In order to raise awareness of civics and government in Travis County, Austin Tech Alliance conducts periodic interviews with our elected officials. ATA sat down with Council Member Jimmy Flannigan and his Communications Director, Kate Messer. We talked about public-private partnerships, fiscal sustainability and Councilmember Flannigan’s motivation to run for office.
What are your priorities for mobility and transportation?
We’re all wrapped up in the project connect stuff to figure out how to move the next big decision forward on what the future of mobility is going to be for our city and region. But I think about this – on some level its that you can’t just build roads. I think there’s general agreement that there’s a little space here and there where you need to right size some of the roads. In terms of the big picture, you can’t keep paving and think that things are going to get better.
So you need options; you need to give people choice. But what I think about is less about the fight between rail or bus or even the routes or anything like that, but what is the system? What is the transportation system in which people are operating?
Especially for tech community, I think about this in a UX/UI question. People are not going to do a thing because you tell them to do it. They’ll do it because it makes sense, because it’s the right economic choice, because it becomes simple, straight-forward or easy and it’s not just going to be an ‘if you build it, they will come,’ that’s not a thing and it hasn’t been a thing in a long time.
How are we contemplating this major investment through project connect in a way that will be the logical and rational choice for people to take and get out of their cars? Not to force people out of their cars; that doesn’t work. You can’t force someone to use your app; your app needs to be better than not using your app. That’s kind of how I think about it.
We passed a resolution last week that talked a little bit about this on the edges and more so broadening the conversation of project connect beyond just the process that CapMetro is going through but broader to our housing goals and the city’s larger mobility goals. We’re really thinking about this at a higher level to ensure that where we’re headed in really where we want to go. We’re not just building a project; we’re thinking of the system.
I’d love to talk a little more about this system and what your priorities around housing plans, especially as it relates to affordability.
We have a housing supply issue. Part of the reason why housing is so expensive is because we have not built it and we’ve allowed more distant communities to build housing, which has exacerbated our traffic and transportation issues. It’s also exacerbated our environmental quality issues through air quality issues when we have more people in single-occupancy vehicles. So how do we, as a city, build more housing for people to live closer to where they work, live and play? The closer you live to where you want to be the less you have to drive or the shorter distance you have to be on a train or bus, or more likely it is that you’ll get on a bike or walk. And that’s the rub – that’s kind of the challenge for every city in America and it’s not unique to Austin.
What is unique to Austin is the speed and scale of our growth. It’s so much faster over so many more years than any other city. So, it can take time for government to develop a solution kind of by design. American democracy was constructed in a way that we value transparency and engagement more than speed and efficiency. That can be difficult for the tech community to understand sometimes.
We all, I think, have seen a friend or two on Facebook in a comment thread that writes, ‘if a start-up did it, it would just go boom boom boom!’ It’s like, yeah but you’d only be serving one customer, you wouldn’t be ADA compliant, you wouldn’t have to answer to every tax payer. It’s like, yes, I get that. You can also fail and the next start-up can come in; government doesn’t have a failure option. We have to think things through more deeply, we have to have backup plans, and we have to take the longer route and it’s by design.
If you don’t want your government to operate that way, then you live in China. I just went to China. I was there on a trade mission with the city. One of the things that really hit me in stark relief is how their system is the bizzaro world version of the American system. It’s complete authoritarian dictatorship, command and control, decisions are made top down, end of conversation. Very similar to a start-up environment. What that means is that they can just build ten subway lines. What that also means is that nobody owns the land that they live on, there’s no freedom of movement, you can’t just go live in a city because you want to live there you have to get permission from the government. These are the trade-offs.
The trade-offs for us is a system where we have to figure out the way we get stuff done, how we can get it done faster, more efficiently by cost and time. But that doesn’t undermine these core American values of freedom of movement, freedom of speech and transparency and those elements. That is ultimately the challenge and that’s why I think a lot of tech industry leaders and start up company folks find government to be a frustrating exercise because those rules don’t apply to start-ups. It’s different for a reason.
