October 17, 2021

 

District 6 candidates square off in forum ahead of early voting

 

By NICHOLAS CICALE

Discussing topics about the Courthouse Square, city growth and community engagement, the two candidates in the Georgetown City Council District 6 race faced one another during a candidate forum Thursday night. 

Organized by the Wilco League of Women Voters, the hour-long candidate forum was cordial, with candidates Cheré Heintzmann and Jake French answering prepared questions as well as those submitted by participants over Zoom. 

Pamella Mitchell, an LWV leader and District 6 resident, served as the forum’s moderator. 

“I feel like we have great choices in front of us, and it is actually a gift to District 6 that such talent has stepped up to this,” Ms. Mitchell said. “I hope that, regardless of what the outcome [of the election is], that you both stay engaged and involved, because the city needs you, and District 6 needs you.”

Early voting for the November 2 election begins Monday. 

Square safety 

One of the more prominent areas in District 6, the Courthouse Square and surrounding businesses that make up Georgetown’s downtown district, were big topics during Thursday’s forum, specifically regarding safety, politics and parking.

“We all love our town square,” Ms. Heintzmann said. “It's one of the most beautiful town squares in the State of Texas, we tout it, we tout the friendliness, and that brings in a lot of tourism, brings in a lot of families, and that's really important.”

She said the city has to look at accessibility for pedestrians. With more restaurants  offering outdoor seating that blocks the sidewalk, walkers are often being forced into the street, creating a safety hazard. 

Another safety concern she’s heard from constituents involves families not feeling comfortable with protesters, or with people walking downtown with a firearm. She said when some parents see someone with a long-gun on the Square, they decide to bring their children home.  

“We have an obligation as a city [to decide], what do we want our town square to represent? It needs to represent safety, it needs to be family friendly, and we have to have accessibility that makes sense,” she said. 

In terms of safety, Mr. French said physical safety related to pedestrians and traffic could be improved, as could some of the interactions people have with one another on the Square. 

“The Square is a very friendly place, as is Georgetown in general,” Mr. French said. “I have been on the Square when there has been obnoxious, inebriated folks walking down the street, and as a parent with small children, I don't love to see that, so maybe there's some improvements that we can make in that department.”

He said as Georgetown continues to grow, he expects homelessness to become increasingly more noticeable around the Square. 

“I think that’s something we need to look at,” he said. “How do we manage that? How do we direct people to resources that keep them from loitering in city parks and [downtown]?”

Confederate memorial 

In recent years, the Confederate Soldiers & Sailors memorial located on the Square has attracted protesters who want the statue moved, as well as counter-protests trying to protect the statue. 

Ms. Heintzmann said that technically, the statue sits on Williamson County property, and its fate is ultimately a Williamson County decision. 

“However, the problem that we're facing right now is the controversy around the statue,” she said. “It's impacting our downtown. It's affecting our visitors coming downtown. It just needs to be addressed.

“We need to make a decision whether to move it, and quite frankly, I'm in favor of moving the statute.”

Mr. French, too, said that it is time for the statue to be relocated. 

“I think there's potential for the city to help if we were to move it, for instance, to the Odd Fellows Cemetery. That would fall under the jurisdiction and the offices of the city,” he said. “So there may be a role for the city to play in the relocation, and I would like to do what I can to help get that statue moved.”

Downtown parking

As the Square gets more vibrant, parking will become more of an issue, not only on weekends but weeknights as well, Mr. French said. He said a garage not only will alleviate parking problems, it could also make some downtown intersections and roads safer by reducing the need for on-street parking. 

He said he sees potential for a multi-level garage, with a retail component on the ground floor

“In the long term, it's in the best interest of the city to put a garage in place. I think that'll accommodate the most cars, and it'll keep people out of the neighborhood,” he said. 

However, a previous city proposal to build a garage on a lot along Sixth and Main streets is not one he would support, due to the lot's small size and proximity to residences. He said there are better opinions out there. 

Ms. Heintzmann agreed, saying the Sixth Street lot in particular is not a good fit for a garage. 

She also said a future garage’s aesthetic is important, with a structure that blends into the historic downtown’s existing character. One way to do that, she said, is to maintain required high limits on a garage. 

