Off the Desk

Texas Attorney General Dan Morales' first assistant, Jorge Vega, is one step closer to a possible public reprimand or disbarment for his role in firing utilities specialist W. Scott McCollough. The Associated Press reported that on Monday, the State Bar's Commission for Lawyer Discipline accused Vega of "neglecting state agencies' interests in a utilities case and lying under oath in connection with McCollough's firing." An AG spokesperson contends that the charges have no merit... Blocking presidential nominations may be a spectator sport on Capitol Hill with scandals like Nannygate and Whitewatergate, but what about Freeportgate? Last week, as reported in the The Wall Street Journal, U.S. Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana withheld his vote on President Clinton's appointment of assistant treasury secretary Jeffrey Shafer as undersecretary to international affairs because of Shafer's connection to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Last month OPIC, for which Shafer serves as a board member, canceled the political risk insurance policy covering Freeport-McMoRan's Indonesian mining operations due to alleged environmental abuses. Sen. Breaux said he would continue to jeopardize approval of the appointment until Shafer offers proof justifying OPIC's decision to yank Freeport's insurance... Confused about Freeport? Professor Steven Feld, who resigned from UT last September to protest the university's ties to Freeport, will give his views on the developer's actions and relations with the school on Thursday, Dec. 7, on the West Mall at noon, along with the Chronicle's own Daryl Slusher. Feld will give a more in-depth presentation at 7pm in UTC 3.122. Call 459-3821 for more information... - A.D.

Christian conservatives gained more ground on the State Board of Education last week when Gov. George W. Bush appointed Republican Jose Garcia De Lara of San Antonio to replace Democrat Esteban Sosa, who resigned in September for health reasons. GOP boardmembers now have a 9-6 majority. The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reports that De Lara, a member of the Christian Coalition, supports using public funds to pay for private schools in the form of vouchers and sends his only child to Catholic school. - R.A.

Control the Controls

The new US290/Loop 1 Task Force hit the ground running at its first meeting last Friday, with some members questioning the environmental controls instituted to protect the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs from highway runoff. Seventeen area politicians, environmentalists, business, and civic leaders make up the task force, which is co-chaired by two State Representatives, Republican Susan Combs, and Democrat Sherri Greenberg. Austin Transportation Study (ATS) chair, Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, appointed the group in response to an outcry from the environmental community over continued funding of the US290 freeway. Environmentalists say that the highway construction is causing loads of silt to run into Barton Creek and Barton Springs, resulting in water degradation and endangering the Barton Springs salamander. To soothe those concerns, ATS representatives created the 290 task force to evaluate the effectiveness of the environmental controls, such as detention ponds, instituted by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) on south MoPac and US290.

At the task force's initial meeting on Friday, the issue of environmental controls leapt quickly to the forefront. TxDOT geologist Gary Lantrip said that the state has no standards for measuring and regulating the quality of stormwater runoff going into the aquifer. Current rules merely prescribe the water protection structures to be built, without providing performance standards regarding water quality. Richard Hamner, aide to Senator Barrientos, suggested that the question of performance standards be raised before the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) when it meets December 12 for its annual review of aquifer regulations. Rep. Greenberg said that when the ATS meets on December 11, it will consider sending a task force representative to the TNRCC meeting.

Another big issue arose when environmentalist and task force member Tim Jones said that the group should consider not only direct highway pollution of the aquifer, but also the secondary impacts brought on by the development for which the freeway paves the way. Greenberg argued that consideration of secondary impacts was beyond the charge of the task force, but Bee Cave representative Rick Wheeler agreed with Jones. "If we don't look outside the [US290] corridor, we're only looking at a small segment of what needs to be taken care of," he said, adding that the ultimate problems from US290 construction could come from "the proliferation of thousands of private water quality ponds, where they put maintenance at the bottom of their priorities."

Greenberg suggests that those wanting to get more involved attend the meeting of the task force's Technical Advisory Committee on December 15, at 9am in the Municipal Annex, 301 W. Second. The next meeting of the task force is tentatively scheduled for January 5, at 1:30pm in Room 036, Wing E2, of the new State Capitol Extension Building. Public hearings will be scheduled in the future as well. Call the ATS at 499-2275 for more info. - N.E.

