Erin McGann

Photo Credit: Sarah Montgomery | Daily Texan Staff

Austin City Council District 9 candidates discussed student issues such as the enforcement of the city's sound ordinance in West Campus and housing at a debate hosted by several student organizations on campus Monday night.

Under the council’s new 10-ONE structure — which will go into effect in January — District 9 covers parts of campus, West Campus, North Campus, Hyde Park, downtown Austin and South Congress. During the debate, candidates talked about their connections with college students. Council member Kathie Tovo, who earned a doctorate. from UT, listed her student involvement during her undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an example of being able to connect with students. 

“When I came here 23 years ago to go to the University of Texas, I had an opportunity to work with hundreds of students over the years,” Tovo said. “I taught classes, served on the graduate assembly for a term.”

Council member Chris Riley also used his opening statement to show his connection to UT.

“I was born in West Campus, a long, long time ago,” Riley said. “My dad was a professor here at UT in the physics department. I came back here for UT law school and spent 17 years working as a lawyer in town and working on city issues.”

The candidates all voiced support for streamlining the party permit process for students. City officials have said the sound ordinance will now be strictly regulated in the West Campus area. City Council candidate Erin McGann called the ordinance “arbitrary” in terms of regulation and enforcement.

“Students are being unfairly targeted,” McGann said. “If you were a protected class, people would be calling it discrimination. Other parts of Austin are having large parties that aren’t being shut down. The ordinance needs to be treated equally or the ordinance should be suspended.”

Riley said the permit process for hosting private parties needs to be streamlined, but the interim period is important as well. The City Council passed a resolution on Oct. 2 for the city to begin revising the ordinance.

“The concern is what do we do until the new ordinance comes into place,” Riley said. “Let’s work flexibly until we can get a permanent resolution in place.”

The candidates also discussed providing affordable housing for students. McGann said she was disappointed when the City Council voted to keep the historic status on a West Campus surface parking lot instead of allowing for housing to be built on the property, which she said would limit expanding student housing.

“We need to be building buildings that are not necessarily high-end,” McGann said. “If we built some moderate-income residences, more people would be able to live in the area.”

Riley said building more housing would not have been stalled by the historic status of the parking lot, but it would have limited space for potential residents.

“If they were able to build on the surface parking lot as well, the best estimates we got would be an additional 300 bedrooms they would be able to provide to students,” Riley said.

Tovo, who voted to keep the historic status of the parking lot, defended her perspective.

“We have lost many historic structures in our city, and it’s important to hang on to the few that we have on campus,” Tovo said. “I think it’s important to know that it was overwhelmingly supported in Council, 5-2.”

The debate was hosted by The Horn, The Odyssey, Sigma Pi fraternity, KVR News, the Senate of College Councils and the UT chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Erin McGann discusses her platform for the upcoming City Council elections in an interview with The Daily Texan. McGann is the only person running for the District 9 seat who has not already held a City Council position.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

Erin McGann, candidate for the Austin City Council’s District 9 seat, sat down with The Daily Texan to discuss her plans should she be elected. This year’s city election is the first under the Council’s 10-ONE structure, in which each council member will represent one of 10 geographic districts in the city. District 9 covers most of the UT campus, West Campus, North Campus, Hyde Park, downtown Austin and South Congress. McGann currently works at the Texas Department of Justice as a program supervisor for the Community and Veterans Reentry Program. She is the only candidate running for the District 9 seat who has not previously served on City Council before. The interview is the second in a series of three with the District 9 candidates. 

The Daily Texan: How do you feel about the new 10-ONE system that is going into effect with this election, especially since, if you are elected, there would be an entirely new council?

Erin McGann: I am looking forward to a spanking new system. Every single one of us running feels the weight of making this work. We all talk about this. This is momentous. We all feel like we have to work incredibly hard and make sure we are working together and considering the whole city when we talk about our own districts, and we need to make sure everything is running well, and we’re communicating well. Everybody has expressed absolute commitment to making sure the 10-ONE system works, and the whole city is represented and their district is too. All of us have felt a little disenfranchised with the way things are running in the city. You do get lost in the noise with the at-large system. Those with the most money get heard. With the new system, it’s going to be really great.

 

DT: What have you enjoyed about the race so far?

EM: This has been the most incredible learning experience. If I did this again, I would study for two years for this five-month test. I’ve met some of the most involved, smartest people. People in Austin are amazingly passionate about what they want and what they don’t want. To me, this isn’t a career. I’m not looking at a legacy, I’m not looking at what people will think of my name. I’m looking to make Austin better for those who live here.

