Off the Desk
Fri., June 14, 1996
RECA Gets AccusedAccording to the political newsletter In Fact, three angry voters have filed complaints with the district attorney's office alleging violations of the Texas Election Code against the Real Estate Council of Austin's (RECA's) political action committees. The three -- Linda Curtis and Tracy Turen of Ross Perot's independent Reform Party and graduate student Dennis Hicks (who filed his complaint separately) -- are the first to publicly attempt to bring legal action against RECA. The trio allege that RECA violated election laws when it allegedly funneled expensive voter information bought with corporate money from its "issues" PAC to its "candidates" PAC, (which cannot accept corporate money), at a fraction of the cost. Curtis is a leader of Priorities First!, In Fact reports, which is pushing for campaign finance reform. Grad student Hicks told the newsletter that he got involved after reading about RECA's actions in the Chronicle and the States--man: "I hope this will keep big money out of politics," he said. "Austin's not for sale." -- A.D.
The Stench of VictoryIt may be long past June 1, but you can still smell the afterburn -- especially down at the state and local Sierra Club headquarters. Calling former city council candidate Jeff Hart a "sore loser," Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter director Dr. Neil Carman says he and two other club members -- Scott Royder and Steve Beers -- are fighting subpoenas for depositions issued by Hart on behalf of his client, Griffin Industries.
The three Sierra Club members, who led the group in endorsing Hart's victorious opponent in Place 1, Daryl Slusher, were subpoenaed by Hart after they released information about his alleged "corporate polluter" client in an effort to debunk Hart's enviro-friendly stance the week before the June 1 runoff. According to Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) documents disseminated by the Club, Griffin Industries, which operates an animal renderings plant in Bastrop County, was cited 21 times by the agency for environmental violations of state laws governing air quality following as many as 63 complaints since 1988 from neighboring residents about the stench allegedly emanating from the plant. The company, which has been represented by Hart since 1992, never resolved the violations issues with the TNRCC, and the case was finally turned over to the attorney general's office for legal action. The TNRCC recommended approximately $20,500 in fines against Griffin Industries, but the amount still remains in negotiation.
Carman says the attempt to depose Sierra Club members is politically motivated, and constitutes "harassment," since the documents were obtained through the Open Records Act by Scott Henson, a worker from Slusher's campaign, and then handed over to the Sierra Club. Henson was also subpoenaed. Hart shrugs off the accusation that the subpoenas are some kind of political "payback" for those who didn't support him, and says the company just wants to know what TNRCC documents the Sierra Club has in their possession. Those documents, he claims, "could be relevant to [Griffin's defense]." Two memos among the documents obtained by the Sierra Club were marked "confidential" -- one of them contained a TNRCC official's assessment of Hart's behavior and use of profanity during a phone conversation. It seems clear that if Hart wanted to press some kind of defense that the TNRCC had malice, it could be based on the agency's release of those two memos. Possibly to ward off such a legal tactic, the TNRCC has issued a statement saying the memos were "leaked," and expressing their regret that the information was ever released. Hart would not comment on that theory.
Hart filed the subpoenas in Bastrop County district court and scheduled the depositions for last week -- but the Sierra Club successfully argued in a hearing on Monday, June 10, that the subpoenas should have been filed in Travis County, and consequently, no ruling was issued. At this point, says the Sierra Club's attorney, Amy Johnson, her client and Griffin are "in discussions, and we might agree to let them depose some people."
Hart declined to comment further on the case, or confirm that negotiations were underway, but did want to emphasize that it "has nothing to do with the election. I shook Daryl's hand after the results came in and wished him good luck. There are no hard feelings." -- L.C.B.
Ax the Politically SensitiveOne of the city's top attorneys, Michael Cosentino, was forced to resign last week, and, in a surprising reaction, went outside the bureaucracy with his protests. In a June 5 resignation letter sent to the city council, Cosentino wrote, "I do this involuntarily at the request and under the threat of immediate termination by [City Attorney] Andrew F. Martin who refused to provide reasons for this adverse personnel action."
