Choosing your City Council member is a big deal. This is the person who will represent you in City Hall for the next four years. They’ll make policies that will influence the city’s transportation infrastructure, affordability, environment, and your own neighborhood. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to who is actually running and what their plans are for Austin.
But, following along with local City Council races can be hard. They often don’t receive a lot of news coverage and it can be difficult to learn anything more about a candidate than what his or her yard sign looks like.
We’re trying to change that.
Here at the Austin EcoNetwork, we are taking our Civics 101 series to the next level this election season. (For those who aren’t familiar, Civics 101 is designed to teach Austinites how their local government works and to empower a new generation of citizens to get involved.) Throughout the month of October we will be publishing voter guides focusing on each of the five City Council districts that are currently up for election.
Today’s post focuses on District 4, which is located in north Austin. (If you don’t know which City Council district you live in, you can look it up here).
The three candidates who are running for the District 4 City Council seat are:
- Greg Casar
- Louis C Herrin III
- Gonzalo Camacho
Below you will find additional information about each of the candidates, as well as podcast interviews with Greg Casar and Louis C Herrin III. The interviews have been produced in partnership with Shades of Green radio show on KOOP 91.7 FM. (Gonzalo Camacho did not return our requests for an interview.)
- Current City Council Member
- Former Policy Director at the Workers Defense Project
- Currently serves as Chair of the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee; Member of the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, Economic Opportunity Committee, Housing and Community Development Committee, and the Public Safety Committee
- Endorsed by the Austin Environmental Democrats and Clean Water Action
- Campaign Website
Proudest accomplishments while in office:
- Getting people involved that wouldn’t have been otherwise – organized some of the city’s first mobile home neighborhood associations, helping residents earn justice and fairness from their landlords
- Passing a “Ban the box” or Fair Chance Hiring ordinance to prevent private employers in Austin from asking for criminal background histories before even meeting with, or interviewing perspective employees
- Getting new parks installed in his district – District 4 is the most park-deficient district in the city
What his time in office has been all about/ Community Organizing Background
Casar has integrated his experiences as a former community organizer into nearly every facet of his office. Many of his staff members are former organizers as well, including one dedicated staff member whose job is to help facilitate organizing in District 4.
Here’s how his unique approach works –
- His office meets with community groups and lets them know what kind of new and progressive policies are possible in this city…
- But, his office explains that nothing will change without community support and organizing.
- In his AEN/Shades of Green interview, Casar explained that they tell the community – “Not only do we need you to organize for it, that’s part of our model, that’s what we believe in, and we’re willing to provide all of this information that you might need about how to organize around an issue at City Hall and even some staff support to do that…”
One of Casar’s main goals is to use his office to raise the voices of everyday people in District 4 and throughout the city. “More people’s voices being involved I think is not only critical for a functioning democracy,” Casar explained, “but actually can lead to us having a better city if more people can be a part of it.”
Casar says that he wants to build leadership out in the community.”…We can help inspire other people to take power into their own hands because they know that we’re listening…”
“It’s no secret that my district is a district where a lot of voters feel very frustrated… I think that us actually going and showing up to people’s PTAs, to people’s barbecues and actually telling them what we’re working on…I think that does help folks understand what it is that we’re doing for them.” – Greg Casar in his AEN/Shades of Green Interview
But for Greg, it’s just the beginning of a process.
“I think we’re still trying to figure out how to communicate best to a district where there isn’t tons of civic infrastructure, and in some ways, our responsibility is to build it,” Casar said.
During his AEN/Shades of Green interview, Greg explained that there are already lots of really active environmental organizations in town….”But we always need to recognize that we always need to be building the bench for the next group of people to take up their next set of issues and to deal with environmental justice issues, often times by very definition, environmental justice issues usually affect and impact communities that have less representation.”
His office is excited to continue working on the environmental justice movement. “The environmental justice movement is something that we’ve worked on and are excited to keep on doing,” Greg said.
Fayette (Austin’s only coal-fired power plant)
Casar rejects the idea that Austin’s lower income residents will not support the retirement of Fayette, even if it means some small additional costs along the way.
“I think that people are willing… to pay more because they understand and believe in the future for their kids and their grandkids,” Greg said during his AEN/Shades of Green interview. He continued on to explain that of course, there will be questions about exactly how much it will cost, and how quickly it should be retired, but in the end, he said that we need to get away from that type of energy. Many of the immigrant families in his district came to this country to make life better for their kids, he said, and so they understand why that’s important.
