Tonight, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) board will vote on a questionable deal that twists the rules in order to keep former Hays County Commissioner Will Conley on as chair. He resigned as commissioner to run for Hays County judge, so he is no longer an elected official. The plan would create a new position for him as an unelected “affililate nonvoting member” and allow him to continue as chair of CAMPO for another two years, beyond the six years he’s already served as chair.
To underscore that this arrangement is not supported by the rules, the agenda backup states, “There are no provisions in the … bylaws … that would prevent” it. Hays County will also be allowed to add another voting member in addition to Conley.
The reason this matters is that CAMPO is the regional transportation planning body. It decides how and where virtually all federal and state transportation money is spent in our community and it’s the gatekeeper for hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects and toll roads in our area.
During Conley’s time as chair, CAMPO has been overly focused on toll roads and highways. It has largely ignored the kind of innovative solutions other regions such as Dallas, Denver, Nashville and Chicago have invested in to great competitive advantage. During this time, CAMPO has been openly hostile to multimodal solutions to our congestion problems and recklessly dismantled the only commuter rail authority between Austin and San Antonio — Lone Star Rail — with minimal debate.
The balance of representation has also shifted, putting Austin and Travis County in the minority. Austin and Travis County represent 57 percent of the population of this region but are the minority on the policy board and hold only 25 percent of the votes on CAMPO’s Technical Advisory Committee as reported by the Austin Monitor.
There is an enormous fiduciary responsibility to make sure we are properly representing the biggest part of the region’s population. We also have a duty to pursue meaningful transportation alternatives that don’t require everyone to own a car. Austin is labeled the most economically segregated metro area in the country, yet CAMPO’s chief approach to transportation needs is to support the costliest option: toll roads.
Should Hays County have eight years of continuous leadership at the expense of Austin/Travis County having our turn? Not according to state Sen. Kirk Watson. In his farewell letter to CAMPO in November 2009, he wrote, “I will strongly encourage the Board to adopt a system that regularly rotates the position of Policy Board Chair among the different members.” His whole letter is here.
Furthermore, it is customary when someone resigns from public office to run for another that they also step down from board and commission seats they hold. Sarah Eckhardt played by those rules and stepped down as vice chair of CAMPO when she resigned as Travis County commissioner to run for county judge in 2014 — the exact circumstances that Conley is in today. Conley even stepped down recently from his position on Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG) for that very reason. He should do the right thing and step down from CAMPO as Eckhardt did. This is not about individual personalities, it is about good governance.
Community leaders need to weigh in. CAMPO is making decisions on hundreds of millions of dollars of transportation funding. I am asking the Austin Chambers of Commerce, major employers, the University of Texas and other universities, ACC, small businesses, neighborhood groups and community leaders across our city and county to help make sure that the people of Austin and Travis County get the transportation systems they need for the future.
If you agree that it is time for Austin/Travis to have its turn as CAMPO Chair, please email the CAMPO board here at email@example.com or come speak at the meeting at 6 p.m. at the University of Texas Thompson Conference Center.
Respectfully ask that Conley step down and for the board to elect a member of the Austin/Travis delegation as chair.
In the name of good governance and responsible, equitable transportation policy and funding, thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.
Shea is the Travis County commissioner in Precinct 2.