Jail the Homeless?

The quandary of how best to get Austin's homeless off the streets will be in the spotlight at today's council meeting. For members of downtown business organizations like the Downtown Austin Alliance, a solution to the crisis depends on Mayor Bruce Todd's proposed "encampment" ordinance. The ordinance, which will make camping in public a Class C misdemeanor, has the votes to pass into law on third and final reading today. On the first two readings by councilmembers over the course of five months, Eric Mitchell has abstained and Brigid Shea and Jackie Goodman have voted nay.

Those councilmembers, along with supporters of the homeless, say the solution must also include a homeless shelter as an alternative to getting a ticket. The Homeless Resolution Task Force, a committee formed by the city council to pursue such a facility, has recommended a $3.5 million shelter. It would cost about $1.5 million a year to operate, would probably be located on publicly owned land in a still-undetermined location, and would include a job-training program, health care, and an education center, among other services. The council has commended the idea, but resistance, especially from the mayor, has arisen over the proposed cost. Richard Troxell, president of House the Homeless and a task force member, says public dollars would represent only a small portion of the expense. "We believe if the city embraces the idea and endorses it with a resolution, we could go to corporations within the city and we believe we could, having identified philanthropic dollars, have a premier facility," he says.

The courts seem to be on Troxell's side. A Dallas law similar to the mayor's encampment ordinance was branded unconstitutional by a federal court last year. Like Austin, which has only 417 shelter beds for an estimated 6,000 homeless, Dallas simply didn't have enough beds for everyone. So the court ruled that the homeless shouldn't be punished for sleeping in public when there is no immediate alternative. House the Homeless has consistently threatened to sue if the encampment ordinance passes. - A.M.

Wise Guys Finish Last

Is it literally possible to be too smart for your own good? That's the claim of the majority of respondents in a study released last month by Public Agenda, a policy research group based in Washington, D.C. Most participants in the study, entitled "Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of Education Reform," found that fostering curiosity and a love of learning in young children is good - 61% of parents with school-age children and 57% of the general public said so. But after some unspecified period, if children don't like a subject or don't see the real-world application of their schooling, they shouldn't be pushed into advanced academic studies. Many perceived that studying literature, especially, makes a person dull, elitist, impractical, or, most importantly, hard to deal with in the work place.

"I wouldn't sic Shakespeare on anybody," one man is quoted as saying.

"There are a lot of people with no education who are billionaires," said another.

Some 71% of respondents said they agreed that "book smart" people "lack the common sense and understanding of regular folks."

They told Public Agenda researchers that "well- roundedness," including good interpersonal skills, is more useful and desirable than being highly educated. One woman said, "`If you just focus on the brain, it becomes too tedious.'"

While this apparent disdain for "useless" education may alarm some people, the president of a local teachers' union reads a different message in Public Agenda's findings. "We are in danger of having a large percentage of the population functionally illiterate," said Louis Malfaro of the Austin Federation of Teachers. "If there is a consensus, it's that students need to learn the basics in school." - R.A.

Ties That Bond

Although formalities have so far been at a premium, high-profile Austinites Willie Kocurek and Elizabeth Christian will lead the effort to coalesce interested volunteers into a bond campaign committee for the Austin Independent School District (AISD). Former bond advisory committee chair Mel Waxler, who had repeatedly said he would not spearhead the campaign to pass a proposed $370 million package, had been acting in an ad hoc fashion within the business community (at the behest of AISD superintendent Jim Fox) to find leaders. Former school board president Kocurek "seemed like a natural;" a number of people also put Christian's name in the hopper and she replied yes, Waxler said. Christian is the spouse of Mayor Bruce Todd, parent of an AISD elementary school student, and head of her own public relations firm.

Christian said the next steps in the bond campaign process are to find volunteers and gratis headquarters space, and to set up a com-mittee structure. The first meeting to recruit vol-unteers will be held December 14 at 5:30pm (location to be announced). Christian intends to have the machine in motion by the time the AISD Board of Trustees votes on a bond package in January. She said she senses that although people are always worried about rising property taxes, interest in passing the bonds is also rising. "A good school district is essential to protecting property values and the tax base," Christian

said. "It's a `property rights' issue, if you will."- R.A.

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