Naked City

Edited by Lisa Tozzi, with contributions this week from Robert Bryce, Kevin Fullerton, and Jenny Staff.


Off the Desk:

Another Austin-bashing bill has been ruled unconstitutional. Wednesday afternoon, Travis County District Court Judge Paul Davis ruled that SB 1017, a bill authored by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) and passed by the Texas Legislature in 1995, was "unconstitutional as a matter of law." The law, which the city referred to as the "FM Properties Water Quality Zone Bill" allowed landowners with over 1,000 acres to create zones that were exempt from Austin's annexation and water quality protection laws. The city sued to have 1017 overturned on grounds that the law gave "special legislative privileges to owners and developers" of large parcels of land. The city's win on 1017 follows a ruling last August by Travis County District Court Judge Scott McCown, which invalidated HB 3193, which removed 8,000 acres of land from the city's jurisdiction. Davis' ruling will undoubtedly be appealed. More on this next week... - R.B.

The long-awaited relocation of the David Powell HIV Clinic is about a year away, says the city health department, which is close to purchasing a new site to house the crowded clinic. In the interim, the city is considering establishing a satellite clinic at Rosewood-Zaragosa Center, 2800 Webberville. A public meeting to discuss relocation is at 6pm Monday in Brackenridge Hospital's third floor boardroom. Call 499-2615 for info...

The Austin Chapter of TX-CURE, an organization mobilizing prisoners and their families to improve prison policies and management, will meet 2pm Sunday, June 21, at Huston-Tillotson College's Jackson Moody Humanities Bldg., Rm 200. - L.T.

Poetic Justice

On Tuesday, June 16, U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks denied a request for a temporary injunction that would have prohibited the city from cleaning Barton Springs Pool. In his 20-page opinion (which began with a 16-line poem), Sparks shot down virtually every argument raised by attorney Robert Kleeman and his plaintiffs, Alan Hamilton and Robert Barnhart.

Kleeman, former general counsel for Take Back Texas, had argued that pool cleanings threatened the survival of the salamander. Sparks wrote that he found "no evidence that continued pool cleanings by the City of Austin, under the Scientific Permits and supervised by [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service], could possibly cause the extinction of the salamanders." Sparks also gunned down Kleeman on his legal points, saying that the plaintiffs' "likelihood of success on the merits, based on their shotgun approach of attacking any and all activities of FWS, is not great enough to support the granting of a preliminary injunction." Though Sparks' ruling clearly slammed Kleeman on both the scientific and legal tenets of his case, the attorney appeared defiant during interviews with local TV news stations on Tuesday night, saying he may appeal Sparks' ruling.

The court decision was welcome news to swimmers. "You have to see it as a major victory. Sparks really went to bat for the public," said Mark Gentle, who has swum year-round at the pool for the past 15 years.

Although the ruling bolstered the city's position regarding pool cleaning, city officials said the shallow end of the pool may have to be closed temporarily because it is becoming too slippery. The rest of the pool will stay open. Roger Duncan, the city's chief environmental officer, said he has been in intense negotiations with federal officials to determine when the city can clean the pool again. His best guess is that it will occur some time next week.

Sparks' poem added a bit of much-needed levity to a tense situation which had angered many Austinites (check out this web extra for the full text of the poem). The anger was fueled by Kleeman's grandstanding, and his plaintiffs' smug refusals to disclose how they are funding a lawsuit that some lawyers believe has cost more than $30,000 so far. But for the moment, those issues will likely fade as the hot summer continues, and people seek relief in the cool pool. "Barton Springs is not an ordinary pool," wrote Sparks in his opinion. In the long, hot battle over Barton Springs, that is one fact that no one can dispute. - R.B.

You Say Tomato...

It was a real case of he-said, he-said at Monday's State Board of Review hearing on the fate of the state-owned Triangle tract, and a pointless one at that: After five hours of debate, the meeting was postponed due to a technicality, dooming all participants to another meeting in two weeks.

It wasn't but a few minutes into the meeting when Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire questioned whether legal posting requirements for the meeting were met, since Capital Metro and Austin Community College, both taxing entities, had not been notified of the meeting. Garry Mauro, Review Board chairman, land commissioner, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, consulted his aides, but did not reach a conclusion on the meeting's legality.

But the board dove in anyway, and heard testimony focusing on the state's case for approving the development ("It's a good project, representative of what the land development market will currently bear, and we need the money"); as well as the city's case against it ("The project's land use is too heavily weighted toward retail, and the traffic it will bring will be unduly burdensome on the surrounding neighborhoods").

