Off the Desk:

You heard it here first: U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has decided not to list the Barton Springs Salamander as an endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which Babbitt oversees, withdrew the 1994 proposal to list the amphibian that is found only in Barton Springs. According to the 41-page decision released ™by FWS on August 28, a heretofore-undisclosed agreement signed on August 13 between Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the Texas Department of Transportation, and FWS to protect water quality "significantly reduces risk to the species," and thus, a listing "is no longer warranted." UT Zoology professor Mark Kirkpatrick, who was one of the plaintiffs who successfully sued Babbitt last fall to force him to make a decision by the end of this month, says the decision is not based on science, as the Endangered Species Act demands, but on politics. "For five years scientists have studied the Salamander and concluded it is endangered; yet Babbitt is chucking all that in favor of a last-minute political deal negotiated behind closed doors." As for a legal response, Kirkpatrick says it's too early to say...

Meanwhile, our neighbors to the South have their own problems. Senior U.S. District Judge Lucius Bunton III of Midland made history last Friday when he issued a preliminary injunction to restrict certain cities and businesses from overpumping the Edwards Aquifer. San Antonio is the largest city effected, and its mayor -- William Thornton -- so far has been the most vocal in his opposition, slamming the judge and the species that the new rules were created to protect. Mayor Thornton told the Statesman, "To (fail to) put human beings, who also need water to meet our needs, over this one little lizard is a perversion." (There are actually four different fish and salamander species at stake.) A closer look at the decision reveals that Thornton may protest too much. After all, Bunton only limits San Antonio to the amount of water the city itself named as its goal in its own drought plan -- 161 million gallons a day. With no self-imposed restrictions on watering lawns and golf courses other than the times of day, the city has averaged 193 million gallons over the last three months...

Councilmember Jackie Goodman is suffering a loss next month when her administrative assistant Ann Denkler quits to join the staff at county commissioner Karen Sonleitner's office. Denkler says she enjoyed working for Goodman on issues like her Citizen's Planning Committee planning initiatives, budget priorities and Community Action Network activities, but that she is ready to lighten her load a bit, working hands-on to implement special projects on Sonleitner's behalf. -- A.D.

Distinguished Texans

The new September/October issue of Mother Jones is out, with a cover story titled "The Dirty Dozen" -- their picks for the 12 members of the House of Representatives who seem most guilty of granting favors to extremely wealthy special interests in exchange for hefty financial rewards. Leading the list is a Texan: Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Houston, who represents District 22. MJ called DeLay the "polluters' best friend," and a profile by Austin writer Jan Reid reads, "More than any other politician, DeLay is responsible for the House's all-out assault on 25 years of bipartisan environmental regulation." Reid also alleges that DeLay's brother Randy "has made a very comfortable living lobbying for some of the same business interests that have profited from brother Tom's legislative efforts."

Of course, Texas is a big state, so we managed to fit another on the list: District 9 Representative Steve Stockman of Friendswood (like DeLay, a Republican) placed 10th. MJ borrowed a quote from the group NewtWatch, which describes Stockman as an "anti-consumer, anti-education, anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-law enforcement, anti-seniors politician who's hypocritical on congressional reform, hostile to poor and middle-class families, and a supporter of Internet censorship." Whew!

Although DeLay's reelection this November seems certain, MJ says Stockman, who ousted longtime Democratic congressman Jack Brooks in 1994, is "up against the wall" in a tight race this year againstNick Lampson.

Oh yeah: On the page after the "Dirty Dozen" piece, you'll find an exposé of Freeport-McMoRan and its tactics to silence the press, authored by Chronicle "Environs" editor Robert Bryce. -- L.N.

City Saves Jesus

After more than two hours in executive session, the council agreed last Thursday to up City Manager Jesus Garza's salary by $10,000; he'll now make $136,000 a year. In addition, he gets nine months of severance pay if he's fired or forced to quit, and can retire at age 51. Accompanying each councilmember's affirmative vote on the generous deal was a gush of praise for Garza and a thank-God-you're-staying. The only sour note to this love song came when Councilmember Daryl Slusher abstained from okaying the sugar-coated benefits package. He says that his colleagues "spent a lot of time" in the council's back room trying to convince him to back a man universally considered to be an effective city manager.

"But I kept thinking about the other city employees," Slusher says. "None of them are getting a nine-months severance package." In addition, city employees will receive only a 3% raise this year, as opposed to Garza's 8%.

The pressure was on to give Garza more, however. Just a day before the executive session, an article appeared in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times stating that Garza was strongly considering the same position in his hometown of Corpus. They were offering $156,000, and some saw Garza's job proposition as a lever to get what he wanted. Whatever the case, Garza's actions display a growing trend among management to treat the City as a stepping stone. Recently, Karen Jordan, the former head of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Sue Milam, Director of the Health and Human Services, announced that they were also jumping ship to accept higher paying posts elsewhere. -- A.M.

