The Watson Wire Archives

View previous issues of Mayor Watson's email newsletter, the Watson Wire. To subscribe, please email: watsonwire@austintexas.gov

February 2024

Watson Wire: A Better Focus on Fayette

Austin Energy has been working on a long-term generation plan that is slated to come to City Council next month. But I have serious questions and can’t support the plan at this point.

It’s time to put the brakes on the 2030 Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan for Austin Energy and scrub all the options. As part of this, there also needs to be a very real and robust focus on getting us out of the Fayette Power Plant.

The Fayette Power Plant is our single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It represents three-quarters of Austin Energy’s emissions and about a quarter of Austin’s overall emissions. The plant is also a huge consumer of our limited water supply.

I want Austin out of the coal plant that Austin Energy has co-owned with the Lower Colorado River Authority since 1979. There’s nothing we can do — nothing that I can do as mayor — that’s more profound or effective in combating climate change than getting us out of that plant. I want us to shut down our portion of the plant by no later than January of 2029.

While the City Council first committed to shutting down Austin’s portion of Fayette in 2014, and subsequent councils have reinforced that commitment again and again, it hasn’t happened. Most, if not all, of my Council colleagues share the goal, including Mayor Pro Tem Leslie Pool, who chairs the Austin Energy Oversight Committee. So does the Vice Chair, Council Member Chito Vela. But achieving that top priority will take a lot more than just a resolution from Council.

The community and Council priority is to get out of the coal business, and Austin Energy needs to examine the next iteration of the generation plan through that prism. Of course, affordability and reliability will continue to be part of our decision matrix, and we always have to recognize that we’re part of the state grid. But the primary principle for decision-making needs to be how we get out by January ’29.

Watson Wire: Seeking Input on City Manager Search

The Austin City Council will soon be considering candidates for the Austin City Manager. We want to hear from you about what qualities you’re looking for in our next City Manager and what issues should they prioritize.

Below is a survey from our search consultant, Mosaic Public Partners, and the responses will be collected anonymously. The deadline for submission is Friday, Feb. 16. City employees have also received a separate survey link for them to share their suggestions, also anonymously.

TAKE THE SURVEY

 

Once we narrow down the field of candidates, we’ll have additional opportunities for the community to provide feedback on this very important city leader. I’ll have more to say on that later.

 

Published: 2/13/24

Watson Wire: The Law & Light Rail

The voters of Austin spoke loud and clear in 2020 when they – you – approved a property tax increase to pay for a light rail system.

The financing plan for Austin Light Rail relies upon issuing debt, in addition to federal funds. One critical nugget of public finance arcana is that the Attorney General of Texas has final authority to sign off on public entities issuing debt. The Attorney General can prevent the sale of bond debt.

Because of this power and because of the need for governmental entities to issue debt in an expeditious manner, Texas law allows for what’s known as a “bond validation” action to let the city or other entity file in court to get an expedited review of the proposed bond issuance. The city isn’t really suing anyone. It’s what’s known as an “in rem” action — it’s about the property — in this case, the bond proceeds. The A.G. is part of the proceeding and other actions that have shared issues of law and fact may be consolidated with the validation action.

To affirm the bond financing for Austin Light Rail, the City of Austin and the Austin Transit Partnership will file a validation action. It’s part of an effort to protect this voter-approved, generational light rail project for generations to come. The statute includes an expedited timeline for the court to act so the litigation won’t drag on for years and years, imperiling the project. Public notice for the City Council action authorizing that litigation will be posted this afternoon.

Also, the Austin City Council, Capital Metro and the Austin Transit Partnership will be making some technical changes to their joint agreements. Last May, the Attorney General issued an opinion that provided a roadmap for complying with bond law and we’re going to take actions to assure we follow the opinion. The changes to the agreements will occur in the next week as the entities meet.

Watson Wire: Combatting All Hate

The Hate Crimes Review Committee at the Austin Police Department has now determined that the stabbing of a young Palestinian-American man following a rally on Sunday constitutes a hate crime under the law. The case has been referred to the Travis County District Attorney, who will decide whether to prosecute it as a hate crime.

This incident adds to the horrible rise in hate-motivated incidents everywhere – including in Austin. We cannot — we will not — tolerate hate, and I’m thankful APD has worked quickly to reach this determination both for the benefit of the victim and Austin as a whole.

Austin is a city of acceptance and openness. We must come together as a community with that acceptance and openness. We’re a diverse community with diverse opinions about global events. There is positive power that rises out of that diversity, and that power is well served by making change that combats hate of any kind right here. Locally. In Austin. That’s where we have our greatest power.

As our community grapples with this hate crime and our reaction to it, we should recognize that, while the anger is real and justified and the pain is fresh and frightening, we need to condemn the act of hate while taking care not to grow hate. We are all one. We should all feel anger and pain, and we should all be addressing our anger and pain by coming together and fighting division. Again, that is our power. As Austinites.

We all saw the Oct. 7 terror attacks and the suffering caused by them, suffering that continues. We see the ongoing suffering of civilians in Gaza — and do not ignore it.

There have been demands by some that the Austin City Council pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the war. The resolution is similar to what has come up in other cities, such as Chicago and Oakland, where the public debate devolved into division, shouting and recriminations. The international efforts and the negotiations of the parties in the conflict continue without success. The proposed resolution of the Austin City Council will not realistically end the violence on the other side of the globe. Nor will it stop federal taxes from being used to implement U.S. foreign policy. That is not in our power.

The resolution, however has the power to divide Austin — and will.

We all plead and pray for an end to the suffering. We all plead and pray for an end to the hatred. I will continue to do all in my power to end hatred and replace it with the openness, acceptance, diversity and love that is Austin.

Watson Wire: Hold Your Water

Every time I see the rain coming, I cross my fingers and toes and pray to whomever will listen that the rain will fall in the RIGHT place to help fill up the Highland Lakes – the primary source of our drinking water supply.

Of course, hopes and prayers isn’t really a policy strategy (though I’ll probably keep doing it), so I’m working on 2024 being a historic year.

Twenty-five years ago, I was Austin’s mayor and while Austin had certain longstanding rights to water in the Colorado River, we could see we were going to need more water over time. In 1999, Austin entered into an agreement with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to grow our water supply and secure it for at least 50 years. When I was in the Texas Senate, I worked with the LCRA to make important improvements in the LCRA’s “Water Management Plan” to better preserve Austin’s water supply in the Highland Lakes.

The very successful 1999 water deal also led to a historic period of Austin water conservation, which has saved ratepayers a lot of money, because it built in a sort of economic conservation program. Under the agreement, Austin pays a surcharge if we ever use more than 201,000-acre feet two years in a row. At the time we made the agreement, we thought those payments would probably start sometime in 2015-2020. They didn’t. Our conservation efforts have been so successful, we estimate now that we won’t need to make payments until at least 2040. The City estimates this agreement has already saved Austin and, consequently, Austinites as much as $60 million dollars with additional savings of up to $10 million per year until we hit the trigger in another 15 years or so.  

 

 

What’s Next?

My goal is to make this year, right now, the time to take more big steps with Austin’s water by aggressively implementing Austin’s Water Forward Plan. This plan was created to “identify diverse and environmentally conscious water management strategies to adapt to growth, drought, and climate change and ensure a sustainable, resilient, equitable, and affordable water future for our community."

Like the agreement in 1999, how we implement the plan will be essential to our city’s future for the next century.

Water reuse is a priority of mine, and it will be a big part of our strategy. It’s probably obvious but let’s say it anyway — the cheapest and the most accessible water is the water we already have. We’re looking to expand the reclaimed water system to meet the growing non-drinking water needs – things like irrigation, cooling systems and flushing the toilet.

Key to this strategy will be reuse requirements on developments that are 250,000 square feet or greater and the expansion of what’s called our purple pipe program. “Purple pipe” is pipe that’s used to provide recycled water for industrial, landscape irrigation, or other demands not requiring potable or drinking quality water. It’s called purple pipe because it’s pipe that’s purple. That’s just good thinking, right?”

Now, we want to be doing all of this in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the affordability of our housing, and we’re working on ways to incentivize reuse and system expansion. Those will include the potential for cost sharing, grants, expedited permit reviews, loans and potential other mechanisms.

We’ll also need to pay more attention to supply. The biggest item in this regard will be finding ways to store existing supply so that it can be used when it’s the most needed. This will likely involve storage in aquifers.

This week, Austin Water (the city’s water utility) will provide a detailed briefing about the Water Forward Plan to the Austin Water Oversight Committee. I appreciate Mayor Pro Tem Leslie Pool, who chairs the committee, for the opportunity to have a discussion on this plan and how we move forward.

We’re looking at other mechanisms to keep a growing, thirsty city quenched. The 25th anniversary of Austin’s historic 1999 water agreement will be celebrated appropriately – with more good work to protect the next 25 years (and more) and a tall glass of water.

Watson Wire: Remembering Judge Harriet Murphy

 

Judge Harriet Murphy was appointed as an Austin Municipal Judge in 1973, becoming the first Black woman to serve as a permanent judge in Texas history. She was a legend who embodied perseverance and strength.   

We first met when I was a very young lawyer. Getting to know her, be around her, and listen to her was a blessing and an incredible learning experience. I came away from those interactions with a deep feeling of respect and admiration for who she was and all she had achieved.

Judge Murphy passed away on January 17. She was 96. On this first day of Black History Month, I hope we all can take a moment to honor her story and what she contributed to Austin’s story and to all of us who she took the time to teach.

 

January 2024

Watson Wire: At The Crossroads Of Transit & Housing

 

At a very enjoyable UT event last week, a group of smart students peppered me with questions about what I would do differently if I could go back to college (take more time than I did the first time) and liquor (Wild Turkey is my drink of choice). But mostly they wanted to talk seriously about the future and whether they have a future in Austin.

Heads nodded and fingers snapped in agreement when I brought up intergenerational equity and how we need to ensure their generation has the same opportunities to create a life here as mine did. I also got affirming head-nods at a recent neighborhood association meeting in North Austin where folks who had raised their families here wanted to talk about whether their kids would be able to raise their own families in Austin.

We all benefit when everybody has the opportunity to make a life in Austin. I truly believe that. It drives a lot of my thinking on all sorts of policy – see here and here.

And it’s why the City Council will be working over the next several months to enact important Land Development Code changes that are needed to foster equitable transit-oriented development around our Project Connect stations as well as other transit-supportive density policies.

These new density policies are essential for Austin to be competitive for the billions in federal funding needed to realize the voters’ vision for light rail. And light rail, in turn, is essential to realizing our community priorities for housing and affordability as well as climate and environmental protection.

To fully address our city’s affordability emergency and close the intergenerational equity gap, we need to look at how we can combine transit-supportive density policies and our affordability objectives together.

We also will need to include reforms such as reducing compatibility standards throughout the city and lowering the minimum lot size for a single-family home. The biggest driver of housing costs is arguably the cost of the land. Lowering the land costs by reducing lot sizes has been proved to make housing more affordable.

 

What’s Next?

On Thursday, the Council will vote on the notification process for the Land Development Code changes, including a joint meeting between the Planning Commission and Austin City Council. The plan includes broad public notification, particularly in light of a recent court decision that halted a key affordable housing program due to insufficient notice that occurred before I was mayor. This City Council will do it right.

We’ll also have a robust community engagement process that will allow stakeholders, neighbors, and advocates the opportunity to provide feedback to help us craft the right policy and avoid the unintended consequences.

I am looking forward to having these conversations, which also offer a great opportunity to take a step back and reexamine the five-year-old  Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint with an eye toward transit. In fact, I think our housing framework or lens for decision-making should be Housing Supply &Affordability, Climate Impact, and Mobility & Infrastructure. More on that later.

 

Published: January 31, 2024

Watson Wire: Making Progress on Brain Health

Some years back, I saw an opportunity for us do more with the crumbling Austin State Hospital (ASH) after a state report determined the aged facility was unsalvageable. I talked with some others, especially Dr. Steve Strakowski, who at the time was the inaugural chair of the psychiatry department at Dell Medical School, about how we could create a world-class brain health facility to replace ASH.

We had created the Dell Medical School at UT Austin to be a catalyst for big ideas and to bring together smart folks with a commitment to addressing the healthcare needs of our community. I was in the Texas Senate at the time and passed legislation that tasked a redesign of the entire continuum of care for our now 26-county regional brain health system to better serve the people in critical need by providing “the right care at the right time in the right place.” This led to Texas Health and Human Services contracting with Dell Medical School to lead the ASH Redesign with Dr. Strakowski as project chair. Importantly, valuable input from a wide range of community partners and mental health advocates, along with ongoing contributions from the team of experts in Dell Med’s Department of Psychiatry, has been critical to the resulting planning and implementation process.

The reconstruction of Austin State Hospital, parts of which date back to 1857, is an essential piece of that system redesign so that we have a modern health care facility to provide modern health care for brain disorders, which are often misunderstood and stigmatized.

During my time in the Texas Senate, I also worked with my colleagues in both chambers to secure about $300 million to plan, design and build a new Austin State Hospital.

It took some time – as big ideas often do – but the newly reconstructed Austin State Hospital is nearing completion with plans to open this summer. I toured the new facility the other day with Dr. Strakowski and some other folks who helped to make this happen. It was really something special.

The new hospital is full of light with lots of outdoor access. It’s been designed with a town center at the heart and small “neighborhoods” of single-person rooms where folks can retreat and heal.

And the facility now sits right along North Lamar so that it is a visible part of the community – not hidden away in the depths of the huge campus. 

Hopeful for Next Steps

Even with all of this progress, there’s so much more that can and needs to be done.

The mission of the Austin State Hospital is to help folks experiencing a mental health crisis to receive the intensive care needed to get well and move back into their local community, where they will continue receiving less intensive treatment.

One of the biggest challenges for the Austin State Hospital is finding a stable place for those who don’t have a home to continue treatment and healing. On the continuum of care, there’s a real lack of step-down therapeutic housing. Many times that means one of two less-than-optimal things happen: people stay in ASH longer than they really may need to, which eats up bed space that could be used to treat and stabilize someone else; or they’re discharged and, with no place to go, end up living on the streets or in an encampment and exacerbate their brain health issues.

I’ve had another idea that might help with this. Now that the hospital facility is about to open and I’m back in an office that lets me try out some big ideas, we might have an opportunity to address that challenge. We’re in early talks but there’s a lot of potential.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone who helped us get to this really wonderful and historic point at ASH.

 

Published: January 25, 2024

Watson Wire: Cold Weather, Warm Hearts

 

Nothing like the last few days of record-breaking cold to make us forget the heat of summer, right?

With the temperature finally climbing above freezing, we should take a moment to recognize the hard work and dedication of all our public servants who spent their holiday weekend, well, serving. We ask them to do important jobs often in challenging conditions and many go above and beyond for the people of Austin.

I’m really proud of the efforts made across departments and as a result of a lot of planning and changes in the last year made by our Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. That’s now led by Ken Snipes. Travis County is our partner in emergencies, and it also played an important role.

One area that deserves particular attention is how our public servants compassionately and diligently assisted those living homeless. For example, Austin-Travis County EMS Chief Rob Luckritz encountered a man, a wheelchair-bound amputee, with a sign asking for money and saying he was a veteran. Chief Luckritz started talking to him about his service and asked if he knew he was eligible for benefits. The man said he'd lost his cell phone and his case manager at Veterans Affairs had left their job and he didn't have another contact. Chief immediately called Assistant Chief Wes Hopkins (who oversees the Community Health Paramedic Team), who had the CHP team follow up with the man and connect him with a myriad of services.

Chief Luckritz noted that so many people experiencing homelessness have suffered from a domino effect of bad things happening to them. Sometimes it just takes someone listening to provide the help that can be a bridge to a better life.

Homeless Strategy Officer David Gray and his team — including our essential non-profit partners like the Austin Area Urban League and Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center — also did some really incredible work quickly standing up seven cold-weather shelters that, on Monday night, provided warmth and safety to a total of 659 clients. We believe that’s a record. In addition, about 350 folks were in the two year-round emergency shelters that we opened in 2023 and another 150 people stayed in the ARCH.

We learn something new every time we go through one of these emergency events so that the next time we can better serve those in need. And the Homeless Strategy Office, which was launched as a stand-alone office just last month to bring together a variety of homelessness-related functions that had been scattered across city departments, will be taking stock of what went well and what needs to improve.

I got to thank a few of our public servants this week touring some of our cold weather shelters.

I got to thank a few of our public servants this week touring some of our cold weather shelters.

 

Even Better Coordination….

We're also making an effort to coordinate better with our local government partners that share the responsibility to serve our unhoused neighbors, including Travis County, Central Health, Integral Care and UT’s Dell Medical School.

Tomorrow, the City Council will consider a consulting contract with McKinsey & Company to conduct a comprehensive review and assessment of our current programs, services and outcomes. We want to examine how we all collaborate and coordinate our efforts to provide comprehensive services to those living homeless. It’s past time for us to evaluate the effectiveness of our strategies, programs, and services in achieving intended outcomes and long-term solutions.

I believe this work will give us recommendations for improvements in strategy design and implementation to better align our work. All governmental entities have a responsibility for doing this well.

 

Published: January 17, 2024

Watson Wire It's Time to Talk

 

Public safety is paramount to our quality of life, and our police play a paramount role in public safety. I support our police officers, and I want them to know they’re supported. The best way to support them is by getting to a long-term contract.

It’s time for the City of Austin and the Austin Police Association (APA) to get back to the bargaining table and negotiate a contract to address key issues such as salaries, benefits, grievance processes, and other important matters.

The new president of the union, Senior Police Officer Michael Bullock, officially started his gig at the first of the year. We’ve talked a number of times since he was elected in November and hit the ground running. We agree that the best thing for our police officers and, therefore, for our City and its residents, is to get a long-term contract. We agree that a long-term contract would be the best way to attract and retain police officers because it would provide officers and recruits greater certainty about their futures. We also agree that a long-term contract will enhance morale, something I also badly want.

If we all agree we need a contract, why aren’t we all coming to the table to talk about the very real needs of our police officers? Well, the sticking point so far has been something called the “g-file.”

The g-file – a reference to Local Government Code 143.089(g) – is a confidential file that contains complaints made against officers that are NOT found to be worthy of punishment. If a complaint is made that isn’t investigated or the Chief of Police decides to not reprimand the officer, it goes in the g-file.

APA wants to keep confidential the contents of the g-file because of how that information might be used.

The voters of Austin, however, overwhelmingly approved the citizen-initiated Austin Police Oversight Act in May of 2023, and that vote enacted an ordinance that says the City cannot keep a g-file. The ordinance also prohibits the City Council from adopting a police contract that allows a g-file to be kept. That is the law of the land in Austin, Texas.

Many, if not most, other Texas law enforcement agencies don’t have g-file type protection, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, Travis County Sheriff’s Office, and the Dallas Police Department.

The APA position has been that a lawsuit filed by a group called Equity Action against the City over the implementation of the May ballot initiative “hampers what exactly we can talk about at a bargaining table because the City doesn't even know necessarily what it can and can't bargain over yet.”

I don’t agree. Yeah, the lawsuit should be helpful because it will get us some legal answers to complicated and vexing questions. But we don’t need those answers to negotiate a contract.

Austin voters have already provided the guidance. They said no g-file. So, regardless of the court ruling, if we’re going to have the thing we all agree is the most important thing for getting more police — a contract — the contract can’t allow for a g-file. We all know that even without a court ruling. There’s no need to wait. It’s time to get back to the table. We simply can’t put our police force and city at risk by elevating the g-file above a contract.

I want to support and help our officers who are doing very hard work under challenging conditions. I’ve got a great table. Let’s all sit down at it and talk.

APD Cadet Graduation

It was great to attend the Austin Police Department's 149th cadet graduation last week.

 

In the meantime….

I’m bringing forward a resolution next week to renew an ordinance passed last year to protect our police officers in the absence of a contract.

Last February, the previous City Manager proposed a contract that, if it were adopted by Council, would have preempted the police oversight initiative on the May ballot, robbing the voters of their rights, and rendering the election meaningless. The Council and I protected the rights created by our Charter and offered an alternative that the APA rejected, which was its right. So, we passed a stopgap ordinance to protect our officers and demonstrate our support for them even as we protected the rights of our voters.

We guaranteed pay and benefits in the absence of a contract and gave our police a 4% across-the-board pay raise. We created a new retirement step to give an incentive for officers to stay and not retire. We created a brand-new bonus program for people to come into the police academy and incentives to make it to the end. We gave all our officers a $2,500 bonus that they will receive this month and another $2,500 bonus in October of this year.

I'm asking that this latest ordinance include the following again, even without a contract:

  • Guarantee current salaries, benefits and the October bonus and hold the police force harmless until we can get to a contract;
  • Maintain the incentives to become a cadet and to make it all the way through the training and probationary period;
  • Provide each officer a $500 bonus if APA comes to the table and another $2,500 bonus if a contract is completed by June 30;
  • Guarantee that, if there is a contract, officers will receive at least a 2.5% pay raise in the first year. That can be negotiated up, but it will start with that assurance of a raise.

 

There are other things that will be in the ordinance. And, there can be even more, if we can get to a contract. It’s time.

I’ll have a resolution providing direction to the City Manager regarding the ordinance at the Jan. 18 meeting. I anticipate we will vote on this ordinance at the Feb. 1 meeting.

 

Published: January 12, 2024

Watson Wire: A Good Year

As 2023 concluded, I enjoyed reading the newsletters from my colleagues on the City Council who showed pride in their individual accomplishments as well as the successes of the Council as a whole. I’m pleased to be working with this group and thankful for the team approach we’ve seen this year at Austin City Hall.

I ran for mayor to shake up City Hall. I compared the place to a car with the front wheels badly out of alignment – it was still moving forward but pulled horribly to one side and bounced, vibrated, rattled, and rolled like it was coming apart. In my view, our local government needed some alignment and stabilization.

