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Leah Kaufman: Candidate for Kyle City Council, District 5

Leah KaufmanLeah Kaufman describes herself as a “life-long progressive who has spent a decade plus in the nonprofit field working to build coalitions aimed at advancing positive change. I have the experience needed to help the city navigate through this period of rapid growth. As a mother and the wife of a local firefighter, I see so many areas for opportunity and I’m committed to making Kyle the best small town in which to raise a family.”

HCDP: What is your main reason for seeking this elected office?

LK: There are a lot of reasons I chose to run this year. First and foremost, there aren’t enough progressive voices on the Kyle City Council and there aren’t enough women. I think balance is important. I am a lifelong nonprofit worker and I’ve always dedicated myself to advocating for equity, and Kyle has a long way to go when it comes to equity. The city seems to be divided into East v. West and that’s not benefiting anyone. I also think many residents don’t feel like they are being heard and I’m an avid proponent of community engagement, of coalition building and ensuring everyone’s voice is heard when decisions are being made that will impact them.

HCDP: Should you be elected, what are your top three priorities for this office?

LK: 1. One of my first goals is ensuring that the city has a strong emergency response system for mental health and substance-use disorder related crises to increase police bandwidth as the city grows. A large number of 911 calls could be triaged to this resource, allowing police to focus on addressing crime and continuing to build out a community policing model. This is a much more proactive approach to addressing issues like homelessness/camping/panhandling, as a large percentage of individuals who are homeless have untreated mental health conditions or substance use disorders. Programs like these are much more impactful in the long term than passing ordinances that ban camping or panhandling. We need to treat the root of the issue, and these are just symptoms of a much larger problem. This would require the development of mental health response unit within the city staff structure. Other cities that have done this successfully typically have a combination of a crisis worker and a paramedic respond to mental health and SUD-related calls. I’d suggest a partnership with the county emergency service district as a first approach. A second part of this is to focus on growing public/private partnerships with local nonprofits serving these populations. For example, women’s shelters, the faith community, and social service delivery organizations.

2. My second goal would be focusing on smarter and more sustainable growth. The current road, water, and electrical structures will be out dated and overwhelmed shortly as the growth within the city only continues to outpace the city’s current plans. There are some really exciting development projects coming up, in particular the Rastegar project proposed for East Kyle. The focus on ensuring various housing types, inclusive of different income levels, creating a space with a town center where people can gather, and tapping into local history by turning a historic barn into a restaurant are all elements that excite me. As Kyle is at the center of the fastest growing county in the country, it is important that we are partnering with the right developers and corporations and that all new projects are planned at a pace that won’t overburden the existing infrastructure. For example, our wastewater treatment plant is seriously overburdened and the second plant isn’t projected to be online until 2022. We need to ensure that issues like this, and issues like road infrastructure and traffic congestion are solved before we add additional burden to the system. I am thrilled at the prospect of developments that bring added value to the community, but we need to ensure sustainability. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

3. Finally, community development and ensuring equity across the city are top priority for me. This builds upon my last goal – trying to bring in healthy restaurants, more kid/family friendly stores and activities will help encourage people to spend time and money within our city. As we do this, we must consider the fact that there is also a significant disparity between the development being done on the West side of I-35 and the development being done on the East side. There should be a focus on ensuring basic services such as a grocery store are prioritized for the East side. The East side has no healthy food options and lacks community gathering spaces outside a few parks. Internet and cell service are inadequate throughout the city, which prevents us from being competitive compared to neighboring cities with superior service, in particular if we want to support individuals who work from home, or even students attending school remotely. Traffic congestion is a huge issue, and one that is felt more painfully on the East side of the city. People need to be able to get to work and around town in a reasonable period of time. I also feel that better vocational education opportunities, and supporting small businesses are key priority rather than focusing primarily on courting large corporate owned businesses. Again, balance is important.

HCDP: Based on the new census data, in your opinion, do you believe the city has addressed progressive and equitable growth? Why or why not?

LK: No, I do not feel the city has addressed progressive and equitable growth. That’s why this is one of my top three priorities.

HCDP: If elected, what will you do to address infrastructure inequities in Kyle?

LK: As I outlined in my top three platform priorities, I would advocate for equitable infrastructure improvement and development on the East side of Kyle.

HCDP: Do you believe the City of Kyle has responded appropriately to the COVID pandemic?

LK: No, I don’t think the City of Kyle has done enough in terms of COVID response. I myself experienced the inadequacies of our COVID testing abilities during the pandemic, driving multiple times to Buda to get a COVID test for myself or a loved one. One of the biggest issues beyond lack of infrastructure is the inadequate communication between the City of Kyle, the council and the public. There is not enough done to try and get important updates to the public during times of crises. COVID is one example of that. The winter storm was another. In particular, there is room for improvement when it comes to engaging with socioeconomically disadvantaged communities and those without access to smart phones or internet service.

