Off the Desk
In a damning assessment of Freeport-McMoRan's role as a business operating in Indonesia, Tim Wirth, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, characterized the New Orleans-based developer as the de facto government of Irian Jaya. According to a December 24 story by Italian-based Inter Press news service (IPS) recounting environmental and human rights problems at the Indonesian mine owned and operated by Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, Wirth described Freeport as being in "the sort of colonial position of 100 years ago." In a fax to IPS, Freeport denied it acted as employer and government, claiming it "operates under its host's government laws and respects the jurisdiction of the military..." -- R.B.
Veteran politician Lee Cooke, who served as Austin's business-booster mayor from 1988-1991 and councilmember from 1977-1981, is lending his name to a new generation. Cooke was named honorary chair of 23-year-old Brian "the Kid" Kline's campaign for Brigid Shea's seat on the city council. Kline first got to know Cooke while running for mayor last year, and says he wanted to call on Cooke's experience again. Cooke says he's glad to give the fiscally conservative Kline advice: "I don't see many people his age wanting to jump into city council positions."... Capital Metro will begin a new bus route on January 16 that could save Central East Austinites cash. The route, dubbed the Eastside Circulator, will run through several Central East Austin neighborhoods for the sole purpose of transporting residents, who may normally be stuck shopping at expensive convenience stores for groceries, to discount supermarkets. The destinations are the H.E.B. on Riverside and Pleasant Valley, and the Fiesta at I-35 and 38th St. Call 474-1200 for route information. -- A.D.
Members of the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA), the non-profit board
that will decide how to spend $9 million in federal monies to redevelop
properties on E. 11th and 12th Streets, assured the city that they would not
attempt to enrich themselves by speculating on land in the area in which they
will be dispensing money. However, documents filed at the county clerk's office
indicate that on November 22, ARA board member Cal E. Varner purchased two
adjacent lots in the heart of the area to be redeveloped six weeks after the
board was incorporated, and one week after the board was accepted by the city
ARA Board Member Helps Himself
Varner, who is a lobbyist and real estate developer, did not return repeated phone calls. Neither did Herman Lessard, president of the ARA. When first informed of the purchase, act-ing city manager Oscar Rodriguez's reaction was one of shock. "I'm incredulous," he said.
Rodriguez, who is on the team negotiating a contract between the city and the ARA board, explained that the purchase was probably legal, but could represent a conflict-of-interest. "We told [the ARA board] that we don't want this whole thing tainted by charges of self-enrichment... they said it wouldn't be a problem," Rodriguez recalled. "It's real important for the people who make decisions on funding not to be in a conflict-of-interest situation."
The two lots Varner acquired house a boarded-up building and a parking lot at 1211 E. 11th, across the intersection from where Varner's office, Varner Associates, is located. According to papers filed at the Travis County Appraisal District, the total value of the land is $34,159. Although Varner would not speak to the Chronicle, in a later interview, Rodriguez said he successfully contacted Varner, who informed him that he had been eyeing the property before he became an ARA board member. According to Rodriguez, Varner said that he would not attempt to resell the land for profit, despite the fact that one of the purposes of the board is to acquire land within the ARA.
"Anybody on a non-profit board who did what he did would be fired," retorts Eastside neighborhood activist Mark Rogers.
The city will likely demand that ARA board members be prohibited from investing in the area as part of its contract, Rodriguez said. -- A.D.
Citing an overburdened schedule, Councilmember Gus Garcia resigned from the
City Council Housing Subcommittee on Tuesday. In a letter to Subcommittee Chair
Jackie Goodman, the four-year subcommittee veteran said that his membership on
other advisory boards would require more of his attention.
Quitting the Circus
"I'd been thinking that in 1996 I wanted to have a little more focus," Garcia said Wednesday. "I sit on every damn council subcommittee there is."