Each governmental entity seemed determined to contradict the claims of the other, and after five hours of discussion and public testimony, agreement on the merits of the issue seemed unlikely. It was about 10:30pm (and the news cameras had long departed) when Mayor Kirk Watson's motion to reject the Cencor project was overruled by Mauro, on the grounds that such action couldn't be taken during a meeting of questionable legality. So, if we can't take action tonight, the board members agreed, let's call the whole thing off.

The board agreed to meet again in two weeks, and Mauro vowed to continue to seek the consensus that has aggressively eluded all parties in this debate. After the meeting, Mauro accused Aleshire of raising the legality issue as an excuse to vote against the project on procedural grounds. Aleshire said that the failure to notify Capital Metro and ACC exemplified the way that local interests have been discounted in favor of those of the state. - J.S.

Good Eats/Bad Planning?

At least one Barton Springs Road property owner believes that the City Council's decision to install raised medians along the strip would be far less divisive if the city could follow through with the original charrette proposal to install a roundabout at the intersection of Kinney and Barton Springs roads, a project apparently rendered prohibitive by the cost of Good Eats Cafe's property (see "Council Watch"). "This whole fight turning the neighbors against each other could have been avoided if only I'd known they planned to do this roundabout," says Susan Toomey Frost, who owns four acres on the north side of the Kinney-Barton Springs intersection. Frost is particularly frustrated because she fears she may have unwittingly helped inflate the property's price tag by allowing Good Eats to expand onto a portion of her property last year.

Eyebrows were raised in city offices when the restaurant addition was built only a scant few months after the location was pinpointed as a potential site for a roundabout at the April charrette. Paul Norris, a partner in the restaurant's management company, 5 County of Texas Ltd., had actively participated in the charrette as a member of the Barton Springs Merchants Association. Good Eats had filed for bankruptcy in February, and then, in late April, included the structural expansion in the reorganization plan it submitted under Chapter 11.

"We knew that they had plans to remodel, but I assumed that they would put that on hold," says Public Works project manager Richard Kroger. But Norris says Good Eats couldn't afford to postpone its business plan while the city fiddled with its "pie-in-the-sky" road project.

"I don't hold my breath waiting for any process involving citizens and politicians," said Norris. "I was born in Austin and I know how things work here.... It would be foolish for any business owner to count on anything happening in the short term."

Despite the expansion and $500,000 in new loans, Good Eats landed in bankruptcy court less than eight months later, with original creditors still unpaid and contractors who worked on the remodeling, such as Barton Springs Upholstery (and even Norris himself), finding themselves stiffed as well. The restaurant was then forcibly placed under the management of a trustee. Then last week, on the very day council voted for the "modified charrette" plan, which excluded the Kinney roundabout, Good Eats' largest creditor, Norwest Bank, filed a request with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for permission to foreclose on the property.

But whether the city will be able to buy Good Eats on the steps of the courthouse is a matter of speculation. The property is appraised at only $450,000 by Travis County - rather than the $2 million the city estimated - but the cost will be higher if the business remains solvent. Steve Roberts, attorney for Good Eats managing trustee Ben Cook, says new management has turned the business around and that it now brings in about $125,000 monthly. (He declined to reveal the restaurant's expenses). Roberts says he believes an operating report to be submitted to the bankruptcy court in a few days will persuade the court not to grant Norwest Bank, which has about $1 million invested in the property, permission to foreclose. - K.F.

Aldridge Ousted

After 15 years on the job, longtime city clerk Elden Aldridge was unceremoniously sacked as the last order of council business last Thursday evening. Councilmembers refused to comment on exactly what prompted the decision to oust Aldridge, who worked for the city for 24 years, but public information officer Michelle Gonzalez said Aldridge was ordered to improve his office's operations six months ago - an order apparently not carried out to council's satisfaction. Mistakes in this year's city bond elections and the mishandling of the campaign finance reform petition filed by Austinites for a Little Less Corruption last year played a part in the decision, too, one council aide said. The clerk's office invalidated that petition, subjecting the city to a legal challenge which resulted in a federal judge chastising the office for using validation methods which were "more than a little bizarre."

Brent White, one of the primary organizers of the ALLC petition, says it was Aldridge's antiquated methods of handling data that most frustrated him. For example, he demanded that his staff laboriously check each of the 29,000 signatures on the ALLC petition, rather than compiling a statistical sample. "Time and technology have just kind of passed him by," says White. "It's not just Aldridge; the whole system needs to move up a few centuries." - K.F