Austin is ahead of other places in terms of innovation and you mentioned Austin being unique in its consistent growth, at least in terms of housing. Are there any other cities that you partner with or can look to and learn from for practices?
We benchmark with other cities on a whole host of issues and depending on the issue we benchmark against different cities. Denver is often a common example of rolling out transit faster. They did it in large partnership with their state government, which is not an option for the City of Austin so that becomes a fiscal balance sheet issue in terms of scale. You can think about some of the economic development and arts and culture stuff that we benchmark against Nashville. Certainly in terms of the music scene stuff and we think about how they do things. Minneapolis has become clearly interesting to benchmark on housing supply. They’ve made some strong moves on housing supply and they’ve built a couple of train lines out there. That’s also where we got our new City Manager and our new Deputy City Manager; both are from Minneapolis.
But Minneapolis has not growth at the speed in which Austin has grown. So it’s easy for people in the community to think about change because change comes more slowly. It’s not coming so rapidly that you feel disempowered, which is a lot of what Austinites feel. It just happens so quickly, like how do you get your arms around it? And that’s a challenge.
There’s some benchmarking that we do against coastal cities, either west coast or east coast. But I find that those systems tend to be very different, their state systems are different, their cultures tend to be very different. I don’t know that those benchmarks are fair. I think more about middle of the nation. Thinking about San Antonio, Houston, Dallas as obviously our Texas partners, but Denver and Minneapolis and Nashville and probably New Orleans before hurricanes really up ended their reality. That tends to be more of a benchmark for us.
You mentioned that Denver received a helping hand from the state government of Colorado and that it’s not a reality for Austin. Are there potential public-private partnerships that can replace the state’s help?
Well, private can’t replace government. They’re very, very different for important reasons. To be fair to Texas, it’s different for a state that has one major, central city. Texas doesn’t have that. In fact, but for California and maybe Florida, every state has kind of one major, core city that is the focus of their urbanization. It’s more difficult for Texas, California and Florida because how do you parcel out who’s helping what on what issue? That makes it more complicated. Unfortunately in Texas, partisanship gets in the way pretty prominently to that end.
But on the public-private partnership side, there’s so much more that we can be innovating through that concept. What I have found to be challenging is that the type of P3 concept has been used sparingly and narrowly. It hasn’t always been good. So there can be parts of the community that are distrustful of a public-private partnership because they think of one example that might have turned over a minority community, or there was a majority African-American community and that turned into some rich person’s 40-story condo building. That’s not what we’re talking about.
We’d be talking about how we can be better partners on things where we generally agree that we need it. So when we’re thinking about transit, affordable housing, helping our small, local businesses and these core brands that we have in Austin that Austinites feel is part of what being an Austinite is, how are we being partners with them that isn’t disrupting the culture but adding to it and being, I hesitate to use a buzz word but, almost synergistic so that the cycle of behaviors is upwards instead of downwards? Talking with some of the folks on Red River, the challenges of music venues tends to be a disconnect between the people who own the land, the person who runs the venue and the next person who comes in who wants to build a thing, often who is not from this area, or they’re trying to maximize a certain profit line that the bank tells them that they have to maximize. Why aren’t we thinking about this differently, not just in preservation alone but thinking what would redevelopment look like in a way that’s sustainable? What would it look like where the profit of the top 20 floors of a building isn’t benefiting the pockets of a New York financier, but benefiting the community because the community came together to do these projects in a way to create these kinds of synergistic relationships. That’s how I think about public-private partnership and we have not really explored that very well.
So are there and where are the opportunities to explore this further?
Yes, we bring this up in a lot of conversations with stakeholders and staff. Part of the mobility resolution we passed last week specifically references private-public partnerships as a tool that the city needs to explore. If you think about building a transit facility as a horizontal, linear piece of infrastructure, what is going next to it? Is it all privately owned? Might it be that the first floor is private-owned retail, the next two floors are affordable housing, and the floors 4-8 are private market-rate offices? And how might the profits of some floors benefit other floors and also benefit the rail or bus because now you have more users right on your transit investment? And how might all these things connect in a way where the investments add to and not compete with the private market? I’ve had many sleepless nights thinking about this.
