How did each Austin City Council member perform in 2015?

Just after taking the oath of office on Jan. 6, 2015, Austin City Council members promised to “do big things,” such as “realign our hopes (and) our dreams” and “make impactful policy changes.”

This was the first council elected by geographic districts rather than by the city as a whole, a long-fought-for system called “10-1” meant to ensure representation for all parts of Austin.

Some feared the worst, predicting that council members would turn to “ward politics,” simply deferring to one another on district-specific issues or making deals to support pet projects in each other’s districts, leaving citywide priorities by the wayside. That didn’t happen.

Some hoped for the best, wishing that the new council would make major strides toward top priorities such as cutting down on the cost of living in Austin and alleviating traffic. That didn’t happen, either.

For the following evaluations of this council’s first year in office, the Statesman combed through hundreds of online survey responses, interviewed dozens of City Hall observers and Austinites, reached out to all of the council members, compiled information about council members’ votes, and relied on a year’s worth of our staff reporting and observations of the council.

Mayor Steve Adler

Up for re-election in 2018

One of Adler’s campaign promises was to bring a minimal-drama, collegial tone to City Council meetings, and it’s fairly indisputable that he achieved this. In some respects, that’s remarkable given the variety of opinions on the dais. By taking a strong stance early on that council members should not simply defer to others on district-specific issues but focus on what’s best for the city as a whole, he also dispelled tendencies toward ward politics.

He’s developed a reputation as Mr. Compromise, swooping in toward the end of a policy-vetting process and offering a compromise typically brokered behind closed doors. Among City Hall observers and participants in the American-Statesman survey, this skill was highly praised and appreciated by some, and condemned by others who saw it as a lack of strong leadership.

Because Adler is in charge of running the council meetings and advocates for the council to take its time hashing out serious policy issues — he pushed for a new system of council committees for that very purpose — he’s also a frequent target of criticism for how long it can take the council to reach decisions.

Though Adler’s staff is twice as big as any individual council office and he relies on high-profile unpaid volunteers, his office has offered little in the way of major policy initiatives. Adler does deserve credit for working diligently to secure enough housing for Austin’s homeless veterans.

Ora Houston, District 1

Up for re-election in 2018

Houston, along with nearby East Austin residents, was a passionate advocate in favor of a developer’s controversial proposal to build two luxury golf courses in her District 1, but she was unsuccessful in gaining the support of her colleagues, who first sent the issue to committees then indefinitely tabled it.

By one measure, Houston was the least productive of all the council members: She didn’t bring forward a single item from council — a proposal from a council member that has garnered support from at least three co-sponsoring members and that the full board considers — apart from routine items that waive fees or reimburse costs for events.

Some observers described Houston as an unpredictable voter whose comments at times are based on unusual reasoning. One instance they point to: During a council discussion on banning the “bull hook” device used on circus elephants, Houston argued for pushing back the effective date of the new rules, saying she was against inhumane treatment of animals but wanted lower-income children, who may not have a chance to go to a zoo, to have the opportunity to see a live elephant.

Houston has been more consistent when it comes to reminding her colleagues and city staff that Austin’s racist history created divides that persist today and advocating for the city’s lower-income and minority residents. She has frequently joined Council Member Don Zimmerman on the losing end of votes, many of them on city purchases of goods or services or affordable housing developments. She also backed his unsuccessful pitch to build the new county civil courthouse in East Austin.

Delia Garza, District 2

Up for re-election in 2016

Flood recovery is the most pressing issue Garza’s District 2 faces, and on that subject she gets mixed reviews. When Garza took office, the city was partway through buying out Onion Creek homes that sustained damage in the 2013 Halloween flood. Then, in October 2015, major flooding from the creek again devastated the area.

Some residents say Garza should have done more to speed up the buyouts to get residents out of harm’s way. (Garza has said that she pushed to get those buyouts moving, even making them the subject of the first meeting she took with city staffers.) Others said they were grateful Garza and her staff were on the ground after the most recent flood, having a presence at a recovery center and even going door to door to help residents with repairs.

Garza, who worked a lighter schedule for about a month after giving birth to a daughter, took a strong lead on health issues, such as pushing for expanding city employee health coverage to include behavioral treatment for children with autism and championing a surge in funding for the city’s health and human services department.

She has developed a reputation for making thoughtful, common-sense comments and hasn’t been afraid to be in the minority on votes, departing from the council majorities that supported a 6 percent homestead exemption and that favored allowing council members to forgo their own salary and reallocate it for other purposes.