We did a lot of that in 2023. The culture at City Hall has changed. We’re making local government work better, less chaotic, and with a focus on results.

Of course, for some things, we spent time over the past year laying the foundation to get them fixed and will keep working on them.

 

Stability through Leadership

The year started with a few big things that proved the need for a different approach and a shakeup.

We faced a winter storm that revealed how badly our emergency management was out of alignment. Quickly and decisively, we replaced the City Manager and brought in Jesús Garza as the interim City Manager. And he, in turn, brought in a team dedicated to professionalism, common sense, and success. They’ve accepted the challenges and made changes needed to get us through a demanding year. I truly thank Jesús and his team, including all the public employees that work every day to make Austin special.

Now, we have new leaders at the Homeland Security & Emergency Management Department as well as Austin Energy. We’ve made numerous and significant changes in operations in those services this year.

We also have new leadership at the Development Services Department, which pretty much everyone said was fundamentally broken. As promised in the campaign, we brought in a third party (McKinsey Consulting) to do a performance review. That review is complete and being implemented, resulting in significant positive outcomes already. Overall, site plan turnaround times are better today than they have been in the last six years. A lot of folks who complained loudly about that broken city function have slowly begun to change their tune.

We utilized an effective, open process that allowed us to usher through a complicated city budget that strengthened our reserves, invested in our people, and reflected the Council Members’ priorities for our community.

The so-called Zilker Park Vision Plan was badly dividing Austin and was set up to damage that jewel. We stopped that.

Here are a few other areas where we’ve made real progress:

Public Safety

We started the year with real problems in our 911 emergency response. We’ve greatly improved 911 staffing so that, in the last half of November, operators answered 93% of calls within 15 seconds. That’s a big change just since July, when 69% were answered in 15 seconds. Since January of 2023, we’ve hired 85 new employees and the training team has conducted more than 25,000 hours of new employee training.

Both the EMS and Firefighters unions have new contracts that were completed this year. EMS vacancies have been significantly reduced in 2023 as a result of new recruiting efforts and the labor contract approval. In March, the Council passed an ordinance to assure our police officers’ salaries and benefits even in the absence of a long-term contract. I’ve committed to passing an updated version of the ordinance early in ’24.

We tried to increase needed patrols by partnering with the Texas Dept. of Public Safety. While aspects of the partnership were helpful, it didn’t work the way I had hoped it would and we ended it. But I’ll always have a bias for action, and if something doesn’t work exactly as I hoped, I’ll learn from it and move on. In my view, that’s leading. In something as complicated as city government, we have to live and learn and keep trying so we can actually begin to move forward with a smoother ride.

touring

I spent some time at the city's new Eighth Street Shelter with the folks at Urban Alchemy. They are doing good work for our unhoused neighbors.

Homelessness & Affordability

For almost a decade, City Hall was stuck when it came to reform that can provide more needed housing for Austin. That changed in 2023. We’re tackling the issues that have made it hard to create housing in Austin and focused on necessary land-use changes to encourage more housing, particularly along our transit corridors. And we did it by being open and giving notice to people about what was going on.

I understand that efforts like the HOME initiative have detractors. I get it. That’s one of the reasons I offered an amendment (adopted unanimously) to collect data on how it really works. We need practical information and not just theory to judge outcomes and calibrate when needed.

The City’s program for addressing those living homeless was badly out of sorts. This year, we created a stand-alone Homeless Strategy Office to better manage these complicated services. We’ve also opened successful new shelters, including the Marshalling Yard, which has 300 new beds and wasn’t being used at all when we started the year. Just last month, the city’s new Eighth Street Shelter started welcoming unhoused women and transgender neighbors, replacing the Salvation Army facility that the non-profit surprisingly shuttered. This will give us another 150 needed shelter beds.

Dealing with the State

I promised we’d have a better relationship with state government. We had a successful legislative session, including protecting Austin’s autonomy over its electric utility and the desire of Austin voters for light rail, even though some knives were out for us. Additionally, the better relationship paid dividends for Austin beyond just avoiding bad things. For example, I was able to obtain $65 million of state funds to assist us in addressing homelessness. I joined Dr. Dawn Buckingham, the Commissioner of the General Land Office, in working on the old, dilapidated Hobby Building in downtown to turn that block into workforce housing.

Looking to 2024, we’ll be focused on continuing our important progress on the fundamental issues that affect your daily life in Austin, including naming Austin’s next permanent City Manager. I’m anticipating big ideas for programs addressing mobility & infrastructure workforce, childcare, water and climate, policing, homeless services, housing, and more. It will be an exciting year, made possible by the good, stabilizing work in 2023.

 

 

Published: 1/3/24

 

December 2023

Watson Wire: The Grid

Recently, I heard a pretty good song from the late 70’s by the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) called “Don’t Bring Me Down”.

 

A year ago, that song might’ve sparked a bit of happy nostalgia from my youth. But now, having the words “bring down” and “electric light” in the same thought lands a little different. Bet I’m not alone. Let’s all think good thoughts about electricity and lights as we head into winter.

 

The City has done a lot over the past 11 months to be prepared for any winter weather, and we recently held a news conference to highlight a few key messages:

 

Key takeaway #1: Our winter weather preparedness has significantly improved since last February and we’re ready for a major weather event.

 

Key takeaway #2: Even with the effort we’ve made and continue to make, severe weather is likely and it’s important for folks to be ready for the possibility of power outages. I hate to say it, but there may be something unexpected, unforeseen, or just plain unlucky that causes a loss of power. We’re working, however, to be prepared, and I encourage individuals to be prepared, too.

 

Key takeaway #3: Power outages can happen even if City power operations are working just fine, and those outages are beyond the City’s control.

 

Everyone in the Pool

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages the Texas electric grid, which covers 90% of the big ol’ State of Texas. While the City of Austin owns and runs its own electric utility, Austin Energy (AE) is a part of ERCOT and subject to rules, regulations and dictates of ERCOT. Some of those rules, regulations and dictates are to assure greater reliability of service on the overall Texas/ERCOT grid, which interconnects the various power providers throughout the state.

 

The Texas electric grid is sort of like a swimming pool.  If I pour a cup of water into one side of the pool, and then take a cup out of the other side, I’m likely not getting the same water molecules that I poured in. But the water level adjusts. I get water out of the pool and don’t really know that it’s not the same stuff I put in. Similarly, electrons that AE’s power plants put on the grid aren’t the same electrons that serve your home or business. The grid is operated as a whole, statewide system – one big pool.

 

When there isn’t enough power on the grid to meet demand across the state – the pool isn’t full –  then ERCOT can and will instruct utilities to cut power to their customers to balance the system. We can’t take water out of the pool until told it’s okay, even when we’re putting water in. The technical reason this is done is ERCOT is trying to prevent bigger problems like the whole state grid going down. I think about it like when you run both the microwave and the hair dryer at the same time and the breakers flip in the house because the system can’t support that demand at the same time.

 

When outages are rotated across the Texas grid, ERCOT usually calls these “controlled outages” or “load shedding.” The rest of us call them things like “rolling brownouts” or “WTH, there’s no heat!” events.

 

Utilities across Texas – including municipally-owned utilities like Austin Energy – are required by law to cut power when ERCOT tells them to. It’s not optional. When it happens, AE tries to rotate the outages locally to reduce the time any one area of Austin faces having no power. Typically, when this happens, Austin Energy plans to rotate power among customers about every 40 minutes.

 

However, we all remember back in February 2021 when ERCOT told AE to reduce the load so much that Austin Energy couldn’t rotate outages. 

 

Not everyone will experience the same results, though. If your neighbor’s home is in the same critical zone as, say, a hospital, they might not lose power at the same time you do. It’s kinda like the breaker box in your house where you can shut off the air conditioner but not the refrigerator.

 

Be Prepared

Almost three years after the February 2021 storm, the statewide grid has made some improvements, but certain forecasts show there might not be enough power for everyone under some ERCOT system conditions.  If that happens, ERCOT will activate its energy emergency alerts (EEA). There are different levels of EEAs.

 

EEA 3 is the most serious — that’s when ERCOT directs those so-called “controlled outages.”  This level can be reached quickly without much advance warning.  So, while our goal is to let people know when there’s a grid emergency, things can happen fast, and ERCOT-directed load shed could happen before you hear from the City.  The most important thing you can do is to be prepared — please get ready and stay ready.

 

Please take a minute and visit readycentraltexas.org for winter weather preparedness and safety tips. Also, I encourage you to sign up at warncentraltexas.org to receive safety alerts.

 

 

Published: December 20, 2023

Watson Wire: New Year's Eve Party Time

Austin certainly knows how to have a good time. And this New Year’s Eve, folks from all over will be able to enjoy some great music and fun as we ring in 2024.

 

It was announced last week that Austin will be hosting CNN’s Central time zone celebration and countdown to the new year. CNN’s Sara Sidner and Cari Champion will join us during our annual party at Vic Mathias Auditorium Shores. Their coverage will start at 11:30 pm CST, but the big New Year’s Eve party kicks off at 7PM CST with live music from The Suffers and The Band of Heathens, plus food, fun, and of course, fireworks.

 

I’ll be there and hope you all will join us at Vic Mathias Auditorium Shores!

 

new years

 

Event Tips

 

Before you don your sparkly party hats and head downtown, remember to plan accordingly and stay safe. There will be a number of road closures because of this event so consider using public transportation options.

 

CapMetro Rail service will operate late on December 31 (New Year's Eve), running until after 2 a.m. The last train will leave Downtown Station at 2:22 a.m. Bus routes will operate regular service and Night Owls will run from 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Please use the CapMetro Trip Planner to find your best transit option. 

 

If you do plan on driving, please be responsible.

 

 

Published: December 18, 2023

Watson Wire: Burger Boy

Back in the late 90’s when I was mayor the first time, I led a delegation of Austinites to our Sister City of Koblenz, Germany. The German word for “mayor” is “Burgermeister.” It is a term of respect and honor. One used to show esteem and appreciation.

 

One member of our group, a good friend, and a really funny person liked the sound of Burgermeister, or at least part of it. She quit calling me mayor and started calling me “Burger Boy”. Not exactly the same thing, but I’m sure she meant it to show respect and honor and whatnot. I hadn’t heard the term Burger Boy for quite some time until the campaign last year. One of our canvassers who was out knocking doors drumming up support texted me to say they had knocked on a door and the woman who answered said, “Tell Burger Boy he has my vote.”

 

Gotta love a long-time, committed smart aleck, uh, supporter.

 

Austin and the World

Austin is an international city. We’re a focal point in a worldwide economy, and we’re a place that other cities want to engage with for culture, education and fun. International businesses like Samsung and Tokyo Electron are located here and international businesses like Dell, Silicon Labs and Whole Foods started here.

 

My theory is that Austin was ordained to be an international city when the world changed and talented people could pretty much live anywhere they wanted and still have access to markets, workers and money any time of day and anywhere in the world. It also mattered that the greatest economic asset became creativity, imagination and intellect—in other words, the asset became people.

 

So, where will people go who can take the key economic asset (themselves and their thinking) anywhere they want? They’ll go to where it’s pretty, creative, open to new thinking and ideas (can you say “a place that keeps it weird?”), a place that offers outdoor opportunities, lots of arts… Well, you get it. A place like Austin. The pandemic kinda proved up that theory.

 

The international excitement is demonstrated in the growth and popularity of our tourism industry. This year, an average of 2,600 international passengers per day traveled through Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and has grown 41% since 2018. Also, we now offer nonstop flights to 14 international destinations out of our airport. That’s up from 8 just 5 years ago.

 

And, of course, it was Austin City Limits and SXSW that really planted the seeds with international audiences. Starting in 1974, the Austin City Limits tv show shared the city skyline – and our excellent music – with the world. And the ACL Music Festival now draws thousands of people from around the world.

 

SXSW puts a global spotlight on Austin every year. Our city is visited by international mayors, Ambassadors, Consuls General, Ministers and just regular folks from all over. About 25% of the participants are international.

 

(L-R): With Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer at SXSW at Austin Sister Cities' Passport to the World Festival; Chiang Mai Provincial Governor Nirat Phongsittithaworn and I signed a Memorandum of Understanding to launch the Austin-Chiang Mai Sister Cities initiative.

 

Meet Our Sisters

This past weekend, we celebrated Austin Sister Cities International’s 8th Annual Passport to the World Festival at the downtown library. Austin has thirteen Sister Cities with three Friendship Cities recently established with Florence, Italy, Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Limerick, Ireland. These three cities will become official Sister Cities within two years.

 

By establishing and nurturing sister city relationships with cities around the world, we’re doing a little something to promote peace, cooperation, and mutual respect. And we’re sharing the story of Austin to all the world.

 

In 2023, Austin welcomed over 40 international delegations, engaging in fruitful exchanges across various city departments, fostering innovation and sharing best practices. These interactions have become a cornerstone of our efforts to create a global community that transcends borders.

 

Austin's commitment to international outreach enriches our city's culture and economy. We look forward to future opportunities from these global engagements, showcasing Austin's role as a hub for innovation, collaboration, and inclusivity.

 

And it’s just fun to meet new folks with different backgrounds and show off this place.

 

We were joined at the celebration by a Limerick City Council Member and a staff person who works with their Council. We had a great talk about maybe visiting that city sometime in 2024. I was told that I could ride a motorcycle in the beautiful surroundings around Limerick. That would be great. I’ve already started one of my speeches if we go to Limerick:

 

Austin in the world is admired

Our people are creative and inspired

 

We're loved and revered

For keeping things weird

 

And a mayor who always looks tired.

 

 

Published: December 13, 2023

Watson Wire: Turning the Page

After months of discussions with the Travis County District Attorney, yesterday we announced an agreement to resolve some of the outstanding issues stemming from the 2020 protests that were held in Austin following the murder of George Floyd. District Attorney José Garza has dropped the charges against 17 of the 21 police officers that had been indicted for actions during the protests. Those officers will be able to return to their full duties. Additionally, the City agreed to join an ask of the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a targeted review of the Austin Police Department’s response to the 2020 protests, including executive staff decisions.

 

One of my goals as Mayor was to address the very broken relationship between City Hall and our police that was here when I started last January. The indictments, dating back to February 2022, have loomed large over our efforts to have a better relationship, in part because the indictments added to a feeling by some police officers that the City may not have their back. Interim City Manager Jesús Garza understands the goal. So does Interim Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills. He’s a former cop who served our City as an Acting Chief of Police and as Chief of Police at the airport. Our City Attorney, Anne Morgan, also has been very good, thoughtful and key to this discussion. They’ve been excellent in getting us to the point where this announcement could be made.

 

I’ve been talking a lot recently with Senior Police Officer (SPO) Michael Bullock, the newly-elected and incoming president of the Austin Police Association (APA), to assure him and his members that the City supports our police officers and that we want to work together. Our conversations have been positive and productive and give me hope.

 

Last March, the City Council unanimously passed a one-year ordinance that provided for pay and retirement benefits and recruiting incentives even in the absence of a police contract. The ordinance was meant as a stopgap to allow voters to be heard in May on a police oversight ballot initiative before returning to negotiations. But APA chose not to come back to the table, so we’ve been stuck.

 

One reason we pursued this agreement with the DA was to help us get unstuck. We’re trying to rebuild mutual respect and trust. SPO Bullock and I have discussed bringing the ordinance back to the City Council sooner rather than later so that it doesn’t expire. He is clear, and I clearly understand, how our police want to know that there’s not going to be a gap. I’m committing to bringing the ordinance back to the City Council by the end of January well before it expires.

 

I’m hopeful that we will also get to a contract with the APA. There are still hurdles. We’ll never know if we don’t try. But for the first time in a long time, I think we’re in a place where we can actually start talking and might just hear each other. 

 

 

Published: December 5, 2023

 

November 2023

Watson Wire: Planes, Trains, & Automobiles 
Congressional hearing

 

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to testimony or public comment both in the Texas Senate and my different stints as Austin Mayor. Yesterday, I was the one sitting on the other side of the dais giving the testimony.

 

I was one of the invited speakers at a Congressional hearing on intercity passenger rail. The hearing was in front of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which some call the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, appropriated a bunch of money — call it $66 billion — to Amtrak for improving intercity passenger rail.  I would argue that the lowest hanging fruit in the country for such improvement is the Texas Triangle that runs from Dallas/Ft. Worth through Austin to San Antonio over to Houston and back up to DFW. This Triangle is home to 21 million people or 70% of the Texas population and is responsible for 74% of our economic activity. It’s continuing to grow.

 

In addition, we know that, in other parts of the country and world, the sweet spot for intercity passenger rail service is a trip of less than 500 miles. In the Texas Triangle, each of the three legs is less than 310 rail miles long. That’s really short for an expensive plane ride with the inconvenience of added time at the airports for security and what not. On the other hand, it’s too long for a congested (and getting more congested) car trip.

 

I’ve met with the CEO of Amtrak to help make the case. And I’ve convened local officials in the Austin/San Antonio corridor to build support.

 

I’m optimistic and excited about the possibilities and the response we’re getting to the efforts. 

 

From Left to Right: Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, Nuria Fernandez; the Undersecretary at the US Dept. of Transportation, Carlos Munje; White House Infrastructure Czar, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu; Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

 

But Wait, There’s More

I also visited Washington, D.C., the week before Thanksgiving to talk to key federal officials about a variety of our big infrastructure projects, including the airport expansion, Project Connect, roadwork, including I-35 and the capping potential. Federal dollars are an essential component of our overall funding plan for a lot of what we’re needing to do, particularly with light rail, and we’re working hard to ensure that Austin will be a strong contender for the federal grants. For example, the land-use policy changes currently in the works at Council are meant to foster density, which will improve our standing for the federal funds.

 

My visits included talking to the White House Infrastructure Czar, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu; the Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, Nuria Fernandez; the Undersecretary at the US Dept. of Transportation, Carlos Munje; and key folks in Congress and on Congressional staffs. We highlighted the challenge of building multimodal transportation projects when federal funding is still siloed by mode. We have a unique opportunity in Austin because we’ll be expanding the airport at the same time that we’ll be building light rail. Under the current plan, light rail doesn’t connect to the airport but is a priority extension. While we can't afford the additional extension on our own right now, we pressed for the Biden administration to help us go big and extend the light rail to the airport.

 

My other objective for that D.C. trip was to visit the city’s highly touted Infrastructure Academy to get some good ideas for the work we’re doing locally with Workforce Solutions Capital Area. As I’ve written before, we’re building up the career pipeline for Austinites to take advantage of the jobs created by the $25 billion in mobility infrastructure coming our way through airport expansion, Project Connect, I-35 and more. I was able to meet with Mayor Muriel Bowser at a groundbreaking for the Infrastructure Academy, and we spent a considerable amount of time talking with and learning from the Academy’s leadership, including Dr. Unique N. Morris-Hughes. She’s the District’s Director of Employment Services.

 

Congressman Rick Larsen, the Ranking Member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, came to Austin earlier this year and liked what we’re doing to weave our infrastructure investments with workforce development efforts. I appreciate that he gave me an opportunity to highlight this work to the whole committee.

 

 

Published: November 30, 2023

Watson Wire: Fountain of Youth

Austin is Austin, in part (and a big part), because we have always had a fountain of youth that’s been fed by Huston-Tillotson, Concordia, St. Ed’s and that little public university up the street called the University of Texas at Austin. Every year, thousands of new people come into town to attend these schools. They’re young and they’re vibrant, they’re vital, they’re looking to the future, they’ve got new thoughts, new ideas, new music, new culture. In Austin, they’ve always been able to discover who they want to be and they can embrace who they are.

 

Year after year, for decades, new young people came to Austin and then said, “I’m staying”. They stayed and Austin changed as it moved into the future.

 

Some of us got here in a slightly different way. I keep rolling back to when Liz and I arrived in 1981 and Austin was a town of about 380,000 people. We were fresh out of school in our early 20’s and didn’t have any money to speak of. I had a job with a federal judge that was supposed to last for a year. Our plan was to spend that year here and then likely move back up to North Texas to be near our families. But everyone we met kept telling us we’d never want to leave. They were right.

 

Liz and I asked ourselves, “Can we make a living here?” We found good work and, very young, we were able to cobble together enough money to buy our first house. That was key to keeping us in Austin.

 

Today, even though there’s a lot more economic opportunity and ways to make a living, young people are no longer automatically staying. They’re confronted with a different question: “Can I make a life in Austin?”

 

You can’t miss the serious generation gap in our current housing discussion.

 

The younger folks – whether they have just arrived or they grew up in Austin and want to stay near family – are clearly telling us what they need so they can make their lives in Austin.

 

Meanwhile, people who have invested themselves in their homes and their neighborhoods and our community see potential damage to what they’ve helped create. And many also fear that the Austin they love is changing more than they want.

 

This is not easy. There’s a reason we’ve been mired in debate over housing policy for a so long, and I agree that previous approaches have created a lot of problems that have gotten in the way of implementing real solutions. But we’ve tried, and continue to try, to do it differently this time with broad public notice on specific policies to allow greater analysis and discussion. 

 

This debate can get deep in weeds really quickly – as you will see below. But for me, the overarching goal is to ensure Austin can move into the future as the open, vibrant and inviting community we’ve all strived to create here.

 

Losing our fountain of youth will likely cause us to lose the eclectic, vital Austin that’s been open to change. That openness to change that has defined us. Frankly, the biggest, most damaging change we could allow would be to lose that youthful thinking and energy. And it could prevent us from keeping Austin Austin.

 

Next Steps

Tomorrow, the City Council will take up Phase 1 of the HOME Initiative at a work session and discuss potential amendments to the proposed change to the Land Development Code. The Council will hold a public hearing on Dec. 7 and then take action on amendments and the final ordinance.

 

Many of the proposed amendments we’ll discuss are meant to address valid concerns that folks have raised during this public process. We are hearing you and trying to find some balance.

