Council Watch

Clothes, Water Quality, and Entertainment

No matter what legacy Eric Mitchell leaves after his political junket ends, Austin will never forget his contributions to the ailing state of fashion in local politics. Why, even Max Nofziger was reportedly seen sporting a necktie at last Thursday's meeting. Overall, Mitchell's colleagues are still decades from challenging his glamour, but they should take it in stride. Mitchell has one trump card the others don't: Much of his spending allowance originates in the city's treasury.

That's because Mitchell's insur-ance company, Wormley, Mitchell, & Associates, is occasionally listed as a subcontractor by companies hoping to secure city contracts. On at least two occasions, the attempts have paid off for Mitchell:

* Three months before Mitchell was elected in May, 1994, the council approved a $262,000 contract for Rodriguez Engineering Laboratories to do material testing services for the Public Works and Transportation Department. Then, on May 11 of this year, the contract was amended to add another $175,000; Mitchell abstained from the vote. For the total contract, Mitchell's company is expected to receive $62,000. His most recent payment for the contract came on June 15, bringing his total take up to that point to slightly under $41,000, according to Rodriguez Engineering's monthly subcontractor report.

* As reported here in July, on Dec. 8, 1994 the council unanimously - Mitchell included - approved a $120,000 contract with Rodriguez Engineering for materials testing at the new airport. Mitchell's company is expected to receive 5% of the contract, or $6,000.

And at a Wednesday Work Session on August 11, Mitchell's card came up again, this time in the form of a vote to award a $700,000 contract for Central Library renovations to Hilman Constructors, a company that uses insurance provided by Mitchell's company. Unfortunately for Mitchell, Hilman lost the bid.

While the city's ethics code states that no councilmember shall receive any financial "benefit from any contract with the city," city manager Jesus Garza says that Mitchell's company is not in the wrong, since it does not provide "project-specific" insurance to the companies, but instead underwrites their insurance policy.

Mitchell, too, claims innocence, and said at the Work Session that his company, which is certified with the city as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), had been incorrectly listed as a subcontractor since he was only providing insurance. (The more DBE subcontractors a firm lists, the higher the chances the firm will wrest the city contract from other competitors.) Currently, however, listing general insurers as subcontractors is not restricted in the city's DBE ordinance. "There aren't any clear guidelines" about the type of company that may or may not be listed as a subcontractor, says Marcia Conner, assistant city manager.

And while the businesses may have listed Mitchell's company on their own volition, the best-dressed councilmember wouldn't be in this pickle if Wormley, Mitchell, & Associates hadn't been recently recertified as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) at the city's Small and Minority Business Resource Center (SMBR). An SMBR official, speaking anonymously, claims that the SMBR office sent a certification application to Mitchell himself in June. The application was filled out and returned later that month, and Mitchell's company was promptly recertified as a DBE. The only reason to become a DBE is to win city subcontracts or contracts.

The city's Ethics Review Commission has not looked into the potential "conflict of interest," according to commissioner Jett Hanna. To do so, he says, the commission would have to receive a formal complaint from a citizen. "It's certainly something we'd take a look at."

In the future, Mitchell's problems may be solved, though not necessarily by his own actions; the ordinance that defines a DBE is undergoing changes to eliminate the subcontractual listing of companies that are "peripheral" to the completion of a city project, like printing houses or insurance providers. "If the services your company provides don't have a direct benefit to the project, then that would not count on the [minority] goal," says Conner. The new rules were in the works months before Mitchell's subcontracts were discovered in June, and should take effect October 2.

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In addition to Mitchell's flashy dress, his behavioral flair took center stage at last Thursday's meeting. The display came after Nofziger protested an agenda item to pay for $600,000 worth of architectural work on Mitchell's pet project, the Central City Enter-tainment Center, with Community Development Block Grants. CDBGs are federal monies normally used to provide low-income housing. During the discussion, Nofziger complained that affordable housing is a higher priority than "subsidized bowling." Mitchell spurned Nofziger's comments by turning away in his "Relax the Back" chair; besides manifesting his disinterest, the exhibition may have spared the public from an outburst like the one on Aug. 16, when Mitchell protested a similar Nofziger speech by shouting, "Screw you!"

During the vote, Bruce Todd was in Seattle, and Brigid Shea was off the dais. The item passed first reading with only Nofziger voting no, but Mitchell and his "other half," Ronney Reynolds, hoping to pass the item on all three readings and needing five votes to do so, called for another vote upon Shea's return. Shea, who had been absent from the vote in June which essentially approved the center, abstained.

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Shea stole Mitchell's spotlight on the vote to bring water-quality regulations in East and Southeast Austin into agreement with more stringent regulations in the rest of the city's extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ), in accordance with Senate Bill 14. Developer-friendly Reynolds asked city staff numerous questions about the legality of the new ordinance, perhaps to allow time for Judge Joe Hart to approve a request for a temporary restraining order filed by a local citizen (thus preventing council deliberation). Shea, suspecting Reynolds' motive, "called the question" to halt debate and bring the matter to a vote. Mitchell abstained. Reynolds voted no. The rest of the council approved the ordinance.

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Finally, the council voted 5-0 to waive $400 in fees charged to the new Seventh Street Market entre-preneurs who want to close Trinity Street between 7th and 8th Streets for four Sundays this month.

With the item coming at the tail end of the meeting, getting five votes to approve the waiver on only one reading provided the evening's main entertainment. As occasionally is the case, Nofziger could not be found. His jacket and other possessions were still in his seat, but a search by a council aide bore no Nofziger. No wonder, since once again, the ever-aloof council-member had left the meeting without telling his co-workers.

That avenue exhausted, the four councilmembers on the dais solicited the help of a council aide to bring the MIA Mitchell to the dais. Mitchell, according to constant intimations by Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia, was backstage relieving himself in the reading room. After a brief interlude, the aide returned, stating that Mitchell wouldn't come to the dais. The four councilmembers fumbled with a series of solutions, until Mitchell made a surprise appearance and cast the fifth approving vote.

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This week in council: Members have the day off to ready for the

ever-hellacious budget week, which begins officially on Sept. 11. n

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