Interview with District 5 Councilmember Ann Kitchen

Interview with District 5 Councilmember Ann Kitchen

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In order to raise awareness of civics and government in Travis County, Austin Tech Alliance conducts periodic interviews with our elected officials. Our first interview was with District 5 Councilmember Ann Kitchen. We sat down in her office in Austin’s City Hall and had a great chat about topics ranging from transportation to applying for a City Boards and Commissions position.

What are your goals as Chair of the Mobility Committee in Austin?

Top of mind for us right now is our participation as a city with Project Connect. Really, what that means is an approach to a comprehensive transportation system for the city and the region. We know that as a community that we cannot build our way out of congestion. We don’t have the space and it simply doesn’t work. As a city and community and region, we need a system that works so that people have options around transit. We need a whole range of options: transit, bike, walk, ride-share, and cars. As a community, we’re past due in terms of a transit solution.

I’m excited that we’re talking as a community. I’m confident that we can present a package in November of 2020 that the community can support. But it takes all of us to work between now and then to make sure that it happens and to make sure that what we’re talking about moving forward is doable and will address our concerns. At this point, we have a good vision map that CapMetro adopted last year. That vision map shows how we can have a core system that people can get to through buses, parks and rides, and neighborhood connectors. Anyway, I’m excited about that and that’s the number one priority from a mobility perspective.

There are some other things we’re working on. Electrification is important from a climate change perspective. We continue to work towards electric city fleets, electric buses, working with our partners in the community to electrify their fleets. That’s another important piece that we work on. Those two go hand-in-hand as we move forward.

The other component that’s a little further down the road is the automated vehicles. The smart mobility plan, which the city adopted a few years back, is a vision-plan with three legs to it; transit vision, which is having a transit lane where more than one person would be in the car, electrification vision and automated visions. I think transportation of the future includes all three.

How do you and the city plan for a program that would run through the future of Austin while knowing that there might be additional future technological innovations related to transit?

We did a smart mobility plan, which is a higher-level vision plan. Our staff has the potential for automation in the future and the automation that we’re already seeing happen. They’re keyed into that and understanding what changes might need to happen with our streets and they’re already working on those. Those are things like lights at intersections and having smart lights that can communicate, starting with lights that can communicate with buses and emergency vehicles. That’ll be something that’ll be useful in the future as we use more automated vehicles because that allows for the most efficient use of an intersection. Our staff is well-aware of the kinds of changes that we might need to make and a lot of it focuses on transit as we work on Project Connect.

Another thing that is key to Project Connect is dedicated pathways and dedicated lanes because that’s what gets you out of traffic. So that’s a component and then other components around smart technology like the lights.

What’s the timeline for Project Connect?

At the moment, we’re working towards a vote in November of 2020. In terms of timeline for implementation, that’s something that CapMetro staff, in conjunction with ATD staff, which is city staff, are working on. We’re expecting that the proposed packages, so to speak, or projects will be presented to the community for discussion sometime later this year or first thing next year. So we’d be looking at the January, February, March time-frame, so as a community we can make decisions about what to put on the ballot. That includes the whole thing; what’s the project? So asking… what’s the mode or kind of vehicle that we’re talking about being on the pathways that we’ve identified; where would the stops be; what order of priority; how long would it take; how much would it cost? Those kinds of details are expected prior to vote.

It’ll have to be phased in over a number of years, but some of the things we can do more immediate. We can look at the phase-in for the actual orange-line and blue-line, which are the major lines. We can also look at park and rides, which are relatively more quick to put up to feed into the existing bus system. We’ve already started piloting neighborhood connectors, which are shuttles around neighborhoods to help bring [people] to bus stops for areas where there isn’t enough buy-in for a big bus. So anyway, some of those things are already starting to happen.

Did you see that ABIA has started using automated shuttles into their parking lots?

Yes, very cool! It’s completely automated! It looks like a little lunch box.

Shifting the focus to the civic engagement part of ATA… From your perspective, why is it important for the tech community to be engaged or be more civically engaged?

The tech community are a major part of our community. They’re a large part of our community. They’re innovators, they’re creative, they’re on the cutting edge of the kind of technology that’s changing the world. That kind of thinking contributes a lot to our community. We pride ourselves on being a creative community and a problem solving community. We really need people to help, weigh in, and be a part of that.

The other aspect that’s part of it and important to individuals is that I think people create the places they’re in. They’re preserve what they love about the places they’re in. People move here for a reason; they like to live here for a reason. We all have to work together to make sure that it remains the kind of place we want it to be and that it grows in a way that preserves, enhances and creates what we want it to be. I’m excited about what you all do and really want people to be involved.

What a call to action. Sarah mentioned the Census and we’re focused on getting the word out there for the census. From your perspective, in Austin generally and specifically to D5, why is a complete count in 2020 important?

There’s a range of things. The count drives so much of what we do, all the way from our access to funding and federal funding. There are so many [federal] programs that are allocated among the states and communities based on the census and the same thing with state programs. At the local level, we use projections of demographics to impact a whole range of planning that we do: all the way from transportation (what do we think our needs are going to be), to land use (where are people, what’s the demographics of people), to the needs individuals may have (what’s our income levels, health coverage, a whole range of things that’s asked for on the census). So we can’t be as smart as we need to be in our planning if we don’t understand who we are. It’s really important.

Are there any needs specific to D5 to get a complete count in 2020?

I think that there are needs just like everywhere. People don’t always understand what the Census is and that it’s really fundamental to all the things that I mentioned. Helping people understand that is a need throughout the city. 

More broadly, how did you become involved in local politics and what have you learned from your time serving on city council?

