Off the Desk:

"Sore losing." That's what City Councilmember Daryl Slusher calls the round of depositions recently undertaken by the law partner of Jeff Hart, whom Slusher defeated in last month's Place One race. Hart's partner, John Cardwell, put Scott Henson, one of Slusher's former campaign dirt-diggers, and Scott Royder, a Sierra Club member, through hours of rigorous questioning about the information they received regarding Hart's client, Griffin Industries, Inc., under the Texas Open Records Act from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). (During the runoff, the Sierra Club and Slusher's campaign publicized the fact that Hart represented a company that had received 32 notices from the TNRCC for alleged environmental violations, in order to question Hart's commitment to the environment.) Hart maintains that the Slusher supporters were subpoenaed the Monday after the runoff so Griffin could get a gander at the documents, which, he says, the TNRCC never released to their side. In that case, why not depose the TNRCC? "Because we went to the source," Hart says. Replies Royder: "The TNRCC is the source," adding that what Hart and Cardwell are doing is clearly abusive political payback. Hart denies it, and Cardwell did not return calls...

The city council showed plenty of belt-tightening bravado when it recently shot down the pedestrian coordinator position -- with swords brandished before the channel 6 camera, they decapitated the $45,000 post. Too bad that money-saving spirit didn't take hold three years ago when councilmembers met behind closed doors to choose a law firm to handle the city's lawsuit over the nuke. According to a story by Robert Elder, Jr. in the July 1 issue of Texas Lawyer, the city council passed on a contingency fee arrangement that would have saved money in its suit against Houston Lighting & Power for its alleged mismanagement of the South Texas (nuclear) Project. Instead, the city paid the Houston law firm, Susman Godfrey, hourly rates that, in some cases, surpassed the firm's normal rates by more than 50%. Name partner H. Lee Godfrey got a whopping $970 an hour, according to a report in the Statesman, while two of his partners received $450 an hour. (The average rate a Texas civil attorney charges is $150). Of the $20 million Pyrrhic settlement reached with HL&P, the city forked over $12.1 million to lawyers. -- A.D.

Salamander Listing?

The ongoing saga of the Barton Springs Salamander may soon come to an end. On Wednesday, July 10, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Lucius Bunton ordered Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to make a decision regarding the salamander, which has been awaiting addition to the Endangered Species List since Feb. 17, 1995, when Babbitt was required under the Endangered Species Act to make a determination. The rare amphibian, found only at Barton Springs Pool and two nearby springs, was petitioned for listing in January of 1992, and the Interior Department has been dragging its heels ever since. Last month, at the request of state officials, the agency decided to reopen the public comment period on the salamander. Bunton's ruling in the case known as Save Our Springs Legal Defense Fund, Inc. et al. v. Babbitt, closed the comment period effective Wednesday, and states that the court "expresses no opinion as to which decision the Secretary should make, only that he must make some decision."

Bunton gave Babbitt's agency until July 23 to decide whether or not to add the salamander to the Endangered Species List. If there is "substantial disagreement regarding the sufficiency or accuracy of the available data upon which the listing decision was to be made," Bunton ruled, the Interior Department can have until August 30 to make a final decision.

The lawsuit on the salamander is similar to one filed by the Environmental Defense Center, which prevailed in federal court in May. That suit forced the Interior to add California's red-legged frog to the Endangered Species List.

At press time, calls to Babbitt's office in Washington and to Steve Helfert, local field supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service, were not returned. -- R.B.

Another Field of Dreams

Get ready for the pitch. Baseball is back in season in Austin, brought to you by some familiar faces in local politics. It should come as no surprise that real estate broker/developer Bill Pohl and former major-league pitcher Ray Culp -- who bankrolled efforts to defeat competing baseball interests last year -- have renewed their dream of a AA team at a stadium in Williamson County, just outside the Austin city limits. If all goes well August 19 with their application to the Professional Baseball League to be the sponsors of an Austin-based AA team, Culp and Pohl expect to pull in enough money to build the stadium and have a team playing ball in the spring of 1999.

Culp and Pohl's first attempt at a stadium was quashed back in 1994 because of negotiations between the City of Austin and the AAA Phoenix Firebirds (baseball doesn't allow AA teams to compete with AAA for locations). But the Firebirds wanted what turned out to be the deal-killer: $10 million in public funds to help pay for a $22 million stadium in Southeast Austin. Pohl and Culp funneled local anti-baseball forces thousands of dollars to defeat the Firebirds' bid for a publicly funded stadium, and boondoggle-weary voters overwhelmingly rejected it last fall.

