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Making Things Happen: Mayor Steve Adler

Published On January 16, 2015 | January/February 2015

Mayor Steve Adler shares how he and city council plan to make Austin a healthier and happier place to live.

By Sam Jackson

It’s ironic that so many people are complaining about an influx of new residents to Austin, and yet Steve Adler, the man they elected to represent them as mayor, is a transplant hailing from Washington, D.C., himself. But his college career dragged him away from Princeton to the UT Law School, and things got really different. “Within 45 minutes of first arriving in Austin, I was swimming in Barton Springs,” he says on his site. “I knew I had found my home.”

Three-and-a-half decades later, Adler’s pretty much embedded himself in Austin culture. Everywhere you turn, you’ll find him involved in something, even when you don’t realize he’s there: He is the chairman of Ballet Austin, the former board of directors’ chairman of the Texas Tribune, the local chairman of the Anti-Defamation League … the list just goes on and it boggles. Somehow more amazingly, he did all of this on the side. His main gig was law practice.

Recently, though, Adler decided he was tired of arguing about laws and wanted to start making them so other people could argue over them instead. So despite low name recognition (in the single digits by his own admission), he went after the mayor position that Lee Leffingwell left vacant, and ended up winning by a huge majority over Mike Martinez.

Adler’s coming into some new territory since he has to work with the new 10-1 system and the council it elected, but he’s completely jazzed about the whole thing. He calls all of them “excellent,” and District 5’s representative, Ann Kitchen, is an old colleague of Adler’s from an education initiative they worked on together. They’ll also be sending some goodwill his way since Adler promised that the “infamous 3 a.m. meetings” previous councils had would be coming to an end.

But what issues are they going to be starting on? Perhaps the constant traffic issues that have been as helpful as a blocked toilet and stink just as much? Adler has talked about rail being a good idea.

“I can’t imagine Austin as a region of four million people without rail,” he says about the plans that have been flying about the city. “And I believe that Austinites will support a system when they are able to see it as a viable part of an entire transportation network that is clearly understood and easy to use.” Unfortunately, as evidenced by the failure of Proposition 1 (the urban rail bill that went to the ballot box during the midterm elections), they haven’t quite seen it yet. As Adler said in a recent interview with the Daily Texan, it’d have to be more understandable than “a line on a piece of paper.”

For all the hype around rail, though, it’s not an end all, be all solution for Adler, so instead, he’s looking for an “all of the above solution”: “We can’t just build or buy our way out of this traffic congestion,” he says. “This is a land-planning issue as its core, and there are other things we can do to reduce congestion. We must greatly improve our bus system, immediately push for more staggered work hours and telecommuting from our region’s largest employers and make it easier to walk and bike around home.”

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What about people being forced out by rising property prices, some of whom who were longtime residents who have started swarming outlying cities like Kyle, Buda, San Marcos and Bastrop? The council’s throwing around a homestead exemption that would be specially applied to older residents, and Adler says his number, like some of the council’s number, is 20 percent.

“Along with reforming our property tax system, we need to curb utility rates, including the drainage fee, reform the permitting process to allow more economical building and revamping our economic development policy to better support workforce training for the middle class,” he notes.

Health care? “Ensuring that every Austinite has access to health coverage they can afford should be a priority of our entire community. The city needs to work more closely with nonprofits, business leaders and the health care community to ensure that people understand that coverage is available and that being insured helps all of us.”

What about the health care problem’s evil little brother, mental health, which has caused shortages of medicine and professionals and left patients out in the street or in jail? “We need to support Integral Care’s efforts to integrate health and behavioral health care and Central Health’s 1115 Medicaid Waiver project to expand mental health services. At the same time, we need to better address the intersection of mental health and criminal justice issues through the Mental Health Planning Grant that’s currently underway. The city can also make a major difference by increasing efforts to build and preserve affordable housing for those most in need.”

Alder swears that, “Austin will become what we make it. Many cities face challenges similar to ours, but with our world-leading economy and our advantages, there is no city better positioned to show the way how to maintain and share a vibrant economy while addressing gentrification, disparity in wealth, sustainable utility models and the providing real opportunity for the people of our community. Yes, we’re growing, but I have hope that we can retain that special spirit and soul of our city.”

“Wouldn’t it be great if Austin became known as the ‘civic innovation’ capital of the world?” he asks. Yes, mayor. Yes it would. Now go make it happen.

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