Off the Desk:

For the past month, former city councilmember Brigid Shea has been putting her communication skills to the test as the state co-director of Texas Citizen Action, a consumer watchdog group that promises an in-your-face campaign to bring utility issues to the forefront on two counts: The business of restructuring utilities and the politics of cleaning up the air they muck up. "Restructuring is one of the clearest opportunities to tackle pollution in a big way," says Shea, who singles out coal plants as among the worst polluters, even though utilities sing coal's praises for being so darn cheap. While utility companies have big money in their corner, consumers are a force to be reckoned with, Shea warns. She points to a recent statewide poll that shows folks getting pretty sick of pollution, particularly in South Texas where residents ranked clean air a higher priority over job security. Meanwhile, watch for Texas Citizen Action's soon-to-be released "Dirty Dozen" report, listing the state's top 12 filthiest power plants. On another front, Shea continues to speak her piece via radio Wednesday mornings on KGSR...

Speaking of utilities, Kristen Kessler is no longer lobbying for Texas Utilities, the giant electric company that's been hankering to buy Austin's city-owned utility. Kessler, a former aide to Mayor Bruce Todd, has left Don Martin's consulting firm for a high-profile position at GSD&M, the Austin advertising/PR agency that's giving Madison Avenue a run for its money with big clients like Southwest Airlines and the Texas Lottery. Kessler promises she'll be living the life of "your average flak," as opposed to your average lobbyist, in her new role as director of community and corporate relations for GSD&M. Her city registration as a lobbyist expired July 31. -- A.S.

Alternatives for adding bicycle/pedestrian and/or traffic lanes to the Lamar Boulevard Bridge will be presented at a public hearing at 6:45pm Thursday, Sept. 10 in the Austin High School cafeteria, 1715 W. César Chavez. The city received federal funding two years ago to build a badly needed pedestrian bridge over Town Lake at Lamar, but the project has been delayed pending a decision on whether to increase the number of traffic lanes on the bridge to six from the current four. Neighborhood and compact-city advocates want to see a bike/pedestrian bridge similar to the one at South First, but without increasing automobile capacity. Consultants hired by the Department of Public Works and Transportation are likely to present six or seven options. The public may submit comments on the project, either verbally or in writing. Send written comments by Sept. 20 to Richard Kroger, Dept. of Public Works & Transportation, P.O. Box 1088, Austin, 78767. -- N.E.

SOS v. ACC

The Save Our Springs Alliance may be leading the charge in its quest to have an Austin Community College land-acquisition deal overturned, but Austin attorney Philip Durst filed the SOS lawsuit in the name of the Texas Open Meetings Act, rather than on water quality. Durst says that residents who live near the property, and citizens in general, were denied their right to address the issue because the decision was made in closed session without proper public notice. The SOS Alliance, along with nearby resident and co-plaintiff Erin Foster, is making its allegations in connection with ACC's acquisition of the Shadowridge Crossing tract, a 79-acre site located in the Edwards Aquifer contributing zone. The property is pegged as the site for ACC's new campus in Southwest Austin.

"Nobody who lived out there (near Shadowridge) knew about the meetings and were unable to express their concerns," says Durst. While Foster is the only area resident named in the suit, Durst says Foster has circulated a petition and obtained many signatures from homeowners in the area who oppose building a campus in their Oak Hill neighborhood.

SOS attorney Bill Bunch said the idea to pursue a lawsuit on the open meetings violation angle occurred by happenstance. He said an acquaintance well-versed in open meetings law approached him at Barton Springs a few weeks ago and suggested examining the issue further. Bunch said the ACC board should have at least posted a more specific reason for meeting behind closed doors, other than for "consideration of real estate matters pursuant to Government Code 551.072," as the April 1 agenda stated.

Board member John Worley, who vociferously opposed the Shadowridge purchase for environmental reasons, says he has thus far been unsuccessful in his efforts to garner enough board votes to turn around and sell the newly-acquired property. He had no comment on the lawsuit. Nor did ACC interim President Hosni Nabi. ACC Board Chairwoman Carol Nasworthy said the board is scheduled to be briefed on the lawsuit in executive session on Sept. 9. Nasworthy added that she wants assurance from project developers that the new campus would be built in strict accordance with the SOS ordinance, now that the law is back on the books.

SOS attorneys are seeking a temporary injunction to suspend the purchase of the tract. A court date has been set for Sept. 12. -- A.S.

