Chavez Targets Spelman in Council Contest

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Dominic Chavez
Dominic Chavez
First-time Candidate Sued City of Austin Over Tax Abatements for Historical Preservation
by Rebecca LaFlure
Dominic Chavez
Dominic Chavez

When arriving at Austin City Council candidate Dominic Chavez’s campaign kickoff at the Rattle Inn Tuesday evening, one could not help but notice the road construction occurring just outside the 610 Nueces Street bar.

“It’s fitting seeing these guys working,” Chavez said to The Austin Bulldog, amid the sounds of heavy machinery. “In Austin I think we’ve forgotten about the people who built this city, who work here everyday. Austin is much more difficult for these folks to live in now than ever before.”

Chavez, an Iraq War veteran and senior director for external relations at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, officially launched his campaign for Austin City Council in front of about 50 supporters, saying he hopes to make Austin a more affordable place to live.

Chavez is one of seven people seeking the Place 5 spot, including incumbent Bill Spelman, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has been elected to two nonconsecutive terms on the council. Entrepreneur Tina Cannon, another Place 5 challenger, held her campaign kickoff on February 17.

Chavez, a proponent of creating City Council districts, said he hopes to bring a new voice to the council, particularly  for residents who live outside Austin’s central city core.

“I live in far South Austin…and that whole area down there is one of the fastest growing and people feel like they aren’t being represented because you have a council that represents literally a mile-and-a-half radius of this community,” he said. “That was one of the reasons I decided to run.”

No one on the current City Council resides south of the river, an area that is home to about 40 percent of Austin’s population.

Chavez said he wants to ensure that Austin has an educated, competitive workforce so local businesses don’t have to look outside the city limits to find qualified employees. He proposes that the city collaborate with Austin ISD, local colleges and universities, business leaders, and parents to create a long-term strategic workforce development plan.

“Tied to (improving affordability) is not just how do we control costs for people—like how do we keep our electric rates reasonable and fair—but it’s also saying how do we create a workforce that’s capable of getting better-paying, higher-wage jobs?” Chavez said. “We have to do much more to ensure we have a workforce that is competitive and aligned with the economy we’re trying to create in Austin.”

He said that he differs from Spelman in his views on moving City Council elections from May to November. Spelman voted against the move because he felt that Austin voters should authorize  any changes to election dates that are specified in the Austin City Charter. However, Chavez argued that holding November elections would save the city money and increase voter turnout.

He also disagrees with some of Spelman’s stances on public safety.

While drafting the fiscal year 2012 city budget, Spelman questioned whether hiring 49 more police officers to keep up with the city’s standard of two officers per 1,000 residents would be the most effective use of resources, according to a September 13, 2011, article in the Austin American-Statesman. He instead proposed hiring 33 officers and 14 civilian Police Department employees, including 9-1-1 call-takers.

“I think he’s dead wrong on that proposal,” said Chavez, noting that experts have said the I-35 corridor is a major focal point for drug distribution. “I think I speak for a great deal of this community, particularly the outlying areas. They want to make sure that their neighborhoods, schools, and businesses are safe.”

Supporters want shift in council focus

Emily Wyatt, a Southwest Austin resident who came out to support Chavez Tuesday evening, said she is excited that someone with a new perspective is running for City Council.

“The financial issues are really important to everyone in Austin, but they don’t get the publicity of the things like plastic bags,” said Wyatt, referring to the council’s recent decision to ban disposable paper and plastic bags in retail stores. “There are many more fundamentally important issues to deal with: budget, utilities, public service workers, and things like that. They don’t seem to be where the council’s attention is focused.”

Chavez echoed a similar sentiment during his campaign speech, saying, “I’ve talked to the reddest conservatives to the bluest Democrats. They’re concerned about the same issues: rising property taxes, higher utility rates, traffic. They’re not concerned about, in most cases, what’s our policy on plastic bags.”

Chavez has garnered some well-known supporters, including his campaign treasurer, Ed Wendler Jr., an Austin developer. Wendler is Council Member Mike Martinez’s brother-in-law.

“I always thought if the council had one really smart person who was brave enough to ask good questions and independent enough from the really small clique who runs City Hall, that one person…could have a huge impact on city policy,” Wendler said. “I’m absolutely positive (Chavez) could be that person.”

Chavez served as president of the Castlewood-Oak Valley Neighborhood Association in far South Austin. He, along with Wendler, was a vocal opponent of a $90 million transportation bond voters passed in 2010.

Chavez, Texas Monthly founder Mike Levy, and political consultant Alfred Stanley filed a lawsuit against the city and every City Council member on April 11, 2011, over historic tax exemptions. According to district court records, they argued that the city gave tax breaks to historic properties without finding if tax relief was necessary to preserve the site.

“In clear conflict with state law, the defendants have diverted $4.2 million of local revenue to reduce property taxes for a small, privileged class of residents that own ‘historic’ properties, many of whom do not require such relief,” the lawsuit stated.

According to a February 14, 2012, Statesman article, “in exchange for dropping the suit, the city agreed to require the owners of historical homes to justify each year why they need a tax break to preserve their properties’ historic character.”

Spelman’s campaign raised $31,600 through December 31, according to campaign finance reports released January 17. Chavez and Cannon have yet to file any campaign finance reports since they both announced their candidacy after January 17.

Spelman’s other challengers are: David Yepez Conley, John Duffy, Robert “Bo” Prudente, and John Rubine.

None of the challengers has ever run for a seat on the Austin City Council before, according to the city’s Election History website.

Related coverage:

Cannon misfires on traffic offenses: Council candidate drew five arrest warrants in five years, The Austin Bulldog, February 23, 2012

Tina Cannon Challenges Bill Spelman: Council Candidate Seeks to Bring a Small Business Owner’s Voice to City Hall, The Austin Bulldog, February 20, 2012

Bill Spelman’s re-election campaign draws an appreciative crowd, The Austin Bulldog, January 19, 2012

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help sustain this kind of reporting by making a tax-deductible contribution.

 

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