Martin replies that he did provide a reason: "I told him I was not confident in his ability." Cosentino, who served as the Acting City Attorney before Martin was hired, says Martin would not clarify his lack of confidence. However, the 35 pages of supporting documents and job performance evaluations that Cosentino included with his resignation letter reveal that Cosentino's political differences with the city manager's office may have led to his ouster. According to an evaluation dated last summer, Cosentino met or exceeded job expectations in all cases except his "ability to listen." An acknowledged progressive, Cosentino's other weaknesses, stated the evaluation, were his "political sensitivities." Cosentino maintains he never made decisions based on politics, and says, "I'm on the spectrum of giving good legal advice, regardless of political consequences."
There's little question that Cosentino performed well as chief of the city's litigation division, which provides in-house legal counsel at a cost of $42 an hour, compared to $201 an hour for outside legal counsel. According to a laudatory letter from Martin to City Manager Jesus Garza and councilmembers dated just last month, in the last five years, the division disposed of over 55 lawsuits against the city with plaintiffs recovering nothing in more than 80% of the cases. Despite the department's success, Cosentino received an unfavorable evaluation four days after that report to Garza. In the evaluation, another city attorney, Chuck Griffith, wrote that Cosentino is not respected by the City Manager's Office. Griffith would not comment to this paper.
Cosentino seems less concerned about his ousting than for the security of the division, and claims he is making his forced resignation letter public to protect the division from possible future budget cuts. Praising his division members for achieving "excellent results at a fraction of the cost of outside legal counsel," Cosentino wrote: "I sincerely hope that this good work will be recognized and continued because the taxpayers of the City of Austin are getting a good bargain." Martin would not say whether the team would see cuts. -- A.M.
Let Them Eat ElsewhereThe relationship between the merchants on the Drag and the homeless kids who spend their idle time on the strip's sidewalks has just gotten rockier. Several merchants are pushing to remove a program administered in their neighborhood called Project PHASE, which for the past three years has provided meals and services, through Youth Options and the People's Community Clinic, for homeless kids under the age of 23. The problem with PHASE, they say, is that the meals the program provides are being handed out from the basement of the Congregational Church in Austin, located in an alley behind the Renaissance Market at 23rd Street and Guadalupe. At a meeting held May 24 at the church to allow merchants to air their views, several criticized PHASE's Tuesday and Thursday "feeds" for attracting increasing numbers of "gutterpunks," or homeless kids. The youths are becoming violent and disrupting business, they claimed.
Terry Nathan, vice president of a coalition of Drag businesses called University Area Partners and ex-owner of Floppy Joe's on 29th Street, said "What these kids are going through is worse than anything we've had to experience in the adult world... but as a businessman I have to point out that [this] has been a tremendous drag on the business of the Drag." Others complained of everything from the kids "garbaging up the market" to actual harassment, including one market vendor who said she was told "I needed to go home and get laid" when she asked some kids to move.
Workers at PHASE charge that the attempt to push out their organization is part of an overall plan to relocate the homeless population in preparation for the more than $3 million in Drag beautification efforts Capital Metro and UT have planned for the area. The improvements, scheduled to begin in December, include broader sidewalks, increased landscaping, an elevated brick crosswalk, and improved bus stops. Capital Metro will contribute $1.5 million to the project over the next three years, while the University Area Partners are expected to raise between $30,000-50,000. UT has incorporated the improvements into its Master Plan and will fork over $1.5 million to get them done.
Steve Ortman, manager of planning for Capital Metro, denies there is a concerted effort to move the homeless population, but did mention increased efforts to discourage "undesirable activities" such as panhandling and drug use, and said "it's an attempt by the area to reclaim its neighborhood."
Oscar Lopez, coordinator of PHASE, admits that the gutterpunks "being there hurts business," but he points out that the homeless kids were there first, not PHASE. An Austin Police Department representative at the May 24 meeting, while confirming that "on Tuesdays and Thursdays we're getting about 10-15% more crime [in the area] than on other days," echoed Lopez's contention that PHASE was not responsible for bringing the homeless to the Drag. "I think the Drag is the attraction -- that's my opinion and I've been patrolling this area since 1968."
The Congregational Church's members will vote June 23 on whether to renew PHASE's lease. Church representatives declined to comment until after the vote. -- D.C.
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