 

Shortly before we all checked out for the holiday, the Planning Commission spent two days hearing from the community and deliberating over amendments aimed at, among other ideas, preserving existing homes, addressing the floor-to-area ratio for additional units, and adjusting setback requirements so that units blend with existing neighborhood character.

 

The amendments approved by the Planning Commission as well as the ones that will be presented by the Council are a result of the public feedback we’ve received from the community during the joint hearing.

 

There have also been questions that have been asked by me, members of the Council and Planning Commissioners regarding this policy that we’ve heard from the community. City staff have created a public portal to answer those questions and for the community to view. Council Member Leslie Pool has also put together some helpful information regarding HOME Phase 1.

 

Additionally, to help with understanding the current discussion and what the proposal does, my office has prepared a sort of ‘Decision Tree” or “Flow Chart”.  Yep, it’s complicated and I don’t mean it to be a Rorschach test. But if you see the brackets for the College Football Playoffs, you’re not doing it right.

 

Published: November 27, 2023

Watson Wire: Holiday Special Edition

Zilker Tree

 

I had so much fun this evening with all the folks who came out to the Zilker Holiday Tree Lighting. It’s a very neat Austin tradition that we’ve been doing as a community for going on 57 years.

 

And I also had a lot of fun writing some rather special Dr. Seussian lines for tonight’s welcome. Enjoy the beautiful lights and share the joy.

 

Happy Holidays!

 

 

Published: November 26, 2023

Watson Wire: Grammy's Cornbread Dressing

 

It’s a longstanding Watson Wire tradition – dating back to when Baylor football was good – to share the recipe for my Grammy’s cornbread dressing in time for Thanksgiving.

 

Vesta Bryant Watson Cranor, a/k/a “Grammy,” made the best Thanksgiving and Christmas dressing. Second place isn’t close. Actually, there is no second place, because everything else really isn’t even dressing. Billye Faye Vanderslice Watson, Grammy’s daughter-in-law and my mother, made the same dressing — usually in the same kitchen with Grammy.

 

We thought we’d lost the recipe after my mother died in early 1999. Grammy wasn’t making dressing by that time and died a little later. We messed around with different dressings but they were never the same.

 

One holiday season, Liz and I were mourning the fact that we didn’t know the recipe and had lost the historians. We sort of chastised ourselves for not writing it down when we had those two around.

 

That night, Liz pulled a book off a high shelf and a 3x5 card fluttered out of it. On the card, in my mother’s handwriting, was the recipe to what she labeled “Grammy’s Cornbread Dressing.” It was very spooky. It felt like those two old women had been listening and sent us that recipe to take care of us again.

 

Since I started publishing this recipe over the years, it’s been pretty cool to bump into people who tell me they made Grammy’s dressing or that they remember a similar dressing or Thanksgiving tradition that they share with me. Grammy and my mother would have gotten a kick out of it, too.

 

cornbread dressing recipe card

 

And in other holiday news…

 

Ballet Austin’s The Nutcracker has been bringing a lot of joy and magic to folks in Austin since 1962 — and whether you’re watching it for the first time or the 61st, it’s always a great experience. Ballet Austin does a fantastic job.

 

Not all Nutcrackers are the same, however. Some are extra special. Or at least some make me feel special.

 

Each year, Ballet Austin invites different people to play the role of Mother Ginger. The first time my performance transformed the ballet art form was in 1997. Not since the Renaissance have so many people seen this sort of thing on stage and asked in awe, “What is that?”

 

I’m super excited to be asked to do this again. I’ll be doing my stuff on December 3rd at 2pm. The mayors of Cedar Park, Leander, and Westlake Hills are also set to play this beloved role. So will Austin’s Interim Police Chief Robin Henderson and Austin-Travis County EMS Chief Robert Luckritz. It’s going to be a fantastic production. You can find more information here.

 

1997 Mother Ginger

 

 

Published: November 19, 2023

Watson Wire: We all Grieve. We all Mourn.

Our community woke up to a terrible tragedy yesterday.

 

One police officer died and another was injured while bravely doing their job, which meant, in this instance, they ran toward gunfire. The family and friends and colleagues of the fallen officer have only begun to grieve their loss. The officer who survived serious gunshot injuries will be changed forever. The on-scene SWAT officers and the EMS Tactical Unit that responded heroically to help our officers are now dealing with their own emotional aftermath.

 

We rely on brave people who are in harm’s way when they are serving us. We should never lose sight of that. This event jarringly brings home that truth. The danger and potential loss is not theoretical — it’s very, very real. I thank these courageous public servants and ask that our community hold them close, support them, respect them, and lift them up in prayer.

 

There was a second loss yesterday when another officer died. While the two tragedies are unrelated, each loss compounds our grief.  We honor the officer's service. We embrace and pray for her family. We also recommit to supporting our officers and their essential mental health needs as they do the difficult jobs of keeping us safe.

 

Our community conversation around policing and public safety is incredibly fraught on a good day. And yesterday was a horrible day. Tomorrow — or very soon — there will be other events — some expected and some not — that could impact our thinking and discussion.

 

For this moment, we all grieve. We all mourn. My hope — my deepest wish is that, as a community, we move from this moment with compassion and empathy, reason and thoughtfulness, so that we will be more together going forward. We grieve, we mourn, we heal—as one city with a collective future. 

 

 

Published: November 12, 2023

Watson Wire: From Mayor Gru

This is my favorite time of year — the days are getting cooler, there’s lots of football, the holidays are almost here, and we get to act like kids on Halloween.

 

I’ve always enjoyed October 31st, but having the two granddaughters has made it way, way better. My grand girl Effie will be 6 years old this month and grand girl Birdie is 2 years and 9 months old. Effie dressed up as a skeleton along with her dad. Birdie was a minion along with her Pop (that’s me) and Lolly (that’s Liz), who were Gru and Lucy respectively.

 

Pictures are being held and won’t be released until 50 years after my death. Even then, I may feel humiliation. But it was all worth it and, as it usually is with those girls, it was a blast.

 

Doc

 

Supporting the Workforce Behind the Workforce

 

Today, the City Council began the process of granting qualified childcare centers in Austin a property tax exemption, a local option created by the Legislature that Texas voters just authorized on Tuesday. The exemption will apply to next year’s property taxes.

 

The Legislature didn’t include home-based child care providers in the constitutional amendment, but today’s Council resolution directs the City Manager to explore what more we can do at the City to help them. One thing to remember about the constitutional amendment is that it creates the basic framework for a property tax cut for childcare - but leaves the details to future legislatures. The enabling legislation that includes the details can be changed at any point. The conversation about property tax cuts for home-based childcare providers is only beginning.

 

I met up with a group of home-based childcare providers last week and heard from them about the everyday challenges they face just to stay open and serve working families throughout the community. One of those providers, Loretta Johnson, brought me a t-shirt that says “we are the workforce behind the workforce.”

 

That’s a message that I wish every employer in our community would hear (so I’ve been sharing it with folks A LOT). Access to quality, affordable childcare is one of the biggest challenges to overcome for folks to take advantage of Austin’s economic opportunities. And in the wake of the pandemic, I think a lot of employers as well as policymakers are starting to understand the critical importance of childcare in a whole new way. 

 

 

Mayor’s Book Club

 

It turns out that I have something in common with Oprah beyond talking a bunch — I, too, have a book club. It was something that started back in 2002 to encourage community and a love of reading.

 

This year, the Mayor’s Book Club selected Mr. Texas by Pulitzer Prize-winning local author Lawrence Wright. Mr. Texas is about Sonny Lamb, a West Texas rancher who surprisingly gets elected to the Texas Legislature and tries to navigate the complexities of life in politics.

 

Navigating… actually, surviving the Legislature is something I can relate to. That’s why I think this is a pretty neat choice because there’s always a whole lot of stuff going on in Texas politics— not all of it great, not all bad either — but it often seems like fiction.

 

Lawrence Wright will join the Mayor’s Book Club at the Austin Central Library on November 27 at 7PM, where he’ll speak with Emily Ramshaw, founder of The 19th about Mr. Texas and more. It will be a fun opportunity to gather, and I hope to see you all there.

 

 

 

Published: November 9, 2023

Watson Wire: Common Purpose, Common Sense

The public safety net that provides mental health care for our most vulnerable neighbors – those who are unhoused – is badly frayed.

We have multiple local jurisdictions with a shared duty to serve our unhoused neighbors. But the lack of coordination between those entities contributed to a near-crisis in late August when Integral Care had to cut jobs and services to balance the budget. Over a long holiday weekend, we cobbled together a short-term funding solution with Central Health to avoid the cuts at Integral Care. Now, we’re focusing on the long-term and how to make the sum of the component parts work a whole lot better — with just some common sense and common efforts.

Part of our problem is that we’ve developed a bad habit of seeking funding for programs without establishing how we’ll ultimately judge success. We’re too often measuring progress simply by how much we’re spending, not by the actual results of that spending. Focusing on the money may create the appearance of great effort, but it’s not helping us to get ahead of the challenge.

 

Changing the Approach

As I promised, I’ve convened a group to look at how the various jurisdictions are providing mental health services for the homeless population. I brought together representatives of Central Health, Integral Care, Travis County, the City of Austin, and Dell Medical School at UT Austin. The group also includes Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who serves as the Chair of the City Council’s Public Health Committee and is a committed advocate for mental health services for our population living homeless.

This group agreed that we share a core purpose of making homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring. And we need to take responsibility — as a group and as individual jurisdictions — for better coordinating services for people who are homeless and for better aligning our long-term visions or plans with more immediate needs.

To that end, there was also agreement to launch a joint independent review of our respective and collective homeless services. We need a performance review of how we’re doing this work. There’s no reason to fear an independent analysis if we want results justifying our spending.

Among other things, the review will include strategy evaluations, an examination of our contracts related to homelessness, and analysis of the coordination of services and delivery. We want to get this review done by early in the next year. We will then have our group, through our professional staff, conduct a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats) of our services.

With that work, we can assess the possibilities for doing all of this better.

 

Published: November 2, 2023

October 2023

Watson Wire: Time to hear from you on housing

Wherever I go these days, I get an earful about the proposals to update the Land Development Code.

At neighborhood association meetings, I hear a lot of legitimate consternation from homeowners about how these changes may affect their property and what their neighbors might be able to do next door. But the worries are very different when I’m talking to a crowd of folks who wonder how – and if – they’ll ever be able to make a home in Austin.

There are valid concerns being expressed from more than one point of view that we need to respect and consider as we begin the official code revision process with tomorrow’s joint public hearing involving both the City Council and the Planning Commission. As I’ve said many, many times before, our city is smart enough to wrap its collective head around more than just two sides of an issue.

Austin is at a very important point in time. We’re one of the largest cities in America. We’re a focal point worldwide. We’re growing into a 21st Century International City. We need more housing — affordable and otherwise — but our rules and regs for getting housing are pretty much frozen in time and almost 40 years old.

I believe that Austinites want to expand the availability of a full range of housing options without damaging the essential character of our existing neighborhoods or putting our environment at risk. And I’m talking about neighborhoods all over Austin, not just in certain parts of the city. Neighborhood character, culture, and community are important everywhere.

Now, again, I’m certain that we won’t come up with a perfect policy. Heck, I bet we don’t come up with a policy that even one person considers perfect. But this progressive, smart, creative place ought to be able to have a more up-to-date policy that looks to the future more than it does the past. I know there’s lingering scar tissue from the past several years with the everything-everywhere-all-at-once-without-much-notice approach. I think the approach we’re taking, while not perfect, is better and will get us to a better result.

Tomorrow’s meeting is a beginning, not the end. This is a unique meeting. It looks like Austin has never held a joint meeting of the Council and the Planning Commission to, hopefully, better hear from the public. This joint meeting will be followed by another meeting of the Planning Commission. That will be followed by another meeting of the City Council.

We will not be voting to adopt anything on Thursday. Instead, we’ll be there to listen to you, and your input is invaluable as we work to craft policy that will address our housing and affordability emergency in this city. I hope we can have a productive discussion as a community, knowing that doing nothing is not an option.

 

What’s in the Ordinance?

The proposed ordinance would do the following:

  • Allow up to three housing units, including Tiny Homes and Recreational Vehicles (RVs), on a Single-Family (SF) zoned property;
  • Revise regulations that apply to a property with 2 housing units; and
  • Remove restrictions on the number of unrelated adults living in a housing unit.

Next year, the City Council is set to take up other revisions to the Land Development Code, including reducing the minimum lot size. That policy change is not part of the ordinance we’re considering now because city staff is taking the time necessary to work through a lot of complicated issues.

All of these changes are intended to foster the opportunity for more density to improve housing access and affordability, but they will also create new challenges that we need to anticipate and address with an eye toward the future. For example, how do we systematically upgrade the utility infrastructure needed to serve denser neighborhoods? And how do we reconcile our Climate Equity Plan goals, which call for less impervious cover, with the additional density? 

No one said this was gonna be easy.

There will be an open house on Monday, November 6, so that folks can meet with city staff to ask questions about proposed code amendments.

There will be an open house on Monday, November 6, so that folks can meet with city staff to ask questions about proposed code amendments.

What is a "Protest"?

Only in Austin would we get protests about how to protest. For certain types of Land Development Code changes, a formal protest by enough people will trigger a requirement that a super-majority of the City Council must approve the change for it to be effective. To trigger that additional right, protest petitions must be signed and mailed or hand delivered to the City. Details on how to do that can be found on the Protest Rights tab of the webpage, where you can also find the petition form provided by the City to make sure all of the information is there. 

There are some folks that are saying you can protest by sending an email. Yes, if you send an email that says, “I protest what you’re doing,” that is a protest of sorts. But it doesn’t trigger the super-majority requirement. If you have used a different link than the ones included above, please note that those emails will be considered as feedback on your thoughts regarding the ordinance but will not be counted as an official protest.

 

Published: October 25, 2023

Watson Wire: You've Got Mail

More than 725,000 notifications are landing in mailboxes all across the city to inform property owners and give notice of upcoming public hearings on potential changes to Austin’s Land Development Code.

The notices are a lovely lavender color that I hope gets your attention – because it’s important stuff. I was told, however, that they’d be pink and had my heart set on a different retro movie title to use as today’s subject line. Oh, well. Some other time.

Austin has a very real need for more housing. How to get that housing has been a heated discussion for years now. The last major effort, which was a big sort of try-to-do-everything-everywhere-all-at-once affair, resulted in pretty much nothing really happening.

This time around, this City Council is approaching the changes differently. We’re attempting to address specific barriers to additional housing. Additionally, and importantly, we’re working to provide the public ample notice about upcoming hearings and Council action, something that was lacking the last time. The process changes are the direct result of public feedback during CodeNext. We’ve heard you.

Here are the changes we’re considering right now:

  • Allow up to three housing units, including tiny homes and recreational vehicles (RVs), on a single-family (SF) zoned property
  • Revise regulations that apply to a property with 2 housing units
  • Remove restrictions on the number of unrelated adults living in a housing unit 

 

In 2020, Austin voters spoke loud and clear by approving a property tax increase to pay for light rail. This is a voter-approved generational investment in mobility, affordability and equity. Now, it’s time for the Council to follow through and enact the land-use changes necessary to make light rail happen in Austin.

These proposals are just that. They are proposals. Listening to the public is a necessary part of figuring out what becomes of the proposals — what gets adopted, what gets rejected, what are changes to improve them. There will be other proposals coming in probably the first half of 2024, and we’ll go through this public notification and engagement process again.

Our goal is to create more housing options so folks can stay in Austin and thrive. We want a City where everyone can make a home, stay in that home and be a part of our community. We need our city to be able to realize the value, the diversity, the bubbling place that comes from a mix of distinctive people from all parts of life, all sorts of jobs, all variations of characters and creators.

The regulatory changes are also key to realizing our longtime community goal of building light rail in Austin. For Austin to be competitive for federal funding, we need land-use rules that foster greater housing density, particularly along the transit lines.

 

Public Hearing Details

The public hearings on these proposed amendments will be held at Austin City Hall, 301 W. 2nd St., on: 

Thursday, October 26 at 2 p.m. - Joint Planning Commission and City Council Meeting 

Tuesday, November 14 at 6 p.m. - Planning Commission Meeting 

Thursday, December 7 at 10 a.m. - City Council Meeting 

 

Protest Rights

A property owner may protest the changes by delivering or mailing a written petition, signed by the property owner, to the City’s Planning Department. To ensure that your petition is submitted with all the necessary information, use the petition form provided by the City and follow the steps to complete and submit the form. Check out the Protest Rights tab of the webpage. 

You must register in advance to speak at any of the public hearings. To learn more, including when speaker registration opens and closes, visit the How to Participate tab of the webpage. 

 

Published: October 16, 2023

Watson Wire: Changing the Paradigm 

During a KAZI radio interview last May, Alberta Phillips asked me about what we’re doing to ensure everyone in our community can be a part of our supercharged local economy.

It’s a fair question. And it’s a fundamental question that speaks to so many of the challenges we’re facing as a community, particularly equity and affordability.

I worry a lot about generational inequity. I don’t want us to be the first generation that fails to create the opportunity for those coming behind us to be a full part of Austin — living here, building families and making friends here, sharing their voices here, building wealth here — in Austin. It’s easy to be distracted by our current success so that we don’t look at whether the next generation and the ones after that are going to be able to love this place and succeed in this place. That’s why we’re shifting our economic development paradigm to focus unapologetically and relentlessly on making sure Austinites have the access, training and education to take advantage of the ample opportunity Austin provides.

Today, we’re taking an important step toward addressing those challenges by ensuring that Austinites have the means to create careers and financial security for their families as part of the $25 billion investment in mobility infrastructure coming our way through Project Connect, airport expansion, I-35 reconstruction, and other infrastructure projects.

With these projects, we’ll be building more than just light rail, bridges and an airport. We can also be building and lifting up Austin’s people and their families for generations to come.

Watson speaking at workforce summit

Moving Forward

To understand the talent needed to deliver these enormous mobility programs, I called on Workforce Solutions Capital Area to help us do something that hasn’t been done before in Austin— create a comprehensive needs analysis and workplan. It verifies that mobility and infrastructure aren’t just areas of work supporting the economy—those jobs are an economic development sector themselves.

We unveiled that research today at a Mobility & Infrastructure Summit that has brought together more than 100 infrastructure job creators as well as educators and labor leaders involved with workforce training. We also had local government officials there, including folks from Capital Metro and the Austin Transit Partnership, who have committed to carrying our plans forward.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the research:

  • Planned large capital projects will create 10,000 mobility and infrastructure jobs annually, double the number expected under business as usual;
  • An annual training gap of 4,000 workers will exacerbate existing skills shortages, meaning that training programs will need to be scaled and connected; and
  • Women make up only 14 percent of the mobility and infrastructure workforce currently but could provide a significant share of the workers needed.

These jobs have low barriers to entry but can lead to sustainable career pathways. First, we need to identify and remove the obstacles, such as access to affordable child care, that prevent jobseekers from pursuing these jobs and participating in training. As part of the federal infrastructure law, there’s a lot of workforce development funding that can be used for things like child care. One goal of this summit is to get all the state and local government partners to work in concert to pursue this funding.

We must coordinate, anticipate, plan for and then build the capacity to provide the local talent for these infrastructure projects that are creating good jobs that can lead to life-long careers. This strategy will bring resources to the workers to support them, including access to skill-building training, childcare, and connections to good jobs that are essential to Austin’s future.

And instead of measuring economic success based solely on the number of jobs created, we will also measure it by how many local people can fill those jobs and build their careers so they can afford to live in their city and community while improving mobility for all of us. 

 

Published: October 12, 2023

Watson Wire: Lessons Learned

When Winter Storm Mara hit us at the first of the year and just three weeks after I became mayor, it was pretty clear to me (and a lot of other folks) that the City was not running as it should. It was so messed up that I couldn’t even get into the Emergency Operations Center without surrendering my driver’s license. That may sound small, but making sure I wasn’t a Kirk Watson imposter really was not what we needed to be worried about. As if anyone else with any sense would've wanted to be Kirk Watson at that moment.

The people of Austin need and deserve their city government to work well — especially when an emergency strikes. That’s why I stood up and promised we’d do better by you.

Now, I did not and will not promise that the lights will never go out again. Storms will happen. Electric and mechanical systems don’t always work right. And with climate change, we all need to expect and be ready for more extreme weather with expected and unexpected impacts. The City’s job is to ensure we’re well prepared to respond to the effects of those storms as efficiently as possible and to provide you clear, accurate and timely information. We also need to make our home as resilient as we can.

Today, the City of Austin released the Winter Storm Mara “After-Action Report”, and it outlines serious shortcomings that existed back in February in the areas of emergency communications, planning and preparation, operational coordination, resource/asset management, technology and infrastructure, and shelter management. It’s incredibly frustrating that many of these same shortcomings had also been highlighted in the After-Action Report on Winter Storm Uri from back in 2021 and had not yet been addressed two years later.

This time, we will do better. We already are doing better, even without this report. It’s hard to admit how very angry I still am about how badly I thought things were being handled. It’s resulted in a lot of changes.

 

Progress Update

For example, in February, we changed city managers, bringing in Jesús Garza to serve as Interim City Manager. We tasked him to begin immediately addressing our emergency preparedness and response. There have been a number of important management changes and bolstered emergency management personnel throughout City departments. Texas mayors play a special role in disasters under state law. The system in Austin was badly busted back in early February. We’ve taken action to fix things, although I still think there’s work to do. Sometimes old habits are hard to break.

Overall, however, the movement is good. The City has increased staffing, added and updated training, hardened critical structures, expanded back-up power sources, revamped emergency operations plans, and targeted improvements to power restoration efforts, vegetation management and storm clean-up.