Well, let’s see. I’ve been involved in politics for a while – really for a very long time. I’ve been involved in politics from lots of different perspectives, from working in nonprofits in the environmental and social services arenas, to – I was a state representative a number of years back also – and being involved in different initiatives for the city. I’ve been involved for a long time. I think I first got involved from two perspectives in civics stuff [and] in politics, from the perspective of being concerned with issues that affected women: violence against women (early on, I was involved with what is now SAFE) as well as women’s representation in government as an elected official. That was an entree with a range of other issues including environmental and social services. That’s why I got involved.

I’ve been in Austin since I went to school. So, shortly after I was out of school I started to get involved.

In terms of the city council, I was interested for a while in the importance of how we’re represented. So, when the 10-1 geographic representation became a reality after a number of years of trying, I wanted to participate in it. It was more than a shift in how people are elected in districts.

It signified opportunities for more parts of the community to participate, which I think has happened. It’s brought more diverse perspectives to the council and it’s brought a fresh set of eyes to the council.

When we started out, we only had one person with any experience at all, which was Council Member Tovo. She brought expertise to the table, but the addition of the districts has added a lot more voices to the table. It’s also allowed us to do quite a number of different bold, forwardly-thinking things because as a group we were not as tied to the way things may have been done.

For the previous councils, it’s really hard to represent a whole community because you just don’t have time to reach into every area. When you’re representing a smaller area, there’s opportunities for more conversations with people and also for people to feel more connected. I think it’s given this council the opportunity to really reach more into the community.

What have you learned from conversations with your community?

Well, I think a couple things. All the way from when I first started serving and also when I was originally running, there was a lot of conversation with South Austinites feeling like they had no connection to City Hall. They felt like the city didn’t have anything to help them with or connect with them, that the city didn’t listen and the city didn’t understand what was going on. Those kinds of things. So we’ve done a lot of conversations, reaching out to the community, stuff like that. We’ve worked with specific nitty-gritty problems in particular areas down to “my road, the road I drive on, is a substandard road” or “I don’t have a stop sign and I’m worried about the dangers.” Those kinds of things that affect people’s everyday lives and that helps people get engaged more. I hope it helps. So, I’ve learned that. It’s reinforced the importance of avenues for people to reach out.

I’ve also learned that the city can’t do everything, the city can’t fix everything, that it’s a community issue and that’s why it’s so important for people to engage.

I’ve always been someone that’s more of a problem-solver but what I think that what we do as a city reinforces that. So, what helps us is people to bring to us their concerns but also bring to us their ideas and to engage in a constructive way that’s acknowledging that people are acting out of good-faith and in interest in problem solving. When people disagree, that’s okay. We should all be working together towards a solution. Sometimes in Austin – we still do this – sometimes we’re our own worst enemies as a community because we can just fight instead of respecting each other and trying to figure out the path forward.

You alluded to community partnerships as being important. Have there been any specific community partnerships that have been helpful to you during your time on the council?

Well a number of things that we’ve done… We’ve reached out and have what we call our “Kitchen Cabinet.” Basically, that’s people from different parts of the district that are leaders in the community. We talk with them from time to time to understand what they’re hearing in their community, what they think about major issues like budget. We’ve starting conversations about what they think about the transportation options. And so that gives us, as a district, some folks that we can understand what people are talking out. So we’ve done that.

We also do other ways of reaching out like town halls and more open town halls from time to time. We try – we’re not as good but we’re trying to be better – at social media, so we tweet and send newsletters out.

I think the city is doing a good job, and in some ways better than in others, but the city is really working to have those community forums. So on major issues like the budget and lots of other issues, our staff is great; they go out there, engage and give opportunities for people to participate.

Another way [to participate is through] boards and commissions. I want to mention that. One other thing that we’ve paid attention to as a district is that we make sure that our boards and commissions are diverse in terms of representing different geographies, different race, ethnicity, and gender backgrounds, and different interests. The boards and commissions can be a good way for people to participate in different issues. So we try to do that and we focus on people living in District 5. We have some boards, a few, where people may not live in the district but that they participate and those tend to be more community-wide ones. The boards and commissions… I encourage people to think about participating in. They don’t just need to reach out to their Council Member’s Office, they can reach out through the Mayor’s Office. I think it’s a good way to get involved.

How can people find openings?

There’s a web page that lists all the boards with positions. They can submit an application and indicate in their application which boards and commissions they’re interested in, regardless of whether there’s an opening. They can contact their Council Member and the Mayor’s Office to give a heads up that they’re interested. There might be a – and I hope because this is something we should do as a website – have people be able to sign up and get an alert if there’s an opening. But I don’t think we’re there yet but that’s one of the things we need.

Moving back to the tech community, have there been any success stories that you’ve seen as it relates to projects with tech or the tech community that you’ve seen in Austin or other cities that you think can serve as a good example for partnerships with tech?

I like the way the tech community has, from time to time, these opportunities to showcase innovative projects through competitions. For example, they did one a while back about technology solutions specifically related to city issues. That brought us in connection with a start-up that’s working on using telehealth to improve emergency services in connection with healthcare services. That’s just one example, but those kinds of things help the city stay abreast of what’s out there.

Then, of course, the participation through SXSW is huge in terms of drawing people to the community and giving opportunities for the city.

And then on a more nuts and bolts level, the kinds of partnerships that you guys, the [Austin] Tech Alliance, with the city is so helpful. Just digging in on a particular use-case for example, and helping the city work through it. The Office of the Police Monitor was a very important issue for the city. Improving how people can have that input with y’all’s help is huge. Sometimes the city either doesn’t have the resources or needs that kind of help with outside creative thinking. Those were very important projects.

To learn more about District 5, visit Councilmember Kitchen’s City of Austin website. 

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