In District 7 Leslie Pool drew only one opponent, Morgan Witt, a self described “newcomer to the Austin political scene.”
According to her campaign website, Witt is an educator whose career and philosophy flowed from “a life-changing class called ‘Educational Inequality in America.’” The class revealed to her that “education is a top contributor to lifting people out of poverty.” She began her education career as a “K-12 Spanish teacher,” then moved into “Adult Basic Education,” where she “worked with diverse groups of people teaching professional skills, GED, and digital literacy for English language learners.”
Witt’s website describes her a “Progressive Democrat.” She provides a list of qualities that she will “Make Austin,” as in “Make Austin Affordable, and in the same refrain: “Equitable, Sustainable, Engaged, Mobile and Musical.” She is short on specifics on how to make this happen.
In contrast to political newcomer Witt, Pool (photo at top) is a veteran of Austin politics and government. On the Council she has been a fighter, with her causes including environmental protection, social justice, and women’s rights — among others. Pool also has a longer historical memory on local issues than really any other member of the Council. She decidedly comes from the progressive, neighborhood, environmental coalition that flowered in Austin beginning in the 1970s and built over the decades. Pool remains devoted to those causes and fights for them on the Council.
The adherents to the Austin progressive tradition from which Pool hails sometimes clash with the new progressives led by Council Members Greg Casar and Delia Garza —although they often find common ground as well, but usually not without some tension.
The marque issue where the older and newer progressives tangle is over growth and development issues, particularly the Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite. That also appears to be the primary area of disagreement between Pool and Witt.
Although Witt does not say so directly, she rather clearly appears to be an urbanist, pro-LDC candidate. She is endorsed by pro-LDC groups AURA and Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, as well as the Home Builders Association. She also uses utopian urbanist rhetoric, like, “I’ll work to expand housing choices and create an affordable Austin where everyone is able to live in the neighborhood of their choice.”
For specifics, she vows that she will work to “modernize the land use code to eliminate apartment bans and NCCDs (Neighborhood Conservation and Combining Districts) in Austin’s central neighborhoods” and “Permit a diversity of housing options (ADUs (accessory dwelling units), fourplexes, multi-family apartments, and multi-unit dwellings) in Austin’s central neighborhoods.”
These formulations contain a few factual errors. For instance there are not “apartment bans” in “Austin’s central neighborhoods.” There are, in fact, many apartment complexes in central Austin. It is true that in some areas zoning designations do not allow apartments — particularly in areas zoned for single family homes. Instead apartment complexes are often zoned for and built on the edge of single family neighborhoods — often, but not exclusively, on main streets. One urbanist tactic is to refer to the areas where zoning does not allow apartments, as subject to an “apartment ban.”
Likewise eliminating NCCDs is a priority among pro-LDC forces. NCCDs provide neighborhoods certain powers and protections as negotiated between residents, business operators in an area, and the City — through a process with ultimate approval or disapproval, by the Council.
Also, there are already “ADUs, fourplexes, multi-family apartments, and multi-unit dwellings” in “Austin’s central neighborhoods” — although to varying degrees in different neighborhoods and not to the extent desired by many urbanists. This issue will be subject to an ongoing debate, but once again what Witt signals here is that she wants to allow these uses in transition zones, and perhaps wider than that.
On the LDC, Pool explains her approach thusly, “I agree with most in Austin that the LDC should be updated, and I support doing it in alignment with Imagine Austin, the City’s comprehensive plan.” The Council majority approached the LDC and Imagine Austin in a directly opposite manner to how Pool suggests. The majority voted to amend Imagine Austin, the multiyear effort with heavy citizen participation, to make it consistent with what they wanted to pass in the LDC. Pool wants the LDC to follow the Imagine Austin plan as established through the widespread citizen effort.
Pool adds, “I support density and mixed use along corridors which provides more foot traffic, more small business opportunity, and overall increased commerce and space availability for retail, business and creatives.” On the other hand, she continues, “Transition areas that were discussed during CodeNEXT & LDC2 were exceedingly problematic and I did not support how the staff was imposing them without residents’ agreement.” Pool says she will continue this stance going forward.
Other Major Issues
Witt does not draw any major distinctions with Pool on other key issues. She just argues that she is better equipped to “make bold decisions” plus devise and fund “proven solutions to issues like poverty, crime, and homelessness.” Once again this leaves the LDC and experience as the two main differences between Pool and Witt.
On one of the controversial votes taken by the Council, Pool acknowledges some shortcomings, specifically in the Council’s original approach when rolling back the camping ban. She adds, however, that she provided leadership in shoring up homeless policies afterward. “We did not do enough to prepare for the expected outcomes after the camping ban was decriminalized, but after the June vote I worked with my dais colleagues to bring necessary resources and align our systems to help in more effective and efficient ways. Since then, the Council has approved the purchase of two hotels for housing, is actively searching for additional structures to buy, has focused more intently on providing Permanent Supportive Housing, and has activated a more organized system of support with ECHO and other community non-profit organizations whose civic mission is helping people living without shelter. The Council approved historic levels of funding in the FY20 budget and will put another $60 million toward these programs in FY21.”
On the police budget, Pool says she is proud of her vote: “I am proud to serve on a council that took such a strong stand together to address police brutality and systemic racism in policing.” She points out amendments she got into the budget, including,
- “Diverting mental health emergency calls to trained professionals through new investments in EMS,
- Gaining $6.5 million to house the homeless, and
- More robust funding for victims services. ”
To accomplish this, continues Pool, “I listened to my constituents, and worked with advocates from criminal justice and policing groups on many aspects of my proposal.” She adds, “We need to stop asking our police officers to handle social service needs, and most importantly, we need to hold them accountable and responsible for improving community relationships.”
Pools says she’s running again because there’s more work to do, with the pandemic adding to that, and “the learning curve is pretty much straight up and, given the complexities, it’s more important than ever before to lean on knowledge and experience, and the demonstrations of a proven record.”
For more information on the District 7 race see the Austin Independent’s candidate questionnaire. Morgan Will did not respond to the questionnaire.
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