hope the community will discover that the most meaningful time to testify is when a matter is before a committee. Committees must be meaningful and substantive, even though decisions are made at the Council level.

But this only happens with as much transparency and accountability as we can possibly build in to the system, so we’re going to make sure that we use new tools to notify residents like e-mail listservs and notifications, making sure all of our committee meetings are posted online and providing detailed searchable transcripts and minutes.

Committees have reserved evenings and day times in the council chamber each month so that committee meetings can be televised live, in addition to being live-streamed over the internet and stored and archived on the city website.

Remember that any Council Member can attend any committee meeting and probably will attend all committee meetings where a subject is discussed that is of special importance to their constituency.

But committees will only work if all the Council Members and the public, too, can know what happened at the committee meeting level as if they had been present.

And to that end, the Council has additionally created an Engagement Task Force that will bring to bear best practices from across the nation for most effectively and efficiently involving the public and benefiting from the insight, perspective and wisdom from the residents of our community.

Did you see the City Council meeting where the new committee system was laid out? The third Thursday in January? Seems like a long time ago? We had 50,000 residents called the weekend before to alert them to that Thursday evening meeting. An equal number were called that evening a half-hour before and invited to stay on the line to participate with their voices or their touch tone buttons.

Five thousand Austinites stayed on the line and participated. Other folks participated by email and by Twitter. All of these voices were interspersed with those who testified in the council chambers. I’ve never seen community engagement and involvement so robust and so celebrated.

Have you been watching the Council’s bulletin board? Available for all the community to click on and watch, this new Council is communicating with each other by posted messages back and forth to each other, but posted publicly for all to see. It’s a front row seat to the direct communications between council members.

Consistent with the Open Meetings Act, your Council Members should not and will not discuss council business, directly or indirectly, in groups of six or more.

Except on the bulletin board. This bulletin board has been around in years past. But only with your new council is it actually being used.

I don’t know about you all, but during these past few years, I was having trouble sometimes staying up late enough to watch council business. Sometimes, meetings would go on to 1 am, 2 am, even 3 am. My wife, Diane, and I have three daughters, and we have always told them that nothing good happens after midnight, and that applies to council meetings, too.

So we’re going to do our best not to meet past midnight. To do that, we’re meeting more often. We’re separating zoning case days from other council business days. We’re moving executive sessions to work session days. And we’re going to make certain that our “time certain” items, the time at which the public is told certain agenda items will be reached, are actually close to the times that we post.

Tell me, did you expect your new council to accomplish so much in just the first 8 weeks?

Now, I know that talking about council meeting procedures and the like is very exciting. After all, I’m with the League of Women Voters and you care about this stuff. But before we go any further, I wanted to talk about this new council. We have nine completely new council members, and one veteran from the old council, and I just couldn’t be prouder of them all.

At the end of last year, every council member lived north of the river and south of 45th Street. Much of the City felt disengaged and uninvolved — because they were disengaged and uninvolved. That’s all changed. I’m the first mayor in Austin’s history elected while living south of the river – can you believe that? We have folks on this council that represent a wide variety of views – we have our first Latina, we have two council members elected under the age of 30.

We have seven women on this Council. (This works for me since I’ve had decades of training from a household that consisted of my wife Diane and our three daughters.) Unlike the percentages in Congress and our State-House, the Austin City Council only has two Anglo males… less than 20% of the council. From a demographic standpoint, our effort to bring new voices and new communities to the council table through 10-ONE is a rousing success.

But it’s a rousing success for more reasons than that. If I may, I’d like to say a few words about each of my fellow council members.

In District 1, Ora Houston has displayed compassion, grace, and a dislike of acronyms – and while that seems like a joke, for folks paying attention to council at home or listening on the radio, she has made sure that every person can understand the business before council. It’s not an insider’s game anymore, and Council

Member Houston has thrown open those doors and she is standing in the doorway.

Delia Garza in District 2 is helping to lead the charge on one of the most oft-discussed topics from the campaign, affordability. She’s making sure that no

Austinite is left out of the discussion, and she is working to bring together folks from all over the community to lend their collective efforts to figuring out what we can do with an Affordability Task Force, designed to bring together governments and governmental institutions from all over Central Texas to focus combined attention on how each entity, separately and collectively, impacts affordability for folks that live here.