 

Here are just some of the specific improvements:

  • Upgrading Austin Energy’s Outage Map to be more accurate during high-traffic times;
  • Equipping City facilities and shelters with emergency generators;
  • Accelerating tree trimming and vegetation clearing near power lines and studying the feasibility of burying the power lines; and
  • Conducting a regional assessment of the gaps and needs in our emergency response plans.

 

In response, Austin’s new director of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) (he was appointed since the February storm), has led the training of more than 50 communications staff throughout the city on emergency communication protocols, so that they are prepared for the next event. HSEM is also making sure all City Public Information Managers are trained on systems designed to align city-wide communications during an emergency.

 

While these are significant communications improvements, I recognize that there is so much more to do before the next weather event— especially when it comes to Austin Energy. The good news is that Austin Energy recognizes the urgency, too, and is currently working on implementing several action items from the 2023 report, including establishing an operational procedure to produce systemwide estimated times of restoration for long-duration events. Having procedures in place on performing a full outage assessment before announcing estimated restoration times would’ve given customers an accurate and clear understanding of what was going on. This will be critical as we continue to have more extreme weather events that test our resiliency and response systems.

 

Communication, Communication, Communication

The after-action report on Mara found a lack of communication between the Emergency Operations Center and elected officials as well as inefficient internal communications between city departments— no surprise, so did the 2021 report. Both reports highlighted that staff was not trained effectively and lacked an understanding of expectations during these emergency weather events.

 

We will continue to take more proactive steps because we know extreme weather events will occur more frequently. We need you to take proactive steps, too, by signing up for emergency alertsassembling emergency kits, and establishing family emergency plans.  Please sign up for these alerts right now.

Back when this all happened in February, I said, “This has been a persistent challenge over the past several years and public frustration is absolutely warranted. Over and over again, we see the same failure. Even with reports that clearly state something has to change. So, something will change.”

I’m working with others at the city to make that change. It’s happening. And this After-Action Report will not be ignored.

 

Published: October 3, 2023

September 2023

Watson Wire: Notice Anything?

I’ve really come to dread Friday afternoons. For some reason, every Friday at about 3:00  — and you can set your clock by it — the proverbial stuff hits the fan. It’s like people have waited all week to break whatever bad news they have for me.

And, yeah, I’ve been known to whine about it — loudly.

But I do appreciate getting the heads-up when something big is coming. Being notified, even about something I don’t like or disagree with, allows me to address it, give input, maybe even fix it.

The same applies to how the city government — the Mayor and Council —should give notice to the public on big issues.

This issue is coming into play now because we will soon be taking up some pretty big changes to the Land Development Code (LDC) as part of our determined efforts to address Austin’s housing affordability emergency. And getting the public notice process right really matters, since that was one of the issues that sunk the LDC rewrite known as CodeNext (both legally and as a matter of just good government).

Even before I was back in the mayor’s office, I really disliked and disagreed with how the City handled CodeNext. The City made the decision not to provide notice in as broad a way as possible about what was happening and what CodeNext could do all across the city. People sued the City and Austin lost the suit, along with a lot of credibility. And from a housing policy perspective, we lost precious time, lots and lots of time.

 

Doing It Differently

The Council members and I are committed to getting more housing in Austin. We adopted several housing-related resolutions a few months ago directing the City Manager to come back with full ordinances for Council consideration. The approach has been to focus on individual initiatives that address specific needs or barriers, including LDC changes necessary to bring about positive results.

These are big changes, and some folks have legitimate concerns about how these changes will affect their lives and affect Austin now and in the future. At times, the land use debate in Austin has been bitterly divided and often feels as partisan as Washington, D.C. It may not be partisan in the sense of Republicans and Democrats, but it’s divided into sides with name calling, an unwillingness to talk with each other and, using tools like public notice (or the lack of it) to gain an advantage.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that you’re either 1) for housing and don’t care about neighborhoods; or 2) for protecting neighborhoods and opposed to things that could get us more housing. I think a lot (dare I say, most?) of Austinites sit somewhere in the middle between those two poles, which can have some very passionate people advocating. And, yeah, I’m guessing we’re not going to get perfect, pure results. We’re not going to meet everyone’s concept of perfection. Trying to fairly and responsibly address big issues impacting lots of people is rarely, if ever, utopian.

The hope is that we start from a place where people don't feel left out or messed around because the process is distorted. Of course, the process will also not be perfect.  But I believe that the public knowing what’s happening and having a shot at good public feedback will help us make these policies better for everyone. To get that feedback, I want robust and clear public notice of any proposed LDC change. Not just the minimum that can be legally achieved, but more than the law requires. And we should consider alternative notice mechanisms, too, so we can maybe reach more folks.

The first step in this will likely be to have a joint meeting of the Austin City Council and the Planning Commission on certain proposals. This will give us at least three times for public comment: the joint meeting, a separate Planning Commission meeting and a separate Council meeting. On September 21, the Austin City Council will vote on whether we should have a joint meeting as well as the public notification process.

More communication about what’s going on with LDC changes than is customary — maybe even more than is necessary — will only help this process as we address a formidable challenge. Frankly, greater communication is the least we should do to ensure a credible community discussion of an issue that will define Austin’s future.

Have a great weekend. As for me, well, it’s Friday and 3:00 is almost here. I’m headed to turn on the fan.

 

Published: September 15, 2023

Watson Wire: Strengthening the Healthcare Safety Net

Mental illness is common. Often hidden but common. And brain health, in concept, is no different than heart health. Yet the public finance system that supports a healthcare safety net for our most vulnerable neighbors deals with brain health differently — and poorly at that.

As a result, Integral Care, the public entity that supports adults and children living with mental illness, substance use disorders and intellectual and developmental disabilities in Travis County, is now facing significant fiscal challenges.

As a community, we’ve repeatedly worked to piece together a healthcare safety-net system to serve everyone. We need to work together again to shore up Integral Care. For now, we have a way to do that through our Travis County Healthcare District, known as Central Health. But we also need to do better preparing for the future of our safety net and meeting the needs of our unhoused neighbors, many of whom are living with mental illness.

 

The Safety Net

For the longest time, the City of Austin basically provided the healthcare safety net. This went on even after other counties created hospital or health care districts that were county-wide to provide a broader revenue base than just a city. We just kept it weird by comparison.

In 2004, Travis County voters created a health care district – now known as Central Health – to serve this function. The district covers the whole of Travis County. As healthcare funding responsibilities shifted to Central Health, the City and Travis County both reduced their property tax rates and transferred that ongoing taxing capacity to Central Health. Thanks to that property tax revenue, Central Health has accumulated reserves of about $400 million, an amount that exceeds its annual expenditures.

Integral Care, another part of our safety net, doesn’t have access to a stable, reliable and ongoing source of local funding. Instead, Integral Care cobbles together local, state and federal funds as well as philanthropy to pay for essential mental healthcare programs. And changes to how those state and federal dollars flow have contributed to a major budget shortfall at Integral Care.

Last week, the Board of Directors for Integral Care adopted a budget that includes significant layoffs and will reduce access to mental healthcare in this community at a time when we all know the extraordinary needs, particularly since Integral Care’s work is key to addressing the needs of those living homeless in Travis County. Representatives of the workers at Integral Care pointed out that, once again, we need to figure out how to fix the safety net and address this fiscal challenge.

 

How Best to Address this Safety Net Issue

As Central Health says, it is the “only organization that can create and is empowered to create a high-functioning, comprehensive safety-net healthcare system for Travis County.” Yep, that’s why the voters created it. It’s the reason other jurisdictions gave it resources and reduced their tax rates so that the safety net organization could succeed and, as a result, we all have a better shot at succeeding.

I’ve worked closely with Central Health over the years. And, as this specific issue has arisen (along with other issues related to our population that’s living homeless), I’ve had productive discussions about next steps with Mike Geeslin, the President and CEO of Central Health; Dr. Charles Bell, Chair of the Central Health Board of Managers; Maram Museitif, Chair of the Central Health Budget Committee; and Ann Kitchen, a former Austin City Council Member and board member of both Central Health and Integral Care. I’ve also talked with Trish Young Brown, the Chair of the Integral Care Board and the former CEO at Central Health.

Central Health is able to provide a short-term solution to avoid significant cuts to mental health services that will undermine our community investments in health, healthcare and addressing the needs of our population living homeless. It’s important, however, that we don’t just have Central Health backstop any and all Integral Care deficits. Also, the expenditure of Central Health funds must be consistent with Central Health’s mission, and we probably will need to have some analysis of the methods of care.

On Wednesday, the Central Health Board of Managers will meet to adopt the 2024 budget and tax rate. I anticipate that Central Health will give appropriate consideration to this immediate issue. I encourage the Board of Managers to support this need now.

Central Health’s proposed budget for the next year sets aside a total of $438 million in reserves – in addition to the $354 million it has budgeted to spend on health services and other functions. The very substantial reserves set aside by Central Health are intended to pay for a long-term Healthcare Equity Plan. That’s good. But, right now there are significant needs, and parts of that distant plan align directly with those immediate needs and the missions of both Central Health and Integral Care.

I want to be clear: I applaud Central Health for planning ahead and setting aside resources now for big investments in the future. But our community has very real health care problems and a homelessness crisis now – today – and Central Health has both the mission and the means to help. That would prevent lay-offs and prevent a reduction in important services.

 

Looking Ahead

For the longer term, I’m working to convene the CEOs and board chairs of Central Health and Integral Care along with the Travis County Judge and the County Health Director, the Austin City Manager and me, and the Dean of the Dell Medical School at UT Austin, which is very involved in care arising out of Central Health and Integral Care.

We need to take the responsibility to address three issues for this community:

  1. Stabilizing and maximizing Integral Care’s budget situation;
  2. Collaborating and coordinating funding for services related to those who are unhoused; and
  3. Aligning our long-term visions and plans for addressing homelessness with more immediate needs.

There will be other issues going forward, of course, but these need current and pretty urgent attention.

Watson Wire: “...good music produced by legends”

As part of the normal course of business during Austin City Council meetings, we showcase local musical performers in the middle of the day sandwiched between Public Communication and zoning hearings. It’s a pretty good little break and focuses on what a creative, musical town we have. It also gives the performer some exposure through ATXN. As mayor, I declare the day in honor of the musician or band that’s entertaining us.

On most Thursdays, as I’m listening and clapping to the beat, I wish more folks could see it or be there to join in the fun. Yesterday, I got my wish.

Yesterday was “DJ 2DQ Day”. A bunch of DJ 2DQ’s fans packed into the Council Chambers to celebrate the longtime DJ. This happy group of people brought such great energy and excitement while DJ 2DQ took us all on little stroll down musical memory lane. It was a ton of fun. Everybody danced. Council member José Velásquez challenged me to freestyle. I decided to leave that to the professionals.

 

Here’s the proclamation:

Be it known that

Whereas, the City of Austin, Texas is blessed with many creative musicians whose talent extends to virtually every musical genre; and

Whereas, our music scene thrives because Austin audiences support good music produced by legends, our local favorites and newcomers alike; and

Whereas, we are pleased to showcase and support our local artists;

Now, therefore, I, Kirk Watson, Mayor of the Live Music Capital, do hereby proclaim August 31st, 2023 as DJ 2DQ Day in Austin.

I hope you all get a chance over this holiday weekend to enjoy our great town and the people who make it interesting and fun and full of music.

 

Published: September 1, 2023

 

August 2023

Watson Wire: Women’s Equality Day & AWE

Today is Women’s Equality Day, which marks the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Finally getting the right to vote was a major milestone in the fight for women’s equality, but the struggle continues for women to achieve equality, including economic equality.

I recently formed the Mayor’s Task Force for Austin Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) aimed at ensuring Austin’s entrepreneurial women have equal opportunities to start and build their businesses.

We’ve put together a strong group of talented women who are laying the groundwork to make Austin a great city for women to start and build businesses. And they’d like your feedback on actions our city, our higher education institutions, non-profits, and private sector partners can take to support Austin’s women entrepreneurs more robustly.

Help us honor Women’s Equality Day by completing this short survey that the AWE Task Force has developed to engage the community in its important work.

We can create a world-class and thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem for women in Austin. One that's more inclusive and equitable.

 

Published: August 26, 2023

 
 
 
Watson Wire: Getting Out of Our Own Way

The bad news: The City of Austin’s development review process is terribly inefficient and costly and has made our affordability crisis worse.

But, the good news: We’re gonna fix that.

As I took office, I met with McKinsey & Company, the international consulting firm, and asked them to take a deep dive into the City’s site plan review process. I had promised during the campaign that we would dig into this mess and get working to fix it quickly.

Report Findings

McKinsey’s findings are pretty striking:

  • Each site plan application goes through about 1,470 total steps.
  • Each formal review cycle takes the equivalent of a week’s work for 20 employees and each application, on average, goes through 5 formal review cycles.
  • 78% of applicants surveyed reported taking longer than one year to receive a permit.
  • 81% of applicants surveyed reported submitting 3+ times to resolve formal review comments.
  • Every month of delay increases the overall development costs of a single-family house by almost $10,000. For a multifamily development, it adds almost $546,000 a month.
  • Only 1 percent of the customers surveyed were satisfied with the City of Austin’s site review process. By comparison, customer satisfaction with the state’s permitting and licensure processes is 34 percent.

City staff is also frustrated by the lack of a coordinated and streamlined review process, and applicants noted that the consistent turnover of reviewers leads to delayed reviews. So clearly, the process works for no one.

With 11 different departments playing a role in the review process, McKinsey identified the siloed priorities and approaches in each of those departments as a major factor in the breakdown in the process. What we need is a “shared direction and ‘one team’ mindset and approach.” The siloed nature of City departments has been a recurring problem as we’ve spent this past 7 months working to reorganize the City for success.

Over the years, there have been a lot of audits and reports on the development review process, but nothing lasting seemed to come of them. This one is different. McKinsey started at the most fundamental level of documenting each laborious step in the review process, which shockingly had never been in any of those past efforts.

At Tuesday’s City Council work session, we’ll hear from McKinsey about their findings and recommendations for a process that is designed for customers and staff with consistency, transparency, and ease of use. The recommendations include some changes that we could implement quickly, such as creating an online “pizza tracker” for applicants to know the status of their application. Other changes, including new IT systems, will take longer to ensure they’re done right.

And then on Thursday, the Council will vote on a contract for McKinsey to continue on with the implementation of this initial phase.

There are a lot of variables in the affordability equation, and many of them are outside of the City’s control. But this one is all us, and there is consensus that we need to get out of our own way and get this done to make Austin more affordable to everyone.

 

Published: August 23, 2023

Watson (Water) Wire: Wanting for and Wasting Not

Seems that 47 years of a guilty conscience finally caught up with Bob of Flushing, Michigan. So, in a recent letter to me, Bob admitted that he and his wife absconded with an item that belonged to the people of Austin back in 1976.

“We took a souvenir, and now we’re returning it,” Bob wrote. “We are hopeful that the statute of limitations on liberating Water Works property has run out.”

water infrastructure

As for those outstanding UT parking tickets from the same time, Bob is less concerned: “Can you please tell the campus safety office that we’re not yet so repentant that we’ll pay those two parking tickets?”

By the power vested in me by the ratepayers of the Austin Water Utility, I absolve you, Bob. But you’re on your own with UT.

 

Time to Conserve

Austin is no stranger to hot, dry summers, but the extreme heat and lack of rain we’ve seen this summer means we all need be very mindful about our water use. We expect that the water storage in the Highland Lakes, the reservoirs that are the source of Austin’s drinking water, will soon reach about 45% of capacity, which is a critical level that’s triggering the next stage of the City’s Drought Contingency Plan.

What this means for you is that beginning Tuesday, August 15, the City of Austin’s Stage Two watering restrictions will be in effect and enforced. These restrictions include:

  • Automatic irrigation and hose-end watering is restricted to one day per week.
  • Automatic irrigation runtime is reduced by 3 hours with cutoff at 5 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.
  • Water waste is prohibited.
  • Restaurants may serve water only upon request.
  • Charity car washes are prohibited, and home car washing must use an auto-shut-off valve or a bucket.
  • Patio misters at commercial properties, including restaurants and bars, may operate only between 4 p.m. and midnight.
  • Large ornamental fountains can no longer be operated.
  • New landscape-establishment irrigation is no longer exempt from the watering schedule.

 

Saving for a Non-Rainy Day

Sustaining an essential lifesource should motivate us both individually and as a city looking to our future.

During my first time as mayor, we negotiated a long-term water supply contract with the Lower Colorado River Authority. It was an important deal for us and something we count on today. When I was in the Texas Senate, I worked with the LCRA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to update the LCRA’s water management plan to better assure conservation and that there is water to meet the terms of the water agreement.

Importantly, following the historic drought Central Texas experienced from 2008-2016, Austin Water, with the assistance of lots of community experts and input, developed the Water Forward Plan, a 100-year integrated water resource plan focused on ensuring a sustainable and resilient water supply.

The plan recommended a robust set of strategies to manage our supply including things like expanding the purple pipe system that uses treated, reclaimed water for the purpose of irrigation, cooling towers, and other uses not related to requiring higher-quality drinking water. The plan also recommended an aquifer storage and recovery project, which is a strategy that would store water in a natural aquifer during wet times for later recovery and use. It’s an ambitious project but will be a critical part in securing water for generations to come.

This scorching, almost unbearable weather reminds us daily of the need to think about and prepare for tomorrow.

 

 

Published: August 14, 2023

 
Watson Wire: Halting Zilker Park Vision Plan

The Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan will not be on the August 31st City Council agenda, and there is no plan to bring it before the Austin Mayor and Council in the future.

I’ve written previously and spoken publicly multiple times about my concerns with the Zilker Park Vision Plan.

As the plan is shelved, we should recognize that really good people can often disagree. A lot of people and groups worked hard to do something big and positive for our community. And our city staffers have put a lot into this process, as well. I truly appreciate and respect their efforts.

In this case, I see people who share a love our home and have good motivations all agreeing that Zilker Park is special — an Austin jewel. They also agree that the park needs our care and protection, and folks from all over town deserve access to it. However, they disagree on how to achieve these important purposes.

Zilker and downtown

 

Going Forward

My recommendation is that we cool off for a spell (I wish we could do that with the weather, too). We could all benefit from a little time and perspective. And then, we can start working together on the recommendations in the plan that have consensus.

On those issues where there is strong disagreement, there is general agreement that the stated goals are valid. For example, the dispute over parking arises from a desire for equitable access to people from all over the city. Where there’s disagreement is how to achieve that common goal.

While there’s also disagreement over a new location for the Zilker Hillside Theater, there’s little disagreement that our current theater needs help to accommodate a growing city and to have a more functional venue.

I believe strongly that we can — and must — meet our objectives to preserve and nurture the ecological sanctity of this place while assuring equitable access to all Austinites.

However, this plan wasn’t the right course and it’s time for it to be ended. I'm grateful the Interim City Manager has stopped this process.

 

Published: August 7, 2023

July 2023

Watson Wire: Love Lives Here

The bright and colorful message emblazoned on a wall at the Esperanza Community, a non-congregate homeless shelter complex built and operated by The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF), sings a message of hope and joy. At Esperanza, TOOF offers holistic services including onsite work opportunities, case management, housing navigation and other support for our unhoused neighbors.

And TOOF will soon be able to show the love to even more folks thanks to a big investment from the State of Texas.

Even before I was elected mayor, I was talking with the Governor’s Office and local community partners about addressing the City’s homelessness crisis by increasing shelter capacity in Austin. Those efforts accelerated when I got into City Hall and they led to today, when the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) awarded almost $65 million to Austin community groups addressing homelessness. About $60 million has been earmarked to support the planning for and expansion of the non-congregate shelter model in Austin with a City goal of establishing an estimated 700 additional bed capacity.

Also included in that total is $5 million for Caritas of Austin and LifeWorks for housing stabilization, such as emergency rental assistance.

Susan McDowell, CEO of LifeWorks, said the award will go a long way in supporting efforts to address youth homelessness, providing life-changing services like housing, counseling, and workforce training.

“Through this collaborative partnership with the city and state, we continue to champion the belief that every young person in our community deserves a safe and secure path in pursuit of a life they are going to love,” McDowell said.

Mural

Building Stability Through Shelter

Our unhoused population has increased significantly in recent years, but on any given night, there’s only 1 shelter bed for every 5 persons experiencing homelessness. According to an analysis from the City’s Homeless Services Division, we need about 1,000 additional shelter beds.

That means we are far short of what we need to help folks living on our streets, under highway overpasses and in our parks. Remember, they’re out there right now in heat as high as 107 degrees and, based on our conversations with some folks living in the encampments, many of them would like somewhere to get some relief.

Let me be clear, connecting people experiencing homelessness with services while in our shelters is vital in helping them to get healthier, to feel safer, to find relief from the elements, to receive job training, and to resolve their housing.

I believe strongly that we must create a continuum of support so that we can help our unhoused neighbors who need a place to be while we continue to build a pipeline of permanent supportive housing and address affordability issues in Austin. It can’t be all or nothing.

But Austin’s approach to addressing the needs of those living homeless has become too politically charged. As we too often do, we’ve made the discussion an argument and some see only a portion of the solution as the be-all end-all of the solution. They so favor the creation of permanent supportive housing that they’ve rejected more immediate needs that could change lives — such as appropriate shelters.

Additionally, Austin voters said loud and clear in 2021 that they want the camping ban enforced, and the State passed legislation saying that there must be enforcement of the camping ban. That really can’t be meaningfully and humanely done without more shelter space.

The creation of more permanent supportive housing remains an important long-term goal, but progress is incremental and slow. ​​While we work toward that goal, our unhoused neighbors need shelter now, and we need to follow the law regarding camping. Securing the state investment complements recent city investments at the Marshalling Yard and what used to be the Salvation Army as well as two bridge shelters that are part of the City’s HEAL initiative.

Chris Baker, Founder and Executive Director of TOOF, emphasized the need to increase access to dignified and low-barrier shelter in addition to supportive and deeply affordable permanent housing options. 

