July 14th, 2012 by Mark

Over the late summer and fall I had the opportunity to manage Austin’s most recent city bond campaign, which we dubbed “Love Austin“.  The package consisted of seven bond propositions totaling $385 million, with proposed investments in transportation, open space, parks, public safety, housing, health and human services, and cultural facilities.

The bond package had been developed over the course of a year by city staff and a City Council-appointed citizen commission (chaired by our own Frank Fernandez!), which held dozens of public meetings and hearings to gather community input.  The final package, approved by the Council with some cuts to minimize the tax impact, represented the culmination of that effort to define and prioritize Austin’s most critical needs.

Nearly four months later, the voters had their say, approving six of the seven city bonds by strong margins.  Unfortunately, the housing bond – $77 million to build, repair and renovate low-income housing in Austin – failed by less than a percentage point.   Despite this dark spot and the challenge it presents moving forward, our campaign otherwise succeeded, for several reasons.

With leadership from Mayor Lee Leffingwell and campaign treasurer Ted Siff, “Love Austin” was able to raise significant funding to communicate the brand and benefits of the bond investments directly to voters.  With the help of Ian Davis and Mike Blizzard, we also built a diverse coalition of more than 30 endorsing community groups, and deployed a smart, effective grassroots outreach program.

At the core of the campaign was a committee of community leaders that helped guide all of our decisions.  This included George Cofer of the Hill Country Conservancy, Rebecca Campbell and Stephanie Baker from the Austin Film Society, Nancy McDonald and Annie Armbrust of the Real Estate Council of Austin, Laura Huffman and Vanessa Martin from The Nature Conservancy, Jeb Boyt of the Alliance for Public Transportation, Tim Staley from the Austin Library Foundation, and Jeremy Martin of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

But if there was just one reason for the good outcome, it was the good process.  The early effort to engage the community in an authentic dialogue and craft a basic consensus around shared priorities was plainly the most important factor leading to our campaign’s ultimate success.   And so the big lesson: Especially when it comes to public process, all’s well that begins well.  There are plenty of opportunities to screw stuff up all along the way, but starting smart offers the best hope for finishing strong.

For your viewing pleasure, here’s our “Love Austin” TV ad, featuring the talents of my young son, dissing his little sister: