Off the Desk

The nonviolence training is over and activists for the homeless are ready, but anyone against the city's camping ban is invited to bring their bedrolls to the Southwest grounds of the Capitol for a candlelight vigil from 5-8:30pm. Afterwards political humorist Molly Ivins will join musician Steve Fromholz for a night under the stars at Eighth and Congress. Now who would arrest our Molly?... -- A.D.

As rumored, State Representative Susan Combs will be leaving her post early -- and quickly. Combs announced last Friday, January 19 that she has been hired, at $84,000 a year, as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's chief of staff in Texas, and will be leaving for her new post this Friday. Her early departure necessitates a special election, at a cost of $65,000, to fill her seat until January, 1997 when the next legislative session begins. Combs, who represents the primarily Republican District 47, announced months ago that she would not seek reelection, clearing the way for a bevy of fellow Republicans to vie for her seat. Last Friday, the four Republican candidates were scrambling to decide if they would run in the special election, which could be May 4, the next uniform election day. Of those four, three are planning to run -- Jo Baylor, Kirk Ingels, and Randall Riley. The fourth, Sheriff Terry Keel, says he'll hold out for the regular election. By the way, Combs gave her coveted endorsement to perennial candidate Jo Baylor a few weeks ago, citing Baylor's ability to work with the Legislature's leadership.... It could have been another central-city coup for urban infill developer Pat Oles; instead it will remain "greenspace" for West Austinites. Oh, and a base for the Texas National Guard. Camp Mabry will not be sold, Governor George W. Bush decided Monday, after about two weeks of deliberation. There was an idea afoot to sell off 152 acres of the 375-acre base for private development, but Bush said that the $97 million it would cost to relocate the military facilities and training missions would offset any economic benefit from the land sale. Bush made a list of state-owned properties that he does recommend be sold, and in Austin, those include the Anson Jones state office building on E. Fifth St., and the Travis State School, since two-thirds of the campus is already vacant, and in the process of being closed by the state's Mental Health and Mental Retardation agency... Everybody's known about it for weeks, but it'll finally be official -- Daryl Slusher is announcing his candidacy for Place 1 on the city council next Tuesday, January 30 at the Sumiken building. What? That's right, on the site of one of the city's most infamous boondoggles from the Eighties. Directly after his announcement at 11am, the press is invited on a two-hour "boondoggle tour" of Austin. Highlights include: the Avante building we paid too much for, the international gate at Robert Mueller that's going to close in two years, and, of course, the $600,000 city-owned Veloway outside city limits... So far, he's cost Travis County taxpayers $355,238 in claims, and there may be more to come. Sheriff Terry Keel is involved in litigation again; a suit filed December 28 by Pamela Hudson, a former clerk in Keel's office, charges the sheriff with wrongful firing, according to a report from Texas Lawyer this week. Hudson alleges that Keel dismissed her because she testified for the defense in a criminal case, even though, she claims, she did so reluctantly and under a subpoena. Hudson's lawyer, Joe K. Crews, told the weekly legal tabloid that Keel started an investigation of Hudson after he learned that she had testified. Keel's chief of staff, Andy Saenz, countered that Hudson was fired for repeatedly parking in the wrong space and for making racial remarks, but Crews told the paper that there is no evidence of any racial remarks in her personnel file. Texas Lawyer suggested in its report that if Keel is looking for a campaign slogan for his District 47 race, it could go something like this: "Keel: If I'm Not Sheriff, Taxpayers Save"... Hopping mad: That's how you could describe Texas Monthly publisher Michael Levy after he read in the Austin American-Statesman on Saturday morning that he had been replaced by someone named Kathleen Murphy. (Are they out of their minds?) Levy, it is said, raised a stink at the Statesman's offices, voice-mailed everyone in his own employ, and amazingly, got his point across. The Statesman printed a correction Sunday. Make that Texas Highways, dear readers... -- L.C.B.

Ed Wendler Sr., George Bristol, and Andres Gonzalez say they were fired from their positions as lobbyists for Wackenhut Corrections Corp. for doing their jobs too well. The trio are suing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for allegedly coercing Wackenhut, the state's largest operator of private prisons, into getting rid of them. They say the agency opposed the lobbyists' push for more private prisons. The suit seeks $25 million in damages, as well as unspecified punitive damages. -- R.B.

Pelzel Marries Rich

Bids to land the most lucrative city contract ever, to build the $100 million passenger terminal at the Bergstrom International Airport, have been opened, and the lowest one, that by a local joint venture, has sparked a modest uproar. The winner could be the team of Mary Pelzel and Associates and Hensel-Phelps. Pelzel and Hensel-Phelps have already scored several airport contracts with the city, including an $11 million airport contract to reconstruct an existing runway for commercial use. Walking away with the $100 million gem, however, may prove a little tougher.

In a memorandum, Councilmember Brigid Shea told City Manager Jesus Garza that she is "very concerned that construction delays may occur if we award this contract to Pelzel-Phelps Joint Venture because of Pelzel's past performance on other contracts." Pelzel has gotten into hot water with the city for delays on other contracts; a dispute on one of those contracts led to claims filed by the company against the city, and a counter-claim by the city. In addition to wanting a list of "all lawsuits past and pending" that have been filed by Pelzel and Associates, Shea asked Garza to address concerns raised by several letters from local business owners about the nature of the Pelzel-Phelps arrangement.