“We are grateful to Mayor Watson and the State for working together to bring much needed funding into our community’s homeless response system to accomplish both,” Baker said. “The most important thing is that these new resources are stewarded by our community and used in response to what our community needs. That’s why all of TOOF's programming is designed in partnership with a variety of community stakeholders. Most importantly, those who are unhoused.”

I’m deeply appreciative of the Governor’s staff and those at TDHCA that worked with me the past several months and who helped to make this huge investment a reality. We are demonstrating how we can partner to serve our shared constituents.

 

Published: July 27, 2023

 
 

 

 
Watson Wire: Hot off the Presses

It's hot outside. I'm working hard to address this issue. It's taking a little longer than I wanted, but, if I’m successful, you'll notice cooler temperatures around late October (if we’re lucky) but (unfortunately) more like early November.

In the meantime, the best I can offer is popsicles.

Mayor Watson handing out popsicles

The other day, I visited a city summer camp with popsicles from Mom & Pops, and this evening Council Member José Velásquez and I will be at the Pan Am Summer Hillside Concert Series with cool treats from La Super Michoacana.

Seriously, it's very hot. Pay attention to how you feel. Hydrate. Check on neighbors (especially elderly and those who need a little more help), watch the kids and take care of yourself.

First Draft of the Budget

Tomorrow marks opening day of budget season for the City of Austin when we have our first work session related to the proposed 2023-24 budget.

Before you pull up the enormous budget document and do a quick search for the things you care about most, I’d ask that you take a step back because we’re doing some big things here to make local government work the way it ought to work and fix some of the big problems we inherited.

This budget reflects a fundamental change in how our city is functioning. It shows how our City Council and City Management can work in concert to address complex challenges and improve the quality of life for every Austinite.

Affordability: The city is approaching the affordability crisis through several avenues. For city employees, the proposed budget includes a living wage increase to $20.80 and a 4 percent pay increase for all civilian employees. For taxpayers, we kept the bump in total taxes and fees to 2 percent for a “typical” homeowner.

 

taxpayer statement

To tackle housing affordability directly, we’ve taken a deep dive into the city’s development review process to determine how we can streamline how long it takes to get a site plan. That examination is almost done, and this budget includes funding to implement changes so the city will be able to move quicker and stop being an obstacle to creating essential housing and infrastructure. 

Resilience: As I’ve said before, Winter Storm Mara was a clarifying event that revealed there was a need for some significant changes at City Hall. That weather disaster exposed some serious deficiencies in our readiness, so we’re investing heavily in hardening Austin Energy’s distribution system as well as studying the feasibility of burying overhead power lines. There is funding for additional generators for city facilities, such as fire stations that lost power during the storm as well as a continued commitment to the Resilience Hub Network, which includes community-focused facilities that offer day-to-day services and support the community before, during and after a disaster. 

Homelessness: We’re taking a comprehensive approach to homelessness in this budget by investing in the entire continuum — including prevention, emergency sheltering and permanent supportive housing. All told, this proposed budget increases appropriations to homelessness response by 13 percent. Our job is to demonstrate results from that investment. In addition, the city will be consolidating the way we currently deal with trash and cleaning up encampments. We have a beautiful city and want to ensure public spaces are inviting to everyone.

We’re in the enviable position of tackling these challenges from a platform of success. Unlike some cities, we’re not managing decline and decay. Instead, we’re working to manage the byproducts of success — and that creates opportunity.

That also creates the expectation that we’re going to get it all done and done right. Things are never going to be perfect and there are going to be times when we try something that doesn’t work and we have to recalibrate and go in a different direction.

 

 

Published: July 18,2023

Watson Wire: Announcing AWE

During SXSW in March, a bunch of mayors, ministers and ambassadors from foreign cities and countries came by City Hall to visit with me. I teased that there must be some international rule that requires an official to attach a picture of themselves with the Austin mayor to get their travel reimbursed.

Austin is envied around the world as a focal point in a worldwide economy. Other cities — other nations — look at us and want to be a part of our success. They want to partner with us, be our Sister City, engage in trade.

Many of the people and businesses moving here are coming to capitalize on our region’s incredible economic growth. And for those who’ve been able to take advantage of our success, Austin has been a land of opportunity. But along the way, lots of folks have been left behind, including many long time Austinites, who can no longer live in the city they love.

 

Changing the Paradigm

For a while now, many have judged the success of Austin’s economic development approach by almost exclusively focusing on how many new jobs we created each year. We count the number of new W-2s, pat ourselves on the back and then start all over again in the new year.

I absolutely want us to keep creating jobs. But it’s time for us to evolve our model and create a greater focus on getting more of the people living here participating in the economy — by putting them into those new jobs and by providing better help to those who live here and want to create jobs. We need to focus on the person — the Austinite — we want in the created job and not just the creation of the job.

As we address Austin’s affordability, we’ve tended to focus on subsidizing housing or building more units to address supply and demand and drive down costs. Another important way to make meaningful progress on this issue is by adding solutions to the family income side of the equation — helping Austinites make more money, so they can more afford living in Austin.

My goal is to shift Austin’s economic development paradigm to be unapologetically focused on helping the people in Austin participate in and enjoy more of our prosperity.

AWE members

The Mayor’s Task Force for Austin Women Entrepreneurs

A key part of my overall plan is creating the Mayor’s Task Force for Austin Women Entrepreneurs (AWE). AWE is charged with exploring actions the city, our higher education institutions, non-profits and private sector partners can and should take to more robustly support women entrepreneurs.

This town is loaded with enterprising, talented women ready to take the risks to start and grow businesses. It’s also loaded with resources for helping those women achieve success. But our entrepreneurial ecosystem needs to be more inclusive and equitable. I’m excited that Carla McDonald, founder and managing director of the investment firm Dynabrand Ventures, will be the Chair. The initial AWE members will be Cristina SilingardiLauren WashingtonJan Ryan, and Mellie Price. We’ll announce additional members later.

I’ve asked this excellent group to report back shortly after the first of next year with pragmatic, actionable recommendations. We will immediately begin implementing those things that will enhance the ability of Austin’s entrepreneurial women to see dreams fulfilled in business and successful job creation.

I’m excited to see the coming recommendations. AWE will be a great catalyst for Austin, helping us align our assets to make Austin the #1 city in the world for entrepreneurial women to start and build businesses.

 

There’s More — Building Community 

AWE isn’t the only way we’re looking to shift our eco devo model. In the coming years, there will be $25 billion in transportation infrastructure in the works for our community, including the airport expansion, I-35 reconstruction and Project Connect. This essentially creates a distinct economic development sector —workforce for creating infrastructure.

Austin should see mobility and infrastructure projects not as building a rail line or a tarmac or a road, but as community building, providing the means for Austinites to build careers and financial security for their families.

We’re going to use these public investments to relentlessly focus on making sure Austinites have the training and education to access good careers while we improve mobility.

We have an opportunity to invest in our local talent — in particular, our young people, to capture these high-opportunity jobs with the right training and support. These are well paying jobs that lead to careers and economic mobility.

One of the biggest obstacles for anyone to take advantage of job training and other economic opportunities is access to affordable, quality childcare. For many Austin families, childcare is the second-biggest monthly expense, behind only housing. When parents can’t find affordable, accessible childcare, it impedes their career growth. And a lot of the times — it’s women who see their career opportunities dwindle due to this lack of childcare.

The pandemic shined a bright light on the childcare crisis and we’re not going to squander this moment. We’re working with community leaders, business leaders, and providers to put together a plan of action to invest in childcare.

Imagine if the recommendations made by AWE helped us partner and assist some of the women entrepreneurs running home-based small businesses that provide quality early childhood care and education. I think that would be something pretty neat. 

We’re still in the formative stages on some of this and there will be a lot more in the coming months. But we’re absolutely focused on fostering opportunity for everyone in this community.

 

Published: July 13, 2023

Watson Wire: Talking About the Dough

My first budgeting experience was when I was about 8 and sold donuts door to door. On Saturdays, I’d buy 12 dozen donuts at the nearby donut shop, and they’d throw in another dozen for free. I’d drag those donuts around in a wagon. My pitch at the door was if you bought my product, you wouldn’t have to cook breakfast the next day before church. I also may have told folks that I was saving for college.

The budget was simple — have enough dough to buy 12 dozen donuts, and the extra dozen would be my profit margin. At some point, my parents “convinced” me I should cut my younger brother Kyle in on this enterprise. I gave him a dime for pulling the wagon. I had to budget for his questionable work. Kyle still claims he was badly, if not illegally, underpaid.

 

Budgeting Austin’s Dough

It’s budget time at City Hall. On July 14th, the first cut at the FY 2023-24 Budget will be made public. And we’re talking about more than donut money.

To illustrate, the FY 2022-23 All Funds Operating Budget for the City of Austin was $5.0 billion, which includes Austin Energy, Austin Water, the airport. The City allocated just under $1.3 billion — about 25% of the All Funds budget — for the General Fund that covers things like public safety (Police, Fire and EMS), parks and libraries. Police, Fire and EMS were almost 62% of the General Fund. Most of the money in the General Fund comes from sales and property taxes with some coming from utility transfers, fines and fees.

 

The Enterprise Funds make up the biggest chunk of spending. Austin Energy, Austin Water and Aviation account for the biggest expenditures and are primarily funded by rates paid by customers.

 

The Timeline and Transparency

When I was in the Texas Senate, I served on the Finance Committee for several years. From the beginning of my time in the Senate, I pushed for more openness in the budgeting process. I called it my “Honesty Agenda” and I’m proud we made some significant changes that allowed for items to be laid out for longer time periods so that the public had more of a chance to know what was happening, legislators could better know what they were voting on and, overall, there were fewer surprises.

Last Friday, I laid out an outline for the process the City Council can use to get us to a good outcome. It will assure transparency and efficiency in the process.

I’m anticipating this will be a very collaborative budget process. The City Council has done a good job this year of breaking down barriers between the policymaking body and the administrative functions.

Here’s the outline. Of course, we will be appropriately flexible and there likely will be some adjustments along the way.

budget

Friday, July 14, 2023:

The City Manager will file the draft budget with the City Clerk, and it will be delivered to the Mayor and Council Members.

July 14th starts the Council Budget Questions process. The public can see the questions and answers asked throughout the process.

 

Wednesday, July 19th, 2023:

A work session at which the City Manager will present the budget to Mayor and Council. After the presentation, Council will ask questions and get specific briefings on parts of the budget.

 

Wednesday, July 26th, 2023:

A council meeting focused on the City’s General Fund. The meeting will begin with public comment at 10:00 am.

 

Tuesday, August 1st, 2023:

We will also have a work session focused on Enterprise Funds.

We will hold a public hearing on the maximum tax rate and public comment regarding any budget aspect at 3:00 pm. We will then set the maximum tax rate.

 

Thursday, August 3rd, 2023:

This date is held for a potential meeting if needed.

 

Monday, August 7th, 2023:

We’ll have a goal of filing proposed Budget Amendments and Budget Items from Council (IFCs) by close of business.

“Budget Amendments” are items where a Council Member seeks to amend an appropriation in the budget. “Budget IFCs” are items from a Council Member that address policy that a member wishes to be made as part of the budget process.

 

Thursday, August 8th, 2023:

This date is held for a potential meeting if needed.

 

Thursday, August 10th, 2023:

A work session for Council Members to publicly lay out proposed Budget Amendments and IFCs to provide greater transparency and less surprises for the public and the Council.

 

Wednesday, August 16th—Friday, August 18th:

We will vote on the budget.

 

Published: July 5, 2023

 

June 2023

Watson Wire: Zilker Park

 

Liz and I moved to Austin 42 years ago, and people constantly told us, “You’ll never want to leave”. It was so frequent that we laughed about it — until, of course, we decided we never wanted to leave. That took all of about 3 months.

Zilker Park was one of the places everyone told us we just had to go. I still remember a bunch of firsts: the first time I was in the park on the Great Lawn, the first time I saw something at the Hillside Theatre, ate ice cream near the entrance of Barton Springs Pool and the first time I literally chilled in the pool. I remember taking my boys to that park. I’ve listened to music in the park so many times. Heck, for 13 years, I even hosted a concert there that was quite an event, if I do say so myself.

Zilker ain’t just any park. It’s sort of foundational to Austin. Historically, it was first started in 1917 when Andrew Zilker gave about 35 acres around Barton Springs to the city. That area had been a place that people gathered for centuries. The last gift by Zilker was in 1940, when the park was named after him. The park is now 351 acres.

In a city growing and changing as fast as Austin, it’s okay for some places — especially places that are foundational — to maintain some original qualities and remain open space that’s more organic and basic. That’s really true for spots that mean so many different things to so many different people.

 

The Vision Plan

The Zilker Metropolitan Park Vision Plan has been in the works for years, starting with planning money approved by voters as part of the 2012 bond package. The draft plan, which was released last fall and is set to come to the City Council soon, has become a flash point. There are some parts of this plan that are really good improvements, but I understand the unhappiness and fear some people have.

It’s important to note that there’s no money to pay for the proposed vision plan – and it would be very expensive at a time when Austin has several parks all over town that need significant improvements. Serious consideration needs to be given to the equity of paying for this proposal before making changes and improvements elsewhere.

Additionally, there are aspects of the proposal that, in my view, are either unnecessary or will greatly disrupt the special place. For example, I don’t support a big amphitheater on the Great Lawn. We’ve proven you don’t need such a thing to have amazing shows there. And we just opened a pretty cool amphitheater in downtown at Waterloo Park. Plus, we can, and should, upgrade and make improvements at the current Hillside Theatre.

I also don't support putting garages in the park. There are options for parking that wouldn’t impact the park so negatively as garages. For example, we could partner with Austin ISD to utilize the area around Austin High in a way that serves the school district and the city. We could put parking there for park visitors and, done right, we could work with AISD to get housing for teachers and school district staff. We can get additional benefits without damaging Zilker.

Finally, I favor taking parts of the park back to nature—what some call “re-wilding”. It preserves Zilker and helps us achieve our climate goals.

 

Governance

I will never support turning the park over to an independent, private corporate entity to govern or control it, as some have worried this plan may do. I ran for mayor saying that City Hall should do better at taking care of the basics. One part of that is making sure our governance or oversight of things like Zilker is done well. If there is some need to have a person (or two or three) coordinating communication and activity with the various and many groups that enjoy Zilker, then the city can hire such people. Make that their job and make sure it’s done well. That’s pretty basic.

This special place belongs to Austinites. It’s a deep part of the city’s foundation and soul. I thank all of those who have given so much time to bring a proposal forward. However, I think there are parts of the proposal that need to be improved and removed.

 

What’s Next?

The word has been that Council will take up this item on July 20th. That isn’t what we’ll be doing. Instead, the Council will focus on the budget until mid-August. The Zilker plan will be part of a work session on August 29thThe Council will then consider taking action on August 31st. We’ll hear from the public on the 31st.

 

Published: June 27, 2023

Watson Wire: Hot Wire

We’re facing yet another weather emergency in Austin, but this one differs from what we all endured in February for several reasons – including the obvious 80-degree temperature swing.

The City Council brought in Jesús Garza to serve as interim city manager in the wake of Winter Storm Mara with a mandate to focus on how to improve basic city services, including the city’s emergency response. Under the previous management, the city had failed to implement key lessons learned during Winter Storm Uri in 2021 and that contributed to the extended power outage and public frustration with the city’s communication.

A key step we’ve taken to ensure the city is prepared and responsive to you during an emergency is the appointment of Ken Snipes as the new Director of Emergency Management. I’m glad he’s in this position.

Here are some other steps we’ve taken:

Communication: We will make sure information is regularly provided to the public that outlines how to stay safe, what is happening with the weather, and how the city is using its resources to help people who need assistance. Outreach communication staff are coordinating across departments and sharing messaging on social media. Information includes available cooling center locations, recognizing heat illness and actions to take to prevent it, and protecting children, elderly, and pets during hot weather.

Coordination: At my request, and working with the City Manager, we’ve activated the city team that coordinates the run-up to this emergency to ensure we’re prepared and being proactive. This might sound pretty basic, but the lack of that internal coordination was a major problem in February. We’ve also bolstered our efforts to work in concert and share information among the Big 5 public partners – City of Austin, Travis County, Austin ISD, Austin Community College, and the University of Texas.

Collaboration: Working with all our outreach networks, including faith-based and non-profit organizations, we’re reaching out to our most vulnerable populations. Austin Public Health is in contact with area hospitals and nursing homes to offer any support and assistance necessary. In the case of an energy emergency, Austin Energy (AE) will proactively contact customers on its Medically Vulnerable Registry. AE also has crews on standby 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to respond immediately to outages.

 

Fading the Heat

In a news conference this morning, we hit on some key points for all of you to prepare for this extreme weather. The biggest takeaway? You are not invincible. This heat and humidity are dangerous. Knowing how to be safe during this excessive heat warning is important to protecting yourself and vulnerable populations.

Look before you lock – Even if you think you will only be away for a second, NEVER leave children and pets inside a locked vehicle. Even in the mid-60s, the outside temperature can cause the inside of a vehicle to rise above 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Stay hydrated - Drink more water than usual. If you’re feeling dehydrated, you probably are.

Protect your pets - Provide your pets with plenty of water and shade. Speaking of pets, the city is offering free adoptions at the animal shelter for the foreseeable future. The goal is to get more people to take pets home so that we better manage capacity and, consequently, are better able to keep animals from needing to be outside.

Work and play safely - Avoid high-energy activities and exercise during extreme heat, especially during the afternoon. If you have to be outside, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water and staying in the shade.

Check in on elderly family members, friends and neighbors - Make sure they have access to air conditioners and/or fans and clean water for hydration.

Cooling Centers

Due to extreme heat, all Parks and Library facilities will serve as Cooling Centers during normal operating hours.  Service animals are permitted in City facilities. Check hours and operations before arriving.

Water Breaks for Employees

The City of Austin takes the safety of our employees very seriously. Supervisors should ensure that employees working outdoors, working indoors without air conditioning or ventilation, take scheduled breaks in cool areas. Ensure there is plenty of cool water to drink on-site and take water breaks as needed.

In light of recent legislation, there might be some confusion out there about the city’s ordinance requiring water breaks for construction workers.

Let’s be clear: the city’s ordinance is still in effect. Employees performing construction activities at a construction site are entitled to a rest and water break every four hours. The new state law that preempts our ordinance does not go in effect until September 1 so employers are still subject to the city water break ordinance.

ERCOT and Austin Energy

ERCOT issued a Voluntary Conservation Notice— a pre-emergency measure— on June 19 due to extreme heat and forecasted record demand. City of Austin followed ERCOT’s voluntary notice and reduced consumption at city facilities. Even though that notice has expired, and we do not expect any more measures to be taken by ERCOT for the remainder of the week, I would like to remind folks to conserve energy during peak usage hours in the afternoon to lighten the load.

Austin Energy keeps a current conditions page on its website where you can find up-to-date information about local grid conditions as well as the statewide grid.

Austin Energy crews are ready to respond to customer needs and are working in the field through this extreme summer heat.

Be Cool to Our Public Servants

Finally, we have a lot of city and county employees providing public service in this extreme heat. Please take notice and thank them for their hard work.

And stay safe.

 

Published: June 21, 2023

Watson Wire: Getting (Stuff) Done for Housing

We’ve seen in recent years that the very qualities that drew so many people to Austin for so long – an ethos of acceptance and an economy of abundance – are now jeopardized by the incredible growth they produced. At the same time, economic forces far beyond our control have further compromised Austin’s affordability, with rising housing costs as the central cause and effect.

I worry a lot about intergenerational inequity. If housing costs in Austin put home ownership – typically the basis of long-term financial stability – out of reach for our children and grandchildren, we’ll be undermining their future. Even if people don’t want to or can't own, being able to find a place to live that’s affordable is key to building a future. The next generation should have a right to build lives in Austin (and build wealth in Austin) the way so many of us did for so long. We can’t protect Austin – in fact, we'll fail Austin – by cutting off the next generation of Austinites. For that matter, we can't cut off those folks here right now that are in desperate need of housing and provide essential services and play essential roles in our city.

But the good news is that the fight is not lost, and we still have powerful weapons at our disposal – namely, an extraordinary consensus about what our challenges are, and a shared determination to find solutions that change the equation. If we respond thoughtfully but decisively to our housing emergency – if we come together around a positive vision, and quickly take steps to turn that vision into a reality – I know that we can protect Austin’s special quality of life, for ourselves and future generations.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the first steps we’ve taken to address our housing emergency was to bring in consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to examine our wildly inefficient development review process that both drives up costs and limits the supply. Their focus is on streamlining the work of the 11 city departments involved with development review to ensure the city is part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Their findings, which we expect very soon, will help us to get moving quickly on more housing and critical infrastructure.  

When it comes to housing, I believe that Austinites want to expand the availability of a full range of housing options without damaging the essential character of our existing neighborhoods or putting our environment at risk. And I’m talking about neighborhoods all over Austin, not just in certain parts of the city. Neighborhood character, culture and community are important everywhere.

 

Shared Determination to Find Solutions

The other day, I heard someone say that this Council, in six months, has made more progress on making changes that will create or allow more affordable housing to be built in Austin than we saw in the previous decade or so. A big part of the reason we’ve been stagnant in the past is because Austin’s policymakers have taken an all-or-nothing approach to enacting land-use changes. As a result, we got nothing.

In the Austin Chronicle’s new Best of Austin poll, one constituent who voted for me as Best City Official offered what I assume is a compliment: “Love him or hate him, he's gettin' (stuff) done.”  I’d argue that our City Council is gettin’ (stuff) done on housing now because we all understand that doing nothing is no longer an option and we haven’t fallen into the trap of making things an all-or-nothing proposition.

