With Troxclair’s name affixed to affordability plan, it was going nowhere

Austin Council Member Ellen Troxclair fails to pass affordability action plan. 04/10/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Austin Council Member Ellen Troxclair fails to pass affordability action plan.
04/10/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

No one is claiming that the affordable action plan the Austin City Council narrowly rejected this week was perfect – not supporters, such as Traci Berry, a senior vice president for Goodwill Industries.

And not City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who championed the initiative.

But in picking it apart, then voting to postpone it indefinitely – essentially killing it — six council members shut the door on something that was at best a roadmap advancing affordability goals all council members have affirmed. At worst, it was a flawed document with little meat on its bones, which would have put unwarranted restraints on the city budget.

Either way, it could have been handled as a work in progress, fixing and amending it as needed, as Berry noted.

“The most important piece of the plan is that it created a conversation by many stakeholders on a communitywide level — that we are putting our stake in the ground on one of the most important things we need to do in this city and saying, ‘Let’s go,’ ” she told me.

“It should have been all yes (votes) and zero no.”

Instead, the council split 6-5, with Council Members Alison Alter, Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Leslie Pool, Sabino “Pio” Renteria and Kathie Tovo voting against it. In addition to Troxclair, the resolution had the support of Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Jimmy Flannigan, Ora Houston and Ann Kitchen – who co-sponsored the resolution.

What sunk a resolution that seemed like a sure thing when it was first rolled out?

Some will say the details were problematic; others will tell you it didn’t go far enough. Still others would say it made the council look bad by not recognizing affordability measures underway. But the inability to coalesce around the resolution even as a working document points to political divisions on the council: Who would get the credit?

Troxclair was the lead sponsor, so the resolution – even with Adler’s support and heavy-hitting backers, including the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Habitat for Humanity — was doomed. Troxclair’s name as chief sponsor was akin to kryptonite.

The resolution laid out recommendations aimed at dealing with the various aspects of Austin’s affordability crisis, including expanding the city’s housing supply and addressing training needs of low-wage workers and the unemployed. But it also endorsed zoning reforms under way in CodeNext and city permitting. It contained a controversial budget option to keep taxes flat.

Though Troxclair championed affordability as key plank of her campaign when she ran for office in 2014, some colleagues believe she has since used the issue to posture, rather than produce. They aimed to teach her how to count votes, it seems.

They cited an American-Statesman commentary penned by Troxclair as an example of Troxclair’s posturing, saying she sets herself up as the lone council member standing up for affordability against a tax-and-spend council.

Troxclair wrote in August, 2016: “In this year alone, I have voted against hundreds of millions in spending, from high-priced consultants to vehicle purchases to cost overruns. I did not vote this way because replacing vehicles every three years and hiring consultants aren’t nice things to do. It is because each purchase ultimately impacts affordability. We must ask ourselves: Is this item a higher priority than financial relief for Austinites?

“Austin residents need a break – and this is the time to take their pleas to heart. We have to end the pattern of consistently increasing spending that has become a crisis for our city. It’s time for action, and it’s time for this budget year to be the Year of Affordability.”

You can judge for yourself if Troxclair was trying to steal her colleagues’ thunder, but if she was, Troxclair was doing what elected officials do: Using her bully pulpit to influence public opinion for her more conservative approach to budgeting and making Austin more affordable. Does she elevate herself by doing that? Sure. But she is not alone on the Council in showing off.

Adler says the discussion and action on Thursday was “not the Council’s finest moment.”

Troxclair says she is “disappointed, but not discouraged.”

Berry says, the Council lost an opportunity to send a strong message to people on the front lines in fixing problems and those bearing the brunt of Austin’s affordability crisis.

“The people who come to us live in poverty so they are marginalized. When they come through our doors, work and education are so important,” she said.

“They have transportation issues and housing issues. When they have to travel 20 plus miles, commuting for low wage jobs, how do they take care of their families? Where is their opportunity to succeed?”

Troxclair’s affordability action plan spoke to those issues. It wasn’t perfect, but it at least got things moving.