Public safety, homelessness in Austin take center stage in final forum before District 6 runoff vote

Austin City Hall (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin City Hall (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin City Hall (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Three days ahead of the first day of early voting for the Austin City Council District 6 runoff election, a final public debate between candidates Jimmy Flannigan and Mackenzie Kelly was mostly focused on issues of public safety.

Several of the questions lobbed by moderator Carol Eckelcamp of the League of Women Voters Austin Area centered on the role of Austin’s police officers and how city policies can help Austin’s homeless population.

One of Eckelcamp’s early questions asked the candidates to address homeless campsites, which have become increasingly visible citywide since Austin City Council last year voted to overturn the ban on public camping.

“Make no mistake, simply banning camping does not ban homelessness ... it just moves these people back into the shadows,” the incumbent Flannigan said during the Nov. 30 forum.

Flannigan further advocated for “wraparound” services to support Austinites experiencing homelessness, including transitional housing in city-owned hotels.

“There is no one magic key to solving homelessness. ... In some cases you need permanent supported housing for folks who can’t quite get there,” Flannigan said.

Kelly supported repealing last year’s public camping allowance, though she stated she does not believe that is a path to “criminalizing homelessness”. Instead, the GOP-backed Kelly said she supported a plan for transitional housing with centralized resources.

“We need safe and compassionate solutions. ... We need to give [those experiencing homelessness] a specific location to go to,” Kelly said.

The two candidates also faced multiple questions on the Austin Police Department from Eckelcamp. When asked by the moderator if APD faced systemic racism within its own ranks, neither candidate said the public safety department had a systemic racism problem.

Kelly said Austin City Council voted to “defund” the police in August, when it removed roughly $150 million from the police budget for fiscal year 2020-21.

“I would characterize [the vote] as the defunding of the police department. ... While we need reforms ... we cannot do that at the expense of public safety,” Kelly said.

Flannigan responded to Kelly’s comments by saying there “has to be a better way” to handle the police department budget. The incumbent council member said the Austin City Council Public Safety Committee—which Flannigan chairs—is analyzing data on how social service calls can be reallocated to other departments.

“Meaningful changes to the department so police don't respond to everything is what we’re doing. ... We are precisely trying to get our officers into places specifically where they are specially trained and best suited,” Flannigan said.

Flannigan and Kelly head into the Dec. 15 runoff election for the District 6 seat on the Austin City Council dais after the two emerged from a field of four in the November general election.

Early voting begins Dec. 3 in both Travis and Williamson counties.
By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.


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