In District 3, Pio Renteria brings a voice with decades of community experience. He is thoughtful, considerate, knowledgeable and holistic in his reasoning. He’s seen so much change happen throughout his life, and the council has benefitted greatly from both his personal and the historical perspective he shares. He has lived the unmet potential of governmental action and he now raises the clarion call to act on and not to just talk about our community’s challenges.

Greg Casar from District 4 showed tremendous skill when he led the compromise between the city and the firefighters’ association, quickly crafting a deal that would re-open negotiations while leaving a federal court consent decree intact. As the youngest member of the council, he listens perhaps better than any of us.

He’s so smart and has a great ability to examine issues and to work to craft solutions that recognize different needs and perspectives.
Over in District 5, Council Member Ann Kitchen has brought her formidable civic and legislative experience and leadership to our new council. Just last week, she finalized an agreement between multiple neighborhoods and a developer that addressed a unique situation, and she helped craft a solution to which they all agreed. A saga that had dragged out over nearly two years was finally wrapped up. Ms. Kitchen has assumed leadership of the council’s mobility committee, serves on the board of CAMPO (Capital Area Mobility Planning Organization) and soon on the board of CapMetro. She will take point on transportation congestion and future mobility planning. That’s a huge responsibility she is taking on for the rest of us.

Don Zimmerman, sent to Council by District 6, has shaken things up at City Hall. He’s questioned some long-held assumptions, and he has been unwavering in his dedication to fiscal responsibility and restraint. We all want to find solutions to our community needs. And, there needs to be a voice in the room that always asks about costs because that voice is also always present in our community. Challenging assumptions can sometimes be uncomfortable or awkward, but Council

Member Zimmerman has been steadfast in representing his district and he has helped push the council to think about city business in different ways.

District 7’s Leslie Pool has taken the lead on increasing public engagement with the city council, forming the Public Engagement Task Force I mentioned earlier that will seek to find new ways and new avenues for our council to benefit from what the general community has to offer to help make government better. She’s also been formidable on the dais in pushing for protecting the spirit and soul of Austin, including the environment. She has the most experience among us on bond panels and with some of the other infrastructure that makes government work and the rest of us benefit from what she brings to the table.

Ellen Troxclair from District 8 already has put a nine-year, long-running and contentious zoning case in her district to bed. She’s helping to lead the charge for a homestead exemption, something supported by an overwhelming number of Austinites in part because it is most fair to those who need it the most. Ms. Troxclair has shown herself to be an even-handed and inquisitive representative for her district, eager to learn and eager to get things done.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, representing District 9, has continued her steadfast dedication to preserving Austinites’ quality of life. Her persistent questioning of those testifying before council has helped guide us, and her experience has proved valuable as has her bringing historical council perspective to this new body.

I’ve enjoyed getting to know her after watching her in so many meetings, and I’m glad to have her voice on this council.

Finally, Sherri Gallo from District 10 has proven herself to be a fair, sensitive and thoughtful council member. She has not only dug her hands into policy but she is showing all the council members what it means to be stay involved throughout her district. I understand that in the first sixty days, she and her staff have attended over 30 neighborhood association and other local meetings.

I’m proud of this council. I’m proud of each and every one of the council members. And while differences have and will certainly emerge as we continue the people’s work, I know that we’ll come together to get things done.

And while we are on the topic of the council, I’d like to take some time to talk about our Council-Manager form of government. That’s the form of government we have in Austin. The City Manager is the chief executive office in charge of management and the Council’s job is to lead on policy. These are separate functions.

For a year on the campaign trail, I talked about respecting this form of government and constructively building a more functional, responsive and productive relationship between the council and our City Manager in order to make that form of government work well.

I hope you can imagine my surprise when folks started talking about fears of a slow shift in our form of government to what is commonly called a “Strong Mayor” system.

To be clear, I am enjoying working alongside our City Manager to common end and purpose. The success of our city and the progress we’ll make on tackling the big issues is tied to the strength of the relationship between our council and our manager. There is not a black line between what is management and what is policy and our city will only navigate well the grey areas in between if we are working together. And we are.