You mentioned sustainability or something being sustainable . What does sustainability mean to you?
For me, I think about fiscal sustainability. I also think about environmental sustainability and I think that the majority of the council thinks about sustainability through environmental terms. I often try to get a handle on the financial sustainability piece. This was true even prior to the legislature’s new tax cap laws, but even more so now acknowledging that just because an idea is good doesn’t mean that we can fund it forever. The way that the legislature has structured revenue for cities and counties, it decreases over time as your city grows.
It’s a complicated reason why that’s true, others would say ‘oh, it doesn’t decrease, you can increase by 3.5% a year,’ but in order to maintain public safety agencies, which are 70% of the budget, the costs rise faster than that. So, over time, the amount of money you have left to do other things beyond public safety is decreasing. At some point, you can only do public safety and at some point you can’t even do public safety. There are lots of questions that the legislature needs to address in the future but at least in the short term, and it’s odd to say it that way, but in the short-term, I’m thinking about long-term fiscal sustainability. Ensuring that the programs, projects and buildings that we build are not baking in some financial penalty 10-20 years from now even though I won’t be on the council 20 years from now. Someone will and I’ll still be in Austin. I love this city and I don’t want it to fail. I feel that a part of my job is to ensure that the long-term sustainability is there.
Let’s talk about your background in small business. Where did you come from in that world and how have those experiences informed your values on the council?
I was a web developer and I developed websites for over 20 years. It started when I was a UT student for student groups and nonprofits. I started in ‘97 so the internet was barely a thing. I remember my first clients and their websites, I was hosting them on a server under my dorm bed and their website address was dorm.utexas.edu/businessname. And their websites were unavailable in the summer because of course the dorm closed in the summer. So that’s what the internet was in 1997. You could actually get paid to build a website with a non-custom domain where the website wasn’t going to be available for 3 months of the year. It was a very different time.
But, it grew. It was a very small business, at most I had 5 employees and even that was a pretty short window. Doing that taught me a lot about business, it taught me about other people’s businesses. I have an MBA as well so I would want to understand someone’s business as I was building out a website to support that business. Then I got involved in the LGBT Chamber of Commerce and really felt that’s where my passion was and my business really declined as I focused more of my energy on the nonprofit public service side. Getting involved there and seeing where government had a role to play on those issues, while Chamber work was great, I felt like to really make change I needed to be at the higher level.
That’s awesome. Is there anything else that was influential on your path or decision to pursue your seat on the council?
No one has ever asked that. They take that story and they’re like, ‘Great!’ No one ever asks if there was anything else. It’s so interesting. When I was running the Chamber, the LGBT Chamber, as a volunteer, there’s paid staff now, great paid staff, but there wasn’t back then.
I was involved in Randi Shade’s campaign for City Council, she was the first openly gay council member, and of course, I’m now the first openly gay man to be on the City Council. Being involved in that and seeing what she was able to do and the very pragmatic place that she held on the council really spoke to me. In my own work, some of the things that Council members do over the course of their job that others might find tedious and difficult, I actually enjoy. I like giving speeches. I like the public engagement piece. I like taking complex issues and explaining it; being a web developer for small businesses, that was my whole deal, explaining the internet in the early 2000s to a restaurant owner or a realtor, that was part of the situation. I really love this job.
Part of my work at the Chamber was very much brainstorming solutions and thinking through new and innovative ways to do things. We did a bunch of innovative stuff when I was at the Chamber but it as a challenge because when you’re at the Chamber you also have to do it. The advantage of being an elected official is that you get to brainstorm and hand it off to staff. Right in my wheelhouse!
Pride was last weekend! What was it like to participate in Pride as a Member of the City Council compared to your previous involvement in the Chamber?
