On Friday, February 7th, the five candidates running for election in Travis County this spring participated in a forum that focused on environmental issues facing the county. The event took place at The Vortex Theater on Manor Road in Austin. The forum was sponsored by Austin Eco Network, Save Barton Creek Association and the SEED Coalition and was moderated by Reed Sternberg of the Texas Green Network.
The format for the evening consisted of two forty five minute sessions during which the candidates were allowed to present opening statements, answer questions provided by several Central Texas environmental organizations and conclude with a personal statement. All comments were timed and proceeded in round robin fashion.
The organizations and their related questions were:
- Austin Eco Network: vetting proposals for their environmental impact
- Sierra Club: position on an untolled, non-elevated option for the Y in Oak Hill
- Sustainable Food Center: position on local, urban and organic farming
- Central Texas Zero Waste Alliance: how to regionalize zero waste initiatives
- People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources: community preparedness and responses to flooding events
- Environment Texas: fracking in Bastrop and Lee counties and the current loophole leading to exemption from federal regulations
- Climate Change Now Initiative: addressing climate change impacts
- Design, Build, Live: encouraging rain water harvesting, use of gray water and increase recycling
The first session for the evening included the three candidates vying for the position of County Commissioner in Precinct 2. These candidates are Richard Jung, Brigid Shea and Garry Brown. Although all tended to agree on basic environmental positions regarding transportation, water supplies and wildfire prevention, each brings a unique perspective to their candidacy.
- Garry Brown is currently Public Relations Director for County Constable Sally Hernandez. He has served as Chief of Staff for County Commissioner Karen Huber, as a congressional aide to Congressman Lloyd Doggett and as Assistant Director of the Travis County Democratic Party. He has also worked in Washington DC with the Human Rights Campaign and would be the first openly LGBTQ County Commissioner.
- Brigid Shea is a well known name in local politics. She served on the Austin City Council from 1993-1996 and is a co-founder of Save Our Springs. She is an adviser to LCRA and Green Mountain Energy among others. Ms. Shea also made an unsuccessful bid for Austin mayor in a recent election.
- Richard Jung brings a fresh perspective to politics as this is his first attempt at public office. He was born in South Korea and arrived in the United States at age 8. He is a lawyer with a small practice that specializes in immigration law and is a member of the Austin Sustainable Development Committee.
The second half of the evening brought us the two candidates for the position of Travis County Judge, replacing the retiring Sam Biscoe. These two individuals are Sarah Eckhardt and Andy Brown. Again, both candidates tended to be in agreement regarding the basic issues but differed in how to implement ideas and initiatives. Ms. Eckhardt was more detail oriented with specific ideas and methods while Mr. Brown referenced San Antonio and Denver as examples of good environmental policy but did not expand upon the reasons for this. Again, each candidate brings a unique perspective and background to the race:
- Sarah Eckhardt has over 15 years of public service to her credit including working in the County Attorney's office and serving as a County Commissioner. She was elected to that position in 2006 and stepped down last spring to begin her campaign for County Judge. Ms. Eckhardt is also Vice Chair of CAMPO.
- Andy Brown is an attorney who has spent the past five years as Chair of the Travis County Democratic Party. He worked with USAID in Honduras and was also a political organizer in Chile before returning to Austin.
In conclusion, this was a very informative evening and was well organized and moderated. It is too bad, however, that the crowd was very small and most in the audience were connected in some way with the candidates. It is not clear whether a bigger venue or more publicity would have changed the outcome but voters need to be well informed in their decisions and events such as this are vital. The evening was video taped but information was not provided as to where and when it would be broadcast.