We’ve already had a big change. My top goal as your first mayor under this changed Ten-ONE system is to make this system work.

Since we are in the throes of adjusting to our new system, there’s rightfully been a lot of attention paid to how the council works, and we’re feeling out what my role is as Mayor in all of this. Because it’s different than it was for previous mayors. I’m the only one elected at-large now. At the same time, each member of the council, including the Mayor, has only one vote. So what does that mean?

The Mayor’s office has two considerable powers: the power to convene and the power of the bully pulpit. I want to lend and share those two powers with my colleagues on the council so that, working together, we can achieve the big solutions to big challenges. We’re working through what that means in terms of staff and office inter-relationships. I have no doubt but that we’ll get to a good place. Because we each bring different perspectives, different skills, and different tools that come from different offices, we’ll each be more successful — our city will be more successful — if we work together and make “combinations” and “wholes” that are greater than the sum or our parts. I need staff to share those powers with my colleagues.

Together, we’re building a team. As part of our council’s journey together, my office staff with city staff, has helped put together a number of policy forum workshops that showcase different voices on different issues. We’ve had a dozen or so. The schedule of these forum include the Comprehensive Plan, Housing,

Educational support, water, transportation and mobility, watershed protection, parks and recreation, and resource recovery, quality of life and many more.

It was my goal for us as council members to get to know each other, to spend time with one another, to form relationships, even friendships. We’re not expecting to become experts in each of these different areas. But at least we’re developing a common vocabulary, a common understanding of issues facing our city, and we will seek to find common cause. While we may differ in approaches to some of Austin’s biggest problems, we all understand the task we are facing.

We must not forget that task. We’ve all been through the fire of the campaign, and we’re moving past that now. But the intensity and furnace of the campaign can’t be forgotten. We must all strive to remember the voices that have been calling for change, and we must all remember why those voices have been crying out.

With the system changing, so too must our preconceived notions of what public engagement looks and sounds like. The world is changing, and we must change with it. To make things change, things must change.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have seen this council refer to a committee the proposal I made to increase mayor and council staff and resources. That, too, speaks well for this council. That’s what committees are for. Since there is a concern about balance of power, we need that conversation.

Please know that I’m not focused on power for me. I’m focused on effectiveness for us and on finding ways for a mayor to best share the visibility and power of that office. I hope our fears don’t stifle our ability to be agents of needed and significant change. And I further believe that acting together, we’ll find the best way to move forward.

But know that I’m not going to stop pushing for tools to affect change. That’s what I was elected to do. My role as Mayor is one of facilitation, and I truly believe, and have now seen first-hand, that we need to allocate more resources to the formulation and implementation of long-term policy goals from the Mayor and Council level. We need more staff.

The volume coming to council offices is hard to describe. We could devote the entire staff to constituent work. And it’s work that really helps people. We could do nothing but that. But we can’t. On any given Monday, numerous projects hit our desks and while they’ve been bubbling through the system for sometimes a year or more, it was that particular Monday when it, and other matters, just happened to come to us. We could devote our entire staff to understanding and negotiating the policy issues that accompany those matters. But we can’t, in part because my staff and I are setting appointments with, as of now, 100’s of people who want and deserve a meeting. There’s not enough time for all those meetings.

No wonder your council has been reactive in the past. There’s no bandwidth to get out in front, to do meaningful long term policy work that will fundamentally improve the direction of the city. But it’s much, much more than policy work. It’s the time consuming work of convening stakeholders and finding consensus and building collaborations. It’s mobilizing political and economic constituencies and community will. It’s the art of making big things happen.

There’s no set path to follow. And this can’t be done by part time dedication or dedicated part time volunteers. It will require facilitators that take direction from your leaders and then wake up and go to sleep, every day, thinking about their specific charge. Graded only on whether they got things done. We need real progress.

Does what you want your government to do require change?

And there’s that word again. But it’s really the question. Do you really want change? If you do, then some things need to change. We can’t keep doing things the same way and expect different outcomes.

