Naked City

Off the Desk:

Jon Murray, the former president of American Atheists, along with his mother, Madalyn Murray O'Hair and his niece, Robin Murray, are still missing. But there is mounting evidence that the atheists' disappearance was carefully planned, and that they cashed out their chips before leaving. John MacCormack of the San Antonio Express News reported on Sunday that Jon Murray placed a classified ad in that paper last September -- shortly after the trio hurriedly left Austin -- in an attempt to sell his car, a 1988 Mercedes Benz. The ad read, "'88 Benz 300 SEL, $15,000 cash. Firm." The ad listed Murray's cellular phone number. The paper did not report whether or not the car had been sold. Spike Tyson, the head of the Austin office of American Atheists, said of the revelation, "It probably doesn't mean anything." --R.B.

Dueling Ordinances

Back in December 1994, developers must have danced a jig after the city council enacted the Composite Watershed Ordinance II (CWO) in response to the Save Our Springs (SOS) ordinance's demise at the hands of a Hays County jury. The city council put the less stringent ordinance into effect in a scramble to protect the area at least somewhat. But now the recent appeals court decision puts SOS back in the driver's seat, and explicitly states that SOS has been in effect since it was enacted in 1992. But what of the more lax CWO II enacted by the council 18 months ago? It states that it is the law until there is a final court ruling on SOS, a decision that could be years away. City Attorney Andrew Martin has re-drafted the language of the ordinance (which will be presented to the council for a vote today), in an effort to clarify that SOS -- not the CWO II -- is applicable to development applications filed since the recent court decision on July 31 in favor of SOS.

Not so fast, says Roy Minton, attorney for Barton Creek developer Freeport-McMoRan. Minton maintains that changing the ordinance a year and a half after the fact would not only be illegal, but would backstab developers who expected to build under the less restrictive CWO II. "(The council) passed an ordinance," says Minton, who believes the proposed change is lawsuit fertilizer. "Are they going to now say, `Oh, we were just cutting up?'"

Oddly enough, Bill Bunch, legal eagle for the influential SOS Alliance, agrees with Minton that changing the CWO II is a mistake, but for different reasons. Bunch points out that the move is unnecessary, since last month's ruling explicitly states that SOS has always been in effect. He also maintains that the CWO ordinance was never valid in the first place. As councilmembers noted at last week's meeting, only five councilmembers voted to enact the CWO II in 1994, and six votes are needed to overturn a citizen-initiated law. Therefore, allowing the CWO II validity for even those 18 months would wrongfully permit 1,500 acres of development over the most vulnerable aquifer in the U.S., says Bunch. City attorneys erred, he says, when they allowed the more developer-friendly CWO II to become law in 1994. "The citizens of Austin, and two-thirds of the voters, and everyone who wants clean water from the aquifer shouldn't suffer just because city lawyers gave their clients bad advice a year and a half ago," says Bunch.

But Martin, who doesn't deny the mistake, says that keeping the CWO II as is would put the city in a worse position. The language of the ordinance needs to be changed to reflect the July 31 appeals court decision that SOS once again rules the day, he says. If the city enforces SOS while its own ordinance says the CWO II is in effect, "we'll have even more lawsuits," he explains.

The council put off voting on the new language last week, but is expected to take the matter up again today. -- A.M.

Recycle at Work

Here's something for the business community to gnaw on -- mandatory recycling at the office. To Willie Rhodes, the director of the Solid Waste Services Department, the proposed ordinance wouldn't be all that burdensome because most workplaces and multi-family residences already recycle. To private industry folks, the idea of Big Brother poking around in their dumpsters simply smells.

"Anytime the city comes in and tells you that you have to do something, it doesn't sit well with any industry," says Bill Roland of Granite Properties and the legislative chair of the Austin Apartment Association. Roland believes a good chunk of the city's 100,000 multi-family units recycle as a rule anyway. He noted that a recent survey of complexes with 100 or more units showed a 40-60% recycling participation rate.

