BASEBALL BIAS?: The Austin American-Statesman did a service when it uncovered the fact that Priorities First!, the group fighting the proposed baseball stadium, was primarily funded by businessmen interested in building their own stadium. However, the Statesman has a conflict-of-interest problem of its own, say stadium opponents.
The daily paper has already inked a deal to sponsor the Class AAA team if Austinites pass the October 7 referendum for $10 million in bonds to build the stadium. Statesman publisher Roger Kintzel says that the terms of the agreement would garner the paper a sky-box, seat licenses, and advertising on outfield signs. The paper will pay the team $100,000 to become an official Swing sponsor, he says.
Priorities First! leader Jack Haden, who says he does not apologize for taking money from any source that helps fight public financing of baseball, contends that the Statesman is using daily articles about various aspects of the stadium to push its own agenda. "They run a front-page top story about baseball mascots ("Minor-league clubs employ major-league glitz," October 2), as if it were news," Haden says. "I'm appalled they have a secret deal while they continue to write stories and pretend to be unbiased."
The mascot story about a baseball marketing conference in El Paso was written by Statesman columnist Don McLeese, who had already penned a pro-stadium piece two weeks before. Statesman editor Richard Oppel admits that the article was not top-story material. "I thought it was fairly light too, and told my editors so the next day," Oppel says. "It was a slow news day." The paper has run other editorials and columns supporting the deal, and it recently published a glowing article about the stadium-as-music-venue which neglected to raise the opposition's argument that Austin doesn't need another music venue. "That doesn't strike me as any big deal," Oppel says. "I don't think we have to call the Flat Earth Society every time we report that the Earth is round."
Are the Statesman's higher-ups at all concerned that their coverage may appear slanted? Hardly. "It is silly to think that a newspaper as a major business in town does not contribute to civic activities, sports, and business endeavors of that community," Oppel says. "And it's silly to think that because it does, all coverage of those activities is tainted." Kintzel adds: "That's sick. . .[The bias issue] is a red herring on the part of Priorities First!."
Don't forget to vote on this issue on election day, Saturday, October 7. Call 499-2211 for information on your polling location. - A.D. GOOD VIBES FROM TU: By now, most everybody is aware of the triple-threat advantage that Texas Utilities Electric Co. (TU) has over competitors lusting to buy the city's $3 billion electric utility. With Mayor Bruce Todd's father-in-law George Christian, Todd's former executive aide Kristin Kessler, and Todd's two-time campaign manager Don Martin on the payroll as lobbyists and consultants, TU can certainly boast a pole-position on the inside track. But the state's largest electricity provider has found another way to edge out the other guys. In a "letter agreement" with the Electric Utility Department (EUD) penned this summer, TU offers the EUD preference over other utilities on excess wattage (up to 540 Megawatts, the same capacity of the soon-to-be-closed Holly Power Plant). Utilities often buy energy from other utilities on an hourly basis if excess capacity creates prices below home-grown electricity. No other utilities have made similar advances to the EUD.
To date, the EUD has taken advantage of the offer only once, purchasing half a day's worth of energy for $23,000 on August 21. Now that fall is here, however, when the city typically shuts down generating units for overhaul, the agreement may become more useful, says Milton Lee, the EUD's chief operating officer. "As the contract gets more developed and we get more comfortable with it, we might end up purchasing more."
Martin, of Don Martin Public Affairs, says TU came up with the generous offer to help the city in times of need. Asked if the agreement helps TU get a leg-up on the competition for either the replacement of Holly's power or a purchase of the utility, the mayor's personal friend replies, "It hasn't made any difference other than that it certainly gives the city more options."
Lee partially agrees, since the EUD isn't obligated to purchase anything from TU. He admits, however, that it could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. "It certainly helps us build a partnership for the future." - A.M.
HUMAN RIGHTS HIT HOME: As the U.S. gears up for the 1996 presidential race, a different election will be the focus of a conference at the University of Texas next week. "Cry of the Quetzal: Human Rights and the Electoral Process in Guatemala," sponsored by the Guatemala Support Network and the Guatemala Project, is expected to draw upwards of 1,500 people to participate in discussions on that country's upcoming congressional and presidential elections and hear speakers on such topics as human rights abuses, problems faced by refugees, and U.S. involvement in Guatemala.
Speakers will include Celerino Castille III, a former Drug Enforcement Agency special agent assigned to Guatemala from 1986 through 1991, who charges that the Guatemalan military intelligence was trained by the CIA and is responsible for thousands of missing people in that country; and Aparicio Cesario Hernandez Chilel, who negotiates with the Guatemalan government to allow refugees to return to their homes.
The conference may hold special interest for Texans who have followed the experiences of former Austin attorney Jennifer Harbury and Dallas filmmaker Daniel "Sky" Callahan. Harbury's husband, Mayan guerilla leader Efrain Bamaca, disappeared in 1992 and is believed by many activists to have been murdered by the Guatemalan military, with the possible involvement of the CIA. The CIA, in fact, fired two senior officials and disciplined seven others last Friday, in part for reportedly failing to keep Congress informed about Bamaca's disappearance, according to an article in the Austin-American Statesman.
Callahan was in Guatemala this summer filming interviews with peasant leaders, but was forced to return to the U.S. after being kidnapped and beaten by two men he suspected were working for the Guatemalan military. Callahan's video will be shown at the conference.
Registration for the two-day conference begins Friday, October 13 at 6pm in the University of Texas student union. The costs range from $30 for the public, to $7.50 for UT students and $15 for other students. For more information call the Guatemala Support Network at 478-7681. - A.B.
HOW MANY LAWYERS DOES IT TAKE? It's been a long time coming, but the Board of Trustees of the Austin Independent School District has finally made a decision about its legal services, voting unanimously September 23 to retain the firm Bickerstaff, Heath & Smiley as its new counsel.
School board member Tom Agnor says that the decision to replace McGinnis, Lockridge & Kilgore, the district's legal counsel since 1972, had nothing to do with the firm's performance. It's just that when the district decided to forge its first-ever formal contract for legal services, Agnor explains, it did not consider past relationships. McGinnis vied for the job along with 32 other firms, including finalists Small, Craig & Werkenthin, Webb & Webb, and Walsh, Anderson, Underwood, Schulze & Aldridge.
Board members cited Bickerstaff's diversity of legal talent within its ranks as a primary factor in their decision. Trustees expect to approve a contract with the firm at their next regular meeting on October 9. Action on new legal representation had been stalled since September 1993, when the board, headed by then-president Beatriz de la Garza, voted 5-4 to hire an-house attorney to handle the district's routine legal matters and to retain outside counsel for major litigation.
Throughout her term, de la Garza took strong issue with AISD's expenditures on legal services, which sometimes climbed as high as $600,000 per year. She contended that a paid employee of the district could perform many of the same functions at a fraction of the cost.
Mel Coleman, who was hired as the executive director of accountability, student services, and research for AISD last May, disagrees. Coleman, who worked with both in-house counsel and an outside firm in his previous position in Ohio, says that the services of a staff attorney tend be over-used, rendering that person less available for major legal work. And then an outside firm must be hired anyway, at its going rates, of course. - R.A.
OFF THE DESK: Former mayoral candidate Brian Kline, the 23-year-old geography teacher who spent the last council race attacking Mayor Bruce Todd's fiscal policies, will hit the campaign trail again. This time he will run for Brigid Shea's council seat. n