Instead, the Council has started targeting some of the thorny land-use code provisions that have been obstacles to building more housing and addressing them, specifically, those include:

  • Creating tools for greater density along transit corridors, known as Equitable Transit-Oriented Development.
  • Prioritizing public property to build deeply affordable housing.
  • Addressing our compatibility standards to allow for denser development closer to residential neighborhoods. The current standard is 540 feet, while the resolution adopted calls for 100 feet. 
  • Addressing our Affordability Unlocked development program to encourage market-rate housing density without taxpayer-funded subsidies while also working to create a new bonus program that focuses on affordable home ownership in our city. 
  • Making it easier and cheaper to build on small lots and we should anticipate policy that will be coming forward soon with proposals to reduce our minimum lot sizes and ease the process for building Accessory Dwelling Units.
  • Addressing the city’s parking minimum requirements so that they don’t unduly hamper affordable building. 

It’s important to note that these Council resolutions are the beginning of the policy discussion, not the end. The Council gives policy direction to the City Manager and staff to develop an ordinance and then bring it back to the Council for adoption. That process allows for plenty more opportunity for folks to weigh in.

 

Published: June 20, 2023

Watson Wire: Stabilizing City Government

The Austin City Council is officially on a “budget break,” meaning there won’t be a council meeting again until July 20. The break from council meetings gives city staff some much-needed time and space to prepare the proposed budget and make headway on some other key policy priorities.

When I was running to be the mayor again, I pointed out how we ask a lot of city staff, and having the right people in the right places is essential to our city running well. I said that we needed to shake up city hall and be sure the place was organized to deliver the services of city government well. Shortly after taking office, during the February ice storm and power outage, it became painfully clear to me that we did not have the right people in the right places to manage a cascading crisis and communicate effectively with the public.

On Feb. 15, the City Council parted ways with our previous City Manager and lured former City Manager Jesús Garza out of retirement to serve as the interim. The Council directive to Jesús was to stabilize our city government and get those basic operations of the city running well. We asked him to fix the problems of the past so that our next permanent City Manager can focus on moving the city forward.

Jesús and his team of temporary leaders brought decades of city management experience to the enormous task of evaluating how all our departments work together to serve the people of Austin. What they found was that the departments often weren’t working together and the organization was not set up to succeed.

So he has made a number of positive management changes, including some that directly relate to the winter storm response:

Austin Energy: Bob Kahn will be the next General Manager of our municipally owned utility. He is returning to Austin Energy after running the Texas Municipal Power Agency and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (BTW…his tenure at ERCOT was long before the events of Winter Storm Uri in 2021 that shined a bright light on the electric grid operator).

Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management: Ken Snipes has led Austin Resource Recovery since 2019 and did an excellent job managing the city’s storm debris clean-up. He has been on special assignment in recent months assisting Interim Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills in evaluating the City’s Emergency Operations functions and will now take over as Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Chief Strategic Communications & External Relations Officer: Providing the public clear, timely and accurate information is essential during a crisis. We can’t afford a lack of coordination among the multiple city departments that are communicating to the public. Michele Middlebrook-Gonzalez, who previously served as the city’s Public Information Director, will return in the newly created position of Chief Strategic Communications & External Relations Officer to focus on strategic internal and external communication across the organization.

Other organizational changes are aimed at improving city operations and efficiency to address our affordability crisis:

Development Services Department: Eleven city departments have a hand in the development review process and they haven’t been working efficiently or effectively together, leading to long and costly delays for housing and critical infrastructure. The challenge of getting all those departments in sync now falls to José Roig, who began with the city as a commercial building inspector and will lead the Development Services Department permanently. Since taking over as the interim DSD Director in January, José has integrated the Code Enforcement functions into the department and embarked upon analyzing the development review and permitting with the aim of streamlining the process.

And, at my request, McKinsey & Company, an international consulting firm, has been doing a deep dive into what we need to do to be better at the development review process. They have been aggressive, and the preliminary results show us a great roadmap for big improvement. I’m excited that we’ll have a final report very soon. They’ve done this pro bono.

Planning Department: The new Planning Department is taking on the big-picture policy issues related to land use and code changes, which allows the separate Housing Department to focus on affordability and creating more housing. Lauren Middleton-Pratt, who was previously an assistant city manager in Buda overseeing development services, started last month as the Director of the Planning Department.

 

Why it matters now?

All of these changes will help to stabilize this organization and set up the next City Manager for success. That’s why I believe now is the right time to begin the search process for a permanent city manager.

I committed that we would start in the June/July timeframe by gathering a committee of council members to narrow the field of search firms that will then be brought to the full Council for review and selection. I have asked Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis and Council Members Leslie Pool, Chito Vela and Vanessa Fuentes to help with the initial process.

I hope we accomplish the selection of a firm in the July-August time frame and the firm can begin its work.

 

Published: June 12, 2023

Watson Wire: Addressing Homelessness

We passed several items on yesterday’s City Council agenda that reflect our commitment to addressing the humanitarian emergency in our city.

Austin’s unhoused population has increased significantly in these past few years, with an estimated 5,000 people experiencing homelessness as of February. But fewer than 900 of those individuals currently receive some form of shelter.

The narrow approach we inherited has been to create more permanent supportive housing, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Now, more permanent supportive housing is absolutely essential.  But it takes a long time to get it built and to house people in it. It can’t be all-or-nothing.

We need to do more to address the emergency shelter needs of our neighbors living on the street right now while also ensuring they have access to connective services and housing support – and we will.

Additional shelter beds can’t come fast enough. Our encampments have grown in both numbers and size. The conditions in these encampments in many cases pose a danger to the people living in them. The encampments also violate the public camping ban reinstated by Austin voters as well as state law. We’ll be far better able to meet the will of Austin voters and follow the law with more emergency shelters now while working to create the permanent supportive housing we also need.

It simply doesn’t make sense to rely on an all-or-nothing approach if you care about those living under highway overpasses, in our parks and on our street corners. Instead, we’re identifying any-and-all opportunities to increase our shelter capacity, addressing mental health needs, and supporting organizations already working to provide housing. And very soon, we’ll be able to announce some significant new investments and efforts to address this emergency.

We’ve identified several opportunities to increase our shelter capacity:

  • Marshalling Yard: We’ll convert part of the city-owned facility to make a temporary emergency shelter that is expected to provide up to 300 additional beds as well as support services.
  • Downtown Shelter: The city will re-open the downtown shelter that the Salvation Army abruptly closed in March.
  • Northbridge/Southbridge Shelters: The city is creating space for an additional 130 people at the Northbridge and Southbridge shelters by shifting rooms from single to double occupancy.

All told, that means about 500 more of our unhoused neighbors will have the opportunity to sleep in a safe place and be connected to services and providers that can help them move toward a permanent housing solution.

 

Common Sense, Accountable Finances

The City has allocated a lot of money to bring thousands of new permanent supportive housing units online for people experiencing homelessness in addition to these new emergency shelters. That money must be spent in the best way possible that’s going to help the most of our neighbors.

To that end, I’ve asked the City Manager to report to the Council about how our public dollars are being used to create permanent supportive housing, the status of the units that we’re told are being built, and what’s being done to ensure all our investments have been properly vetted and our limited resources are used wisely.

We need this housing, but we also have an obligation to make sure people are getting what they were promised and that financially sound decisions have been and are being made.

 

 
 
Published: June 9, 2023

May 2023

Watson Wire: Surviving the Legislature

Hating on Austin is a favorite political pastime in the Texas Capitol. And in Austin, hating on those in the Capitol is a pretty good way to score political points, too. It’s been especially intense these past few years — in both directions.

This was my first legislative session as mayor (this time) and only the second session since I left the Texas Senate. I've been working to ratchet down the antipathy between the city and state since I came into office in January by opening the lines of communication, finding workable policy solutions and making bad bills less bad. I do this to better serve the people of Austin and get better results for our city while always honoring Austin values. We’re seeing positive results.

There were very real threats to the City of Austin during this legislative session – some of which actually threatened the very existence of the Capital City. With the regular legislation session closing on Monday, I’m pleased to tell you that Austin still exists!

Of course, we didn’t stop everything bad and there is an ongoing, concerted effort to restrict the authority of all Texas cities (we’ll save that conversation for another day). But we did get a few good bills through that help our city…shhh, don’t tell anyone. All things considered, we did pretty well at stopping or changing a lot of bills specifically aimed at hurting Austin.

 

Austin Light Rail

Our biggest win was saving Austin Light Rail from a last-minute Senate amendment that would have killed the financing for the voter-approved infrastructure project. The amendment passed without a public hearing, discussion or debate.

From the start, there was legislation that was expressly meant to overturn the will of Austin voters and kill Austin Light Rail. The “policy” justification kept shifting as the bill moved through the process. It was admitted that the bill wasn’t really about policy but rather was always intended to stop light rail – and that was evidenced by the ways the process was manipulated.

Throughout the legislative session, I negotiated in good faith with the objective of protecting this long-sought community investment for generations to come, even if that meant coming back to the voters. If the deal we made in the House had been honored, there would be legislation today.

But, as I said, if the ultimate goal was to kill light rail in Austin, they couldn't do that with a fair election here. So instead, they moved the goal posts again, declared yet another reason to oppose light rail, and used a hastily drafted Attorney General advisory opinion that isn’t law to justify jamming through a last-minute amendment that essentially re-wrote the House version.

Fortunately, we worked with Rep. Bucy and our House delegation and we were able to stop that amended version of the bill. And, ironically,  now we have a clearer path forward, thanks to that same Attorney General opinion.

So, legally, we’re in a stronger position today than we were just a few months ago. The guidance from that opinion helps inform our next actions.

We could see new legislative challenges. We could also see litigation from those who lost the 2020 election and ran to the Legislature to undermine the will of the voters…but for now we’re going to continue our efforts and look forward to the day when light rail is up and running in Austin.

 

Austin Energy

Austin Energy also faced an existential threat from the Legislature, in large part due to the extended power outage following Winter Storm Mara. Lawmakers filed 9 bills specifically targeting just AE and some of them would’ve bankrupted our city-owned utility and/or the city itself.

I ran for mayor saying we needed to shake things up at City Hall and better provide basic services, including at Austin Energy. And the management of Winter Storm Mara was a prime example of the need for a shake-up, which is why you’ve seen significant management changes at the top levels of the city. My message to state lawmakers was that, together with the Interim City Manager, we were in a much better position than the Legislature to make smart, effective changes to the utility that protect our customers and our taxpayers.

Not a one of the AE bills passed.

There’s still a lot to unpack about the legislative session and how it will affect Austin going forward. On some issues, we’re now subject to new restrictions and less local control. On others, the City Council now has an opportunity to craft policies in the best interest of the City of Austin rather than having them imposed by the Legislature. That is a win.

 

Published: May 31, 2023

Watson Wire: A Message to Our Newest Police Officers

 

I had the honor and privilege to speak to the 33 newest Austin police officers on Friday evening as they graduated from the academy. 

After thanking them and their families for making a commitment to our community, I turned to how we all need to strive to earn the public’s faith and trust.

They are entering the profession of policing at a critical and complex time for Austin – and for policing – and I urged them to be leaders we want and need.

Austin is a special place, and nothing would make me prouder – and not just as mayor, but as a citizen – than for this city to guide the nation on finding the balance in 21st Century policing.


And our best path forward is to forge our own way, to break with convention, to embrace positive change, and to make Austin better.

As I told our newest officers:

"Most of you are of a generation that simply does not accept old divisions and ways of thinking. You can see this job through new eyes. You know that policing is changing. And you have the chance to fulfill your calling by not just carrying out the traditional role of a cop, but by evolving that role so that it parallels a society seeking change.

So, I say to you, with the deepest respect, please – don’t you be naysayers who only see policing as it has been.  Instead, be the new generation of leaders who see policing as it can be, and as it must be, to truly earn the faith and trust of this community."

Click here to watch my entire speech

147th Cadet Class

 

Published: May 22, 2023

Watson Wire: Celebrating Austin’s Living Room

Austin Skyline 1997

 

Downtown Austin used to be pretty dead. It had no energy, no vibrance and – after the bankers, lawyers and state employees went home at the end of the day – almost no people.

Breathing new life into downtown became the mission of the Downtown Austin Alliance, and, Wednesday night, we celebrated 30 years of the DAA and the amazing transformation of downtown during that time.

Downtown matters. It’s the living room of our community. It’s how we present ourselves to the world. And now we present to the world a place that’s dynamic, interesting, distinctive and full of spirit and possibilities – just like the people of Austin.

Thirty years ago, the Austin City Council held meetings in the retrofitted old Calcasieu Lumber Company building, which had been serving as temporary chambers for a very long time. And when I was elected Mayor the first time around in 1997, we were still operating out of that “temporary” space.

For yesterday’s City Council meeting, we convened in our permanent chambers in City Hall, in the heart of the Second Street District. The vision for the District stemmed from a recommendation by the American Institute of Architects’ Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) when they first came to Austin in 1991. The creation of the Downtown Austin Alliance was also a R/UDAT recommendation.

I brought R/UDAT back to revisit their recommendations in 1997 because we hadn’t made much progress on realizing the vision for a vibrant downtown with a mix of uses, including residential. Experts had told us that we needed more retail downtown before private developers would build housing, and private developers were hesitant to build without retail. We forged ahead to prove up the concept and created a public-private partnership with Post Properties to build a 200-unit residential project near Seaholm. The units leased up faster than anyone expected, and demand took off. Now, more than 14,000 residents live downtown.

When Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) wanted to build a sprawling suburban campus in Austin directly over the aquifer, we lured them away with a few of the virtually dormant blocks the city had purchased back in the early 1970s. That deal helped pay for our current City Hall.

You see, there were obstacles and naysayers— like there always are— but once we laid out the vision of what downtown could be, the creativity of Austinites took over.

Downtown is now much more than just a business center. It’s a place that captivates, entertains, and engages folks.

It’s a special place, and I love to see people enjoying it every day.

 

Austin skyline

 

 

Published: May 19, 2023

Watson Wire: Public Service

My father, Don Watson, was a lifetime public servant who worked as a government employee. He taught me in a deep and personal way the value of serving and working for those around you. He believed in the good of the whole and viewed public service as the ultimate opportunity for individuals to be better by doing better.

Over the years, I’ve had the honor of working with countless talented and committed public employees who exemplified the Don Watson spirit. People who believe a career in public service isn’t just a job or a means to an end but a part of who they are.

Interim City Manager Jesús Garza is celebrating the contributions of our city employees during Public Service Recognition Week, honoring some of the folks who go above and beyond for the people of Austin.

Interim City Manager Jesús Garza is celebrating the contributions of our city employees during Public Service Recognition Week

We ask a lot of our city employees. They work through difficult and dangerous weather to provide us with basic services. They reach out and listen to residents throughout our community to get feedback on public programs and projects. They provide their expertise and experience to City Council, navigating the dense City Code and bringing us public policy solutions for problems big and small. They keep us safe and respond in times of distress. It can be challenging and thankless work at times, but there’s a certain sense of satisfaction knowing you’re doing something meaningful for the community.

Amie Acosta-Gonzales, a library assistant at Austin Public Library’s Terrazas Branch, exemplifies a person with the heart of a public servant. In nominating Amie for special recognition from the City Manager, her supervisor noted that she treats every person who walks through the door as a part of her own family, from organizing staff birthday parties (and making some of the best queso in town) to taking care of folks experiencing homelessness and mental illness.

Amie Acosta-Gonzales

During Winter Storm Mara, she helped operate Terrazas as a warming center for our unhoused neighbors and even when the library is closed, Amie is there making sure the public is cared for.

I think Don Watson would’ve appreciated her spirit, warmth, and generosity.

No one makes our city better and no one more greatly enhances our quality of life than those public employees who serve us so well.

Every day, City of Austin employees are doing great things just like Amie. And to all of them, I want to say thank you.

 

Published: May 11, 2023

Watson Wire: What's next on public safety?

Proposition A, a ballot initiative related to police oversight, passed overwhelmingly on Saturday. Proposition B, a separate ballot initiative related to less-robust civilian oversight of police, failed – by a lot.

The Austin City Council didn’t adopt the proposed four-year police contract in February primarily because we wanted to protect the right of voters to be heard on police oversight. The huge margin reaffirmed what we all expected: Austinites put a high value on police oversight and transparency. Now, we face the job of trying to put this new and popular policy into effect.

With the election behind us, my hope is that we can get to back to work negotiating a new four-year contract with the police association with the aim of bringing some stability to the seriously understaffed and overworked Austin Police Department.

That said, this already complex situation is further complicated by two factors: pending legislation that would impact provisions just approved by voters; and a provision in Prop. A that, ironically, could lead to the people of Austin having less oversight over their police department than we had under both the expired contract and the proposed four-year contract, assuming the union doesn’t agree to certain Prop. A provisions.

As I’ve said before, this deeply felt conversation about public safety and policing in our community has raised a lot of challenging questions and absolutely no easy answers. But we’ll keep talking and working in the hope of finding some common-sense solutions that serve all our community.

 

Where's the Balance?

APD currently has more than 300 vacant officer positions, which has undeniable negative implications on our ability to be responsive to the people of Austin when they call for assistance and on crime and safety in our city.

The APD/DPS partnership is intended as a bridge to get us to a long-term police contract and increased APD staffing by providing support and supplement to Austin Police. It’s intended to reduce violent crime and response times and assure greater safety on our roads. It’s designed to send police first to where the most 911 calls are coming from. And it does that, in part, by creating a visible police presence in those areas to deter criminal activity.

Remember that street takeover in February that caused a media frenzy, a focus on police understaffing and cries of lawlessness? On the first weekend of the APD/DPS partnership, they stopped a street takeover near Givens Park in East Austin. The large gathering had drawn about 1,000 participants and as the driving behavior became increasingly more dangerous, APD and DPS shut down MLK Blvd. and cleared the roadway. Based on online chatter, the street takeover-ers are warning each other not to come back to Austin right now because of the increased law enforcement presence.

While we’ve seen a decrease in violent crime since the partnership started, we’ve also seen a troubling number of traffic stops. While we’ve seen more police attention paid to reducing violent crime affecting communities of color, we’ve also seen communities of color feeling overpoliced because of the large police presence.

That can’t be the end of the discussion. We can’t make this an “either/or” debate. It can’t be that we abandon a successful effort to reduce violent crime, particularly in communities of color, if we can also make sure we’re not overpolicing. Likewise, we can’t dismiss concerns of profiling and targeting just because we want to reduce violent crime. There must be—and can be—a balance.

So, let’s start where we ought to agree: We can reduce violent crime while also being responsive to the fears that certain communities are being targeted. 


I deeply believe everyone in our community should both be safe and feel safe. And that's a goal we're working toward, not a reality of today.


The reality of today is that the same policing efforts that recently saved a 14-year-old girl from being sex trafficked have also ensnared people whose minor traffic violations led to much more serious consequences because they couldn’t afford car insurance or didn’t have a driver’s license.

The reality of today is that our justice system is not so just and often criminalizes poverty. At the same time, communities of color are experiencing disproportionately high levels of violent crime as well as traffic fatalities and injuries. We have a responsibility to address all those issues using good data, nuanced policy and a lot of heart.

The reality of today is that the Austin Police Department is seriously understaffed and overworked and that affects how officers interact with the community.

We're in the middle of a public policy conversation about one of the most difficult and consequential issues we as a city deal with. We're monitoring, listening, learning, recalibrating and adjusting.


We're looking for that balance and, on most days, are teetering on the edge.

Let’s continue that conversation in a thoughtful, respectful way that focuses on all the aspects of our challenges and not just a piece of the puzzle. That’s harder. It’s not easy or fast. It may not get the same dramatic media headlines or Twitter attention. But it’s also more likely to yield a just result and better outcomes or our city.

 

Published: May 8, 2023

 
Watson Wire: Long-term vision, short-term focus

In my first Watson Wire as mayor, I shared some of the Ground Rules that I’ve developed over the years to help guide me through difficult policymaking decisions.

One of those principles – have a long-term vision with short-term focus – stemmed from surviving cancer oh so many years ago. When you’re supposed to be dead, well, that helps to put the fleeting nature of time in some perspective. I’ve tried to focus on achieving results right now, but in a way that benefits the long term.

Striking a balance between the now and the future is often the greatest challenge of policymaking. That challenge has been on my mind a lot lately as we’ve been navigating through all the big, thorny, controversial, high-stakes issues that we’ve inherited.

The legislation aimed at killing Austin Light Rail is a good example. Some in the Legislature are coming after us because we used a new funding mechanism – in full compliance with state law – to go big on light rail. And they do love to hate Austin.

What’s the long-term vision? Protecting this generational, voter-approved investment so that our already-big (and still growing) city can keep moving forward.

And the short-term focus? Clearing the way for a different version of the bill to get through the Legislature. The initial versions forced another election but included a number of landmines and poison pills. And simply killing the bill (assuming we could) left lots of risks, including that they’d just come back next session. That risk, by itself, would have made our ability to get federal money a lot less likely.

The current version of the bill, which will probably be on the House floor as early as Tuesday, removes those obstacles that were in the previous versions and gives Austin voters a fair election to reaffirm their overwhelming support for investing in light rail.

Our objective is to ensure that Austin Light Rail is built on a solid foundation for the future. And the best way to do that is an election in November 2023 to authorize the issuance of the revenue bonds needed to finance construction of the project. Those bonds are backed by the dedicated tax dollars voters already approved in 2020 so the vote won’t change anyone’s tax bill.

As I’ve said before, the Legislature has the power to force another vote, but the ultimate power lies with the people of Austin. And I have full confidence that the people of Austin will prevail in the end.

Assuring Safety

I’ve relied on a similar approach to the partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The long-term vision is to bring some stability to the Austin Police Department, which is severely understaffed. That has contributed to longer response times, more crime and less safety in Austin as well as an overworked police force.

