Austin's Chambermaid

The mayor is victorious. A week after a presentation by Mayor Bruce Todd before the Chamber of Commerce members urging them to support a governor's veto of House Bill 3193, which would excise Chamber member Gary Bradley's Circle C subdivision from Austin's extra-territorial jurisdiction, the Chamber of Commerce Executive Board voted Tuesday, June 13, to do just that. The executive board took the vote after the full body of the Chamber of Commerce, in a unanimous show of hands, voted to side with Bruce Todd.

To shore up support to accomplish what is widely considered a stunning victory, Todd's office faxed a "Mayor's Report" to Austin business leaders describing the damage the legislation could do to the city. He made the following pitch to the Chamber members in his presentation last week before their vote: Austin has invested more than $32 million into the Circle C subdivision, in hopes of one day annexing the area. Todd also complained that the bill would endanger democratic principles by allowing a governor-appointed board to set taxes for Circle C residents.

Political observers say the Chamber's show of approval for the mayor represents not only good reasoning on the part of Austin's big business community, but the extremely cozy relationship that has developed between Todd's government and Chamber members. In fact, the current city government/business ties may be the strongest since before the mid-1980s, when Mayor Frank Cooksey infuriated Chamber leaders by creating a city department to procure economic development.

That city department is no more, and much of the effort toward economic development of the city is now left to the Chamber, which designed the recently adopted tax abatement ordinance and is currently negotiating on behalf of the city council to bring more high-tech firms to Austin. The mayor worked with the Chamber to "privatize" Brackenridge hospital, and is working on another project on the business community's wish list: the sale of the city's electric utility.

But not everyone is cheerleading for Todd and the Chamber. "We're not getting good government," says ex-councilmember and local political columnist Robert Barnstone. "We're getting government by and for special interest groups." Barnstone, who lost a run-off election to Todd in 1991, says that Todd, unlike past mayors, does not rely on his own business judgement, but rather, "carries out someone else's agenda mindlessly."

A worst-case scenario, according to Barnstone, is that the utility sale will leave Austinites without a valuable asset, and Todd's friends and family with a "$1 billion" breadwinner bought on the cheap. (As reported here last week, George Christian - who is Todd's father-in-law - and another friend of Todd's are both registered lobbyists for Texas Utilities, which is interested in buying the city's utility. By the way, that friend, Don Martin of Don Martin Public Affairs, just hired Kristen Kessler, Todd's legislative aide last year, as an account executive.)

The Chamber would have pulled off another victory at City Hall last Thursday, if not for an amendment by Gus Garcia. According to city hall sources, the group wanted to be in charge of a proposed non-profit, downtown development corporation, which would allocate money for development projects. Funding is expected to come through tax increment financing, a financing mechanism whereby property tax increases from a designated area are invested in new projects.

Before a resolution directing Keyser Marston Associates of San Francisco to design the corporation and its financial mechanism came before the council, Garcia added an amendment requiring that the "City Council retain control on the key decisions[made by the development corporation]."

With the amendment, the resolution passed on a 5-2 vote (Councilmembers Brigid Shea and ex-Mayor Pro Tem Max Nofziger opposed), and the consulting firm will receive $100,000 for the second phase of a study on downtown redevelopment. In an interview Friday, Shea said the city had not gotten its money's worth from the study's first phase, also by Keyser Marston, for $92,000. "We told them to look only at city-owned land," she says, but three of the five redevelopment scenarios "included land that the city does not own."

With Todd hoping to place a referendum for an electric utility sale on the ballot by this coming January, the first Wednesday of every month is acquiring greater and greater significance. That day, by a mayoral decree issued last February, is dedicated primarily to Electric Utility Department (EUD) matters. On June 7, the council agreed to spend over $60 million on electric utility operations. n The council couldn't agree at last Wednesday's work session on a route for an upgraded electric transmission line between the Holly and Seaholm power plants, throwing into jeopardy the promise made to Holly plant neighbors that the lines would be up and running before electricity use peaks in the summer of 1996. The estimated $2.5 million lines are crucial to the mostly Hispanic community around Holly, since they would allow the mitigation of electric output at the plant, thus lessening the noise, pollution, and overall danger of its location; fuel lines and other equipment at the Holly plant have erupted in flames twice in the last two years. The decision on the transmission lines is already six months behind schedule, and EUD staff say a route must be selected in three weeks. The item will return for council consideration on June 22.

No more than three councilmembers would vote for any one of three alternative routes. (Shea, owner of a home near the current low-frequency transmission line, abstained.) Ronney Reynolds, Eric Mitchell, and Jackie Goodman want the line to run along the north shore of Town Lake, then jog up I-35 and cut left near Sanchez elementary on San Marcos Street before going to the downtown Seaholm plant, which is located on Cesar Chavez between the Lamar and First Street bridges.

Garcia, concerned about the proximity of the high-frequency lines to the children attending Sanchez, voted with Nofziger to simply have the lines hug the north shore of Town Lake until they reach Seaholm. The lines would run just south of a Holiday Inn and the Towers of Town Lake condominiums.

Todd, who cites the city's slow decision-making process as the primary reason that voters should consider selling the utility, would not vote for either alternative. He made no motion to hold a vote on the third alternative, which would take the transmission line just north of the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center on Waller and just south of Martin Junior High on Haskell Street.

The discussion got nasty when Mitchell suggested a difficult and tremendously expensive route that had not been seriously considered by the EUD. The route would jump south from the Holly plant across Town Lake, jog along the shore, then cross the lake again somewhere near Seaholm.

After Mitchell requested that EUD study his proposal, a visibly irritated Nofziger burst out that the idea was "ridiculous," that no Austinite would want a transmission line zig-zagging across the lake. To the audience's delight, Mitchell shot back: "Then why was it built in East Austin in the first place?"

The council also indefinitely postponed construction of a 10-story, $160,000 noise mitigation wall at Holly that would bear two controversial Aztec eagles, the result of design input by the Hispanic neighborhood around the plant. After some Austinites raised opposition to the symbol in May, Goodman requested that the Arts Commission offer input on the design. So far, construction of the wall has been delayed for a month. Since the Arts Commission input won't come until June 19, EUD officials recommend foregoing that input process, on the grounds that the delay could add an additional $50,000 to construction costs. n This week in council: The coun-cil meeting has been cancelled. The next one will be June 22.

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