AUSTIN — After a city decision sparked four months of heated public turmoil and safety risk, Austin’s former mayor is now speaking out against the city council.
In an interview with KXAN on Tuesday, former Mayor Lee Leffingwell said the council made a “mistake” by passing a law in June that allowed vagrants to camp, sit, and lie down in public spaces across the city. The council’s decision predictably caused an outbreak of campsites throughout the streets and sidewalks of Austin, and caused a public health and safety risk, prompting over 36,000 citizens to sign a petition calling for the law’s reversal.
“I would support reinstating the previous ordinances, going back to the table, and trying to look for ways to address the homeless problem,” said Leffingwell.
Leffingwell, who served as mayor between 2009 and 2015, was on the city council when they first passed an ordinance prohibiting camping, sitting, and lying down in public spaces.
“While we were working on the effort to try to solve the [homelessness] problem permanently, or at least [make the situation] better, we wanted to have a healthy, safe, and clean downtown,” Leffingwell said.
However, once the current council changed the policy, they were met with a torrent of public backlash; citizens packed townhall meetings over the summer, testifying to the harmful consequences of the council’s new camping law and angry that registered sex offenders were now allowed to sleep right next to apartments and elementary schools.
“I understand that [the council was] trying to reshuffle the deck on the ordinance and try to make it different,” Leffingwell said, “but it’s a lot easier to do with the deck intact, instead of just throwing the entire deck on the floor and then trying to do it.”
After three months of intensifying public pressure, the city council finally met in September to change their law; however, they ended up doing nothing, postponing even a conversation on the matter until mid-October. Mayor Adler then dodged blamed for the situation and tried to pass the issue off to the city manager to deal with.
Following their inaction, Gov. Abbott told the mayor that if he did not make “consequential improvement” in the situation by November 1, the state would step in to protect public safety.
A few weeks later, in mid-October, the council finally reversed their June law—but only parts of it. Though camping on sidewalks is once again prohibited, sitting and lying down on them is still legal, as is camping near highways, street medians, and creeks. Leffingwell said it still might be a good idea for the state to step in.
“That seems like a good solution to me,” Leffingwell said. “If the council is unable to come up with measures that provide that protection, public health, and public safety, then I think it’s appropriate for the state to do it.”