The staffing situation isn’t likely to change anytime very soon. We currently don’t have a contract with the police union, and we’re seeing more retirements and resignations than new recruits. Now, this City Council has shored up the pay and retirement benefits for police officers even in the absence of a contract and has offered new recruitment and retention incentives as well. But it’s tough to attract new folks into such an uncertain situation, particularly given that law enforcement agencies all over are struggling with staffing.

My hope is that the police union will return to the negotiating table after the May 6 vote on the two police oversight initiatives, and we can start working together in the best interest of our community. But there are a lot of moving parts here, and I’m not certain that will happen real quick.

While the long-term stability remains elusive, the short-term focus has been to provide support and supplement to our police department through this partnership with DPS. The partnership’s goal is to be responsive to residents who fear violent crime and have called 911 to ask for help, to reduce crime, to keep people safe in our community, and reduce traffic fatalities and injuries. To achieve that purpose, patrol and deployment are prioritized in those area with a high-call volume.

People have the right to be safe and feel safe, including and without question, if you’re a person of color being stopped by police or if you are someone making a 911 call reporting a violent crime.

Let me be clear: If there are unintended consequences to our approach, we must address them immediately because we want to ensure Austinites have no reason to fear that they’ll be racially profiled or targeted by this effort. This continuing collaboration with DPS requires transparency and accountability.

At the same time, a key reason for this short-term focus is to better serve those who are the most impacted by violent crime and are wanting help. During the campaign I heard from them. And we hear from them in real time with their calls wanting police response.

We want to make Austinites more safe. The initial results show that there has been a decrease in response times and crime.

As for transparency, we started that process at the April 18th work session meeting. Tomorrow, the City Council will have another work session with an open and full conversation regarding this partnership, and DPS will be present.

We are counting on DPS and other agencies to provide additional data so that we can fully evaluate the partnership and provide some assurance to our community. If we’re not satisfied with the answers, we can recalibrate and do things differently or we can end the partnership at any time.

 

Published: May 1, 2023

April 2023

Watson Wire: Let the people vote – again

The legislation aimed at killing Austin Light Rail is moving forward in the Texas House. And, oddly enough, that’s our best way to ensure that Austin Light Rail can move forward, too.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a bad bill. And it’s a terrible precedent for the Legislature to muck with a voter-approved infrastructure investment that is allowed under state law almost three years after an election that also fully complied with state law.

But if we’re going to protect light rail for the long run, we need to bring this question back home to the people of Austin and let the people vote – again. Sometimes, killing a bad bill (assuming the bill can be killed) isn’t necessarily the best outcome. As I’ve said before, governing often requires nuance and some long-term vision.

The biggest threat to this generational project is time, and the looming threat from the state imperils this project because it could cost us valuable time and money. We’re already decades behind in critical public transportation infrastructure and can’t waste any more years.

Working with Chairman Giovanni Capriglione and our local House delegation, we negotiated new bill language that greatly improved the legislation to allow the City of Austin to hold a fair election this November. To hold that election so fast, we prefer the bill to move quickly and be passed with enough votes to go into effect immediately. Of course, the bill still needs to be voted on in the House and make it through committee and the full Senate.

Here’s what the bill requires: voters will be asked to authorize the issuance of revenue bonds that are needed to finance the project. Those bonds are backed by the dedicated property tax revenue already approved by voters in 2020. This vote will not change your property tax bill at all – it won’t go up or down.

The most prominent argument by those advocating for this legislation was that, while voters authorized the revenue stream, they didn’t authorize the issuance of the revenue bonds. No other project in the state would be subject to this duplicative process. But we’ll get it done so we can keep moving forward. 

The stakes are incredibly high because the election will determine whether light rail will proceed. And the folks who opposed our election in 2020 will get another chance to kill it – trust me, they won’t squander this opportunity.

This approach is not without risk, but it is the best option to mitigate our long-term risk.

As a community, we can – and will – fight to protect our generational investment in light rail and a more affordable and sustainable future for all of Austin.

The Legislature has the power to force another vote, but the ultimate power lies with the people of Austin.

Watson Wire: Happy 100 Days!

Yesterday marked 100 days since I became mayor – again. Sometimes, it can seem like the days are flying by, while on others – and I’m thinking of those days I was stuck at home with COVID – they’ve been some of the slowest I’ve experienced. Either way, it’s been a wild ride.

 

I ran for mayor because I believed City Hall needed to work better for the people of Austin. And I wanted to bring a sense of urgency to fixing things, even if that meant shaking things up.

Here’s some of what we’ve been doing over the past 100 days:

Improving basic city operations: Within a short time of taking office, this City Council replaced the city manager and appointed Interim City Manager Jesús Garza. There’s now an ongoing reorganization of City Hall because the City wasn’t set up for success. Today, we have a former acting chief of police as the assistant city manager over public safety, new people in charge of Austin Energy, the airport, emergency operations, and more changes to come.

Streamlining development review:  I brought in McKinsey Consulting, a worldwide consulting firm, to scrub the city’s site plan process to help us reform it. This process currently takes way too long, drives up costs and makes it harder to build affordable housing. We’ll have recommendations by the end of June.

Striking a balance on public safety: We inherited an expiring police contract and a force that’s around 300 officers understaffed, and two May ballot initiatives related to police oversight. We’ve addressed this complicated situation with some common-sense solutions. We’ve preserved the right for people to vote in May on matters related to the police at the same time that we guaranteed police pay and retirement, even with the contract expiration. In fact, the police got a raise, we added to retirement benefits, and created incentives for recruitment. And we’ve partnered with the state to supplement and support APD, and it’s already showing real success. We’ll monitor this carefully to ensure our Austin values are followed. We want success across the board with this partnership.

Conducting efficient City Council meetings: There will be some long ones in the future. I know that. But, so far, we’ve proved you can end meetings before the early morning hours.

 

What's Next

Of course, that’s not all we’ve done. And I’m looking to the future. We’ve announced a terrific workforce program that will be more developed in the next 100 days. Expect a childcare program to be prominent. I’m hoping to announce a major initiative in the next few weeks that will help our unhoused neighbors and allow enforcement of the camping ban.

This new City Council has great energy, and we’ve demonstrated a willingness to work together. It’s been a real team that looks to the future. I’m excited about working with this group over the next 100 days and beyond.

Watson Wire: Bigger than Austin

The threats against Austin at the Texas Legislature are very real and could have serious implications for our voters and taxpayers. That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time in my first few months in the mayor’s office working to lower the tensions from a roiling boil to a gentle simmer.

I’ll always look for opportunities to better serve my constituents. If that means working with someone I might disagree with on another matter but can agree with them on a specific issue, then I’ll actively seek out that opportunity. There’s no need to make an unnecessary enemy of someone.

The public safety partnership announced last week is a good example of how the State Capitol and the Capital City can work together to serve our shared constituents.

But the legislation targeting Project Connect undermines those efforts. The bill, which will be heard in a House committee on Wednesday, is hugely disrespectful to the voters of our city – and being pushed by legislators who do not live in our city.

Bigger than Just Austin

The ripple effects of this legislation, though, will extend far beyond the City of Austin to undermine public infrastructure investment throughout Texas. If the Legislature can torpedo a vote of the people three years after they voted, what does that do to investor confidence in public infrastructure in Texas? What kind of risk premium gets added when no one can trust that a public deal is done because the Legislature could just come back and change the rules after the fact?

That is exactly what is happening. And regardless of how you feel about Project Connect, this growing town, this growing state are going to need infrastructure projects to keep up. We simply can’t put them at risk. Too much is at stake. Public infrastructure projects across the state would be at risk – even those approved by voters – because someone who didn’t like the results of an election had the ear of a legislator.

Project Connect Sign

The Beating Heart

The City of Austin used a provision in Senate Bill 2 (2019) that allowed voters to authorize a tax rate increase above the 3.5 percent threshold, known as the voter-approval rate. It was said at the time that the “beating heart of Senate Bill 2 is, ‘Let the people vote,’” which is precisely what the City of Austin did. The ballot language and the City Council-approved Contract with the Voters stated explicitly that the additional property tax revenue would be dedicated to fund light rail and pay off debt required to finance it. This financing mechanism is not a “blank check,” as the author has suggested, but rather provides an ongoing source of revenue to pay for an ongoing public service. Frankly, that’s just good fiscal management.

It’s certainly true that the scope of Project Connect has had to change in light of the global economic upheaval that drove up costs for just about everything, including land and construction materials. That’s why the Austin Transit Partnership rolled out new light rail options that all fit within available revenue. The cost of state transportation projects have soared as well in the wake of the pandemic, so let’s not pretend this is an Austin-specific issue.

This bill would force another election, and the way the election is proposed in this legislation would likely kill the project. That is a terrible precedent to set.

If you believe that a deal is a deal, then the voters already made the deal. We need to send a strong, active message to the Legislature that unwinding Project Connect is tantamount to saying no infrastructure investment is safe.

March 2023

Being Safe and Feeling Safe

Coming into City Hall, I knew one of my first big inherited challenges would be navigating the complicated and fraught policy debate over public safety and the police contract. So I focused on three guiding principles to help me keep my bearings:

  1. The people of Austin need to both be safe and feel safe;
  2. Police officers must be respected and have the resources they need to do their job; and
  3. The voters of Austin have the right to be heard in May on two ballot initiatives relating to police oversight.

 

Even so, our police staffing challenges remain, well, a challenge.

We’ve taken important steps to shore up the pay and benefits of officers even after the police contract expires at the end of this month. We also added some significant new recruitment and retention incentives. I know that didn’t satisfy everyone, but it was a very real demonstration of respect and support for our police.

Yesterday, we announced a partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety to provide additional law enforcement officers to assist and supplement the work of the Austin Police Department. The primary aims are to reduce traffic fatalities, reduce response times and increase law enforcement presence across the community, which will help to deter and prevent crime. This effort, which will be led by the Austin Chief of Police, will have transparency, monitoring and reporting to ensure that Austin’s values are being met.  

I have longstanding working relationships with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick from my time in the Texas Senate. I appreciate their willingness to work with us to serve our shared constituents, and I’m pretty sure this is a beginning of a more cooperative partnership between the Texas Capitol and the Capital City.

I promised we would make city government work better in providing basic services. This is an example of that. It’s a common-sense, practical response to a serious need.

And once the voters have their say on the ballot initiatives in May, I’m fully committed to working with the Austin Police Association on a new contract so we can find solutions to our staffing challenges that serve our officers and our community.

 
Biased Toward Action

I dropped by the Project Connect Open House last Tuesday and came away energized about our light rail program.

I’m energized, in part, by seeing so much energy from others. Over 530 people visited the Austin Central Library for the kick-off of a community engagement process for the first phase of light rail, the details of which can be found at the Austin Transit Partnership Light Rail Virtual Open House.

Here are some of the initial comments we’ve been hearing:

  • Support for ATP to build light rail as soon as possible: Although there are many varied perspectives and feelings on the five options, we have heard an underlying theme of support for moving forward with a core system for Austin’s light rail and an understanding of how complex the challenge is.

 

  • An appreciation for transparency: Numerous open house attendees commented that they appreciate hearing honest answers about the options and path forward.

 

  • Concerns about the size of the first light rail project and the length of the underground segment.

 

  • ATP’s approach to planning for financial resiliency.

 

  • Strong and differing views about the value of getting to the airport.

 

  • Concerns about traffic operations downtown.

 

  • Viability of on-street options through downtown vs elevated or underground.

 

We want your feedback on this generational project, and we hope you’ll take the opportunity to look at the options and offer your input over the next few weeks.

ATP encourages feedback through its Virtual Open House, Email, or by phone at (512) 904-0180. The deadline is May 2nd.

 

project connect open house

All of these options fit within our available revenue, which comes from a dedicated portion of the city’s property tax rate approved by voters in 2020. I know that it’s frustrating to some that we’re not going to get everything we wanted from this first phase, but this is the responsible path forward, given the cost increases stemming from construction inflation, rising land values and scope creep. This isn’t a Project Connect problem alone. This happened to all big projects—prices have gone up because of inflation, supply chain issues and more. We need to move forward with a healthy dose of common sense because Austin continues to grow rapidly, and we’re building this system to serve future generations and as an investment in Austin’s infinite potential.

We must be biased toward action and get results even if it doesn’t meet our ideal of perfection. Voters approved Project Connect in 2020, and now it’s time to get it done.

Meanwhile, up at the Capitol, the legislation targeting Project Connect has been referred to the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee. We’ll keep you posted on upcoming hearings and other opportunities for you to get involved to protect this long-sought community priority that the Legislature is threatening.

 

Getting Our House in Order

Long before we break ground on light rail, our city’s Development Services Department (DSD) will be asked to do a ton of work. And it’s our job to ensure now that DSD is working well so that the city permitting process isn’t an obstacle in getting this community priority done.

Development services is an area where we want to be as fast as possible while ensuring good outcomes for our community. But there has been a lack of coordination between our 12 city departments that are part of the development process. It’s resulted in delayed site plan developments and permits, increased frustration among anyone — both public and private — trying to get a project done in Austin, and has contributed to the lack of affordable housing options.

Folks, let me be clear with you, things are going to change.

Beginning immediately, McKinsey Consulting Services, a global management consulting firm, has offered its expertise pro bono to scrub our site development plan process and propose recommendations on how we can do this better by June 30. They will work in coordination with the City on identifying policies and procedures that impact the development process and look for any technological updates the city may need. Most importantly, these recommendations will bring us in line with industry standards, something this city deserves. I kicked this effort off last week, and people have responded very well to this aggressive, practical approach.

This is a good step in the right direction. We’re not going to fix this today, but today, we are going to stop the cycle of inaction.

 

More Positive Shake-up

All last year, I said that we needed to shake up City Hall. That shake-up started in earnest and to great results when we changed city managers.

 

Last Friday, the Interim City Manager, Jesús Garza, announced a major reorganization of the city system. I’m really pleased with the work that’s been done with these changes. The reorganization clearly creates more opportunities for City Hall to succeed and deliver the services that Austinites deserve. We’ve only been around here for 80 days, and we’re already better positioned for success.

 

We will continue to work to ensure basic services are provided well and that we are biased toward action.

 

 

Watson Wire: Timing is Everything

I’ve been getting some good feedback from folks new to the Watson Wire. The responses have been thoughtful and measured — even when they’re telling me I’m totally wrong. I appreciate that.

And I hold out hope that, one day soon, I’ll be able to send you all a fun Wire, like I used to send, something light, full of whimsy and perhaps featuring a very loud bulldog named Doc. Well, maybe next week…

 

Smart and Deliberate 

A big part of why I ran for mayor is my belief that City Hall needed to do better at governing. It needed to focus on the basics of providing services and working for results. I said that City Hall needed to be shaken up.

In Austin’s form of government, the City Manager is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city and carries out the Mayor and Council’s policy objectives. I believed that the City of Austin hadn’t been well managed for a long while, and the essential working relationship between the City Manager and City Council was out of alignment. And, I listened when the people of Austin told me that they noticed it everywhere.

Last month, the City Council changed city managers and brought in Jesús Garza as the Interim City Manager. And he, in turn, is bringing in folks who have great experience and know that this city can run well, that we can provide residents basic services both efficiently and effectively. As a result, we’re already seeing organizational changes that are helping our city run better and be more responsive to you. He also understands how the manager should work with the Mayor and Council to make our form of government work well.

We will need to hire a permanent City Manager in the future. Austin, Texas is a worldwide focal point and a great city that is passionately working to be a unique, equitable, positive, creative, happy and accessible place for everyone. It should be a city that the very best candidates would want to manage. But first, we need to right this ship so that, when we hire that new manager, they’ll be able to work with us to move this city forward instead of needing to fix problems of the past.

The hiring of a new City Manager is probably one of the most important decisions this City Council will make. In some ways, it will define our legacy as a team. We need to be smart and deliberate about our choice. We also need to be smart and deliberate about our process for making that choice.

To be able to recruit the best candidates, we need to stabilize the organization so that we’re consistently delivering basic services well. We need to demonstrate that our City Council and our city manager are working together to get things done and, by doing so, demonstrate how we can govern well. We need to let the tumult of some past actions settle down.

Timing is everything. We will take the appropriate amount of time. There’s no need to rush. It’s important to get things right.

 

What's Next? 

Over the next few months, we’re going to give Jesús the opportunity and space to make organizational changes that will set up our city for success.

In the meantime, those of us on the City Council will spend some time reaching out to folks in each council district to listen and discuss the community’s needs and priorities for a permanent City Manager. We want to hear from Austinites about what we should be looking for in this critical leader.

We’ll also be working to identify the professional search firms that have a proven track record in this specific type of search and the ability to bring a pool of candidates that meets or exceeds our expectations. Again, I’m not in any rush. I can envision us waiting until mid-summer or so to start identifying firms.

And that search firm also needs to be open to working with us on an interview process that respects our community’s demand for openness and public participation with the candidates’ desire for privacy. That’s not an easy balance but we’ll do it right this time.

This whole thing may take us some time. That’s okay. In fact, it’s the right way. We’ve seen what happens when things aren’t well managed and when the city manager is out of alignment with the Mayor and Council. Too much is at stake to not make this decision and process a model for how we should govern well.

 

Moving forward with Project Connect

Elections matter. I heard that bit of wisdom a lot over the years in the Texas Senate when the majority was getting its way on matters that the minority opposed. And, it’s true. In our form of government, we ask the voters what they want and put it to a vote. The people decide how things are going to be. We might not always like the results, but as Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.”

The voters of Austin elected in 2020 to dedicate a portion of the city’s property tax rate to implement a light rail system. Light rail has been an elusive goal for many Austinites – including me – for well over two decades, and our voters made an affirmative decision to invest in a more affordable and sustainable future for our community.

Now, some folks who didn’t like the outcome of that election in 2020 have assured that the Texas Legislature will attempt to undermine the will of Austin’s voters – all in the name of protecting Austin voters.

What Did Austin Voters Do in 2020?

In very basic terms, we created something akin to a new city department – a light rail department – that would design, build, operate and maintain a public transportation program that will serve the people of Austin long into the future.

The voters approved an ongoing source of revenue to ensure the city could continue to pay for that ongoing service. From a tax perspective, it’s really not different than how we pay for the ongoing operations of the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services Department or the Austin Public Library.

But it is different in that the city created an independent entity – known as a local government corporation – to receive the dedicated revenue from the city and use it to “oversee and finance the acquisition, construction, equipping, and operations and maintenance of the rapid transit system.” The city used the local government corporation model for the Mueller redevelopment, which has been wildly successful.

The independence of the Austin Transit Partnership was integral to the success of the 2020 tax rate election. And, according to a recent report from a national think tank, it’s also a best practice recommended to American communities to deliver good light rail projects more consistently. It was done in large part to protect this major investment from the political whims of the Capital Metro Board of Directors and/or the Austin City Council. In other words, the voters said they wanted an independent entity to handle the money and build the system instead of having politicians mess with things for, well, political purposes. ATP has worked through some start-up challenges but is now well positioned to deliver a light rail system.

That is, if the Legistature (can you say, “politicians”) doesn’t kill it first. The legislation filed last week would require another vote of the people before the ATP could issue the revenue bonds – backed by the voter-approved city tax revenue and federal dollars – needed to finance the multi-billion dollar system. Forcing another election would drive costs through the roof. The uncertainty around the financing would cause contractors to tack on an additional risk premium and potential bondholders to increase interest rates. Meanwhile, the federal government will be watching and wondering if it should send the billions of infrastructure dollars elsewhere. Project Connect would no longer be viable.

I’m all for transparency and accountability to voters, and elections are really the most transparent way of doing things. I’ve also been kicking around some ideas about how to answer the desire for more transparency and accountability without denying that Austin voters have already said what they want. I intend to do what I can to make sure my former colleagues in the Legislature listen to them.

And there’s some irony when someone who supports legislation like this says they’re for transparency and accountability when they’re not accountable to the Austin voters (or only a tiny percentage of them).

Rightsizing Project Connect

Since we’re all now pandemic-era supply chain experts, we understand that construction inflation has affected every infrastructure project everywhere. And there was definitely some vision creep by the previous leadership that led to some eye-popping cost estimates for the project.

So we’ve had to recalibrate our expectations for Project Connect to live within our means while focusing on the community goals and priorities that voters supported when they approved this historic investment.

To that end, ATP has worked up several viable options for the first phase of light rail that fit within our available revenue. On March 21, members of the public are invited to Austin Central Library to view the various options and discuss the pros and cons with the experts.

As I’ve been considering the various options, I keep going back to the community values and goals that have driven this project from the beginning and asking myself:

• Which options will best serve transit riders?

• How will they shape the community we want for our future?

• And will they help build the mobility system we need to meet the demands of our region?

None of these options will meet anyone’s idea of perfection. They all have trade-offs. But we can’t let the ideal get in the way of moving forward.

Project Connect rendering

Project Connect Open House

Tuesday, March 21 | 4 – 7 PM

Austin Central Library

710 W Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX 78701

Learn about updates on the light rail system from the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP), find out what’s next for Project Connect, and share your feedback.

Can’t make it? You can still view materials and provide feedback at ProjectConnect.com/Get-Involved.

Respecting the People

“The people of the city reserve the power of direct legislation by initiative...”

 – Austin City Charter

The people of Austin long ago enshrined in the City Charter the rights of initiative and referendum to ensure they have a direct voice in city government.

They can initiate or challenge ordinances and let the public vote on the proposals. Over the years, they’ve reinstated the camping ban, imposed strong water quality standards over the aquifer and killed off an effort to prevent a rewrite of the land development code.

You might oppose a specific initiative. And you might not like the process of even allowing initiatives. But anyone who talks big about respecting the Rule of Law should respect that the people have the right to be heard in this way.

City of Austin by Lady Bird Lake

Why it matters right now

Last year, a group called Equity Action obtained enough signatures to have an initiative put on the ballot. The city clerk certified the signatures and the last City Council put the initiative on the ballot for this coming May. The initiative specifically addresses issues related to what Austin needs to do in a police contract.