Support for SOS

With council taking the week off, it's halftime in the latest Save Our Springs (SOS) saga, and environmental troops are staking their positions. To date, members of Austin's more radical environmental organizations like CODA (Citizens Organized in Defense of Austin) and EarthFirst! have joined the SOS Legal Defense Fund in the fight to persuade the council to apply the SOS water-quality ordinance to the 20 months between December, 1994, and July 31 of this year. During that period, SOS had been ruled invalid by a Hays County trial court, so the council enacted a weaker water quality ordinance known as Composite II.

The council has already enacted SOS as of July 31, the date that a court of appeals reversed the trial court and ruled that SOS is, and always has been, in effect. But councilmembers -- even the so-called environmental majority of Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, Gus Garcia, and Jackie Goodman -- are leaning toward keeping the much weaker Composite II on the books with regards to the 20-month window. After all, the argument goes, developers were granted site applications under Composite II, and it would be unfair and illegal to yank them now.

At stake are 70 development projects, accounting for more than 1,500 acres of land over the Barton Creek Watershed. If development there occurs under Composite II instead of SOS, three to four times as much concrete could go over the watershed, hastening the destruction of Barton Springs, claims Bill Bunch, legal eagle for the SOS Alliance.

Recently, the Sierra Club joined the fight. An August 21 press release reads, "Sierra Club is embarrassed that the Council candidates which we supported would... retroactively gut environmental protection for the Barton Springs zone. Such actions amount to granting anti-environmentalists like the so-called `Take Back Austin' group victories they could not achieve in court or at the ballot box."

The Sierra Club agrees with SOS, CODA and EarthFirst! that only development projects in which the bulldozers are already rolling should be allowed "reasonable exceptions" from SOS. Other applicants, who filed under Composite II but haven't broken ground yet, should be "invited to negotiate adjustment agreements with the city" that could be considered amendments to SOS, with the required six votes, says Sierra Club President Steve Beers. "We're trying to be fair and we're trying to give choices."

But not all environmentalists are so quick to line up behind Bunch and his claims. The Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA), which has pull with honorary member Goodman, has not taken a position. SBCA's George Cofer explains that his group is waiting to see how many of those projects could be altered to abide by SOS without legal repercussions. -- A.M.

Taxing the Internet?

Governments throughout the country are looking at taxing the Internet -- particularly, collecting some sort of levy on connections through Internet service providers (ISPs). When tech-news sources talk about 'Net-tax plans in Tacoma or Tampa or wherever, they routinely note that Austin already has such a tax. We do?

Yes, no and not yet. After some waffling, the State Comptroller has decided that ISPs must collect sales tax on their services, putting Texas in the select company of only seven other states. (When Florida made the same decision earlier this year, the Sunshine State's business and high-tech communities pitched a virtual fit.) The city of Austin, though, does not impose any special fee on `Net services -- as is being discussed in Seattle, Minneapolis, et al. -- and has no plans to, according to Paul Smolen, manager of the city's Office of Cable and Regulatory Affairs.

But could Austin create a local tax on `Net-surfing? The franchise fees that the city gets from Southwestern Bell, Austin CableVision and Southern Union Gas are, in effect, rent -- the utilities pay the city for the rights-of-way they occupy with their "plant" (wires, conduit, etc.). So there's no easy precedent for applying such fees to an ISP -- whether it be a local garage start-up or CompuServe -- any more than the city could franchise burglar alarm companies or telemarketers.

Except that, under HB2128, the state's new telecom law, Texas has two kinds of phone companies -- those who actually own "plant" and those who don't -- and nothing prevents the city from charging the latter a franchise fee for their impact on the rights-of-way. "If GTE comes in and leases lines from Southwestern Bell to provide local phone service," says Smolen, "they're clearly using the rights-of-way, even though they didn't put the spade into the ground."

So far, Texas ISPs are not considered phone companies -- they don't have to pay, for example, into the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund, created by HB2128 to fund public-interest telecom services out of special assessments on the telcos. But this could change as the telcos and ISPs horn in on each other's turf. Several ISPs have applied to the Feds for permission to provide phone service via the Internet, and Southwestern Bell is expected to provide internet connection services within the year. "The question then becomes whether we'd be able to charge Bell a franchise fee," says Smolen, "and not [local ISPs] Real/Time or Zilker [Internet Park], if they're providing the same services."

Currently on the city regulators' plate is the drafting of a Standard Telecommunications Ordinance, addressing this issue along with the jillion others posed by the telecom revolution. Said draft should be published for public comment within a month, and Smolen expects "We'll be hearing from both Bell and the ISPs on how we should handle this." -- M.C.M.

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