Jack Haden of Priorities First!, the taxpayer watchdog group that formed to oppose the Firebirds' plans, approves of the new plan. The privately funded deal is "a much better approach," he says. But does Haden feel a bit used by Pohl and Culp? "I used them," he says.

Culp and Pohl's group, Austin Baseball Interests, Ltd. (ABI), will accept only private investment in the proposed $21 million diamond out at Parmer Lane and FM 1431. Yes, the site is the same as last time around: 163 acres owned by another limited partnership set up by Pohl. ABI Vice President Lee Tunnell, also a former major-league pitcher, says investors will own "part of the team [tentatively slated to play in the Texas League], the stadium, and the land around it that will be developed." Season tickets and access to sky boxes are also part of the deal.

Because the PBL is expecting to see a certain amount of financial commitment from the locals to justify granting the area to ABI and an AA team, Culp and Pohl's group will be hard pressed to bring in investors in only a few weeks. "This is not a done deal," stresses Tunnell. "The next few weeks will be a test of how bad Austin wants baseball." -- L.C.B.

Home-Grown Lawsuit

Freeport-McMoRan's Indonesian gold mine isn't the only company venture facing a lawsuit these days. In a legal action hitting closer to home, on June 5, the Estates of Barton Creek Property Owners Association filed a lawsuit against the New Orleans-based developer, alleging that the company had violated its pledge to landowners that they would build only single-family homes and villas at their Barton Creek development. They ask that the court issue a temporary injunction "restricting any construction in the Barton Creek Tract to `single family residences' or `single family villas' until a final determination as to the remaining issues is made in this cause."

Thomas Hutcheson, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the homeowners' association, which has 190 members, has records dating back six years which show that Freeport promised not to build multifamily dwellings in the middle of the Barton Creek PUD. However, Hutcheson said, the homeowners discovered that Freeport plans to build a 250-unit apartment complex on a tract located between the Estates of Barton Creek and the Barton Creek Country Club. "We feel that when people make promises to you and you buy land based on those promises, that they can't just change in the middle of the stream and develop it according to some different plan," Hutcheson said, adding that Freeport has agreed not to begin construction until the lawsuit is settled. A trial is expected to begin in late September or early October.

Freeport spokesman Bill Collier did not return phone calls. -- R.B.

Prodigal Consultant Returns

The central city is marking its calendars for Wednesday, July 17, when Austin's downtown designated hitter, Gerry Trimble of Keyser Marston Associates, briefs a city council work session on potential next steps in the revitalization effort. San Francisco-based Keyser Marston was retained nearly three years ago amid promises that the city was getting its solid waste together vis-a-vis downtown renewal. Trimble was initially set to work on the then-proposed multi-million-dollar, tax-subsidized central-city shopping mall, an idea more popular with downtown interests than with city officials, especially then-councilmember Max Nofziger, who pretty much single-handedly shot it down. The consultant then moved on to the new City Hall project, which was conversely embraced by the city and scorned by downtown property owners, who receive nearly $3 million a year from the city in leases. That one likewise got spiked -- the project has now been renamed "Downtown Office Space Consolidation," with a city-built tower scratched off the options list.

Trimble's team -- which now includes a real-estate consultant working on City Hall: The Sequel -- is set to brief council both on that issue and on an even thornier one: the creation of a downtown development corporation (DDC) and/or a tax increment financing (TIF) district. What a DDC would do, exactly, is undetermined, since public funding for downtown development is dicey at best, and such corporations generally serve to reinvest public money. (The planning department merely alludes to a DDC "focusing on downtown development opportunities.") A TIF district, which involves using future property tax revenues collected from a specific area to pay off debt for capital improvements in that area, might provide a source for such funding, but a TIF district would have its own board, which might not see eye-to-eye with a city-created DDC.

And that kind of eye contact is already in short supply downtown. "The private sector wants significant review and input into any plan drafted by city staff and consultants regarding a TIF district," says Downtown Austin Alliance executive director Jose Martinez, who indicates widespread support for a TIF among his members, but some skepticism about the city's intentions. "That kind of decision-making can't occur in a vacuum when our tax dollars, in particular, are the primary source of revenue." -- M.C.M


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