Prop 1 – $720 million transportation bond
When City Council first started talking about a transportation bond, he advocated for directly investing in mass transit. When that started to seem less likely, Casar says that he started pushing to make sure that…”we still have the most progressive transportation bond that we can have if we’re not going to be investing directly into something like a train.”
And in the end, Casar thinks that we got there with Prop 1.
Things he likes about the bond:
- Smart corridor improvements
- Bus-only lanes
- New sidewalk, urban trails, and bike lane construction
“On the transportation front,” Greg said, “my vision is to get to a place where the majority of Austinites don’t have to drive in their cars by themselves everyday, to and from work. And I think that this bond can help with that.”
Things that he doesn’t like about the bond:
- Adding lanes on major roads
“But the fact of the matter is, a bond isn’t just about what it is that you like, it’s about getting a majority of the city to vote for it. And so the leap of faith that I took, and that I think we’re asking lots of folks to take, is the fact that there are some parts in it that you don’t like, might mean that those are the very same parts that other people like and might drive them to vote for it.” – Greg Casar, in his AEN/Shades of Green Interview
How he’s voting – Supports Prop 1, will be voting for it
Things he would like to see CodeNEXT accomplish:
- Drive more investment in health and human services, and making sure that urban planning helps with that
- Prevent people from being forced out of Austin, and preserving our diverse populations
- Prevent sprawl
“I think we can do this in a way that isn’t ideological, but instead is environmental, and progressive, and inclusive,” Casar said (about CodeNEXT).
CodeNEXT and Gentrification/ Affordability
“If we can’t figure out how to fit a larger amount of people within the city, then folks with higher incomes are going to be the ones that fit, and those with lower incomes are going to be the ones that do not.” – Greg Casar, in his AEN/Shades of Green interview
So when he’s looking at CodeNEXT, he’s going to be thinking about:
- How do we direct new growth so that it doesn’t land on top of existing low income people?
- Adding housing stock, because if there isn’t enough housing, people will find a place to live and bid up the housing stock in existing neighborhoods, forcing low-income people out
- Can we capture development that would occur in the suburbs, bring it inside the city, and then dedicate some of that revenue to…”what I see as our biggest challenge of the day, which is the fact that we’re becoming a less and less inclusive city.” Casar offers up the Independent (aka the Jenga building) as an example of this. The city has decided to dedicate the tax revenue from this new high rise to affordable housing.
Casar says that we need both more market rate housing and below market rate housing in order to keep working families in Austin.
- Very proud of Austin’s recent 600 MW solar purchase – “…Being able to go back to the community and talk about having invested both in renewable energy, but also at such a price that it actually in short time will be paying back dividends, I think was really powerful…,” Casar said.
- Casar believes that the recent rate case was really important because it brought together a diverse group of people and protected AE from the legislature, which enables the city and its residents to keep the utility’s profits.
- Believes that tiered rates are important – helps us to conserve and allows renters and lower-income residents with smaller homes/less water usage to pay less
- Believes that a strong conservation strategy is important for Austin’s longterm future
- During his AEN/Shades of Green interview, Casar explained that there is a new citizen’s bond group that will help decide what our city’s next bond package will look like – a comprehensive rail plan and affordable housing are two important things that they will focus on/look at. Both of these are very important priorities to Casar.
- This council (including himself) felt uncomfortable putting rail on the ballot this time around (because it was so close to the 2014 failed rail initiative), but is ready to see it come again soon.
- Voted against Prop 1 (the one we voted on in May, not the current one) – “primarily because I just don’t think it sets good precedent for how campaigns should be run, and who should run them, and who should write ordinances in this town.”
- Supported a compromise between Uber, Lyft, and City Council, “because there were so many really pressing issues that I thought the council needed to tackle and I knew that that would consume months and months of our time. In the end it did.”
Plans for the future/ goals for next term in office, if reelected
- Make sure CodeNEXT is done right
- If the Prop 1 bond passes, making sure that the corridor plans really do support public transit
- Future bond programs – continuing to support affordable housing and rail
- Advocating for workers rights
- Bringing Austin Energy weatherization programs to renters
Louis C Herrin III
- Currently works as an environmental engineer for the State of Texas (TCEQ)
- Member of the Knights of Columbus
- Assistant Scout Master
- Campaign Website
Why he’s running
- Feels that the city does not know how to budget a project – …”that’s why going on the council, as an engineer I know how to sit down, I know how to talk the talk, and I know how to look at the thing, and say, that’s BS…”
- Feels that the city is “nickel and diming us to death.”