An effort to get a recycling program up and running in Austin's burgeoning apartment colonies has been on and off several working agendas for six years. This time, it looks as though the latest proposal -- which Rhodes pitched to the Solid Waste Advisory Committee on Aug. 7 -- just might make its way onto the books, provided some compromises can be achieved from varying sectors. This call to action is necessary, Rhodes intones, because the city-owned landfill will close in 1999 to make way for the new airport. That means residents can expect to pay higher garbage fees when the city begins relying on a private facility for disposal services. And the more garbage is hauled to the landfill, the higher the costs will be.

Rhodes would like to see Austin with a similar, yet softer, version of a recycling ordinance that Portland, Oregon, put into place this year. The Portland measure applies to all businesses, apartment complexes with five or more units, and construction projects valued at more than $25,000. Violators are subject to penalties of up to $500. In Austin, exemptions might be given to multi-family residences with less than 100 units. Plus, the ordinance wouldn't apply to some 2,000 small businesses because the city already is phasing them into its recycling collection program.

If the Solid Waste Advisory Committee does vote to draft an ordinance, there's no guarantee it will gain support in the private sector. "We understand the logic of what the city staff is trying to do," says Ralph Wueller, municipal sales director for Texas Disposal Systems. "But I don't think the business community is going to be appreciative of the effort because they're thinking in the short-term of what it's going to cost them now. It will cost businesses more, but how much more I don't know." -- A.S.

Sex Crime

Two and a half years after the Clinton Administration passed its much ballyhooed "don't ask, don't tell" policy, members of America's armed forces are still being persecuted for their sexual persuasion. Take the recent case in Texas of Maj. Debra Meeks, 41, who, instead of being lauded for her 18-year career rising through the ranks of the male-dominated military to become a recruiter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, is now facing court martial.

Meeks, who has a spotless service record with no disciplinary infractions, faces a possible jail sentence because a woman who claims to be her former lover says that Meeks is gay.

A memo obtained by the Chronicle shows that her commanding officers knew what they were doing when they chose to pursue her case. In February of 1995, Maj. Gen. Henry Hobgood wrote a memo to investigators at the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, ordering them to "expand the scope of the investigation" of Meeks to include allegations that "she has engaged in homosexual conduct."

Meeks' court martial began at Lackland on Monday morning. She is represented by Michael Tigar, a professor at the University of Texas Law School, who also represents Terry Nichols in the Oklahoma City bombing trial, and Peter Held, a San Antonio-based lawyer who spent 18 years in the Air Force as a judge advocate.

Meeks will be prosecuted under the sodomy provision of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the regulations which govern all military personnel. The sodomy regulation has been on the books since the uniform code was adopted in 1951. If convicted, Meeks may be sent to military prison for up to eight years and lose her military pension of $1,800 per month.

The statute is broadly written. It says that any person who engages in "unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same or opposite sex" is guilty of sodomy. Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the language could pose a problem. "If we read that article in the UCMJ literally, we wouldn't have too many people left in the force," he said. "We'd probably have the chaplains and that would be it." -- R.B.

Global Warming

Do global sea level increases, temperature increases, more killer heat waves, and greater risk of epidemics sound ominous, threatening, and worrisome? Certainly, and the U.S. Climate Action Network would have us believe that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from car exhaust can cause such catastrophes. A Town Hall Meeting entitled "Global Warming and the Greenhouse Effect" at the UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs on Tuesday, sponsored by a bevy of environmental groups, addressed the debate over whether or not our production of greenhouse gases will lead to the aforementioned disasters. As A&M Professor Kenneth Bowman put it before the full house at Bass Lecture Hall, "evidence suggests a human influence on global climate," although "many uncertainties remain."

After greetings and introductions by Austin City Councilmember Gus Garcia, who emceed the event, two panels of professors, environmental experts, and elected officials batted around such topics as ozone depletion, the effects of warming on agriculture and sea levels, and the accuracy of global climate predictions.

Roger Duncan led an impressive overview of the City's efforts to curb greenhouse gases, primarily based on Sustainable Community Initiatives such as rebates for energy conservation, the city's Green Builder program to make residences more energy efficient, and Climate Wise, a program for industries to cut greenhouse emissions. Duncan added that the city is using solar and wind power to fuel some of Austin's electrical needs, and has plans to convert Austin's power supply to renewable resources. He also mentioned that Austin joined the international campaign Cities for Climate Protection, which strives to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of 1990 levels by 2010. -- C.C.

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