DT: How will you involve students in your policy-making if you are elected?

EM: I have an open-door policy and a one-business-day response policy. Those are my personal policies but also my current work policies. If you have a question, I will call you back or respond to your email. I intend to have hours outside of eight-to-five, and I intend to do those out in the community. I would have to rely on the campus to get information out, but I would do things like go to the library on the second Wednesday of every month. 

 

DT: Are you concerned about student turnout this election?

EM: Someone told me in the last May election, 35 students voted. The last big election we had, thousands of students voted because that was the Obama and gubernatorial election, and it was big. But that is really indicative that students don’t feel they need to be involved with city politics. Right now, it’s the most important time to be involved in city politics. Students are the “sleeping giant” that people are trying to poke and wake up. You can sway the election. The students hold a huge amount of power, and I don’t know if they are fully aware of how much power they have, especially in city elections. I’ll be fascinated to see how many people vote. It’s an insanely small number of people who vote.

 

DT: You have spoken out against Proposition 1, also known as the urban rail plan. Why are you against it?

EM: The urban rail is too expensive, and the route is really bad. Whatever the last time was when we voted on this, it was a great route. But, it was voted down, and it was less expensive. This route being set up is certainly not going to reduce any traffic because traffic doesn’t run from Highland Mall to the Riverside ACC campus. It also is not going to address our most used areas of transportation. We’re going to get at least 10 years of traffic with construction. Government projects don’t come in under time and under budget. It’s going to take more than $3.1 billion when we finish it. 

 

DT: What other issues are you passionate about?

EM: I really strongly believe that we need to change the ordinance that they’re calling the “stealth dorm ordinance.” I was disappointed to hear that passed; it puts entirely too much burden on students and lower-income people.I understand neighbors’ objections, but those can usually be addressed by a call to 211 or talking to a landlord. I think having a blanket law puts a lot of pressure on people who can’t afford to live in a more spacious manner. Building things like micro-units downtown aren’t going to alleviate it. Those will still be very expensive. If we’re not going to have lower income housing for people who need it, then we have to allow people to live together.

 

DT: What specific topics would you focus on as a City Council member?

EM: I could go and cut $30 million from the budget tomorrow. We’ve got all these jobs that float from year to year that aren’t filled but funded. 10 percent of the jobs of Austin are unfilled each year. We fund them in the budget. The budget is $35 billion, and an “x” amount is for the salaries of those jobs. The money is still there just in case we fill them, but we don’t.When we get to the end of the year, we can spend it on whatever we want. We can cut that right out and reduce the budget by that much. 

 

DT: Are there any issues that set you apart from your opponents?

EM: Short term rentals. If you rent out your house or room at all, you have to apply with the city for a short-term rental certificate. I think it’s $265 to do that. I have to pass an inspection. I have to show them paperwork, and they have to make sure I have no open permits, and then they send a letter to my neighbors. Only 3 percent in a neighborhood can be allowed to do this at a time. And then you have to pay a hotel tax. But, it’s a stupid law. I think we keep adding stupid laws.

Some answers in this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Erin McGann, candidate for District 9 City Council seat, answers a question from audience at KUT’s “Ballot Boxing” forum. Current Council members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley are running for reelection in District 9 discussed issues important to the district. 

Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

The three candidates vying for the first District 9 Austin City Council seat discussed the city’s affordability at KUT’s “Ballot Boxing” forum on campus in the Belo Center for New Media on Monday.

Current Council members Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo are seeking reelection to the restructured council, which will be made up of 10 single-member districts and one citywide, elected mayor come January. Erin McGann, a program supervisor in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, is running for the seat as an outsider. District 9 includes most of the UT campus, West Campus, Hyde Park, downtown Austin and South Congress.

“Affordability is the most important issue in District 9,” Riley said. “It’s about getting enough housing out there. The one issue we have is the way we’ve been developing new homes isn’t in line with what people want today. We need more of those creative small options and large options — a whole variety of options to meet the diverse demand out there.”

Inept landlords and rental building owners also struck a chord with the candidates. McGann said the city is “understaffed and overworked” in its ability to enforce building codes.

“The code is way too much up to interpretation,” McGann said. “I have worked with people who live in residences that are a nightmare. We do need to have a better way of handling our code-breakers and having a rental registration is not necessarily the best way to do it, but we need to be protecting people who are living in bad residences.”

According to Riley, the Council has talked about implementing a blanket rental registration program for all rental properties, but he believes it would not be effective.

