UNDER THE RUG: Lance Winters, a 13-year city employee known for his outspoken citizen advocacy, has been informed that he is a casualty of the belt-tightening proposed by the1995-96 budget. Winters' boss, City Clerk Elden Aldridge, says he was under orders to cut his department's budget by 6%, and that he did so by transferring Winters' job - along with another position - to a different department. "I really had no other choice," he says.
Winters' supporters, however, suspect the city's motives. "Are they trying to penalize him because he's an advocate of the citizens?" asks Mack DeLeon, Ronney Reynolds' appointee to the Human Rights Commission. "Is it because he spoke up during the forum? Did they answer him by saying you're fired? It sure appears that way."
To begin with, Winters, who makes $20,000 a year, has more experience than eight of the 11 employees in the clerk's office. Adding credence to the suspicions, says DeLeon, is the harsh and swift way that the clerk's office dealt out Winters' termination.
Though the council is not scheduled to accept the proposed budget and hence, the dismissal, until mid-September, Winters was asked to pack his belongings and leave on July 26, the same day he received his termination notice. In fact, even before Winters arrived to work that day, a locksmith had already begun changing the locks to the all of the department's offices. "I did not want him... to have access to the building," admits Aldridge. Winters says he immediately fell ill and went home, unable to remove his belongings. The following day, with Winters still absent from work, the clerk's office ordered an employee to box Winters' items.
Winters, whose tasks included the publication of ordinances, thinks the reason for the rushed dismissal is simple: after years of his criticizing city government, the powers that be no longer trust his proximity to sometimes privileged information. "The objective is to oust an advocate of the people," says Winters. "That's what it boils down to."
Beginning in 1991, Winters, who calls himself the "Citizen Advocate," appeared weekly during Channel 6 public news conferences to distribute information about bureaucratic wrongdoings or mismanagement. A year later, with the news conferences at their height of popularity, then-City manager Camille Barnett severely restricted Winters' access by allowing each citizen only 10 news shows per year. The new regulations also required each citizen speaker to sign a document stating that the shows may not be aired depending on the content. Thereafter, Winters began utilizing the citizens' communication portion of the council meetings to denounce the altered regulations as a First Amendment infringment.
The controversy came to a head during Channel 6's 10-year celebration on June 15. The mayor, among a panel of guests responding to questions from the public, was asked by Winters for an explanation of the altered regulations. The mayor responded that "city management" felt that limiting the amount of conferences for each citizen would "encourage a broad base of participation."
Winters, who points out that weeks now go by without a single speaker signed up, replied "Why not let [the public] come in week after week to do their own show, just like city staff does?" The mayor did not respond then, but thereafter, says Winters, mayoral employees began a campaign of "psychological warfare. They refused to greet me, and they would turn their heads as I came down the hallway."
Mayor Todd could not be reached for comment. Aldridge has granted Winters his paycheck until October 2, and has advised him to seek other city employment at the Human Resources Department.- A.M.
BACK TO SCHOOL, ALREADY? Once upon a time, the school year always began some time after Labor Day, and ended some time after Memorial Day. But for some time now, school has been starting earlier and earlier every year. For the second year in a row, the Austin Independent School District (AISD) is starting its calendar three weeks before the Labor Day holiday - Monday, August 14.
Why the early start? The reason is twofold, says AISD spokesman Jeff Prescott, who headed the calendar committee in 1993. Parents, students, and teachers - especially at the secondary school level - all wanted to end the first semester before the winter break in December. Many people found it difficult to rebound from the two-week hiatus over Christmas and New Year's in time for final exams in January.
The second reason is that the AISD administration hoped to curb late registration and admission. In the years when school started a week before Labor Day, literally thousands of parents did not send their children to school until after the holiday - the proper, "traditional" time to return to school. This situation made it impossible for principals to know exactly how many teachers to hire, rendering the campus unstable for several more weeks. The calendar committee speculated that parents would be much more reluctant to allow their children to miss three weeks of instruction, instead of just one, and thus, would be more likely to comply with the start date.
