In Austin City Council's District 6 race, the incumbent and three challengers talk public safety, pandemic recovery, affordability

Incumbent Jimmy Flannigan and challengers Dee Harrison, Mackenzie Kelly and Jennifer Mushtaler are running to represent Northwesst Austin's District 6 on Austin City Council beginning in 2021. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Incumbent Jimmy Flannigan and challengers Dee Harrison, Mackenzie Kelly and Jennifer Mushtaler are running to represent Northwesst Austin's District 6 on Austin City Council beginning in 2021. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Incumbent Jimmy Flannigan and challengers Dee Harrison, Mackenzie Kelly and Jennifer Mushtaler are running to represent Northwesst Austin's District 6 on Austin City Council beginning in 2021. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Community Impact Newspaper asked the four Austin City Council District 6 candidates the same five questions, which cover topics from public safety to housing and coronavirus recovery, and limited answers to 75 words each. The candidates' answers are printed verbatim. Election Day is Nov. 3. Early voting begins Oct. 13 and closes Oct. 30.




AUSTIN



City Council District 6










James "Jimmy" Flannigan



Occupation: Austin City Council member; former small-business owner


Age: 42


Years lived in Austin: 24






In August, City Council unanimously supported a significant reduction to the Austin police budget with a commitment to reimagining public safety. As a City Council member, what will you bring to the ongoing debate over how to reimagine public safety?



JF: As Public Safety Chair, I’m leading a transparent process that includes officers and expert insight; research-driven data; training overhaul; and new investments in mental health 911 call diversion. I’m committed to ensuring a pragmatic approach and fiscal prudence by focusing on crime prevention, investments in public health, saving money and remaining one of the safest major cities in the U.S. First responders are our partners in public safety reform to serve and protect all citizens.



The economic impact of the pandemic continues to grow, with many people still out of work. Without waiting for federal and state aid, how would you lead what is expected to be a long and difficult recovery?



JF: In the wake of the SXSW cancellation, and as we saw the economic impact on our community, I authored programs that support small businesses, nonprofits, child care facilities and more. City Council has worked proactively to address the immediate health, safety and economic needs of our most vulnerable by designing programs to help renters and homeowners with their monthly obligations as well.



As the city switches into recovery mode, how do you ensure the safety of those who have continued to go to work and those who will be returning to work?



JF: Essential workers are the backbone of our community. To protect them, I authored a program to provide grants for businesses to cover costs of pandemic compliance and PPE, and we will continue to encourage and enforce masks and social distancing rules to bring virus rates down. Ultimately, we need state and [federal] support to ensure wide-scale testing, vaccine support and continued economic resources.



Austin has endured a growing housing affordability challenge, often attributed to housing stock that has not kept up with demand. How do you approach the issue of housing, and how do you plan to address Austin's need for more housing?



JF: Rapidly rising rents and out-of-control appraisals have made it nearly impossible for essential workers and the next generation to afford to live in our city. We need to streamline a regulatory process that adds unnecessary barriers and costs to building new housing, including transit-oriented developments, expanding affordable housing programs and other regulations to encourage diverse housing options in all parts of the city.



Following the fallout from the River Place Limited District's attempt to charge entrance fees at its trail, what would you propose the city do to ensure that public spaces, even within limited districts, stay open and free to the public and ensure that all Austin residents have equal access to outdoor and recreational resources within city limits?



JF: It’s important that publicly funded amenities, such as the portion of the River Place trail funded by the state of Texas, remain free and accessible to the entire community. It is critical that we continue to invest equitably across the city in publicly funded parks and open space. I have also worked in partnership with the YMCA to identify additional recreation and sports facilities for District 6.









Dee Harrison



Occupation: consultant; former state and local emergency management officer


Age: 66


Years lived in Austin: 25






In August, City Council unanimously supported a significant reduction to the Austin police budget with a commitment to reimagining public safety. As a City Council member, what will you bring to the ongoing debate over how to reimagine public safety?