Sabino “Pio” Renteria, District 3

Up for re-election in 2018

Renteria carried to the finish line homestead preservation districts, a mechanism for directing property tax revenue to affordable housing initiatives in gentrifying areas, and moved the ball forward on relocation assistance for tenants displaced by new development — both issues that had languished under prior councils.

But Renteria is by no means anti-density and was one of the staunchest supporters of relaxing regulations for accessory dwelling units, also known as garage apartments or backyard cottages, as a way for property owners to make a little extra cash and remain in their longtime residences. Also, it’s worth noting his term got off to a rocky start after he made a controversial pitch to regulate the smoke from barbecue trucks and restaurants.

Though Renteria doesn’t say much during council meetings, he has been willing to broach topics none of his peers would touch, from questioning whether the council should scrap its own committee system to suggesting during a budget session that council members look at the increased spending in their own offices.

Outside council chambers, Renteria has gotten the most public attention for his work in the northern part of his East and Southeast Austin District 3, ranging from attending a neighbors’ meeting at the Lakeview Apartments where tenants said they were being forced out on short notice to joining neighbors in opposition to the proposed East Side Hotel.

Greg Casar, District 4

Up for re-election in 2016

Casar, the youngest and most popular council member among respondents of the Statesman survey, drew high marks for his progressive ideology, energy and political savvy from groups ranging from urbanists to housing advocates to workers’ rights supporters.

He is a proponent of increasing the city’s housing stock, whether that means putting rental housing in an area with a dearth of such options, allowing more granny flats to provide cheaper housing in traditionally more expensive neighborhoods, or building and rehabilitating housing in gentrifying swaths of the city.

But he is often criticized by the city’s old guard neighborhood associations, which view him as too beholden to development interests. Of all the zoning cases the council discussed last year, Casar didn’t vote against a single one on the final reading.

Though Casar chairs the council committee that handles hot-button land-use issues, he has tackled a diverse set of topics. He took the lead on raising the minimum wage for city workers, ensuring the city’s top power users saw electric rate increases and ironing out a kerfuffle between the city’s parks department and Fun Fun Fun Fest. Casar also drew accolades for community organizing work in his District 4, which has not historically been politically active, from helping mobile home residents start neighborhood associations to leading an exercise in which residents voted on how to spend transportation money.

Ann Kitchen, District 5

Up for re-election in 2018

As chair of the council’s Mobility Committee, Kitchen has taken the lead on transportation issues. Observers regard her committee as well-run and efficient. She led the charge on directing money toward five of the most dangerous intersections in Austin and was heavily involved in the effort to use $21.8 million in “quarter-cent funds” for neighborhood-level projects.

But it’s Kitchen’s work developing regulations for the ride-hailing apps that has drawn the most scrutiny. Kitchen supports requiring fingerprint background checks for drivers who work for companies such as Lyft and Uber, just as the city requires of taxi drivers. The ride-hailing companies, which say their name-based background checks are less burdensome to drivers than fingerprinting, have targeted Kitchen as Enemy No. 1 and have featured her in various political messages.

Kitchen received praise for her attention to constituent services and support for neighborhood concerns, such as the flooding issues at Onion Creek. She also helped resolve a dispute in her South Austin District 5 by proposing a crash gate on the north end of Aldwyche Drive, near Lightsey Road, where neighbors were concerned about traffic from a new development. On zoning and land-use issues, Kitchen tends to align with neighborhood groups and vote against upzoned development.

Don Zimmerman, District 6

Up for re-election in 2016

Zimmerman is the most conservative member of a mostly liberal City Council and unsurprisingly has struggled to coax his colleagues to go along with many of his proposals, whether it’s examining the city’s use of fluoride in its water supply or questioning across-the-board raises for city workers.

His supporters say they appreciate his fiscally conservative approach, even if it hasn’t yielded many results. But he remains polarizing. Critics say his extreme views are not in sync with Austin and that he wastes the council’s time with dead-on-arrival political stunts, such as the effort to ban city support for Syrian refugees.

Zimmerman he has tried other ways of steering the conversation, from offering controversial nominees to advisory boards to filing a federal lawsuit in July to challenge Austin’s campaign finance rules. (That case is still pending.)

