Former mayors discuss Austin’s growth

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The upcoming general elections could bring changes to the city government and a major bond package that would affect every area of city life, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said.

Leffingwell opened a discussion moderated by UT’s Director of Sustainability Jim Walker in KLRU’s Studio 6A. Four former mayors from large metropolitan areas in Texas gave advice based on their experiences for Austin’s transition into a major city, including developing a different form of government, adding and renovating infrastructure and transportation and improving public education.

Success is often lost in politics because elected officials tend to come up with a solution and market it before thinking critically about the problems, said former Houston Mayor Bill White. Austin should observe the problems that lead to solutions, including implementing single-member districts — a system in which each district elects one representative — and making communities less segregated, White said.

“Start the conversation by identifying what the problem is, rather than selling the solution,” he said. “You might find that even if the result is not what you thought it would be, you’ve brought to light an issue that needs to be dealt with. You need to look for the problem first and then work backwards.”

Dallas implemented a rail line with problems that stemmed from planning based on where the money was instead of where the people were, said former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller. To improve transportation systems in Austin and avoid Dallas’ problems, Austin should plan beforehand on what centers to connect, she said.

“If Austin does rail, and some of our most vibrant communities like West Village in Dallas are on a rail line, you should plan what you want these rail stations to look like,” she said. “You need to make sure that the university is connected to the capitol and that’s connected to South Congress. The most important thing is in your mind, where do you want to connect the dots.”

The fate of cities rests on their public education systems, said former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros. Large cities are bridging public education and government, with Baltimore’s 24 poorest schools, as well as the city of Denver, successfully mandating that if a student makes a certain grade and has a certain level of attendance to show that they are achieving and trying, they will have the money to go to college, he said.

“That’s serious stuff that begins to provide incentive,” he said. “It’s the mayor and the leader of the city providing some financial assistance, but more importantly it’s the moral leadership for the business community and other people to rally around.”

Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation — already ranking 16th largest in the 2000 census — and conversation about the city’s future is necessary to continue growth, Cisneros said.

“Austin is a big city, get over it,” he said. “There are hundreds of cities in America that would trade places with Austin in an instant for the momentum and the dynamic that it has. But you can’t stand still. You can’t plan for stasis. Failure to act denigrates the quality of the city over time.”