Well you get to be way closer in the front, that’s for sure! Your parade experience is done when there’s still daylight, which is different. I don’t know that it’s really that different. I’ve of course marched in the parade many times, I ran the parade for a couple of years, when it was the Chamber’s event. I feel like it’s not that different from others’ experiences. It’s so supportive, it’s so uplifting. All of the supportive cheers and applause that you get when you’re marching down is the same level in the front of the parade with the Mayor and a presidential candidate as it was when I was marching in the back of the parade with the Democrats or with the Chamber, depending on which year. It’s not louder in the front. I might be quieter in the front just because they’re ramping up! I don’t know that the parade experience has been that different. And I’m trying! I keep getting big signs that says “I’m the gay one” but it doesn’t seem to make that big of a difference! No, but that’s part of what makes our city so amazing. That people are there to support the entire community. It’s not just one person and their role in that.
MH: Has it changed any of your other experiences in the queer community?
Being a Council Member?
I don’t know. Part of it is, when I was running the Chamber it was a lot of what I do now, which is convening leaders of different groups and trying to work through community issues. When I was running the Chamber, it didn’t have a foundation so we weren’t competing with people’s fundraising efforts so it made it easier to be kind of the Switzerland of the gay community and bring people in. I recommended that people should work with each other and I do some of that as a council member.
What has been interesting is really kind of experiencing the short term memory loss of the community. In that, every era is only like four years long. And you get into the next four-year cycle and they don’t even remember what the last four years of work was that set up the next four years of work. I got involved in the Chamber in 2000, so I’m 20 years in working in the LGBT community and I’ve been through five four-year cycles. And every four years you have to re-educate about what happened and who was where when they were there. So there’s a whole part of the community that just thinks I’m a politician and doesn’t know anything about the 15 years I spent building the Chamber, working with nonprofits, running Pride, all of that stuff. So that’s always been a challenge.
Right – so changing roles and not having a reminder for the public of where you’ve been?
Well it’s just a lot of constant relationship building. So you’ll put a lot of time and investment in relationship building with one group and then that group will change its leadership, it’s not unusual, but the new leaders come in and don’t have any appreciation for the stuff you were just doing. Then you have to start the relationship all over again. You have to do a lot of that here, that maybe the same in other cities. I don’t know. But there’s a lot of just constant relationship building as the people and roles change so frequently.
Kate Messer: There’s that one thing you’ve said a number of times about how people forget how long it took Austin to get a LGBT Council person. It’s a big deal he got elected and that short term memory creates a sense of forgetting that.
That piece of it was interesting. When Randi got elected it was at-large, that was the old system. When I ran in the first district race in 2014, I lost in a very close run-off.
I had this very bizarre experience of being told that people were surprised that there haven’t been any gay men on the council and then that I could never win my race because my district is too conservative. And I’m like, you don’t see how those are related? Like, what the hell. It took a lot of effort. And that wasn’t from the right, that was from the left, central Austin, old school Democrats saying ‘oh, you like in Williamson County? Sorry, Jimmy. We like you, but…’
Where do you think that was coming from?
It’s a lot of things. It’s more the bubble effect. If the bubble I’m in is the whole world, everything else is the opposite of my world. When the drag queen story time thing happened last Thursday, we knew because the agenda had it posted that this person was going to speak about drag queen story time. When I looked at the agenda, I was like ‘oh, this is the thing that was happening in Leander where they came in and screamed and protested.’ So we were keeping an eye on it and then I mentioned it to one of my colleagues who represents a more central district and they assumed that these speakers were in support. I was like, “what?” So there’s a bubble effect, I think that’s more to the point. Which, things like Facebook and Twitter has only reinforced. Now you can live in a bubble regardless of your geography.
I’m going to pivot because I really want to get to this! From your opinion, why is it important for the tech community to become more civically engaged?
Well, I mean there’s the basic like get registered, vote, pay attention. You people think you’re smart so we need your smarts at the ballot box.
Then there’s the piece that I talked about earlier where government isn’t structured, by design, it is not structured to work like a start-up.
So the tech community has a really interesting role to play about helping support innovation in a system that kills it. It takes effort, a lot of pushing, and support in order to move an innovation through a government structure. And that’s not because government is bad but because that is the American system.