He did score a few victories during his first year. A majority of the City Council voted along with him in rejecting the annexation of an 83-acre tract of land in Northwest Austin. He was also commended for his constituent services, becoming the first and only council member to use leftover funds in his office budget to open a council office in his District 6. Even people who are philosophically at odds with Zimmerman said they admire his principled stance on the issues.

Leslie Pool, District 7

Up for re-election in 2016

Pool championed a proposal, largely crafted by Austin attorney Fred Lewis, to establish tougher rules for lobbyists, including requirements for more people to register as lobbyists and for the city to review their registrations. The proposal passed with almost no naysayers by the time it reached the full council — by then, Pool had made changes that appeased architecture and engineering firms that were initially opposed. Sticking true to her campaign pledge that she’d fight for the city’s parks, pools and libraries, Pool successfully pushed for extra funding for all three in the city budget.

But Pool, an ally of the city’s powerful neighborhood associations and a frequent punching bag of the urbanist ilk, was also the council member most often in a rare situation: being on the losing end of zoning votes in her own District 7, where she should ostensibly have the home-field advantage.

The council in April voted 7-4, Pool among the no’s, to rezone a property along Burnet Road for high-end apartments including some below-market-rate units. Pool argued that the council should respect the wishes of established neighborhoods seeking lower density and that the development would go in an area not well-equipped to handle the increase in traffic. But she was outvoted by those who pointed to the need for new rental housing in the area.

Ellen Troxclair, District 8

Up for re-election in 2018

Facing long odds in advancing a conservative agenda in the liberal-majority City Council, Troxclair has managed to score a few political wins. She persuaded the rest of the council to go along with a new “taxpayer impact statement” that is designed to better inform Austinites how their taxpayer dollars were being spent. During the budget process, she drew attention to the issue of long-term vacancies of staff positions and advocated for a tiered wage increase for city workers that would have given the biggest raises to lower-wage employees.

Republicans praise her ability to work with the rest of the council. Democrats say she votes against their wishes.

Troxclair is sometimes on the losing end of 9-2 votes along with Council Member Don Zimmerman. They often align on spending issues, such as voting against contracts they view as unnecessary, like money for the city’s state and federal lobbyists.

For supporters of ride-hailing apps, Troxclair is nothing short of a hero for her visible advocacy in favor of looser regulations, though her vote was in the minority. In her District 8, Troxclair was able to save money in her own office budget to purchase new equipment for Dick Nichols District Park. And she helped get into the budget $1.5 million for a fire station in Shady Hollow.

Kathie Tovo, District 9

Term ends in 2018

Tovo is the only council member re-elected from the old City Council, and she understands better which levers to pull to move policy proposals toward council approval. By one measure Tovo simply got more done than the rest of the council: She succeeded in passing 19 council proposals of which she was the prime sponsor.

Some of her biggest achievements include filing the lawsuit against the Travis Central Appraisal District over its valuation of commercial properties, the re-examination of the density bonus program to require more on-site affordable housing, and encouraging the city manager to study alternatives to the proposed flyover lanes on South MoPac.

During the budget process, Tovo played a key role in identifying millions of dollars that could be cut or shifted around to fund other priorities. And she helped get money in the budget to fund a sobriety center for people arrested for alcohol-related offenses.

She voted against creating the 6 percent homestead exemption, saying there wasn’t a plan to make up the lost revenue. Tovo is generally popular in her District 9, though proponents of urban density are unhappy with her consistent advocacy on behalf of the traditional Central Austin neighborhood groups.

Sheri Gallo, District 10

Up for re-election in 2016

Gallo is renowned for her community engagement, with either she or a member of her staff visiting a different community event or neighborhood forum nearly every night. Her office puts out a lengthy weekly newsletter on important events and issues in her District 10. And she has held many town hall meetings in her district.

She is the most “purple” City Council member, voting sometimes with the council’s conservatives and other times with the more liberal members. For instance, she sided with conservatives on a failed vote to limit future budget increases, and at one time backed a proposal to only give tiered wage increases to city workers. (She later voted against it.) On other issues, such as affirming the city’s support for Planned Parenthood funding, she voted with her liberal colleagues.

Gallo also took the lead on increasing the property tax exemption for the senior and disabled population, a move that was supported by the rest of the council.

Her most well-known accomplishment was the attempt to strengthen enforcement and regulation of problem “party houses” that are used as short-term rentals. The council largely embraced her initial reform ideas. But other council members later added in stricter regulations that Gallo ultimately voted against, which made some of the homeowners she aimed to help unhappy with her.

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