“The city hasn’t been doing a good job when it comes to enforcing the code with the problem properties,” Riley said. “The problem is the code compliance department has been struggling to get problems addressed at properties we know are the worst offenders. If we know where the worst cases are, and we can’t get those straightened out, I don’t think it’s time to start citywide scale bureaucracy.”

The three candidates also discussed traffic and state incentives to attract businesses to Austin. Tovo said she did not support the state providing incentives to businesses, such as the Circuit of the Americas racetrack, to attract them to Austin.

“Unless we have companies that are offering really extraordinary benefits, we do not need to offer them incentives,” Tovo said.

McGann echoed Tovo’s opinion of Austin being a highly desirable city — with or without incentives.

“Incentives create an uneven playing field,” McGann said. “We have a dynamic population in Austin of very smart people who are great employees. It’s a great area to live in, and there’s no need to be offering incentives.”

McGann criticized the Council for overspending and not cutting enough from the budget.

“We could trim the budget by $30 million tomorrow,” McGann said. “We need to be looking at every single part of the budget and do a full audit of the budget and on both of the utilities.”

According to Riley, the financial transactions of the Council are completely transparent and can be found online. He also said that cutting budgets would be difficult, as in the case with cutting the police budget in favor of parks or libraries.

“[The police force] is about 1,700 cops,” Riley said. “That metric provides a very useful mechanism of gauging the growth of the police force over time. We looked at a study that said if that’s an appropriate metric, and we need more than that. Most of it goes to the salaries of those police officers, and I think our public expects a high level of safety.”

Tovo also said public safety was paramount in priority and concern.

“I’m a strong supporter of making sure we have an adequate police force,” Tovo said. “I also believe we need to talk comprehensively about how we support public safety goals with other departments.”

District 9 candidates Erin McGann, Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley discuss transportation issues at an Austin City Council forum Thursday evening.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

The three candidates vying to be the first District 9 representative in the newly restructured Austin City Council discussed public transportation, affordability and Sixth Street safety at a forum Thursday hosted by the city’s Ethics Review Commission and the League of Women Voters.

In 2013, Austin voters approved reformatting the council from six citywide elected members to a district representation system made up of 10 members. The mayor will continue to be elected citywide. Under the new system, much of the University, downtown Austin, West Campus and Hyde Park are located in District 9. The new council will be elected in November and take office in January. 

Council members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley, and Erin McGann, a program supervisor in the Department of Criminal Justice, are competing for the first District 9 council seat. 

At Thursday’s forum, held at the Palmer Events Center, McGann said she was running because the council had become out of touch with the city and criticized its approval of the urban rail. McGann also said the proposed urban rail would not actually decrease traffic, and suggested more parking lots would help alleviate the growing traffic problem.  

“The proposed rail will continue the trend towards unaffordability in Austin,” McGann said. “I will fight to audit all departments for waste, corruptions. We owe it to Austin to be completely transparent in spending and taxes.”

Riley said making bike sharing available at Austin’s larger events would help traffic and parking problems.

“We can make some city facilities available for parking,” Riley said. “I’ve sponsored resolutions to make sure we are appropriately managing those resources. Parking is a resource and it needs to be managed carefully, thoughtfully and responsibly.”

According to Tovo, neighborhoods without off-street parking may have trouble if driveways are small or residents need to find parking for friends.

“One of the things we can do to make sure we can preserve the quality of life in our neighborhoods is to pay attention to things like parking,” Tovo said.

The candidates also addressed affordable housing. Riley said District 9 is a diverse area with need for a wide variety of housing.

“Currently, we’re not doing a very good job of providing the options that are needed to meet every housing need that’s out there,” Riley said. “It serves everyone’s interests to have a great diversity of housing options. District 9 is a great place to provide a model for the rest of the city and for the country.”

Tovo said one way of creating more affordable housing would be preserving older houses, as well as requiring developers to provide housing on-site if applying for the city’s density bonus program. 

“Within District 9, I think we have some good opportunities, one in the area of preservation,” Tovo said.  “We also need to look carefully how we use our density bonus programs. We lost millions of dollars of money that could have been used for affordable housing.”

McGann addressed Sixth Street and the safety issues that accompany its popularity.

“I would like to see Austin have a sobriety center,” McGann said. “The center would allow access to people who are not necessarily breaking the law but need somewhere safe if they cannot go home.”

Tovo said the importance of Sixth Street to Austin makes it more imperative to improve safety in the area.

“People need to feel comfortable eating and enjoying the nightlife,” Tovo said. “We need to make sure we have adequate officers in the street.”