So it’s a really important role for the tech community to help us be creative and provide solutions. Hopefully in the public-private partnership end of it we can think more broadly, not just about the tech solutions for problems, but with folks who are in environments that rapidly iterate, folks that are in environments where there’s venture capital having conversations around financing their ideas and how those conversations look in partnership with private-public or in pilot program with government in different ways.
And then the third piece is the role to educate. I think that there’s an open question nationally about the role of the tech industry. Facebook getting Trump elected… Facebook getting Trump elected. It’s not Austin’s tech community’s fault. It might be San Antonio’s tech community’s fault; that’s where Cambridge Analytica was. But, nonetheless, there is that open question about the role the tech community plays in providing accurate information to the public.
Like a responsibility?
Yes. So it’s not just, ‘we created a platform and wash our hands of it.’ No, you designed a platform and that platform’s design is incentivizing behaviors. That part you have to own. And if the thing that you designed is incentivizing white supremacy, you need to redesign it. That’s the part – an algorithm is neutral just because it’s a computer.
What experience do you have in Austin with successful pilots with the tech community or where have you seen other cities be successful with pilots?
I mean, we have some in the pipeline that I would hate to daylight too soon. Councilmember Kitchen and I were on a judging panel for a startup competition at Capital Factory around smart cities. There was some stuff there that was pretty damn cool. We’ve seen existing successful pilots in other communities. We’re ready to have a successful pilot in this community and we’re working on it.
From your own words, why is a complete count on the 2020 Census important and are there any specific needs that relate to Austin or D6 to getting a complete count.
The census is everything. It determines who your elected officials are. It determines how much of your money stays in your community. It determines what level of funding we get for roads. It determines what level of funding we get for transit. All of the things we want to do will have a positive or a negative impact based on the Census.
The fact that we have state and federal structures, normally whose job it is to ensure that the count is accurate, that are intentionally underfunding that effort is scary. It’s scary for Austin and it’s scary for Texas.
Texas is the only southern state that sends more money to the federal government than it receives.
Every blue state does that – sends more money than it receives. All of the urbanized, well-functioning economies in states are subsidizing rural areas. And that’s not necessarily good or bad, but it’s a fact. And if we undercount Texas, it gets worse. What that means is that Texan’s taxes will go up and we’ll get less for it. We have departments of the city that are majorly funded by state and federal grants. Those dollars will decrease if we’re undercounted. We will have fewer representatives in Congress, we will have fewer representatives at the State House. These things are absolutely critical for the functioning of American democracy and there are forces that are really trying to break it.
So for us right now to get a complete count, what resources does the community in Austin need for everyone to be counted?
Austin is being targeted. It’s not a threat. We are in the cross hairs of organizations who want to undercount Austin to reduce the support and representation our community receives. But unfortunately, it’s not an easy problem for the tech community to solve because it’s not one that has an easy tech solution.
The areas that get undercounted are the communities that have less access to technology, that have less access to language serves that are maybe not English speakers. Those are the folks that get undercounted. It’s hard to know what the answer is for the tech community outside of open up your wallets and fund the nonprofits that are solving these problems. At some point, that has to be the tech community’s role, too.
When you think about all the wealth that we have in that community, at the same time, we have the smallest philanthropic community of major cities. In other cities, you have these well functioning kind of machine raising money. We’ve grown so quickly we haven’t developed that. A lot of that money lives in tech and tech doesn’t really operate that way. It’s not like steel money or oil money or timber money where the culture of those industries is such that you go to these galas and you donate millions of dollars. Tech has never operated that way and it needs to. It needs to because tech’s not going to work if nobody can afford the cell phones. So, we really need to really think about the role to support every part of this community, not just those above the median.
To learn more about District 6, visit Councilmember Flannigan’s City of Austin website.
Nonprofits working toward a complete count on the 2020 Census in Austin-Travis County include the League of Women Voters and the Center for Public Policy Priorities. They are currently accepting donations. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to partner with ATA for census related work.