HCDP: What are your priorities for the role of council member or mayor?

LK: My top priorities are advancing equity across the city, improving community engagement and communication throughout the city and ensuring that there is a more balanced approach to everything, from whose voice is prioritized to where and how quickly we grow and develop our city. Finally, ensuring we are proactive and not reactive in the policies we implement. A good example of this is the knee jerk reaction to draft a camping and panhandling ordinance just because Austin attempted this. A proactive approach that is much more sustainable long term would be working to better address the underlying causes of homelessness, including substance use disorder and mental illness. There are many community organizations eager to partner to accomplish this work, and I think this needs to be prioritized.

HCDP: How do you differentiate yourself against the other candidates?

LK: Well, first and foremost, I think I am the most, if not the only, progressive candidate currently running for Kyle City Council, and we need more progressive voices on council. While it is a nonpartisan race, I think we’ve all seen how importance balance is lately. I’ll use the school board elections and the decisions about mask mandates as an example of why diverse perspectives are necessary. I think everyone knows that growth is the biggest challenge the city faces. I would hope each candidate values the importance of advancing equity in the city, but I don’t know that to be true. On the question of what the big issues are, we probably all agree. This comes down to vision and leadership and none of the other candidates, including the incumbent, come close to having the level of experience I do conducting stakeholder engagement to understand what challenges need to be addressed and building public private partnerships to implement change. I’m good at working with people I may not agree with, and doing so in a positive and constructive way. Professionalism and civil discourse are important to me, and that is something I’ve seen lacking in certain council members. I think we also lead by example, and that council members should be positive role models. This past year I’ve seen several instances where this is not the case, from actions/conversations related to the re-naming of Rebel Rd., to rumors of council members using illegal drugs, to a general lack of decorum during discussions.

HCDP: What will you do to support the quality of life for LGBTQ+ folks, immigrant communities and people experiencing homelessness in City of Kyle?

LK: I believe this question relates to the support for LGBTQ+ folks, immigrant communities and homeless individuals in the City of Kyle. As a nonprofit healthcare worker for over ten years, and an EMT for many years before that, working to ensure these populations are supported has been a key priority in my personal and professional life. I’ve helped design healthcare policy aimed at ensuring resources are available to at risk populations, from access to mental healthcare and housing to social services, food and transportation. After recognizing a need in Hays County, I recently started a secular home school co-op that is LGBTQ+ friendly, and welcomes religious and non-religious people, neuro-diverse children, and others who have found it difficult to locate an inclusive and safe space for their children to socialize and learn together during COVID. As I highlighted in an earlier question, I would advocate for the City of Kyle to partner with the county to add a mental health response team to either the police department, or in partnership with Hays County, to the emergency services district. So many 911 calls related to mental health or substance use, or even individuals with development disabilities. I myself have a child on the autism spectrum, I have family members and friends with mental health conditions and substance use disorders. An increasing number of cities are adding mental health crisis teams who can respond to calls like this, and ensure both the safety of the individual in crisis, and the most effective use of our valued law enforcement officers – addressing crime and continuing to build out a community policing model. There are also so many nonprofits in Kyle and the surrounding area who work with immigrants, with the homeless, with LGBTQ folks, and the city has a huge opportunity to create partnerships that benefit everyone.

HCDP: Can you commit to mentoring young progressives into the Hays County Democratic Party?

LK: Yes.

HCDP: How do you plan to stay in communication with the voters who elected you once you are in office?

LK: I am a big believer in community building. In 2020, when we were all trapped indoors, I started a family nature club, that allowed children and parents a way to safely socialize outdoors, with masks. Many times, these nature club outings became forums for community members to discuss issues impacting them and brainstorm together about how they could help each other. If elected, I would focus on creating opportunities for the community to come together in a purpose-driven way to have these dialogues. I think holding a citizen comment period during city council meetings is inadequate. First, the lack of a two-way dialogue is unacceptable. I want to know what happened to the disabled gentleman who came to council to point out how the city isn’t ADA compliant. I want to know what the outcome was for the retired firefighter who can’t build his home on the land he purchased because of a platting issue that is taking months to resolve. I want to hear that after the local women’s shelter came to council pointing out how they are not being leveraged adequately by the city, that someone is working to fix this and ensure people can get the services they need. The council spends a lot of time putting together task forces and work groups to tackle key issues, which is fine, these groups play an important role, but there is a piece missing – broad community engagement. The council needs to meet people where they are at and ensure everyone’s voices are being heard. If that means going and holding multiple meetings in various neighborhoods throughout the city, that is what needs to be done. The East side in particular seems to get left out a lot. Community meetings, town halls, virtual forums, posting of notices around town when big decisions are being made. I would utilize a lot of these methods of reaching residents, in addition to social media, email, and so on.

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