Voters in District 6 may be feeling a sense of déjà vu when they look at their ballot for City Council on Nov. 8. The contest is a rematch from 2014, with incumbent Council Member Don Zimmerman facing businessman and neighborhood activist Jimmy Flannigan.
We posed questions to them about the issues facing them as they attempt to make the case that each is best suited to represent the Northwest Austin District. Here’s an edited version of their responses.
1) What is or what would be your philosophy in filling commission seats for council?
Jimmy Flannigan: We need to ensure that the diversity of District 6 is fully represented in commission appointments. I will work to appoint qualified candidates when technical skill is required balanced with geographic, racial, gender, age, and economic diversity. I will also make sure that our voice is at full strength, unlike my opponent’s 23 percent vacancy rate (more than double that of any other district), even if it requires temporarily appointing commissioners from elsewhere in the city until a District 6 resident can be identified.
Don Zimmerman: I look for District 6 residents with competency in those particular subject matters and ask the best qualified persons to fill those spots. Several highly competent appointees have resigned — and some appointments been rejected by council majority — due to the command-and-control approach used by city staff over their commission’s work. Specifically, staff will often over-control the agenda and information, release limited information too late for effective review and only permit testimony which supports one side of an issue — all of which appears to drive commission decisions solely in the direction of staff’s predetermined outcome.
2) What do you believe is or would be your most effective attribute as a council leader?
Flannigan: Similar to how my citizen-led corridor study resulted in Anderson Mill Road being included in the transportation bond, my ability to organize our community and fully leverage and create resources will be effective in finding the most fiscally responsible solutions to our problems. As a council member I will continue such citizen-led efforts as well as build expansive and transformative community engagement, similar to what we started with the Northwest Austin Coalition. In addition, having the patience to listen to citizens on all sides of an issue and then being able to work with my future colleagues, with whom I may disagree, is critical to collaborate creatively and find the six votes we need to get things done. There is no success in ideological grandstanding and celebrating being the single no vote. District 6 doesn’t have to settle for missed opportunities when it should be leading and solving problems.
Zimmerman: Employing a rational, analytical approach to problem-solving is an effective attribute of mine. I owe this rational, analytical approach to my education as a mechanical engineer and decades of work in complex computer systems engineering and industrial controls — some of which had life-or-death consequences if mistakes were made.
Furthermore, I insist on protecting my constituents using the Rule of Law, as opposed to the arbitrary and fluid rule of bureaucrats and politicians who justify anything through claims of “consensus” and “compromise” via manipulated “community and stakeholder input.”
3) Your district leans conservative in both social and fiscal politics. How can you best represent the desires of such a district and still work with in a council that will likely still lean left?
Flannigan: District 6 might be slightly more conservative than the rest of Austin (most places are!), but it is not a “conservative” district. It is a moderate district that requires an ability to listen, understand the needs and concerns of diverse voices and find solutions that consider all sides. In addition, municipal issues are not partisan issues and should not be treated in that manner. The best way to represent District 6 is what I’ve done with my Northwest Austin Coalition group: help educate the district on the realities of city issues, have respectful and intelligent conversation on those issues and come to policy conclusions that even those who don’t fully agree will understand as reasonable and in the best interests of Austin and District 6.
Zimmerman: One of the best ways to represent conservative constituents on a left-leaning City Council is to protect their “inalienable rights” via the justice system. The council majority is elected by voters of each particular district. If the overall consensus of those voters in other districts is to demand higher taxes and fees for “services,” then so be it — the majority has an obligation to not “compromise” with conservative positions. But on the other hand, I’m also under no obligation to compromise the conservative consensus of my District 6 constituents.
4) How important is it to work for compromise with others on the council to get the required six votes you need to do the business of your constituents?
Flannigan: It is essential to find ways to collaborate not just with the other council members but also with residents across the district. We cannot be satisfied with ideological purity if it means we’re the sole no vote and policy moves forward without our involvement and without solutions for our part of town. Being combative and condescending alienates other council members and community leaders from within the district, as well as constituents who just need help navigating City Hall. As Council Member Garza said to the Statesman, other decision-makers at City Hall just ignore the current District 6 council member. That is no way to get our issues heard or solved.
Zimmerman: The best way to answer that is by example. Let’s say I was demanding a 6 percent cut in the city budget for 2017-18. If the council majority was willing to cut 3 percent instead of 6 percent, and the alternative would be a 6 percent increase in spending, I would “compromise” to that 3 percent cut to get six or more votes because that’s consistent with my commitment to cut city spending. Ronald Reagan called that the “half a loaf” principle.
5) How would you rate the last two budgets passed by this 10-1 council and what would you do differently?
Flannigan: City budgets are big, complicated animals that defy simple labels such as “good” or “bad.” Ultimately the problem is that we try to pass a three billion dollar budget in just a matter of weeks. I want to see the city move towards bi-annual budgeting with rolling departmental reviews that will enable council to fully evaluate the programs being
provided, give time enough to determine success or failure, and support budget decisions that balance the needs of our community with affordability. Achieving that balance requires a voice that can lead honest conversations, that respects all perspectives, and brings a greater understanding about the hard choices we face in local government. We shouldn’t spend a year making promises to the community only to cut those programs when presented with a difficult budget.
Zimmerman: Both budgets were bloated with unaffordable spending increases, which drove unaffordable increases in taxes and fees. In my experience of two budget cycles, the City Council has virtually no control over the budget formulation — the process is entirely manipulated and dominated by legions of city staffers. Staff does not solicit, nor do they act on, any high level Council directives for spending parameters, such as maximum-allowed pay/benefit increases, taxpayer-funded pension contributions, corporate subsidy limits, etc. Staff spends billions and elected Council spends millions — but some argue that’s the point of a “weak Council” form of government.