But a city hall employee says Garcia has become increasingly distressed over Goodman's handling of the subcommittee. With subcommittee member Eric Mitchell usually taking center-stage, a circus-like atmosphere with heated exchanges often reigns supreme. "He's not very happy with the way the meetings are run. There were some very acrimonious meetings and he didn't like it," says the source. Adding to the speculation that Garcia was angry was the fact that he didn't give his resignation letter to Goodman until 45 minutes before the meeting started.
Indeed, Garcia admits that he was "substantially concerned about some pretty nasty discussions, in particular the Swede Hill meeting." (At that meeting Mitchell told a Swede Hill neighborhood resident who was protesting a proposed housing development, "Up yours!") "I won't pass judgement on anyone, but the chair should have controlled it better," added Garcia. Goodman's response: "I always believe in letting people speak. To me, that's democracy." -- A.M.
A report from city staff on how to bankroll a Downtown Art Museum will be
released January 15, according to a January 3 memo from the former head of the
Parks and Recreation Department, Mike Heitz. (Last week, Heitz became the
director of the newborn Drainage Utility Department.) After a request from the
mayor last October, parks staff and representatives from the Austin Museum of
Art (AMA) began discussing financing options.
Austin voters had already approved a
$14.7 million bond issuance for an Art Museum in 1985. But although the AMA went about raising $750,000 to purchase downtown land for the museum, the city never put the project on the burner, or even the back burner for that matter, and $3 million of the bond issuance is no longer available. Meanwhile, the projected cost of the museum rose, and the city's Public Works Department estimated an $18.9 million price-tag in February, 1994. Now public works staff say the project could cost an additional $3 million. With the expense of a new museum rising almost as fast as Mexico's inflation rate, is it now or never? -- A.M.
At its December meeting, the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) refused to
endorse 10 of the 12 recommendations of Austin's Citizens Planning Commission
(CPC). Austin Councilmember Jackie Goodman had been trying to persuade the ATS
for the past year to endorse the CPC recommendations, most of which are
designed to encourage more environment-friendly compact growth. However, from
early on, ATS representatives from Williamson County expressed suspicion of the
recommendations. Williamson County is in the midst of a traditional Texas-style
suburban sprawl boom, and its leaders tend to view the concept of a compact
city as quixotic at best and communistic at worst. State Rep. Susan Combs, who
represents much of the suburban area to the south and west of Austin, solicited
comments on the CPC recommendations from outlying communities. Officials from
Pflugerville, Round Rock, West Lake Hills, and the Wells Branch MUD asked the
ATS not to endorse the recommendations, complaining that the CPC had not
solicited suburban input.
Compact City Concept Shot Down
Concerning a CPC recommendation that "The Austin urban core, as the heart of the region, must receive special attention to maintain and enhance attractiveness and encourage redevelopment as a vital, unique, multi-use community," Pflugerville Mayor Haywood Ware wrote, "Austin already receives special attention with regard to number of transportation dollars awarded even though population forecasts used by ATS indicate future growth will occur in areas of Williamson County and outside the City of Austin."
Meanwhile, suburban areas are clamoring for a bigger share of the area's transportation money for the local roads needed to fuel their growth, even though most current money is already being spent on big freeway projects to provide inner city access to suburban commuters. Last year, six suburban cities requested representation on the Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) that governs the ATS. In response, the ATS appointed a subcommittee co-chaired by Williamson County Commissioner Mike Heiligenstein and Travis County Commissioner Valerie Bristol to make recommendations on future changes in PAC membership. Currently, the 17-member PAC includes three Williamson County representatives, three Travis County Commissioners, two Austin city councilmembers, Mayor Bruce Todd, State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, five State Representatives from Travis County, and representatives from Capital Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation.
In the end, the only CPC recommendations that the ATS endorsed were two calling for more cooperation in metropolitan area planning. Ironically, the CPC recommendations were a response to a request in the ATS 25-year plan that "by 1995, the City of Austin, in conjunction with Capital Metro, evaluate what changes would be needed in the City of Austin Master Plan in order to provide a plan that reflected a compact city approach to future growth." -- N.E.