DH: The city has the duty and responsibility to provide for the public safety of its residents. As a result of Council’s cuts, academy classes were cut, and staffing levels were reduced to 2015 levels. Further, the governor proposed to take over Austin’s police services and drastically reduce the city’s ability to grow and raise revenue. I will advocate to restore the police budget and seek avenues to fund vital mental health services to at-risk populations.



The economic impact of the pandemic continues to grow, with many people still out of work. Without waiting for federal and state aid, how would you lead what is expected to be a long and difficult recovery?



DH: I have over 30 years of experience in the public sector, and as a manager, [I have] experienced numerous economic downturns and legislative-, agency- or court-imposed budget reductions. I have both training and experience in addressing the impact of pandemics and disasters on community lifelines across the state. The world is facing a sea change brought on by COVID-19. As a city, we must be more nimble in our response and be better prepared for the next.



As the city switches into recovery mode, how do you ensure the safety of those who have continued to go to work and those who will be returning to work?



DH: One of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 outbreak is that the city can continue to provide many essential government services via telecommuting and technology. I will advocate for departmental policies and practices that allow for this wherever practicable. The city must remain committed to following best practices and directives from public health authorities and the governor. We owe it to our city employees to provide safe, secure, and sanitary working conditions.



Austin has endured a growing housing affordability challenge, often attributed to housing stock that has not kept up with demand. How do you approach the issue of housing, and how do you plan to address Austin's need for more housing?



DH: First, we must determine if our current approaches to affordable housing and building strategies in the city are reflective of the post-COVID-19 economy and the changing economic needs of our residents. Then, we can determine the economic mitigation activities the city is willing to undertake, if any. Can we better leverage existing affordability programs? Simply increasing housing density does not equal housing affordability. We must stop increasing the tax burden on homeowners.



Following the fallout from the River Place Limited District's attempt to charge entrance fees at its trail, what would you propose the city do to ensure that public spaces, even within limited districts, stay open and free to the public and ensure that all Austin residents have equal access to outdoor and recreational resources within the city limits?



DH: The city should remain committed to providing outdoor and recreational resources for its residents at the facilities that it owns and the right to set hours and capacity. Limited districts and private property owners have the right to set conditions upon the use of their facilities and spaces, including admission fees. If practical, the city should investigate entering into access agreements with limited district facilities within city limits that it does not own.









Mackenzie Kelly



Occupation: client care manager at a senior care agency


Age: 34


Years lived in Austin: 34






In August, City Council unanimously supported a significant reduction to the Austin police budget with a commitment to reimagining public safety. As a City Council member, what will you bring to the ongoing debate over how to reimagine public safety?



MK: “Reimagining public safety” should never mean taking funding away when there are problems that need to be addressed. Our council needs to have the ability to identify and address problems before defunding occurs with a solid plan in place that is data-driven. The problems that the police are experiencing are expensive problems. With current staffing, if we do not hire more officers to make up for those leaving, our city will not be safe.



The economic impact of the pandemic continues to grow, with many people still out of work. Without waiting for federal and state aid, how would you lead what is expected to be a long and difficult recovery?



MK: With our current unemployment rate as high as it is, our council should work with state and federal leaders to create programs for those out of work. They also need to coordinate aid to assist businesses that may need it. Currently, council is playing political games with the state, and I would put an end to that. At the end of the day, it’s about helping the people, not whose partisan side you’re on.



As the city switches into recovery mode, how do you ensure the safety of those who have continued to go to work and those who will be returning to work?



MK: COVID has placed unique challenges on our community we have not experienced before. I would push for regulations that allowed businesses to keep at-risk workers working from home in order to help keep them safe. I also believe that personal responsibility is key to reducing the spread of the virus. If those that want to go back to work feel safe enough to do so, the city needs to let them.



