Baker appointed to fill First Ward seat

Published 11:21 am Friday, July 8, 2022

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The Austin City Council has appointed Geoff Baker to round out the remainder of Oballa Oballa’s first term on the City Council where he represented the First Ward.

The decision was made Thursday night during a special meeting of the council. 

Geoff Baker

Baker, who has prior City Council experience having been elected in 2005, was one of three to submit applications for the seat, which also included Steve Barrett and Varinh Van Vugt.

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“I’m honored to be chosen and I’m looking forward to representing First Ward on the city council,” Baker said Thursday morning.

Baker, president and C.O.O. of McFarland Truck Lines and a former member of the Austin Utilities Board on which he served for 10 years, will have a lot on his plate coming into a term that will stretch through Dec. 31, 2024, including coming in at the beginning of city budget discussions.

However, he also takes the seat with a clear eye on a trio of other goals.

“I’m concerned about the economy, inflation and how it impacts the citizens of Austin,” Baker said. “I’m very interested in moving the needle on housing and third I want to make sure of our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.”

There is also the mammoth Wastewater Treatment Plant project that is now estimated to be a $94 million effort, nearly $20 million more than the estimate in July of 2021 at $76 million.

“We’ve got real work to do there,” Baker said. “The price tag is shocking and the need is there and we have some real work.”

Varinh Van Vugt

However, Thursday’s decision to appoint Baker came with a certain amount of clear disagreement between council members, not in terms of qualifications, but in the decision to not replace diversity with diversity as some voiced support for Van Vugt.

“The council votes as a whole. It was a split vote and in the end we accept the vote,” said Mayor Steve King on Thursday. King pushed heavily during the meeting for Van Vugt even though he didn’t have a vote. “I don’t mind saying I’m disappointed that the council had the opportunity to replace diversity and honor [voter’s] selection with another diverse candidate.”

However, during discussion following the three presentations, At-Large council member Jeff Austin argued that with budget work looming, it wasn’t the time to appoint somebody without experience in budgetary matters, urging members to think back to their first time working on the city budget.

Steve Barrett

“It’s our job as sitting council members to choose the best qualified person that’s going to be able to hit the job running,” Austin said. “To expect somebody without a lot of experience with budgets or the city’s workings to step in and grasp that and make a thoughtful and good decision is going to be tough.”

However, the Third Ward’s Paul Fischer countered by arguing toward the optics of the pick.

“There’s one, two, three, four, five, six white guys sitting here and they all talk about diversity and inclusion and minorities and I think for the citizens of Austin to see now there are seven of us up there with no minority — that would make us look very bad,” he said.

Fellow Third Ward council member Joyce Poshusta didn’t agree, saying that Austin has already set an example.

“I would love to see Varinh on the council and run for election … I think it depends on how we embrace the community and I think we all do,” she said.

Second Ward council member Jason Baskin said he was looking at the presentations as a barometer of knowledge of the issues facing the city, while also admitting that each candidate brought strong attributes to the table.

“This is where I’m torn. You can see that two things are true at the same time,” he said. “To me the quality [of the presentations] is not about outcome it’s about equality of opportunity and I think all of the candidates have the same opportunity to come in and present.”

“I struggle because I feel the presentation in terms of depth of the issues facing Austin today … I don’t know if the presentations were all that close,” continued Baskin, who voted in favor of Baker. “That’s what I struggle with.”

In the end Austin, Rebecca Waller, Poshusta and Baskin voted to appoint Baker, with council members Fischer and Mike Postma voting against.

Baker will start his term immediately.

Everything leading up to this point came about after Oballa stepped down because of his family’s move out of the First Ward. He has since filed to run for the At-Large seat currently held by Austin, who is running for reelection along with a second challenger, David Schenck.