Off the Desk:
The city council voted to privatize the Austin Convention & Visitors' Bureau (ACVB) last week. The ACVB and about $2 million a year in city funding will go to a non-profit corporation of hoteliers, Chamber of Commerce members, and other representatives of the city's tourism industry, that ostensibly will attract an unprecedented amount of tourist dollars over the next five years. Boondoggle potential is rife, since a free-for-all fiasco ensued the last time the ACVB was in private hands. That was in the late Eighties, and tax dollars were unscrupulously spent on political campaigns, expenditures were never accounted for, and contractually, cousins were sleeping with cousins. Things may be better this time. Councilmembers Jackie Goodman and Daryl Slusher added numerous safeguards to the non-profit's by-laws to enable more public accountability. But the past isn't easily forgotten by all, and Slusher and fellow council freshman Beverly Griffith voted against the privatization... -- A.M. Major Debra Meeks, the Air Force recruiter stationed in San Antonio accused of being gay, can keep her job and her pension after all. She was acquitted last week by a seven-member jury of sodomy and conduct unbecoming an officer. The charges were brought in spite of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which has been in place since 1993. The Servicemembers' Legal Defense Network estimates that the Pentagon spent more than $21 million in 1995 training replacements for personnel discharged from the armed forces due to their alleged sexual preference. Meeks' lawyer, Michael Tigar, a University of Texas Law School professor who is also a lead defense lawyer in the Oklahoma City bombing case, said he represented Meeks because he was "offended by what had happened to her and how she had been treated. It seemed to me that having a pajama police force was a waste of money..." -- R.B.
Vaya Con DiosCity Manager Jesus Garza may leave the city for the same position in Corpus Christi, according to an article yesterday in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. The article states that a majority of councilmembers there would up his salary from his current Austin take of $125,000 to about $156,250.
Garza's departure is not certain, but seems highly possible. Though he originally turned down the job in June, he says in the article that he's spent the summer in thoughtful reconsideration. His roots are in Corpus, where he grew up and was second-in-command at the city before journeying to Austin, and the idea of a homecoming has become increasingly attractive.
Suspiciously, the article debuted just one day before the council planned to discuss a new contract for Garza in executive session. Speculation abounds that the turn of events has been orchestrated to put pressure on the council to accept Garza's terms. According to councilmember Daryl Slusher, Garza originally asked for a wage increase above that of common city employees. After getting a negative response, he lowered his terms to the standard 3% wage increase. But Garza essentially wants a doubling of his retirement fund for each year he stays, Slusher says, and also wants a full year of severance pay if he's fired or forced to resign.
Garza's two years here have been successful, and he is widely considered to be one of Austin's sharpest city managers. Mayoral aide Trey Salinas says in the article that the City will do all it takes to keep him indefinitely. But it's the mayor's relationship with Garza that is his Achille's heel. Councilmembers past and present have faulted the city manager for an unseemly preponderance to act as a Bruce Todd disciple, particularly in privatizing city services. If he leaves, you may hear the common rhetorical lament, but you won't see too many councilmembers crying in the streets.
Who's Frivolous Now?A few years ago, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold CEO Jim Bob Moffett told a local TV reporter that he would "bankrupt the city" with lawsuits. Since then, his development company has filed numerous actions against local entities, including the city and the Travis Central Appraisal District. The company won two cases against Austin, one in state and one in federal court. However, both cases have been overturned on appeal. Last week, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals spanked Freeport for the second time in as many weeks when it sided with the city in the case known as FM Properties Operating Company v. City of Austin.
The justices said the city had not violated the company's constitutional due process rights and it remanded the case to district court for dismissal. Thus, Freeport has sued the city twice and lost twice. In the process it has cost Austin taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
An interesting outcome in light of the company's denouncement of a lawsuit filed against it last April by Tom Beanal, leader of the Amungme tribe in Indonesia. In a class action suit, Beanal and 1,000 other plaintiffs allege that Freeport's mine in Irian Jaya has polluted their land and destroyed their way of life. They are seeking $6 billion in damages. When the suit was filed, company officials dismissed it as "frivolous and opportunistic."
Now that Freeport's claims against the city of Austin have been shown in court to be without merit, are they frivolous? Calls placed to Bill Collier and Garland Robinette, Freeport's former reporters-turned-spokesmen, were not returned. -- R.B.
Career PrivatizationSue Milam, the director of the Travis County/Austin Health and Human Services Department (HHS) turned in her resignation last week announcing her decision to take a position with the Austin Regional Clinic (ARC), a local managed-care group. Long viewed as an advocate for privatization of public health care through managed-care programs, Milam's seven years with HHS, (six as director), was marked by several major moves toward those goals for city and county Medicaid patients. Milam and former Assistant City Manager Byron Marshall created the city's managed-care pilot program in 1992 that moved 300 indigent patients in the city's Medical Assistance Program (MAP) to PCA, a health management organization. The pilot, deemed a success by patients and officials, was recently expanded to 600. HHS plans to expand the program further to include as many of Austin and Travis County's 9,364 MAP patients as possible. Milam was also in on negotiations between the city and the Catholic-run Seton Medical Center for management of the city-owned Brackenridge Hospital. That agreement precipitated Seton's interest in taking over management of the 13 city and county public clinics; at this point, however, the city has not begun discussions with Seton.
PCA also holds a contract with ARC, but Milam says she will work "exclusively for Austin Regional Clinic," starting up a new physicians group as their Director of Corporate Development. "It's a great opportunity and challenge with a superb group," says Milam. She should know -- ARC employed Milam as director of development before she came to work in the public sector in 1989. Milam was asked to return, she says, because ARC is planning to start a new physicians group called the Austin Regional Independent Association.
Milam is leaving September 1, but HHS spokesperson Dan Pickens says "there's been no word from downtown yet," about who will take over the department and its $104 mil-lion annual budget. -- L.C.B.
Quiz TimeClinton, Nixon, and Coolidge. What do those three presidents have in common? Answer: They all won the White House without winning Texas. Richard Nixon narrowly lost the state to Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Calvin Coolidge lost Texas in 1924 to John W. Davis but still managed to win the race.
President Bill Clinton has a chance to beat Bob Dole in Texas, but it's not a great chance. The last Democrat to win the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976 and the GOP has taken Texas in six of the last seven presidential races. Polls last week showed Clinton and Dole in a dead heat, with each getting 38 percent of the vote. H. Ross Perot garnered 11 percent of the vote.
If Dole is to have any chance of winning the White House, he absolutely cannot lose Texas. Clinton proved in 1992 that he can win without the Lone Star State. If he wins California again, as he did four years ago, and wins Texas, he will have more than a third of the votes needed for a return trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Democratic National Committee plans to spend some $3 million in Texas this year, more than twice the amount it spent in Texas in 1988, when native son Lloyd Bentsen ran on the ticket with Michael Dukakis. Still, the GOP remains optimistic. Gov. George W. Bush told Ken Herman of the local daily, "We are not in danger of losing Texas." He may be right. Polls taken in August of 1988 and 1992 both showed Democratic candidates to be 10 points ahead of their Republican counterparts. And in both races, the Democrats lost. This time Clinton doesn't have an August lead.
But the Dems aren't about to give up. First Lady Hillary Clinton will be touring the state next month as will her husband. The GOP version of Hillary, Elizabeth Dole, will visit Dallas, Houston, and Tyler this weekend. -- R.B.