Three Austin City Council Members leave office early this evening, Friday January 6. As you probably know, that’s Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen and Sabino “Pio” Renteria. I know that being on the City Council is a really hard job. Council Members and their staffs do all kinds of work for constituents. They sit up there on the dais for hours at a time and take a lot of heat. Even I have been critical of them at some times.
Whether I mostly agree with them on policy or not, I think that all three of these departing Council Members are sincere in their beliefs and their efforts. I know they work hard, and, I know that they’ve gotten some important things done — things that most people haven’t heard about and probably never will.
So I thought I’d take this final day of their time in office to talk about some of their accomplishments, especially their work that doesn’t make the headlines, or show up often on the Channel 6 cameras.
Kathie Tovo has served on the Council since 2011. She was the only Council Member on the first 10-1 (single member district system) group to have served in the at-large system. Thus, she brought some experience to the table that was too often ignored in the early days of 10-1. Tovo kept at it though.
She was one of the hardest working Council Members ever, and particularly fought hard on environmental and neighborhood issues. For instance it was Tovo, Kitchen, Leslie Pool and Alison Alter who put up a fierce resistance against the relentless Council majority that was trying to ram through a Land Development Code rewrite — and an accompanying Citywide upzoning. Ultimately the LDC juggernaut was stopped by a court ruling that the Council majority was violating the law; by denying property owners their notification and petition rights. (This battle will likely resume with the new Council, although there might be some hope that they will pursue a compromise approach. We’ll see.)
One of the accomplishments of which Tovo is most proud is the Sobering Center. It is intended to provide a safe, supportive place for people to sober up as an alternative to jail or the emergency room. As Tovo wrote in her farewell newsletter to supporters, the Sobering Center “has already provided nearly 4,000 individuals with an alternative to jail or the hospital.” The Sobering Center also reflected Tovo’s patience and talent for endurance. It took years to bring to fruition.
In an endeavor that surprised some of her political base, Tovo was also a leader in bringing professional soccer to Austin. This was controversial at the time, mainly because the City provides rent free land for the stadium. The team, however, has proved very popular with local soccer fans.
Tovo worked on a wide array of issues. To the sometimes dismay of City staff, she was something of an Items from Council machine. Known as “IFCs” around City Hall, Items from Council are the fundamental way that Council Members launch initiatives. The Council Members post IFCs on the Council agenda. If they win majority approval from the Council, then the City Manager and City staff are directed to undertake whatever the IFC instructs, and to report back to Council on progress. As Tovo wrote to constituents, “During my time on Council, I was honored to sponsor or co-sponsor more than 700 council-approved resolutions, ordinances, and budget amendments.” A lot of her efforts bore fruit.
Just a single paragraph from Tovo’s farewell letter captures the energy and breadth of her activities; and the following is just a summary of one year: “We renamed Lamar Beach in honor of Volma Overton, Sr. Shores at Town Lake Metro Park, Austin civil rights leader. We continued public safety improvements in the Sixth Street entertainment district and directed the creation of toolkits to help neighborhoods throughout Austin create their own resilience hubs. We passed multiple new initiatives during this year’s budget. We kicked off work with the Texas Restaurant Association to reduce single-use plastics in takeout orders and successfully advocated for more affordable housing (230+ units) on our city-owned tract at the former Downtown HealthSouth site. I passed policies to ensure that worker protections, affordable housing and childcare, and other community benefits will be embedded in future redevelopments of city-owned land.”
Among other things Tovo also worked to provide meals to caregivers during the pandemic.
Contrary to the dominant narrative that she and the others who opposed the LDC rewrite don’t support affordable housing, Tovo’s District 9 ranks second among Council Districts in the Housing Works scorecard. That scorecard measures the number of affordable units being built and assesses how close individual Council Districts are to meeting goals set by the Council. None of the Districts are meeting their goals. District 4, formerly represented by Casar and currently represented by Chito Vela, is the closest with Tovo’s District 9 second.
Tovo also recently led the way in the City’s purchase of ten apartment complexes in the Hyde Park and Hancock neighborhoods, all within her District — with the idea of keeping them affordable. The complexes range from 10 to 61 units apiece.
Like Kitchen and Renteria, Tovo gives much credit to her staff.
Ann Kitchen was certainly able to hold her own on the dais, but she could also be a quiet, yet effective behind the scenes player. Perhaps the best example of that is the AustinCARES program, which she initiated, beginning with an Item from Council. After a consultant study to make recommendations, the program is now in place. As Kitchen describes it, the program puts “mental health clinicians in our 911 Call Center, to help stabilize people in crisis with a health care, not policing, response.” So, amidst all the furor over Reimagining Policing, Kitchen quietly led the way and put in place a program that is one of that movement’s key goals.
