Don Zimmerman’s time of serving on the Austin City Council has been anything but boring. The outspoken “fiscal conservative” has been at the center of controversy more than any other member on the dais.
For starters, there’s his voting record. At each council meeting, Zimmerman reads off a list of items he’s voting against or abstaining on.
“Well, an abstention is a ‘no’ vote. Let's be clear about that. An abstention is a no vote with an asterisk that says 'I see a lack of information or misinformation about the issue that's in front of me.' A perfect example of that is the Pilot Knob case. I was the only council member to vote against Pilot Knob, which is, I abstained from Pilot Knob and I said on the dais, something’s missing. There's information missing in this case…you don't have a 10-percent increase in subsidized housing with nobody paying for it,” said Zimmerman. “That’s impossible. So as I flipped through the 50-pages or so of backup material, I kept looking for the financials. Where is the money coming from to increase subsidies from 10-percent of the houses to 20 percent? It just doesn't magically appear, that money. It's millions of dollars and that money has to come from somewhere. And it was not in the backup information, that's why I voted to abstain. It's a no vote with a footnote that says you're not telling me all the information here. I can't vote in favor because you're not telling me all the information, I also don't necessarily want to vote no because if I knew where that money was coming from, if it were coming from a developer who was somehow able to reduce his profit margin and donate the money without passing the cost to someone else, then I could possibly vote for that but that's not how the real world works. But in any event, the information was not there so I had a no vote through an abstention saying information is missing. We can't cast an informed vote and it turns out I was very correct.”
He’s also filed two lawsuits against the city. On the first, he added himself to suit that was already filed challenging the ballot language of the proposition laying out new regulations for Transportation Network Companies or Ridesharing Companies. A judge sided with the city.
The second lawsuit he filed was to challenge the city’s campaign finance rules. A judge ruled in favor on two of his motions and against two. Zimmerman is appealing the latter decision.
“I stand by my record and I'll say this too, one council member who is correct on the constitutional rule of law is a majority. Because we're not a simple democracy where a majority plus one get together and say ‘we're going to do anything we want’ and that's really to me the way the Austin City Council behaves largely. They say, ‘well if we can get six votes, we can do anything we want.’ And my answer is no you can't. We live in a constitutional republic, you are under the rule of law and you can't just do anything you want just because you can count to six.”
Zimmerman acknowledges these lawsuits cost the city money but argues it’s justified.
“This Austin City government is really assaulting our personal liberties,” said Zimmerman. “They're violating the constitutional rule of law to impose an ideological agenda. So it is the city who is at fault, taking our money as taxpayers and robbing us of our constitutional guaranteed liberties. So the city is at fault. I'm doing what I'm supposed to do as an elected member which is to protect my constituents.”
And then there are the things he’s said that have raised eyebrows.
Most recently, he made comments to a group of Hispanic students who were attending the city council meeting to ask for funding for after school programs during the budget session.
“When you grow up, I want to ask you to pledge to finish school, learn a trade, a skilled trade, get a college education, start a business, do something useful and produce something in your society so you don't have to live off others."
Those are comments he says he doesn't regret.
“The things I've said are true and I still stand by them. I haven't changed any positions or remarks. I will say that there's a political agenda to misrepresent the things that I've said but anytime I get my comments as said, in context, I generally win more votes than I lose.”
“I think people don't know, I grew up in Southeast San Antonio, in the 60s and 70s in a highly integrated area southeast of downtown. So the young friends I had from elementary school, I had a lot of blended families, a lot of first-generation Mexican families, a lot of blended families where a mom is Hispanic and a dad is European or Anglo. I grew up with these kids. I grew up in an integrated environment so when I look at a crowd of people, I see people. My political adversaries see skin color, they see political division, they see gender, they see all kinds of divisions. When I look at a room full of people, I see people. So when the accusations came to me, a bunch of false accusations about racism, that Zimmerman said something to a room full of Hispanics, I said something to a room full of people, not a room full of Hispanics, a room full of people. I say the same things to people whether you're in the chamber of commerce or Apple Computer or if you're from AISD or anywhere else, I say the same thing to everybody,” Zimmerman explained.
