Off the Desk:
The debate over UT's connections to Freeport-McMoRan is starting to get heated, but UT Chancellor William Cunningham continues his vigil of silence. On Monday, the Chronicle once again asked Cunningham for an interview to discuss his relationship with Freeport and the company's gold mining activities in Irian Jaya; his office did not return repeated phone calls. As Statesman editor Rich Oppel wrote last Sunday, Cunningham's silence on this issue "is deafening"... Sources in New Orleans report that Freeport spokesperson Garland Robinette, once the most famous news anchor in the city for WWL-TV, was lured away by an offer from Freeport of $250,000 in annual salary, $5 mil-lion in company stock options if he stayed for five years, plus a loan of several hundred thousand dollars to purchase a home. Wonder if Bill Collier, our own local Freeport spokesperson and one-time lead environmental reporter for the Statesman, was seduced by a similar offer?... Forget football: Freeport's half-hour infomercial on its mine in Indonesia airs Saturday, Nov. 25, 6am on K-EYE 42 and 9am on cable ch. 61; and Sunday, Nov. 26, 7:30am on cable ch. 35. - R.B.
Erik Moebius, the Austin attorney who has been trying to prove a web of
judicial misconduct for the past several years, was disbarred last Monday after
a long trial. A 12-person jury determined that Moebius, who was profiled by the
Chronicle on October 27, committed acts of misconduct on nine of the 14
counts brought against him by the State Bar of Texas. The decision to disbar
Moebius was rendered by Judge M. Kent Sims, a visiting judge from the
Panhandle. The court also determined that Moebius must pay attorney's fees
incurred by the Bar, which amount to some $175,000. That comes on top of the
$60,000 in sanctions which have been levied against Moebius by various judges
over the past few months. The decision to disbar the attorney ends a
year's-long legal odyssey which pitted Moebius against a variety of judges and
attorneys. And while Moebius now faces financial ruin and a difficult future,
his clients, particularly Abelia Garcia and her disabled son, Herman Garcia,
will have to find someone else to take their case. The Bar and attorney Mike
McKetta may have prevailed in the trial, but it is very difficult to say that
anyone involved actually won. - R.B.
What many call the flagship project of "affordable" housing has suffered a
potentially fatal setback last week that opponents say may be an indication of
its flawed design.
City housing officials in charge of the Scattered Co-operative Infill Housing Program (SCIP II), an initiative to build 100 single-family rental houses in the Anderson neighborhood of Central East Austin, failed to secure $5 million in low-income tax credits. The decision comes down from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which awards tax credits throughout the state on the basis of a point system. The tax credits are the SCIP II's primary source of funding, and, to make matters worse, the credit denial triggers the expiration of an agreement SCIP II contractors had with the Austin Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC); AHFC would have given $1.8 million in grants and city-owned land to the project if SCIP II had secured the credits.
Gene Watkins, Austin's former housing director and now a SCIP II co-developer with the Anderson Development Corporation, says that losing the bid for tax credits should not cast doubt on the merits of the project. "We lost because there's a limited number of tax credits," Watkins said.
Residents who live adjacent to Anderson in the Guadalupe neighborhood, however, say the project simply doesn't warrant support. "I don't have any doubt that [SCIP II] would hurt the neighborhood," says Mark Rogers of the Guadalupe Association of Independent Neighborhoods (GAIN). "One hundred rental homes in this small area? I can't imagine that neighborhood being a good neighborhood."
Another problem, says Rogers, is that the project would guarantee neighborhood gentrification. The median income in the area, according to the 1990 census, is less than $9,000. The three-bedroom, two-car garage houses would rent for $575 a month, or $6,900 a year - a higher price than the average resident could bear.
GAIN's complaints may have played a part in the project's rejection. Before the state housing department's decision, GAIN members submitted a petition to the agency with nearly 80 signatures protesting the awarding of credits to SCIP II. The petition, Rogers says, may have been the "final nail in the coffin."
But Watkins says SCIP II isn't dead yet. He maintains that projects usually receive two or three tax credit rejections before approval. In the meantime, to increase SCIP II's attractiveness, Watkins plans to add more social service components like home-ownership training, credit counseling, and homework services for children. As for the AHFC's $1.8 million gift, Watkins is asking the city-owned corporation to extend its option until the next round of tax credit applications in March. - A.M.
A "citizens' hearing" last week on pollution of the Edwards Aquifer began as a
panel discussion, but later turned into a grilling of local transportation
officials who recently voted to continue funding the US290 project, aka
"the aquifer freeway." More than a dozen environmental and University of Texas
groups sponsored the hearing held at the LBJ Library on November 15. They
invited all 17 members of the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) to attend, but
only State Representatives Sherri Greenberg and Elliot Naishtat showed up.
State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, State Representative Glen Maxey, and Travis
County Commissioner Margaret Gomez sent aides to represent them.
UT Zoology professor Mark Kirkpatrick told an audience of about 150 that the Barton Springs Salamander may be the most endangered invertebrate in North America. He said that ineffective Texas Department of Transportation (TXDoT) runoff controls imposed at highway construction sites above the aquifer have allowed massive amounts of silt to pour into the Springs. "Silt clobbers the habitat of the salamander," Kirkpatrick said. The sandy sediment clogs its gills, covers the gravel where it hides from predators and deposits its eggs, and carries toxic materials into Barton Springs.
City of Austin biologist Robert Hansen bolstered Kilpatrick's account, adding that the pool has closed 19 times this year because of poor visibility caused by silt.
Nico Hauwert, hydrogeologist for the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, said that several wells that he monitored near the Loop 360/US290 interchange have filled up to 150 feet with sediment. Helen Besse, former mayor of Sunset Valley, said that the water coming from her well after a rain looks like "chocolate milk."
Helen Ballew, Director of the Hill Country Foundation, told the audience that Austin citizens worked hard on the Austin Tomorrow Plan during the 1970s to direct growth away from the aquifer. Then in the decade that followed, she said, $1.5 billion of public money was spent on infrastructure to encourage growth over the aquifer. Public subsidy of growth continues, she added, citing $236 mil-lion earmarked for new highway projects over the aquifer recharge zone, as well as plans for schools, and water and sewage lines.
After the panel discussion, the audience directed heated questions at the ATS representatives, demanding accountability for an endangered aquifer. Representatives Naishtat and Greenberg said that the best hope for legislative protection of the aquifer would be for Austinites to form alliances with environmentalists in other parts of the state, and convince them to pressure their legislators to stop bashing Austin. Richard Hamner, aide to Senator Barrientos, reminded the audience that Austin citizens voted for MoPac south and US290 freeways, while the City of Austin provided the water and wastewater infrastructure for growth over the aquifer. The ATS has to provide the roads to follow population growth, said Hamner.
"Roads don't follow population; they follow population projections made by ATS staff," retorted SOS Legal Defense Fund attorney Bill Bunch. He cited the hundreds of acres of vacant land surrounding MoPac south as evidence that freeways are built to encourage growth rather than in response to it.
Moderator Jim Baldauf concluded the hearing by praising the ATS representatives for facing the fed-up environmentalists. "It took courage to be here tonight." - N.E.