Austin has endured a growing housing affordability challenge, often attributed to housing stock that has not kept up with demand. How do you approach the issue of housing, and how do you plan to address Austin's need for more housing?



MK: One of the great American dreams is homeownership, and our leadership in Austin is eroding the affordability and infrastructure access to that dream. The densification efforts of council have led to not only higher taxes and rents but are also rapidly displacing longtime homeowners near the metro area. Gentrification has become overwhelmingly problematic under the current leadership, and I will fight to end the movement toward the failures that are causing our community problems.



Following the fallout from the River Place Limited District's attempt to charge entrance fees at its trail, what would you propose the city do to ensure that public spaces, even within limited districts, stay open and free to the public and ensure that all Austin residents have equal access to outdoor and recreational resources within the city limits?



MK: My understanding is that the River Place Limited District’s decision was made after their plan to maintain the trail rules failed. Residents deserve equal access to outdoor recreational resources within the city limits; however, with defunding of the park police, it would be difficult to enforce rules and heavy trash left behind, such as what happened at the River Place Trail. Our residents all deserve clean and safe trails.









Jennifer Mushtaler



Occupation: physician


Age: 49


Years lived in Austin: 13






In August, City Council unanimously supported a significant reduction to the Austin police budget with a commitment to reimagining public safety. As a City Council member, what will you bring to the ongoing debate over how to reimagine public safety?



JM: I oppose the rhetoric of council in “defunding” the police for the sole purpose of grandstanding, particularly when council was already in the midst of the 2021 budget cycle. We must restore the cadet classes. We need to bring community-engaged policing times to the national standard. We should offer and require continuing education and team drills to keep our officers abreast of latest data driven methodologies and to root out violence and racial prejudice.



The economic impact of the pandemic continues to grow, with many people still out of work. Without waiting for federal and state aid, how would you lead what is expected to be a long and difficult recovery.



JM: The first step is to bring down and control the community positivity rate so that we can safely advance our staged opening and allow all our children to get back into the classrooms, all our families to get back to work and to get all of our businesses open. We need to partner with our tech and private industries to develop innovative business options for our musicians and creative artists.



As the city switches into recovery mode, how do you ensure the safety of those who have continued to go to work and those who will be returning to work?



JM: Our hospital has triaged and cared for patients severely ill with COVID-19 while maintaining a less-than-1% conversion rate in our staff. We need decisive medical leadership on the dais to advocate and fund public education, public PPE and public discipline with safety measures. We need an organized and funded trace/isolate program. We need medical leadership on the dais to ensure an equitable, data-driven approach to vaccination through [Austin Public Health] when this becomes available.



Austin has endured a growing housing affordability challenge, often attributed to housing stock that has not kept up with demand. How do you approach the issue of housing, and how do you plan to address Austin's need for more housing?



JM: There are two distinct issues: affordability and inventory. Affordability begins with fiscal discipline in the city budget, including audits of major departments. The city needs to streamline the permitting processes. We do need a modernized land code; however, the city needs to abandon costly litigation against property owners and instead seek a collaborative approach to expand affordable inventory in all districts. There are welcome opportunities around transit-oriented nodes without encroaching on Austin’s vibrant and diverse neighborhoods.



Following the fallout from the River Place Limited District's attempt to charge entrance fees at its trail, what would you propose the city do to ensure that public spaces, even within limited districts, stay open and free to the public and ensure that all Austin residents have equal access to outdoor and recreational resources within the city limits?



JM: The trails have remained free and open to the public over 90% of operational hours. Unfortunately, this is another example of [the city of Austin] and incumbent [candidate Flannigan's] failure to respond to the needs in D6. The LD has collaborated with [the Balcones Canyon Conservation Plan], [Texas Parks & Wildlife], [Austin Fire Department] and local stakeholders to create a safe, sustainable green space for all users. The fee is solely for trail management. Having served on a parks and rec board, [I know] the [city] needs to allocate supportive resources.


By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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