Weird Science

Last week, after years of delay, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt decided to let the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) work together to save the Barton Springs Salamander. However, critics point out that none of those agencies have shown any willingness to preserve the salamander, or any other endangered species; putting them in charge of the salamander is like inviting the Menendez brothers over to babysit the kids.

Consider the case of TPWD director Andrew Sansom: he is opposing a scientific study on Fort Hood that could help biologists determine how golden-cheeked warblers are affected by nest predation. And his agency has been aggressively chasing off its best endangered species biologists and harassing other biologists who specialize in aquatic animals like the salamander. Over the past year, TWPD has dismantled the Texas Natural Heritage Program, the program in charge of cataloguing the state's rare and threatened ecosystems. Sansom refuses to discuss his agency's endangered species policy with the Chronicle.

Like TPWD, the TNRCC has shown contempt for scientific analysis, particularly as it applies to Barton Creek and Barton Springs. Last year, TNRCC Water Policy Director Mark Jordan wrote in a letter to Jana Grote, acting chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Austin office, that there is no "direct, quantifiable relationship between the water quality conditions in Barton Creek and those of the Springs." That statement directly contradicts a 1986 report by the U.S. Geological Survey -- the most exhaustive study of Barton Springs ever conducted -- which concluded: "The quality of water from Barton Springs is more sensitive to the quality of streamflow in Barton Creek than from any other surface recharge source." Apparently, the TNRCC didn't bother to read the USGS report.

As for TxDOT, the agency's massive highway construction throughout the Barton Springs watershed over the past five years has been widely blamed for the increased siltation and turbidity evident in Barton Springs Pool. "Baffling" was the word one Fish and Wildlife Service official used to describe Babbitt's decision. "Politically," the official added, "it's a brilliant move, but scientifically and biologically it's unworkable. No one expects this to work."

Vic Hutchison, a University of Oklahoma zoology professor who worked last year on a team of biologists to assess the dangers to the salamander, was equally dismayed. Hutchison said he doubted the effectiveness of state agencies on this matter, given the political environment of Texas these days.

Perhaps the most curious twist here has been the cooperation between Babbitt and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Bush wants to play to the property-rights crowd. Babbitt's boss wants to play to Texas voters. By keeping the salamander off the Endangered Species List, they both achieve their objective. Just as a reminder, last year Bush said the decision to protect the salamander should be "based upon science, not some hysterical read by a well-meaning citizen." -- R.B.

Betting the Farm

Pioneer Farm, Austin's popular heritage showpiece and outdoor museum, is sweating under the shadow of the budget axe as the City Council rolls toward a Sept. 11 vote on finalizing next year's spending. The 150-acre working farm, located 13 miles northeast of downtown off Dessau Road, has been part of Austin's park system since 1976. The farm's main purpose is to show Central Texans how their forebears lived in the 1880s. Its five full-time employees cultivate 45 acres of cotton, corn, hay and sorghum, tend a garden of old-variety beans, tomatoes, turnips, squash and potatoes, and care for horses, cows, pigs and chickens. About 225 Austin school children visit the farm each day to learn how folks lived 100 years ago; the kids milk cows, shuck corn and make candles. A 10,000-item museum collection includes antique farm tools and household gadgets. The farm's 27 aging buildings, mostly donated by private citizens and organizations, include 11 cabins and barns dating from the 19th century.

Last September, Pioneer Farm saw half of its $200,000 annual operating budget cut from the Park Department's general fund, but later managed to scratch together enough money from other budget transfers and a federal grant to make it through the fiscal year. Farm manager John Hirsch says if the City Council doesn't reinstate the full $200,000 funding this year, the farm will lose two or three of its full-time employees. Hirsch fears that the loss of workers to perform basic maintenance will send the farm into a steady decline as it is forced to cut back programs and take fewer visitors per day. He calls the farm a model of public/private partnership, noting that individuals and private organizations have donated almost as much money to the farm in the past 20 years as has the City, while volunteers provide 10,000 hours of their time each year. "City managements across the country are saying that we need these kinds of public/private partnerships," says Hirsch. "It's confusing to us why they would want to stop this good example of community involvement and participation."

City Councilmembers Jackie Goodman, Ronney Reynolds and newcomer Beverly Griffith have in the past demonstrated their support for Pioneer Farm. Hirsch hopes he can find four votes on the council to save it. -- N.E.

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