One of Kitchen’s more publicized efforts is the HEAL initiative to house the homeless. Among other things, that effort shows her willingness to sometimes take on the toughest of issues. If the City had gone for her HEAL initiative from the beginning — instead of Greg Casar’s repeal of the camping ban — then those currently homeless and the City in general might be in better shape now. Kitchen, however, ultimately voted along with Casar to repeal the camping ban (Tovo did not). Now, the HEAL initiative is doing more to find shelter for homeless people than any other City program.
As Kitchen explains, “The HEAL Initiative created a new way to connect people living unsheltered with housing, health and social services and the resources for permanent housing.” The effort, she says “has offered people living in 10 plus encampments an immediate roof over their heads plus health and social services plus resources for permanent housing. About 90% of people offered this service accepted.” Kitchen acknowledges that there’s still a long way to go on this issue. For instance she recently told the Austin Monitor: “I think HEAL has been successful as one piece of our response to the (housing) crisis, but it needs to be taken to scale. Right now it’s funded to help 200 people a year, and I don’t think that’s enough.”
Kitchen also sponsored a Creative Spaces program, which provides grants to “creative businesses,” nonprofits and artists facing financial difficulties. According to the City website for the program, the intended recipients are “creative organizations facing temporary or permanent displacement or new commercial leases at higher and unaffordable rates.” Those eligible include, “arts nonprofits, for-profit live music venues, performance spaces and art galleries, and independent artists leasing commercial studios.” The grant funds can be used for “revenue-generating space improvements, lease payment stipends, and gap funding for creative space purchases.” Like the AustinCares program that Kitchen initiated, this program is up and running.
On another front Kitchen notes, “On Covid I worked to protect the people of Austin and especially those most at risk in our senior living facilities.”
Kitchen also worked to create more affordable housing. For instance she helped secure funding for Zilker Studios, a Foundation Communities project at 1508 S. Lamar. The semi-high rise will provide apartments for people making 50% of medium family income (MFI) or less — with units set aside for households making less than 30% and 20% of MFI. Kitchen also cites other affordable housing projects in District 5, “like Goodrich Place, Parkside/Brandt Road, and Toomey Road.”
Sabino “Pio” Renteria gets criticized for being a lockstep vote with Mayor Steve Adler as well as with original 10-1 Council Members Casar and Delia Garza. I too would have liked to see him chart a more independent course; and move out of the shadow of the more flamboyant Council Members.
Overall, however, I see Renteria a little differently than a lot of his critics. For one thing I have known him for more than 40 years and respect the work he did in East Austin for decades before he was on the Council.
Renteria is a native East Austinite with deep roots in the community. At opportune times during Council meetings, he would offer his perspective as an East Austin native. Although he is not the type of politician who talks frequently about it, his office website captures some of the hardship of his early life: “At a very young age he learned the lessons of hard work and serving others. At age 7 he was shining shoes and selling newspapers on Congress Ave and at 15 he entered the fields to pick cotton to help support his family.” Renteria got out of the fields and ultimately went to work for IBM where he retired “after 34 years of service as a Computer & Printer Technician.”
During those years he was also very active in politics. He and his wife, Lori Cervenak-Renteria, are both long time activists in East Austin. He was in the Brown Berets and East Austin neighborhood groups. He fought against police brutality back in the 1970s and 1980s. He later served as Chair of the Council appointed Community Development Commission which made recommendations on how to spend federal funds for low income people.
On the Council he was certainly not one of the frequent talkers, but when he did talk he usually had something to say. For instance he often talked poignantly about the many people he grew up with in his neighborhood who have been priced out.
I disagreed with Renteria’s stance on the Land Development Code (LDC). But, his position on those issues was not inconsistent with his position when he ran for office or his immediate past stances before that. He wasn’t like Adler, who had one position in both his campaigns, then switched completely after winning reelection. (Have I mentioned that before?)
Renteria has also been a long time supporter of a rail system for Austin. Along with the rest of the Council, he developed a rail plan, Project Connect, which voters passed. (Kitchen cites Project Connect in her accomplishments as well.) The rail project is having difficulty getting out of the station, so to speak. Serious cost overruns have already occurred and the initial system is likely be cut back. Nonetheless, Renteria helped deliver, or at least win voter approval for, a rail system for Austin. Whether that turns out to be a positive legacy item for him and the rest of the Council remains to be seen.
Renteria also understands that basic City services need to take place. He didn’t refrain from asking questions about such issues, but he was not a micro-manager and he supported the City’s public utilities, including voting for the recent Austin Energy rate increase (Kitchen and Tovo voted no).
Renteria also worked to deliver affordable housing. For example the round of apartment purchases mentioned above included a 66 unit complex on Tillery Street in his District.
Renteria quietly worked for his constituents delivering things, for example getting the part of Fiesta Gardens long used for a City vehicle parking lot for back for parkland use. This involved working out a swap of parkland and and then persuading voters to approve it. He also presided over a strong constituent service staff in his office. And, he kept in touch with people throughout his district.
So, in closing, thanks to these three Council Members for their service and their endurance.
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