- Considers himself a fiscal conservative – “It’s not that I don’t want to spend money, it’s – I want to make sure that every dime I spend I’m getting the biggest bang for the buck…and that we don’t spend stuff just because oh, it’s PC to spend it this way.”
- Wants to see more longterm planning from the city
- “Austin needs to start spending money on its infrastructure” – roads, water and wastewater systems need to be upgraded. “I want stuff to last 100 years, and not just last until my term is up,” Herrin said during his AEN/Shades of Green interview.
“I’m looking forward to CodeNEXT, and CodeNEXT scares me at the same time,” Herrin said during his AEN/Shades of Green Interview
Likes the idea of consolidating city’s land development rules. Thinks that will make things simpler and easier to understand, as well as help to streamline the building and permitting process.
Worried about how it’s going to be implemented –
- Doesn’t want to see multifamily residences in the middle of single-family neighborhoods (especially if the neighborhood doesn’t want it). Worried that even though the city says the neighborhoods will have input, a big developer will come in and get its way regardless
- Doesn’t like the reduced parking requirements associated with CodeNEXT – “I’m worried about then all of a sudden… people don’t have a place to park and then they’re going to be parking in other places in the neighborhood. And somebody says, well the streets are public… but still, it’s inconvenient for people living in houses that they can’t even park in front of their own because somebody two blocks away is now parking in front of their house because they were not required to have parking.”
- Worried about the plan to direct density along the corridors because he feels that the development is being built too close to the road, which will prevent the roads from being expanded in the future and could stop the corridors from moving traffic.
Prop 1 – $720 million transportation bond
How he’s voting – Does not support Prop 1, is voting against
Reasons why he’s against it:
- “I don’t think the city has been honest,” Herrin said during his AEN/Shades of Green interview
- Thinks that we can spend the money on other things to get a bigger bang for our buck
- Thinks it will actually increase traffic
Wishes it would have been broken up into packages because he does like some parts of the plan, like bus pullouts.
“It’s going to cost us… billion of dollars to get caught up, but the city has got to come up with a master plan, and it needs to have many different options in there.” – Louis Herrin, during his AEN/Shades of Green Interview
“This is still a Texas culture,” Herrin said during his AEN/Shades of Green interview, explaining that he doesn’t think he will see a large-scale switch to public transit/bikes/pedestrian in his lifetime.
Says that personally, he likes to ride his bike, but thinks that it’s too hot here for a lot of people to embrace bike commuting. Says that you can’t compare Austin to cities like Amsterdam (because it is much cooler there).
- Believes that many of the routes take way too long for riders to get to their destinations.
- “We need to make sure we’re getting the best bang for the buck,” Herrin said.
- “I think we need to get people more interested in riding the bus…We have to get over the deal in which people look down on people who ride the bus,” Herrin said during his AEN/Shades of Green interview.
- Thinks that some of the bus routes need to be reconsidered – says that there are not enough east/west bus routes
Composting/ Zero Waste
“I’m having problems where they’re going to force everybody to spend five dollars for composting. I compost in the backyard, why do I have to pay $5… I’ve already got the smallest trash can.” – Louis Herrin, during his AEN/Shades of Green Interview
“I think the biggest thing is to take out a lot of the road blocks to get development,” Herrin said during his AEN/Shades of Green interview.
- “One of the things that I’m worried about – the city is trying to put basically all their eggs in one basket,” Herrin said during his AEN/Shades of Green interview. “They’re basically trying to go straight renewable… We need other systems.”
- Supports coal, nuclear, natural gas, as well as renewables
- Also worried that the state legislature will take away Austin Energy’s monopoly – “I want the city to be in control of their own assets.”
- On the retirement of Fayette – “They’re looking at retiring it, and I go, why?…Just because coal is not PC right now, you don’t throw it out.”
- “We can’t rely on just solar and wind like some people want to do,” Herrin said.
- “Overall, I’m for clean air,” Herrin said.
- “Some of the goals that they have I think they’re going too far…. To me the way I see the mayor and all that is just so they get glory and I don’t think they’re really looking at the long term effects.”
- Civil Engineer
- Campaign Website