He’s even been a harsh critic of the council he sits on.
“I expected to be a fiscally conservative voice on a fiscally liberal city council. You know, that loves to spend other people's money and raise taxes, raise fees, pass new laws that we really don't need and nothing there has surprised me,” Zimmerman told KVUE News. “I knew that the city management was very, very strong and the council relatively weak, but I've really been surprised at how impotent the city council is overall and how they have no say in a lot of policy.”
But even with those feelings, he wants to continue serving and is asking voters in Northwest Austin to reelect him.
“We need a change of culture in the city government. We need a city government that responds better to constituents, that has more of a customer service focus instead of a just monopoly government enterprise. So if you get a crazy water bill, right now the city water utility says 'pay your bill. You owe the bill, pay it or else we'll cut off your water.' And that's really the attitude of city government in all departments. Our planning and zoning in the Zucker report, remember, said we had the worst customer service in the history of 30 years of consulting by Mr. Zucker. It was terrible. We have a code compliance that nitpicks people and harasses people while it allows dangerous situations to go unchecked. So we have management problems all across the board. And so I'm optimistic now that the manager has resigned, that the new council will finally be able to pick a new city manager and we can change the culture of the city,” said Zimmerman.
During his time in office, Zimmerman said he is most proud of the work he’s done for constituents helping to alleviate water bill complaints and opening a district office that allows residents to video conference into the city council meetings. “I opened the first constituent service office in the history of the city. We opened that in April of 2015, I made that promise during the campaign, we've followed through, we've opened that. We've welcomed over 1,000 people in that office and we've solved hundreds of constituent’s complaints. So I'm practicing what I preach. I said we need city management that respects constituents and that's exactly what my full-time office does, Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week.”
“I’d like to see that constituent service immolated in other districts and also by the city staff. So we are leading the way in constituent services by having a fully staffed office and we're doing that on the same budget as every other council office. We simply re-appropriated the money we had as a district.”
Zimmerman believes his conservative voice brings balance to the dais and there’s more work for him to do.
“If people reelect me and send me back, there's a decent chance that we’ll start to see movement on getting an expressway in the western part of the city. If they elect my opponent, it absolutely, positively will not happen. That’s the difference.”
“I have a lot of support around this city in other districts because they look at me as the one voice of reason. I take an analytical approach to problem solving. I ask the questions that other people won't ask and I think they think of me as an investigator and a watchdog on the city council.”
ON THE ISSUES
Q: Are you for or against Proposition 1, Austin’s Mobility Bond, and why?
Zimmerman abstained on the council vote to call the election.
“So I abstained and abstaining was the correct vote on the bond, it's a ‘no’ vote. And it's based on the fact that the language in the bond that would have had some indication of cost, some limit on taxation, that Council Member Troxiclar proposed this, we actually passed some form of ballot language that should have been on the ballot that had some cost information, how much is this going to cost us and how quickly would taxes rise if the $720 million were approved. The majority council ended up stripping out that language and that’s what changed my vote back to an abstention.”
But he adds there is some benefit to District 6.
“There is about $100 million of traffic relief projects in this $720 million bond but the other $620 million is dubious at best. I don’t think it brings enough traffic congestion relief to justify the cost but in District 6 we have three projects at about $30 million distributed...and those projects I think are worthwhile, they would provide congestion relief.”
“The City of Austin right now on their website has 11 master plans. There’s a master plan for bicycles, there's a master plan for parks and urban trails, there's a, master plan for sidewalks. There's even a master plan for climate control, but there's no plan for vehicle congestion relief. That’s another reason why I’m demanding a change in city management. The number one problem in our city which is vehicle congestion has no plan from the incumbent city management. And the reason for that is they want to use vehicle congestion as a social engineering tool. They want you parked in traffic so you get so frustrated, you'll get out and walk because you might get where you're going faster.”
“I'm neutral in the bond. I'm neutral in the mobility bond because it has some good packages for District 6, but it's a bad deal for the city at large…I'll probably end up voting against it.”