I would demand a zero-based budget process, but the current Council would probably vote that down 8-3 — that is, if they allowed the idea to be deliberated at all. In my observation, the new 10-1 votes and acts too much like the old Council.
6) What are you looking for in a new city manager?
Flannigan: Of all the phrases I’m hearing around this process like “customer service oriented” or “collaborative with council,” we are losing sight of the real problem: a city of this size needs a new form of government that rests administrative power with the citizens. I want a city manager that will support exploring elected administration models and find the right fit for Austin. In addition, it’s important that Austinites are able to participate in this decision that will have a major impact on our city’s future. It is unacceptable to say, as my opponent has, that residents should have no part in the process of selecting a new city manager.
Zimmerman: The new city manager must have at least some private industry experience in a competitive market company which demands good customer service. Government monopolies (like Austin Water Utility) are notorious for poor customer service, overpriced product, and bad management, because rather than go bankrupt (like they would in a competitive market) they can always use the force of their monopoly to raise prices and continue poor service. The worst thing Austin could do is hire another career government bureaucrat who will continue the practice of isolating, protecting, and expanding unaccountable city government power. We are in desperate need of a radical improvement in city government culture and processes, starting with zero-based budgeting.
7) Is it appropriate for council members to sue the city, and if so, under what circumstances?
Flannigan: It is not appropriate to sue your own city over policy matters or to directly benefit your own possible re-election, as my opponent has tried to do. You are elected to make policy as part of a council in collaboration with the wants and needs of your district and the city as a whole, not waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars trying to impose your single-minded ideology on the rest of Austin or overturn the results of an election.
Zimmerman: It is not only appropriate, I believe it is an obligation for anyone who is sincere about the oath of office to “uphold and defend the Constitution” of these United States. I have had major success suing the city of Austin, back in 2002 over illegal city/MUD taxation, and more recently in overturning two unconstitutional Austin campaign finance rules.
8) What politician/leader do you model yourself after?
Flannigan: Leadership is a special quality that combines the ability to inspire and fight for your beliefs while bridging differences and seeking actual results. Leadership is not simply adhering to a strict ideology or grandstanding to make a point in a losing vote or by having no voice at all by abstaining on crucial votes. Mayor Adler has done an amazing job with the first 10-1 council, keeping a level head and working hard to achieve results despite antagonism from the dais. I also have a lot of respect for Rep. Celia Israel, who in her freshman session worked hard on voter registration and transportation issues, working across the aisle to get good bills to the Governor’s desk. It’s that type of pragmatic focus on improving our community that I hope to bring to District 6.
Zimmerman: Dr. Ron Paul and President Ronald Reagan.
9) Please identify one issue/ordinance/vote that they feel the council got right?
Flannigan: After so many years without significant transportation improvements, I support Mayor Adler’s efforts to get the transportation bond, Prop 1, on the November ballot. While my opponent abstained on this effort, declining to vote yes or no, I fully support the bond. I am supportive not just because my Northwest Austin Coalition’s citizen-led corridor study led to Anderson Mill Road’s inclusion, but because the projects included come after years of community meetings and public input from all over the city and will be implemented based on clear metrics for need and effectiveness. We cannot pretend that there is some future perfect bond that solves all our problems. We at least must get our infrastructure up to a reasonable baseline so we can seriously plan for the future.
Zimmerman: The Council did a great job approving the $1.9 million spending of quarter-cent CapMetro dollars, allocated equally to each of the 10 Districts, after I originally proposed that in the Mobility Committee. The Council also got right the Austin Firefighter’s Association Department of Justice resolution proposal, over the objections of city staff.
10) Please identify one issue/ordinance/vote that you feel the council got wrong?
Flannigan: It is irresponsible to arbitrarily divide up taxpayer dollars when the city’s needs are not evenly distributed by council district. This was done first with the quarter-cent CapMetro funds, with my opponent’s support, where each council member received one tenth of the money. This is fiscally irresponsible and unjustifiable as it also places spending authority in the hands of each individual council member without requiring any public meetings, community input, or assessing the actual need or effectiveness of the projects.
Zimmerman: There have been many terrible decisions made by this Council, but the over-regulation of ridesharing Transportation Network Companies was onerous, and the over regulation of short-term rentals was, frankly, unconstitutional.
11) What are their top two priorities if elected or re-elected?
Flannigan: My top priorities have always been traffic (which I’ve already started to address with my citizen-led corridor study of Anderson Mill Road) and property crime. We need to get the Northwest Austin substation built for APD, increase patrols in our neighborhoods, and expand civilian staff to better support neighborhood watch and educate folks on how to best protect their homes and cars. Instead of working toward solutions to our problems, my opponent wasted his time as the chair of the Public Safety Committee with meetings on fluoride and coyotes instead of addressing the real challenges of public safety in our growing city. We know what our problems are and it is not enough to merely name them or complain about them. I know that we can fix these problems by working together
Zimmerman: I will continue my job of inquiry and investigation into terrible spending decisions influenced by the lobbying of staff — such as the outrageous northeast Texas biomass wood-chip burning plant, which cost us $58 million last year for virtually no energy produced.
I will also pursue more expressway-building in West Austin — my top road priority is an expressway connecting SH-45 at Lakeline Mall all the way south to I-35 just north of Buda, connecting existing SH-45 there. It is beyond absurd that Austin, Texas, still lacks even one expressway loop around the city.