If the city agrees to a contract with the police before May, the contract’s terms will preempt some aspects of the initiative, even if the initiative passes. That preemption will occur for the length of the contract. If the contract’s terms conflict with the initiative’s terms, the will of the voters can’t go into effect until the end of the contract.  A four-year contract would preempt the will of the voters for four years. A one-year contract, like the Council has asked for, would preempt it for a very short time, but allow us to hear the voters and begin negotiating and hopefully get a new contract before the end of that one year.

This is an unfortunate box to be in. It can be argued that there are real benefits to a longer contract. But, as Mayor, I have an obligation to support the Charter and not preempt the voters’ right to weigh in, as long as the correct process has been followed. Many people who want the City Council to just approve a four-year contract don’t know, appreciate or accept that doing so would effectively silence Austin voters in May. Governing, as opposed to advocacy, sometimes requires nuance and an effort to satisfy multiple principles all at once.

Actually, there are two ballot initiatives. The second one comes from a group called Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability. 

These dueling ballot initiatives have highlighted some clear problems in the current initiative process. The City Council will take up an item on Thursday to begin a review of the City Charter with the specific aim of addressing those problems and instituting better transparency and ethical standards.

In the meantime

Last week, Interim City Manager Jesús Garza released details of a generous police retention and recruitment package that the City Council authorized on Feb. 23, when we also unanimously passed an ordinance based on my substitute ensuring that officers’ wages, benefits and retirement would be protected, even if we don’t have a contract with the police union by the end of the month. And while you might’ve heard some absurd statements that we’re “defunding” the police, the retention and recruitment plan actually includes:

A 4% increase in pay for all officers under the rank of assistant chief, effective April 1, 2023;

Up to a $15,000 incentive for new cadets; Retention incentives for current officers, including a pay increase for officers nearing retirement, which may help alleviate the current concern for officers considering retirement.

As Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said: “This plan demonstrates the commitment this City has to keeping its word and supporting our officers. APD officers keep this community safe, and they deserve to be compensated well for doing so; this plan is an important part of ensuring officers feel valued by the people they serve.”

  • Additional provisions within the plan include continuation of longevity pay, field training officer pay, mental health certification pay, bilingual pay, shift differential pay, assistant chief pay, among others.

February 2023

Watson Wire: On Bluebonnet Hill

I had big plans for Black History Month that started with this Watson Wire celebrating Huston-Tillotson University’s contribution to Austin. It was all set to go for Feb. 1 and then, well, you all know the rest. It's been quite a month.

 

So, we’re closing out Black History Month by recognizing and amplifying all that our Huston-Tillotson offers to Austin.

 

Huston-Tillotson University, founded only a decade after the end of slavery in Texas, is the oldest institution of higher education in Austin and was established to serve former slaves and their descendants. Perched atop Bluebonnet Hill in East Austin, it’s the heart of a community and a home for learning with unlimited potential.

 

The new president and CEO, Dr. Melva Williams, succeeds Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, who worked tirelessly to strengthen the connection between HT and the Austin community before retiring last year. I’m very excited to work with Dr. Williams and to continue our partnership.

Dr. Williams is continuing that important work and earlier this month hosted a Ideation Summit where business and industry leaders focused on the future needs of the workforce in Austin and ways to partner with the university. That’s a big issue for all of us and I appreciate Dr. Williams bringing people together to look for solutions.

 

Long before Dr. Williams came to Huston-Tillotson, she played an important role in the life of someone who came into my life last year. Max Lars, my campaign manager and now policy strategist in the Mayor’s Office, attended Southern University-Shreveport where Dr. Williams was the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at the time.

 

As Max tells it, he was letting his interest in government and politics get in the way of his studies during his sophomore year when Dr. Williams tracked him down and told him: "Lars, you know you can do better. You better get it together!"

 

“I honestly remember that moment not because I thought she was about to put me on academic probation (which I thought was coming) but because she believed in me enough to sit me down and say, ‘I believe in you, and I know you can do this.’ As a young Black student trying to navigate life, this made a massive difference in my life because that's something you're not used to hearing.

 

“Dr. Williams has this type of reputation not only at my alma mater but at multiple HBCUs all over Louisiana and now in Texas. Huston-Tillotson University has someone who will make the university better, and our city will be better because of her leadership.”

Our city is already better thanks to Dr. Williams and HT. She's going to have a wonderful impact. Welcome, Dr. Williams.
Watson Wire: In Good Hands and Making a Difference

We welcomed Jesús Garza, our interim city manager, back on the dais at City Hall yesterday. He stepped into a very big and difficult job a week ago and is already making a difference – including breaking up a fight on the street armed only with his calm demeanor and a sense of compassion. We're in good hands with Jesús.

 

For our system of government to work for the people of Austin, the City Council and City Manager must be working in alignment. Two weeks ago, it was painfully clear that we were out of alignment – and probably had been for quite some time.

Last week, we terminated the City Manager because we had to change the way we did business. The outcomes of our decisions are simply too important. That was a significant and solemn day, but I promised I would shake things up and make hard decisions when things needed a shake-up.

 

Today, we’re in a very different place. The members of this City Council and our Interim City Manager are now in alignment about the need to lift up our police and provide them the stability they need to stay on the job until we can negotiate a one-year contract. We unanimously passed an ordinance that protects the pay and benefits of officers even if we don’t get a new contract with the police association. And we directed the City Manager to develop a plan to address the current shortage of police officers, including a financial incentive for the Austin Police Association to resume contract talks with the City.

 

We are doing this at the same time we’re assuring police accountability and, very importantly, protecting the right of people to petition their government and vote on a petition related to police this May.

 

Many people who want the Council to just accept what the police association demands for a quick adoption of a four-year contract don’t appreciate or accept that doing so would effectively silence Austin voters in May. As Mayor, I need to protect their rights, too.

 

This is how we strike a balance that serves the needs of the officers and the community. It’s a demonstration of good faith and good government by our City Council and our City Manager. Now, we need a demonstration of good faith from the Austin Police Association. I hope they will come back to the bargaining table. A contract would be better.

 

From a practical standpoint for you, this means the City Council and the City Manager are now working together to meet the needs of the people of Austin. I know that it’s a lot to ask for patience from folks, but there’s a lot of inherited scar tissue that we’re working through and will need some time.

 

We’re making progress. We’re already making the city work better.

Watson Wire: Accountability

Today was a significant and solemn day at the Austin City Council as we dealt with arguably two of the most consequential decisions this City Council will make.

 

The first item: We parted ways with City Manager Spencer Cronk. Spencer is a committed public servant, and I appreciate all he gave to the city. But the management of the extended power outage and the lack of clear, timely and accurate communication left our community in the dark. Most importantly, these same problems had surfaced in previous disasters, such as Winter Storm Uri in 2021, and were highlighted again and again in multiple after-action reports and audits.

 

In our council-manager form of government, the City Manager bears responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the city as well as hiring and firing decisions for department heads, including the general manager of Austin Energy. While the mayor and council members answer to the people of Austin, the City Manager answers to us.

 

This move was an important first step in ensuring accountability to the public for the city’s serious missteps in the handling of the storm and the power outage. We’ll continue down that path on Tuesday when the members of the City Council meet as the Austin Energy Oversight Committee. We will not allow the lessons learned this time (or last time or the time before that) to be ignored going forward. 

 

While the City Council begins the process of searching for a new permanent City Manager, former Austin City Manager Jesús Garza will step in as the interim. Jesús was an exceptional City Manager from 1994 to 2002, and we worked closely together during my first time as mayor. There aren’t a lot of people with the experience and ability to run such a big and complicated operation as the City of Austin. There are even fewer people who are available on a week’s notice and willing to take on such a daunting task. I’m incredibly grateful that he came out of retirement to help us through this challenging time.

 

Striking a Balance on Public Safety

The second item related to public safety and the police contract. 

 

This issue has been characterized in the typical "all or nothing" rhetoric. One side will say it is 100% right while the other side says the exact same thing. They'll tell us "you're either for us or against us; there's no middle ground.”  As usual, that's not right. 

 

I’ve inherited a great deal of scar tissue on this issue, and I’m hopeful we can work toward a thoughtful outcome, even if it doesn’t meet everyone’s concept of what would be perfect.

 

Today, I voted to extend the current one-year contract with police so voters will have the opportunity to voice their position on police accountability and oversight. As elected members of the City Council, we need to respect the people of Austin who empowered us to make this decision as well as the City Charter that empowers them to petition their government. 

 

We also need to respect the police officers who serve our community and provide them the stability and resources needed to keep them on the job. Our police department must be sufficiently staffed so that Austinites are both safe, and feel safe, whether they’re in the comfort of their home or being pulled over for a traffic stop. And no one should fear the police. Making all Austinites safe and able to feel safe, respecting police officers and working for stability does not preclude — I would argue it necessarily includes — a robust and transparent oversight — of police. 

 

Finally, we need to respect the process. It absolutely matters how we take up the people’s business.

 

This proposed police contract, which is being considered in the context of not one, but two ballot propositions related to that contract, should have been finalized weeks ago with time enough before the current contract expires to allow the council, citizens, and stakeholder groups to review, comment, and provide feedback. A time to debate. A time to make changes without being told we all face catastrophic outcomes. A time to modify so as to avoid at least part of the all or nothing b.s. that comes when you do the process so wrong.

 

But that didn’t happen.

 

Last week, a last-minute 4-year contract was sprung on all of us the night before council was set to provide direction. We’re not going to do our business like this anymore. It stops now. The outcomes are too important.

 

As Mayor, I want to help our community move beyond this impasse and begin to hear each other and maybe even trust each other a little more than we do today.

 

I'm looking at more than one way to see a result. It's not as easy as creating binary choices. But it just might be better.

Watson Wire: There Must Be Accountability  

To all our Austin citizens who are furious about the ongoing power outage, you’re right. There must be accountability.

 

On Thursday, the Austin City Council will take up an emergency item to evaluate the employment of City Manager Spencer Cronk.

 

I added the emergency item to the agenda this morning because the management of this situation and the lack of clear, timely and accurate communication has left our community in the dark. It is unacceptable.

 

The City of Austin can and will do better.

 

Council Members Alison Alter, Chito Vela and Vanessa Fuentes have joined me in sponsoring the emergency item. 

 

While the members of the City Council answer to the people of Austin, the City Manager answers to us. 

Winter Weather Updates: February 5

Yesterday, I tested positive for COVID-19. This situation is far from ideal, but I’m still in contact with staff and will continue to work and receive storm recovery briefings. And I still hope to attend next week’s Council meeting on Thursday. I’ll attend the Work Session remotely.
 
On Friday, February 3, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and I signed local disaster declarations for this week’s winter storm. These declarations will help us get state and federal help for our response and recovery efforts.
 
Yesterday, Governor Abbott issued an Ice Storm Disaster Declaration, which included Denton, Hays, Henderson, Milam, Smith, Travis, and Williamson counties.
 
Residents can help us fully assess damage impacts by completing the iSTAT survey. The survey helps state and local emergency management officials across Texas identify and understand damages that have occurred during recent natural disaster activity.

Complete here
 
I hate that people have suffered and continue to suffer from this. When I took office a little over a month ago, it was to make sure City Hall focused on the basics better than it had been. Well, there’s pretty much nothing more basic than keeping the lights and the heat on. And communicating with people you serve is pretty basic, too. I promise that things will change in the days ahead.
 
 
PLEASE NOTE: We’re anticipating strong winds and thunderstorms in the forecast beginning Tuesday. Our trees are still vulnerable, which means additional tree limbs may fall. Be aware of your surroundings and avoid parking under trees.


Resources, FAQs, and Updates
 
Austin Energy and other utility crews are making progress. However, while more than 600 Austin Energy and utility workers are working to restore power, as of 7PM on Sunday, February 5, more than 32,000 customers are still left without power.
 
Currently, Austin Energy is focusing on the most complicated restoration efforts— outages with unique and complex damages.
 
Residents should stay away from downed power lines in or near their yards.
Call 512-322-9100 to report a downed power line; if the line is sparking, call 911. Never touch a power line or any items in contact with a power line.
 
Customers without power can check the outage map on Austin Energy’s website at outagemap.austinenergy.com and report their outage online or by texting 287846.
 
If your property has experienced damage to electrical equipment, please call an electrician. Individual repairs must be made before Austin Energy can reenergize power to your property.
 
This may also affect power restoration to your neighbors. Austin Energy’s Electric Service Planning Application form can be found here: https://austinenergy.com/.../electric-service-design.../espa

Reminder: Austin Energy personnel will be identifiable with badges and in Austin Energy vehicles. Residents are asked to work with them on allowing access as needed.

Residents driving on Austin roads are asked to remember to slow down and move over for any utility crews working in the field to restore power.
 
Austin Transportation
 
As of 5PM, 32 traffic signals are not working. Crews will be placing temporary stop signs in many of these locations. Drivers are reminded to approach all intersections cautiously and treat all dark traffic signals as an all-way stop.
 
Recovery Support
 
* Anyone needing food can find access Central Texas Food Bank resources here

* Red Cross: Residents can call 1-800-RED-CROSS to request help. For more information, visit the Central Texas Red Cross Get Help page.
 
Repairs and Permits
 
The City’s Development Services Department will work retroactively with homeowners, business owners and contractors to permit and inspect emergency repairs to ensure work was completed safely. That means that work can begin quickly on repairs.
 
Types of repairs that will require permits include:
* Ruptured or damaged water lines
* Main electrical service
* Structural damage
 
Storm Debris Management
 
The Texas Forest Service is assisting in debris gathering and ensuring the right of way is clear. They will be focusing on areas with large tree canopies and areas with large old growth and heritage trees.
 
Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) crews are working to collect storm debris.
 
Downed Tree Limbs: Request a collection of downed tree limbs due to the storm by contacting Austin 3-1-1 via its mobile app, online request form or calling 3-1-1 (512-974-2000).
 
Austin Water has also extended hours at Hornsby Bend Biosolids Treatment Plant on 2210 S FM 973 on Sunday for brush drop-off, from 8:00 AM until 4:30 PM Material will also be accepted during regular business hours, Monday–Saturday.

Residents with physical limitations or financial needs requiring help cleaning up winter storm debris can request volunteer assistance through the Austin Disaster Relief Network.
 
 
Safety Information
 
* Food Safety for Power Outages. Refrigerated or frozen foods may be unsafe to eat after losing power. Find out what you can do to keep food safe during a power outage, and when you need to throw away food that could make you sick.
 
 
Austin Water
 
This winter weather event has not impacted Austin Water and Wastewater Treatment Plants, and water storage levels remain healthy. Austin Water continues to work closely with Austin Energy to restore power to pumps and lift stations throughout our service area.
 
But we do need your help to conserve water to reduce demand on the system. Ways you can help us:
 
* Shorten shower times
* Avoid unnecessary toilet flushes
* Avoid washing clothes for as long as possible
* Postpone washing dishes if you can
* Check all faucets, shower heads, and under cabinets for drips.
* Check water heaters.

Watson Wire: Winter Weather Updates and Going Forward

Providing clear, accurate and timely communication is essential during an emergency, and once again, the city has not delivered. As mayor, I accept responsibility and apologize that we have let you down.

 

This has been a persistent challenge over the past several years and your frustration is absolutely warranted. Over and over again, we see the same failure.

 

Something will change— beginning with communication.

 

We will use any and all available techniques to ensure that our communication will be clear, frank, and happen in real time.

 

As I’ve said from day one, my goal is to do good by doing better. The City let its citizens down. The situation is unacceptable to the community and it’s unacceptable to me.

 

I can assure you that going forward we will do better.


I was joined by Travis County Judge Andy Brown and City Manager Spencer Cronk yesterday for the local disaster declaration.

Going Forward
On Friday afternoon, I declared a local state of disaster within the City of Austin. This declaration will help pull down federal resources and make the clean-up process easier.

 
We need to better understand what worked and what didn’t in our response and what should happen going forward. I’ve consulted with Council Member Pool, who chairs the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, and we are working to organize a thorough review that will be transparent and geared at holding people accountable.

Resources, FAQs, and Updates
Austin Energy:

 

As of 8AM today, more than 76,000 Austin Energy customers are without power, and over 400-line workers in Austin are restoring outages. Crews are focusing on “Critical Load” circuits which include hospitals, nursing homes, and fire stations. They’ve successfully restored most, but the work is not done.

 

As a word of caution, folks should never touch a downed power line or a tree limb making contact with a downed power line. Please assume these lines are energized and stay away from them.

 

You can call 512-322-9100 to report downed powerlines.

 

Cold load pick-up will be an issue as Austin Energy restores power to more customers. As crews work to restore power, circuits can become overloaded because of lights, electronics, and thermostats left on before the outage.

 

Residents can help Austin Energy avoid cold load pickup by:

        * Turning off their thermostats.

        * Turning off or unplugging any fixtures or appliances.

        * Only leaving on one light to indicate when the power is back on.

 

Reminder: Austin Energy crews will always be clearly identifiable with badges and in Austin Energy vehicles.

 

 

Austin Resource Recovery and Fallen Tree Limbs:

 

You can call 3-1-1 or 512-974-2000 to request a collection of down tree limbs. Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) crews will assess and collect them as soon as possible. Have the limbs at the curb ready for collection.

 

If you have physical or financial needs and want help cleaning up winter storm debris, you can request volunteer assistance through the Austin Disaster Relief Network. Complete this form: link.adrn.org/ws-cleanup-request.

 

Limited collections resumed on Thursday. Carts, bulk, and brush items should be left at the curb to allow crews to catch up over the next several days. Collections will continue into the weekend, and normal operations will resume on Monday. 

 

 

Austin Water:

 

Austin Water's treatment plants are currently operating at normal levels and meeting the community's water demands.

Final Thoughts
I am proud of our folks who are currently responding to life and safety issues in our community. First responders, line workers, and City employees are working hard and trying their best to safely respond to the needs of all Austinites.

 

There’s still a lot to do, and I am committed to getting this right.

 

January 2023

Watson Wire: "Greater, better... more beautiful"

Today marks my first City Council meeting as Austin’s new mayor. And I’m truly excited and happy to have this opportunity to work with my Council colleagues and city staff to serve you.

A civic-minded constituent recently reminded me of the Oath of the Athenian City-State, which includes the promise to “transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

Greater, better, more beautiful…I like that. That’s a good goal for all of us.

As I said in my remarks at the inauguration on January 6:

“Austin, Texas is a truly exceptional place. It is a place where you, and I, and all of us, can live our very best lives. And I know in my heart that keeping it that way, is squarely within our power. If we choose now to act deliberately, and decisively, together, in pursuit of a shared positive but practical vision, I know we can make the next part of our story even more amazing.”

 

The Ground Rules


Over the years, I’ve put together my Ground Rules for bringing about positive change. These rules — basically a list of lessons learned in public service and life generally — guide me as sort of personal code or an articulation of ethics. They’re an answer to the frequent question: How will you govern or approach things as Mayor?

I’ve shared the Ground Rules over the years in a variety of venues. It’s flattering that I’ve even heard some other folks cite them – as their own. As I start this new public service journey, it seemed appropriate to share them again:

  • Be willing to throw away labels. I believe we label each other far too readily, and that label becomes an excuse not to hear what someone may really think. It also erases empathy for that person, which diminishes understanding. My goal is to work with all interested parties, without regard to labels. I’m hopeful — with good reason, I think — that people will approach me the same way.

     

  • Listen carefully and speak plainly. The key is to really listen and to openly state a position. Politics is filled with people talking past one another or regurgitating platitudes. The best work comes from speaking openly, really listening, and avoiding pre-packaged talking points. And be willing to experiment with new ways for people to hear each other.

 

  • It’s ideal to get results even if they’re not ideal. You’re not going to meet everyone’s concept of perfection or what they think is the ideal. So don’t try. Don’t define “consensus” as 100% agreement. That likely results in something unworkable and impractical or it gives some person or entity too much veto power. If I can come up with something that a good chunk of the public would look at and say, “That’s not exactly how I’d do it, but it’s pretty good and it’s progress,” then I’m probably going for it. I know I won’t always get unanimity, and if I wait to act until I get 100% support, there likely will be no action. Also, I try to not demand my concept of perfection.

 

  • Be biased toward action. Too often in politics, people seem to fear failure, or the possibility that they’ll be upstaged by the next idea that comes along. I’d rather make a mistake trying something than doing nothing out of fear.

 

  • Never forget that hope matters. Public service should have goals of assuring hope and creating opportunity for happiness.

 

  • Have a short-term focus with a long-term vision. One of the “gifts” of cancer is that I learned there may not be a tomorrow. So, I try to focus on achieving results right now, but in a way that benefits the long term. Both of those — the now and the future — are essential, but too often people lose track of one or the other.

 

  • Know your core values and assets and be willing to admit weaknesses. I try to assess my values, assets, and weaknesses routinely. Clearly, right now is a good time to take that sort of stock.

 

  • Avoid the nitpickers, naysayers and know-it-alls (okay, so maybe there are a few good labels). We all know those folks who kill good ideas by picking them to death rather than working toward a solution. They only want to win the battle in their way. It isn’t called “negative energy” for nothing.

 

  • Create new and different constituencies and avoid creating unnecessary enemies. In the first place, even when I disagree with someone, there’s no reason to do it in such a way that they never want to work with me on something we agree about. I also try to look at an idea or policy position from another person’s point of view. It’s worth it when you can tweak a proposal to bring everybody — or, at least, most everybody — on-board.  A “win” doesn't have to include the destruction of an opponent.

 

  • Focus on the positive, even in situations that are difficult. Too many people in public service today seem angry. I guess it’s probably easy to get cynical. But, the motivation for service shouldn’t be anger. Enjoy the service. Service ought to be fulfilling and not a burden (at least not most of the time).

 

And one more, for an audience of one:

 

Don't take myself too seriously.

 

Published: January 26, 2023