Today is expected to be Eric Mitchell's biggest day as an officeholder yet. The newest and most volatile councilmember, who has publicly called some environmentalists "assholes" and who regularly accuses his colleagues of skullduggery, will see his brand of divisive politics put to the test when the council votes whether to accept an $8.8 million federal loan for the Central City Entertainment Center (CCEC), aka Rosewood.
Two councilmembers in addition to Mitchell - Jackie Goodman and Gus Garcia - are expected to approve the Housing and Urban Development loan, which will help pay for a 16-lane bowling alley, a roller-skating rink, and other amenities. The rest of the council, save for Max Nofziger, who could not be reached, and Brigid Shea, who will be out of town today, say they are waiting for more information on whether the loan is the best funding option.
The council already unanimously approved $275,000 for previous phases of the plan, like architectural design and consulting work. Never mind that $8.7 million of the 20-year debt service on the loan is expected to be paid for with Community Development Block Grants, funds normally used to provide low-income housing. Never mind that the other $8.7 million in debt service is supposed to come from the general fund, potentially increasing property taxes and sqeezing out other city projects. Never mind that not a penny is slated for educational programs at the center.
Political observers say that Mitchell's success in seeing the project through can be summed up in seven words: What Eric Mitchell wants, Eric Mitchell gets. It's a phrase that also applies to Mitchell's $75 million plan, called the Austin Redevelopment Authority (ARA), to take advantage of the city's eminent domain powers to, as he described it, "wipe... out" much of the 11th and 12th street corridor east of I-35, and turn it into a commercial and business district. For the ARA, the council unanimously voted this spring to apply for a Housing and Urban Development loan, and spend $60,000 on a market study.
Both projects - Mitchell's most talked about accomplishments in his first year in office - have drawn praise from much of the East Austin community. Many residents there say that Mitchell has worked harder in one year than former Place 6 Councilmember Charles Urdy did in eight. Gushes Dorothy Turner, president of the Black Citizens' Task Force, "He's done a fantastic job. Best we [East Austin residents] have ever had."
Even those who despise his incendiary politics have found respect for the dedication and energy he's showed over the past year. "Thank goodness we've finally got someone who cares about East Austin," says Mark Rogers, a board member of the Guadalupe Association for Improved Neighborhoods. "The problem is, who is he going to benefit in the long-term?"
Rogers, a white, East Austin resident, complains that Mitchell intentionally avoids input from East Austin Hispanics and whites, and even from some blacks who oppose his policies. Rogers feels that Mitchell's projects have left the East Austin community divided along ethnic lines, and that Mitchell has only aggravated the tensions between the Hispan-ic and black neighborhoods there.
Portia Watson, a black member of the Chestnut Hill Neighborhood Association, agrees, saying that Mitchell has left much of the black community divided. She says that Mitchell's success can partly be attributed to his method of excluding opposing voices. "When he has these so-called town meetings, he makes sure that those in opposition don't get their notices until the day of the meeting, or sometime after, but
everybody else gets theirs earlier."
Mitchell would not respond to repeated requests for an interview; it's no secret that he considers the media his enemy. "You tell your editors I said, `Up yours!'" he once shouted at this reporter in answer to a question following a council meeting. Nor is the media his only target for invective. In a January 25 memo to Assistant City Manager Oscar Rod-riguez regarding the ARA, Mitchell warns city staff "not to waste a lot of time talking to individuals or groups that have a history of being negative or opposing everything that is brought forward without ever offering positive, concrete solutions to issues.
"If this happens, I will view these
actions as a deliberate attempt to undermine these initiatives hoping they will fail to receive the neces-sary support from Council and the community at large," he wrote.
Mitchell has found moderate success with Shea, often considered Mitchell's primary opponent on most issues: She has supported both of his projects, though with some doubts about the costs. She says part of his ability to win over the rest of the council can be attributed to "race-baiting" - Mitchell's tendency to launch into accusatory tirades after not getting his way, charging councilmembers with lack of sincere concern for East Austin residents.
After being on the losing end of the February 23 vote to extend sewage lines to Barton Creek Properties, for example, Mitchell accused the predominantly white environmentalist crowd of working only for the betterment of West
Austin while entirely excluding blacks
in East Austin. On June 7, after the council selected downtown instead of East Austin as a location for a new City Hall, he accused the rest of the council of rhetoric when it comes to helping East Austin, even though they have unanimously supported ARA and CCEC.
If Mitchell hasn't directly accused the other councilmembers of wrongdoing, he encourages his supporters to do so. For example, Dorothy Turner, during a citizens' communication on March 23, accused all the councilmembers but Mitchell of calling an East Austin public meeting at an inaccesible location in order to keep the East Austin crowd to a minimum. During the rant, Turner accused the rest of the council of being the most "racist bunch of hypocrites" to hold office in Austin. Mitchell made no effort to stick up for the rest of the council, even though the city manager's office, not the councilmembers, had selected the meeting place.
Despite Mitchell's antagonistic behavior, he continues to curry the favor of the council. Garcia "admires" Mitchell for his passion on issues. Goodman says that Mitchell, since his first six months on the council when he spoke with no other member but Goodman and Reynolds, has learned to get along with the councilmembers.
Both scoff at the idea that "race-baiting" has influenced their decisions on Mitchell projects. They say he just has good ideas.
Both think the entertainment center, to be located at 2334 Rosewood - across the street from the Booker T. Washington projects on one side and a neighborhood of retirees on another - can turn a profit. The M. Crane & Associates study shows differently: If debt service and capital costs are included in the estimates, the project, in a best-case scenario, will lose $950,000 a year.
Watson sees the council's acceptance of the Mitchell's plans in a different light: "The general consensus of all councilmembers is to do something with East Austin, and since he's got a plan and nobody else does, I guess that accounts for that." n The only council action to occur last week took place at the council's housing subcommittee meeting on June 13. During the meeting, two applications for Eastside development were shown to be in conflict, causing Mitchell to shout, "I'm pissed!" before exiting the meeting, and leaving the committee quorumless. The application's overlap centered on tracts of city-owned land on 11th Street just east of I-35.
Van Johnson, representing the Neighborhood Conservation and Combining District, said the district wants to use the tracts for commercial and business purposes, coinciding with Mitchell's aforementioned ARA plan. Cloteal Haynes, ex-city official and now a representative of the Anderson Neighborhood Development Corp., wants the land to be used for rental housing under the SCIP II (Scattered Co-operative Infill Housing) low-income housing plan.
A resolution to do that was ex-pected to pass, before the conflict was pointed out. Mitchell, who wanted the land to go to SCIP II, blamed city staff for the confusion before suddenly departing. "This is a direct attempt to not do what I want to do," he shouted. That left only the chair, Goodman, since Garcia had left earlier and Todd and Shea did not attend the meeting. Goodman continued the meeting, however, letting the two parties publicly voice their comments. Five minutes later, Garcia and Mitchell returned. Garcia made a motion to postpone the item, and the three councilmembers voted yea. n This week in council: In addition to voting on whether to accept the loan for Rosewood and on where to route the transmission line between the Holly and Seaholm power plants, the council will decide whether to appeal the FM Properties Operating Co. v. City of Austin case. n