In the city's list of criteria to award a company a city contract, companies score extra points for meeting city Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) participation goals. And some smaller construction owners are concerned that Pelzel-Phelps should not qualify for those extra points. Tony Ozuna, of Circle T Construction, wrote a letter to the city council saying that Hensel-Phelps should not be allowed to joint-venture with Pelzel, which is DBE certified, for the purpose of meeting the city's DBE goals, "when it is obvious that the DBE contractor cannot show bonding capacity, manpower, financial stability, past work experience, etc. sufficient to take on 51% of a $100,000,000.00 project; it is a blatant farce and a setback to an otherwise successful program."

To put it another way, Pelzel married rich. Alone, her company could only bond for $6 mil-lion, but by linking up with Hensel-Phelps, a proven player in the airport construction game, she benefits by their unlimited bond rating and resources. And Phelps benefits by meeting its certification requirements. "It's a win-win for the joint venture," Pelzel argues.

An earlier story in the daily implied that Shea would vote against Pelzel-Phelps because of pending litigation over delays on another project. Pelzel's proclivity for delays and litigation do have Shea concerned, but "it was because of their incompetence," she clarified, noting that the city filed a counter-claim against Pelzel. "The language in the city counter-claim spells out clearly why I believe this contractor is not qualified." Pelzel has litigation pending against Travis County as well.

While Pelzel claims that the engineer and architect contracted by the city for the airport construction withheld or were slow in providing needed information, thereby causing delays, the counter-claim alleges that "the project fell behind schedule due, in part, to acts of the contractor in submitting excessive, unreasonable, and unnecessarily duplicative requests for information."

"One has nothing to do with the other," Pelzel said emphatically."The question is... Are we qualified to do the job? It really has nothing to do with the pending litigation."

The Bergstrom Airport Advisory Board is in the process of reviewing the bids; but city staff say they're already planning to recommend Pelzel for the job. The city council will vote on whether to approve the contract on February 1. -- J.R.

To Run, or Not to Run

That is the question everyone is asking Councilmember Brigid Shea these days, especially after the release of her campaign contribution and expenditure reports (C&Es) last week. The C&Es reveal that Shea made no effort to raise funds during the last six months of 1995 and has only $326.52 in her campaign account, increasing speculation that Shea, who became a new mother last month, won't pursue re-election this spring. To add to the speculation, Shea paid off more than $8,000 in campaign debt last year, and is now debt-free.

The answer to her re-election desires may be in the results of a $5,000 poll taken last October by Opinion Analyst, Inc., and paid for with Shea's political contributions, as listed in her C&Es. Shea is guarded about the results of the poll, but says it deals with a "range of issues that I've been working on, including SOS [The Save Our Springs ordinance]."

Shea is also guarded about her intentions, and says she'll announce no later than early February. "I haven't decided if I'm running," she says. "I'm not going to raise money and bag it." Next week: the mayor's report. -- A.M.

TBWEF Gets Eradicated

It wasn't even close. By a margin of nearly 3-1, cotton producers in the Rio Grande Valley voted to get rid of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation. TBWEF was widely blamed for last year's horrible cotton crop in which farmers saw their fields decimated by an invasion of the beet armyworm.

It was the first time farmers have voted to end a boll weevil eradication program in the U.S. But their troubles are far from over. Aaron Shields, a cotton farmer near Monte Alto, told the Chronicle, "I borrowed $300,000 to make my cotton crop and I lost every bit of it. I made 43 bales off of 883 acres of cotton." Normally, Shields would harvest about a bale per acre.

Shields also said that even though some farms in the Valley were sprayed a dozen times with the pesticide malathion, TBWEF did not rid the region of boll weevils. Referring to a controversial report by two U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologists, K.R. Summy and J.R. Raulston, Shields said, "We had tremendous damage from boll weevils in late season. Summy's report shows that we had 21 times the number of boll weevils here in the U.S. as they had in Mexico."

The two scientists' findings began to leak out in September and their preliminary conclusion was that heavy pesticide usage -- including the application of malathion for boll weevil eradication -- was "the primary causal factor for the beet armyworm outbreak."

On January 11, the two scientists presented their final report at the 1996 Beltwide Cotton Conference. The report, which was peer-reviewed by a panel of other entomologists, was given final approval, causing great embarrassment to the USDA. In September, Karl Stauber, the USDA undersecretary who oversees the agency which employs the two scientists, refuted his employees' report, saying that "there's no scientific evidence to support it. I'm embarrassed when my scientists make claims that are not based on good science."

Unfortunately for the USDA, the embarrassment may be just beginning. Throughout the disaster, USDA has been blaming weather conditions for the beet armyworm problem. Summy and Raulston, however, compared cotton yields on both sides of the Rio Grande and found that Mexican farmers produced a good cotton crop. They conclude that the beet armyworm outbreak "does not appear to be a result of agronomic, weather, or ecological differences." Finally, they say, "based on our data and supporting reports from the literature, we hypothesize that the early-season pesticide use pattern is one of the most plausible explanations for the observed pest outbreaks in the Texas LRGV [Lower Rio Grande Valley]."

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry, one of TBWEF's staunchest supporters, was humble in defeat. "I continue to believe that boll weevil eradication is important for the long-term competitiveness of Texas cotton," Perry said in a press release sent out shortly after the election results were announced. "However, a majority of Valley producers voting in the recall election have made their choice, and I support that choice." -- R.B.

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