Q: What action do you believe the city needs to take to address traffic congestion?
“If this [bond] goes down we should have another bond that says look, we need to let voters choose how they want to allocate their money. We do have people who want more bicycle trails and sidewalks. Great, there's nothing wrong with that. The issue is that's not our top priority.”
Q: How can the city increase affordability related to the cost of houses in Austin?
“What I want to have happened is I want the top 10 ordinances that the city has passed, tree ordinance for instance, or the visibility ordinance that mandates that we have to have wheelchair access to every residence built in the city, these ordinances are terrible for affordability. They make certain lots undevelopable, they raise the price of housing to where people can't afford it. The city is contributing to the problem. We need to repeal the top 10 unaffordable ordinances that are on the books today and we need to stop doing this command and control centralized planning and zoning. That’s what makes things unaffordable. Builders cannot build unless they build to the high end because their base cost for land and compliance with these terrible ordinances, the nine months to a year it takes to get a big project approved. That's what's killing us here in the city. We have had builders leave the City of Austin because we have the worst, most bureaucratic red tape environment of anywhere in Texas. We have in the city of Houston, Texas, which does not have centralized planning and zoning, they have deed restrictions that are enforced by the property owners, no centralized planning and zoning. We have a better mix of housing in Houston than we have in Austin. In Houston you'll see low income housing and high income housing mixed relatively seamlessly because that's what the market demands. In the City of Austin you cannot build the lower end of income it's just unaffordable and not feasible to build it. So my view is to stop the subsidizes, stop the TDCHA nine-percent housing credit, subsidized housing projects. We have to stop the deliberate economic segregation.”
Q: The Martin Prosperity Institute found Austin is the “most economically segregated major metro area in the U.S.,” how do you propose Austin address this?
“The first thing we should do is eliminate the economic development department bureaucracy. Imagine how crazy it is that we're forced to pay higher taxes to subsidize Samsung or to subsidize Apple computers. You know we're subsidizing the world’s richest corporation in the history of the world! Apple computer is getting taxpayer subsidies from the Austin taxpayers. This ought to infuriate people. We do not have a growth problem in Austin unless it's too rapid growth, too much rapid growth.”
Q: What do you believe is the biggest need of the residents in District 6?
“Our congestion problem is our biggest problem here. The second biggest danger is from wildfire. We have more open space in District 6 than anywhere else. The wild, open spaces are not being properly managed. There's no way for the Austin Fire Department to fight fires in these huge open areas where we have no roads. This is a serious issue. I think it’s one of the reasons the Firefighters Association has endorsed my reelection because I’m the council member doing the most to try to get us moving on trying to get some right of way where we can fight fires in these open areas.”
“There's another big battle we have politically and that's over environmental forces that are anti-growth. And the environmental forces say 'you know, we have this blind cave spider, we have salamander and we have golden cheek warbler bird’ and there seems to be a lot more concern for the rights of reptiles and birds than the people that pay the taxes. I tell you I take offense at this environmental extremism that has all this bleeding heart compassion for a handful of birds or spiders and they don’t care about the people stuck in traffic. And that needs to change. If I'm reelected I’m going to spend the next four years battling to get the roads we need and to get some cooperation with TxDOT to get new roads. We need a new expressway to connect SH45 from Lakeline Mall all the way down to 35 south. This part of the city needs to be able to bypass downtown and get down to Buda and get down to San Marcos and San Antonio. We need to be able to bypass the entire central city. Right now 183 is clogged with traffic because there's no other way, there’s no other freeway, no other expressway to get down to 35.”
Q: On a lighter note, Austinites like to believe we live in the “Live Music Capitol of the World,” so tell us, what’s your favorite song?
Any song performed by Jimmie Vaughn
MORE ON DON ZIMMERMAN
- Previous Occupation: Hardware Software Engineer
- Education: Texas A&M: BS&MS in Mechanical Engineering
- Birthplace: San Antonio, Texas
- Years in Austin: 16
- Mobility: Against
To read more about Don Zimmerman, go here.