Kirk Watson is once again Austin's mayor after previously holding the seat from 1997-2001, following his inauguration alongside five City Council members Jan. 6.

The new council year is in its early days, but members are already looking to move forward their policies on priority items. Watson said he hopes to hit the ground running in his limited two-year term, cut from the traditional four-year interval following a voter-approved shift that will line up future mayoral elections with presidential election years.

Ahead of his January inauguration, Watson spoke with Community Impact about his goals for his return to City Hall. The interview content was edited for length and clarity.

What are you most looking forward to about the new council?

I think you will see us operating as a team. And my impression from watching people over the years and on the campaign trail, conversations since, [is] that we will start from a proposition that we agree on things and let’s focus, at least at first, on the things that we agree on that we can do and that we can use to build a foundation for working on other things that we may not totally agree on.

What do you think residents might notice as a difference between this council and the previous one?

[People] can expect ... a great openness to the meetings and a respect for the public that wants and needs to address us. Based on my past experience of being chair of a state agency and being the mayor of Austin and working in the [Texas] Legislature and presiding over the Senate and things of that nature, I believe that I’ll bring efficiency to the meetings.

While campaigning you said you want to bring the city back to basics. What will that look like?

We ought to be thoughtful; I think we ought to be careful, but I don’t think we ought to be patient in terms of trying to get to results. I think we need to push and move at a pace because I worry that sometimes local government doesn’t move as fast as what it appears everything else in this town is moving at.

It is very important for us to have a focus on something as basic as cleaning up our city. I believe that the city has gotten where it’s not as clean; the trash and debris, that’s really basic government, right? And we need to do that.

Another part of the basics is we ought to see some action that will lead to results on police staffing. That may include getting a contract with the police, and it may have other things involved so that we can get it both short term and preparing for the longer term getting our police staffing where it ought to be.

Another basic is traffic, and in that regard you’ve got a couple projects including Project Connect that—right now Project Connect is a mess, and we need the sense of urgency about how we’re going to proceed.

And then the last thing I’ll mention is what has become an ultimate basic in this town, and that is addressing cost of living and affordability. ... I would anticipate you would see pretty quick action on the things we can agree on right out of the chute to get to better affordable housing in this community.

How can you and the council most effectively work on affordability this year?

The goal or the purpose or mission is to get more housing on the ground, in my view, as quickly as you can. ... Step one is identifying those things that will help you achieve that goal or mission that there’s agreement on.

One of the reasons I believe we’ve been stagnated for almost a decade on this is it was made to be an all-or-nothing approach. You had to do it one way or no way, and we ended up with no way. Even if you were going to try and do it as an all-or-nothing approach, one way or no way, I believe there should have been things going on all during that time so that you weren’t wasting that time and you got to the end and had nothing.

The second step is those areas where there’s not unanimity, not absolute agreement, that with the opportunity to work through it and talk about it, you can get there.

The third would be those areas where there may be significant disagreement. I don’t know what those are; we’ve got to get the council in place, but we try to approach that, again, from a position of respect and empathy so that we listen.

Can you explain your district-level land use plan and what it’s going to look like in practice?

We have single-member districts in this city, and one of the reasons we have single-member districts is so that neighborhoods and communities of interest would be able to vote in their single-member districts. And so what that resulted in is some of those districts representing neighborhoods and communities of interest looked at this blanket, comprehensive plan and said, “I don’t like that for my district.” And as a result you couldn’t get to a supermajority.

My approach is that what you do is you say, “We’ve got to recognize the form of government we have ... and we start with a baseline.” The baseline has already kind of been established by the [Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint] and what that says is every district has an obligation and responsibility to produce more density and housing. So you start with a baseline. But then you say to those districts, “Hey council member, tell me what you think is the best way to get that in your district.”

Nobody gets to not try to meet their baseline, but they try to represent the communities of interest in how that gets done. And unlike what the mischaracterizations were, nobody gets to opt out.

And if there is a citywide change in the code that applies, to use something simple, on how [accessory dwelling units] can be built, well that citywide change applies to everybody. The district can’t say, “No, I’m not going to do that.”

The bottom line here is that every district has to meet a baseline, but you avoid a comprehensive across-the-city change that creates a veto power and you focus on, “How do we hit that baseline everywhere in the city, all across the city, by listening to the neighborhoods and the districts as they tell you the best way to do that?”

I want to create an incentive for those [districts] that do the right thing. ... If they create more density and more housing, they enhance the property tax base, so they’re going to get additional money. Not all of it, but a portion of that would go back to the district for use in that district for everything from rental assistance to parks or sidewalks or whatever for that district so that what you do is you build equity into this by providing a return for doing what our goals are.

How do you feel about the job city management is currently doing? How will you plan to review their work?

This form of government cannot operate and will fail if there’s not a partnership between the two main prongs of government: the mayor and council as the policymaking body and the manager and professional staff as the management. This system will fail. So my plan is to work to develop a partnership and to give this opportunity to, with a new mayor, new council, to create that partnership.

I have worked within that partnership in the past, we had great success because the partnership worked.

What are your thoughts on how City Manager Spencer Cronk has worked with City Council?

I have not worked directly at City Hall yet. I don’t want to be doing performance reviews of people I haven’t been working with.

What tax rate and funding priorities would you like to base this summer's budget planning around?

I don’t want to be doing what it seems to be traditionally done, which is start off at the highest rate that the state will allow us to do [providing a 3.5% tax revenue increase]. I want to start off where it’s a no-new-revenue rate so that what will happen is we may want to put stuff in there that change that, but you have to justify it as opposed to starting at a higher rate and then having to cut to get that back down.

Public safety and our public employees and being able to provide the basic services that I’ve talked about end up being a priority.

How do you plan to balance shorter-term work on homelessness with longer-term goals such as supportive housing?

Part of the problem with what’s been going on with addressing the needs of those living homeless has been, again, we’ve been given kind of an all-or-nothing thing. On the one hand, camp anywhere you want any time of day with no responsibility or housing-first permanent supportive housing—and I think we need more permanent supportive housing. But there’s a whole lot in the continuum that I don’t believe is being done the way we need to do.

We’re going to need more noncongregate shelters in this community. We’re going to need, probably, some campgrounds so that people will have a place to sleep. And those facilities, both the noncongregate shelters and the facilities, need to have services affiliated with them.

We need to be telling people what the plan is. I don’t think there’s been near enough transparency or accountability on what our plan actually is for those who are living homeless.

What does a successful term look like for you?

In a general sense, it will be that we can look back and say, “We did focus on those things that are the basic services of government that make a difference in peoples’ lives, and we did it with the sense of urgency it deserves.”

The way I look at it is everybody in this town deserves, absolutely, the right to have basic needs met, and we need to push ourselves on making sure that occurs. And so when I look back in two years, that’s what I’ll be looking for is: Did we take the actions that help maintain Austin as a truly exceptional place?

With a shorter two-year term, will you be considering a second?

I expect to be running for re-election.