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District 3 council candidates kick off city-sponsored election forums

Six candidates for the Austin City Council’s District 3 seat met on a stage Wednesday night, when incumbent Sabino “Pio” Renteria touted his work on the council, his sister Susana Almanza challenged his record, and four first-time candidates began to hash out their different platforms ahead of Election Day on Nov. 6.

While various community organizations are expected to organize forums for the five council races and the mayor’s race on the ballot, the District 3 forum was the first of a series of official city-sponsored forums. It was moderated by the League of Women Voters.

District 3 candidates form a mix of new and known faces. Renteria, who has held the seat since 2015, is running for a second term. Almanza, a civic activist who faced her brother in a 2014 runoff, is launching her second run. James Valadez, a real estate agent and Board of Adjustment appointee, has posted strong fundraising results.

Jessica Cohen is a network security administrator and an emergency medical technician. Justin Jacobson, a restaurant worker, and Amit Motwani, chief information officer for United Way for Greater Austin, are more recent additions to the race.

Among the highlights from Wednesday’s forum:

On community policing and officer levels

Taking the strongest position, Valadez said police staffing levels must be increased to keep pace with population growth and to “focus on making sure we’re keeping our streets safe.”

Motwani and Jacobson said they don’t have a sense yet of whether more officers would benefit the district’s residents. Cohen said she likes most Austin police officers but has lingering concerns from a previous interaction.

“From a personal experience, until you’ve been held by the side of the road and called ‘it’ or ‘that’ — There is no way, no way I could bring myself to hire more officers until we fix the problems with the ones we have,” she said.

Almanza said many people of color in East Austin have a rough history with the police, and she said police should have to take “undoing racism” classes. Renteria touted efforts toward community policing, but said various city needs are keeping the Police Department’s growth in check.

“We know we need to hire more police officers, but we just don’t have the budget now to hire that many,” he said.

On most pressing transportation needs

Cohen and Valadez called for better traffic flow on east-west routes into the district, such as Cesar Chavez and Seventh streets, possibly by making changes to traffic lights. Renteria pointed to various traffic improvements made during his time on the council, and the passage of a transportation bond to improve main corridors.

Almanza spoke of making sure all highways have high-occupancy lanes to speed traffic and said it’s important to improve bus travel for residents who need it, with better nighttime service and with stroller racks alongside bike racks. Jacobson, citing his own two-hour daily commute to North Austin, called for new transportation efforts.

“We deserve a 21st-century transportation system. Project Connect has some good ideas, and we need to run with it,” he said. “We need a rail line going from the airport through Riverside to a new station at Republic Square, like, 10 years ago.”

Motwani said political efforts should be focused on making sure transportation is accessible to working people.

“I like to keep Austin weird, but I think it’s really weird that we’re talking about traffic lights up here,” he said. “When it comes to light timing and buses and routes, have the engineers sort that out.”

On what’s next after CodeNext

Regarding the issue that has perhaps most starkly divided Renteria and his sister, how to handle development and density in Austin, Almanza called for approving a ballot measure that would make future land-use code rewrites subject to a vote. She assisted in efforts to sue the city of Austin to advance the proposition.

On the city hitting the reset button on CodeNext, the controversial land-use code overhaul, Motwani said he appreciated the acknowledgement of failure. Valadez and Jacobson said the next step must be figuring out what went wrong and what the community really wants.

“A lot of us can agree that we need high-density corridors,” Jacobson said, “but we need to have leadership to have a more heartfelt conversation about people concerned about what their neighborhoods are going to look like.”

Cohen said she supports high-density zones to “build up, not out.” Renteria held to his view, which is more development-friendly than his sister’s.

“My whole plan is provide mixed-income, mixed housing like we did at Mueller,” he said. “We know we need density.”

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