But the earlier start has had little or no effect on late admissions. Last year, 7,039 children still showed up at their schools a week late - a figure that is comparable to enrollment patterns of previous years. Another 2,247 students enrolled in AISD over the next five weeks. The district's enrollment in 1994-95 was 73,342 by the end of the first six weeks; enrollment is expected to be 74,885 by the end of the first six weeks in 1995-96, says Dan Robertson, AISD's director of planning and development.
The AISD Office of Student Records (414-1726) can help you find your assigned school and get your child registered, if you have not already done so. If you know where your child is supposed to attend school, you may register on campus before the first day. You'll need proof of immunization and school supplies (lists are available on campus) to be admitted. Low-income families can get financial assistance with school supplies on campus, courtesy of For the Children. If you need information on student transportation, call 414-2370. - R.A.
BIRTH OF A WISE-USE NATION: If all goes as expected, national property rights groups may be coming to Austin in the future with hands outstretched. The Farm Credit Property Rights Foundation, based out of the Farm Credit Bank of Texas on US 290, has set forth on a mission "[T]o serve as an educational and research organization that actively protects property rights."
In its first newsletter, dateline July, the non-profit group exorts supporters to donate, saying "[t]he main function of the Foundation is to raise money for the property rights movement. This is not a short-term project; it will take years to `correct' the wrongs, rewrite the laws and try the lawsuits necessary to restore what the Founding Fathers envisioned."
So far, that has meant collecting more than $1.1 million in donations, and doling portions of that money out to groups like the New York-based Alliance for America, the conservative National Policy Forum, and American Loggers Solidarity in Washington state.
Dan Byfield, president of the foundation's board, works for the Farm Credit Bank, and is the contact for a national conference scheduled for the end of August at the Austin Marriott on "The Future of Property Rights." Speakers will include Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, and Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho).
A former Austinite and environmental activist says he attended a similar conference in Arizona last month, where Byfield spoke, introducing his organization and passing out copies of their newletter. The activist (who asked not to be named, as he wants to go to future conferences incognito) says that leaders in that conference hammered home three points: "First, they're trying to paint property rights as civil rights. Second, they use the Endangered Species Act as an example of nameless, faceless government bureaucrats turned extremist environmentalists who hate people. And third, they try to portray radical environmentalists as terrorists, and polluters as the real environmentalists."
According to the foundation's newsletter, the group expects more than 250 people to attend the conference, "all of whom will leave with a conference manual consisting of source documents, case information, and legal strategies." For more information, call Byfield at 465-0400. - A.B.
NUCLEAR PETITIONS: The French may have slowed down the Rainbow Warrior's efforts to protest the planned testing of eight nuclear bombs this fall in French Polynesia, but Greenpeace has not given up the fight. The ship will be returning to Moruroa in September, joined by two other Greenpeace vessels and ships from all over the world, including an unarmed New Zealand naval ship, and a traditional ocean canoe from the Cook Islands, to again try to stop the bombs.
French officials seized the Rainbow Warrior last month when it sailed near Moruroa to protest the planned tests, and to publicize support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, currently being negotiated in Switzerland. The seizure occurred exactly 10 years after the French bombed the Rainbow Warrior as it was docked in New Zealand, leaving a Greenpeace photographer dead.
Landlocked Austinites can join the fray by signing one of Greenpeace's petitions to the French, protesting the tests. The group is trying to gather five million signatures in 160 countries by September 1. Austin's goal, says local director Bill Jackson, is 30,000. "We're working internationally to put pressure on France to show them that the whole world is watching," Jackson says. So far, Austin Greenpeacers have gathered about 3,000 signatures by canvassing places like Whole Foods, Sixth Street, and the Drag. For more info on the French nuclear tests, to get a copy of the petition, or to volunteer, call 474-2117, or stop by Greenpeace offices at 1403 Rio Grande. - A.B.