In the coming weeks and months, together with other council members, I hope to be announcing some big initiatives.

1) As you might know, the city just released a draft version of the Zucker Report, a document ordered to help us diagnose and repair problems with the city’s permitting department. The author says the level of stakeholder dissatisfaction with Austin permitting was the worst he’d seen in the country.

We must fix this system. I will personally help lead this effort and want to join with my fellow council members.

An unpredictable permitting and approval process artificially directs the portfolio of projects that gets built… It makes building take too long and cost too much. Permitting impacts us all. We need small businesses to be able to build locations and homeowners able to add a bathroom when they need one.

And this leads us to the re-write of our land development code. There is perhaps no greater immediate challenge in our city. We need to forge the community land development agreements that we’ll follow for the next ten to twenty years. We need the process to realign, including strengthening the community code advisory group, so as to have the broad community participation that will enable the ultimate community buy-in necessary for a new city-wide code.

2) Tackling our housing shortage and our housing crisis is paramount to keeping our city affordable. We need a major initiative on housing that sets us on a path to bridge the gap between those needing housing that’s affordable and the stock of available housing that’s affordable. And we can’t be looking just, or even primarily, to bonds.

How does this community land bank affordable properties? Why haven’t we been able to take advantage of the law passed ten years ago that authorizes us to create homestead preservation districts? We have a nature conservancy, why not an urban conservancy?

3) We can’t forget and fail to act on transportation and transit. With the failure of the urban rail proposition last November, we must now pick up the pieces and move forward. We need more buy-in from different parts of the community. Traffic is everyone’s problem, and any solution must help the vast majority of people in our city. And we need to look at short and intermediate initiatives as well. The only thing standing between us and less congestion that comes from greater adoption of staggered or flex work hours is political will and organization.

4) We’re going to be announcing a package of ethics reform aimed at making City Hall more transparent. We’re going to reform campaign finance and lobbyist rules and registration, because the efforts to make our government as transparent as possible must never slow down or cease.

5) Education needs to be the concern of city elected officials and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves. We need pre-K for not only four year olds but three year olds as well. Other cities get involved: Seattle, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Dallas. We should, too. Education support needs direct attention. There is available state and federal money we’re not pulling down.

6) We make Austin more affordable for everyone not just by making things cost less. We need to help put people in the position where they can pay more. We need more middle class jobs and middle class job training for folks that live here. We should be focusing incentives on investing on those jobs and grading ourselves on that basis.

7) How are we making sure that the vision for the new medical center and the new innovation zone include a focus on equity in the delivery of health care?

8) How do we preserve a water supply? What does the twenty year business model look like for or city’s water company, and our energy company, since with conservation and sustainability we can’t continue counting on making more and more money sell less and less water and power?

So, here’s eight issues among those to which we should devote our proactive attention, set specific community-wide goals and then dedicate our staffs and our energies to actually do big things. But we can’t? No. We must. We must find the way.

Did you see the paper a couple of weeks ago? We’ve passed San Francisco and now we’re the no. 1 tech city in the country and that’s exciting. But we also have just learned that we’re the most economically segregated major city in the nation. That’s shameful. Two different lists. Two different top rankings. One city.

Austin is at a tipping point and in those two new 1st place announcements we see the tension in which our City lives. There are those who will use this recent news to try to divide our city into “haves and have-nots,” but this city belongs to all of us, regardless of how much you make or where you live. Our city will continue its success only if we succeed together. None of us are doing well unless we’re all doing well.

How will this new council measure its progress? How will we know if we are doing a good job? I think we should get measured by whether we’re doing big things.

First, we needed to set up the structure and the systems of government so as to give us the chance to think big, long term, proactive and policy driven. That’s what your council has been trying to do.

And then we must look forward.

And we need your help. Tonight, I ask you to renew your advocacy, renew your activism. The fight to preserve and maintain what’s special about Austin while moving forward has just begun. We don’t win that fight without your help!

Thank you for being here with me tonight. It’s because of you and others who share this mission and this spirit that together we make Austin a model, and an inspiration, and a truly great city for all.

We must.

But, we’ve only just begun.

Thank you.