“Parking is a huge issue. We just don't have enough of it,” she said. “I think we're all in agreement that we need to address parking, but we need to address it in a very thoughtful manner.”

Future growth

The candidates discussed how the city can react to the continued population growth in and around Georgetown. 

One thing Ms. Heintzmann said she wants to look into is water rights, calling water one of the city's top priorities. She said the city has to look at ways of securing water and wastewater services for the future.

“When you look at the population growth right now that we're facing, and then you look at our water capacity, we are potentially looking at running out of water probably 10 years earlier than what we originally had anticipated,” she said. 

Mr. French said Georgetown faces two water issues — a lack of water treatment capacity, which the city is working to expand, and a lack of water supply. 

“We're gonna have to start getting creative pretty quick, so that we don't have the same kind of problems they're having in the Central Valley in California,” he said. 

To accommodate for increased traffic demands in the city, Mr. French said he feels that the city is improving anticipating pinch points. However, he said it can still do a better job to get more bang for their buck when expanding roadways, and should explore increasing capacities of roads, including those that are not thoroughfares. 

“Traffic is a challenging issue, and I think it's one of the things that we need to try to do a better job of,” he said. 

He said the city’s 2030 plan is a good step towards outlining future needs. The city should look at expanding roadways in advance, and if not building a road out entirely, should design the road in a way that sets the area up for future expansion more easily.

Georgetown has exceeded growth projections by 40 percent, Ms. Heintzmann said, putting the city in a reactive state. Speaking as the vice chair of the city’s mobility committee, she said the city has put forth short-term, achievable plans that will help, and has done a good job laying out key priorities. 

She pointed to plans that outline sidewalk improvements, bike lanes, new crosswalks and turn lane updates that can help pedestrians as well as motorists. 

“We've got a good plan, and [mobility is] something that I think that we are aggressively working toward right now,” she said. 

A lack of amenities in some parts of town, like Southeast Georgetown, has led to residents in newer communities being frustrated with their access to grocery stores and restaurants. 

Ms. Heintzmann said that as residential communities continue to move away from the center or Georgetown, typically, residential comes in ahead of the commercial development. She said she thinks the restaurants will come 

“We're seeing a lot of businesses and restaurants that are applying for that area. It's just basically the timing of the building of the amenities,” she said. 

Mr. French said he is not, generally, a fan of giving economic initiative packages to developers, but would make an exception to bring in a service that is scarce in a specific part of town, such as food access, if needed. 

With H-E-B planning to move its University Avenue store west of Interstate 35, he said he’s concerned about food access for District 6 residents as well. 

Citing the new Aldi as an option, he said, “I have neighbors who I see walking to the H-E-B, and that's going to be less of a viable option when it's across an interstate highway. I think [food] is going to be a big need in our community.” 

Community engagement

Both candidates discussed their plans to engage the community if elected. 

For Mr. French, he said he wants to hear from constituents, and would look to hosting forums with the district, utilizing Facebook and other online platforms to learn from residents. 

“I want to hear from people. I want to know what they think. I want to know what their priorities are,” he said. 

Ms. Heintzmann also pointed to social media as a key tool to reach residents. 

Having served on commissions and boards for the city in the past, Ms. Heintzmann said she feels that Georgetown does a good job of being transparent and offering engagement opportunities. However, she said the city can always improve and that council members need to be available. 

“We're changing so much as a city, [and] we're growing very aggressively,” she said. “I think it's gonna be really important that we are engaging our citizens and our community members at the front end of some of these decisions that we're making, and that we’re not putting our citizens on a reactive, where they're responding [to plans] at the back end.”

Mr. French said that he feels public forums and meetings hosted by the city sometimes are not as effective at reaching residents as they could be due to the time or days they are scheduled, making other engagement options important. 

He also discussed his dislike of decisions being made in executive sessions and not in a public forum. He said he understands some topics, such as litigations or personnel conversations, should be taken in private, but most others should not. 

“A lot of decisions, especially around the Georgetown utility systems and the contracts that were negotiated, were made in executive session,” he said. “It reminded me of something that my dad used to say. ‘If you're in the wrong place, at the wrong time, for the wrong reason, bad things are gonna happen.’ I feel that way whenever there's a lack of transparency.”