Off the Desk:

With apologies to George Bernard Shaw`s Major Barbara -- "What price safety now, Chief Watson? What price?" Mike Sheffield, vice president of the Austin Police Association, wants to know. He's still scratching his head over what went down Monday with a 6-1 city council vote (Eric Mitchell dissenting) to raid the police department's community programs of 16 officers for front-line duty on the streets. More officers cruising the city is all well and good, but Sheffield wonders at what cost. "We're cutting off the lines of communication to the community, and that's a step backward, not forward," he says. "Taking officers away from vital community programs is just plain wrong, but go figure." Police Chief Elizabeth Watson initially raised residents' ire by suggesting cutting 36 officers from the programs for front-line duty. Council settled on a lesser number. "The council has spoken," Sheffield says, "and time will prove one of us right."...

Nobody gets more riled about garbage than the people who create it. That's been the drift of all the hurt and angry letters running in the daily the past few weeks. Their opposition to a proposal to pay extra cash for extra trash did little good. City Council Tuesday approved a measure in which residents will pay $2 for every garbage bag that doesn't fit in their trash container. Customers will also have to cough up more change to cover their monthly garbage bills. The new fee is $12, up from $11.64. But look on the bright side. Solid Waste Services Director Willie Rhodes is upping the types of materials the city will recycle, which means we'll be able to throw everything from junk mail to cereal boxes to more plastic stuff into our recycling bins...

Local gay activists weren't surprised by the Senate vote Tuesday nixing gay marriages. But the ever-so-narrow defeat of another measure, banning discrimination against homosexuals in the workplace, renewed hopes for the bill's eventual passage. Eugene Sepulveda, of the Austin chapter of the Human Rights Campaign, says he was somewhat cheered by the narrow margin -- a 50-49 squeaker -- by which the anti-discrimination bill lost in the Republican-dominated Senate. "If Kay Bailey [Hutchison] had voted for the bill it would have passed," he says, referring to Vice President Al Gore's guarantee of breaking the tie vote in favor of the bill. "We were told that even as late as Monday she was still undecided." He added that the gay and lesbian community could have done a better job of registering phone calls of support to Hutchison's office. Still, Sepulveda says, "We came closer than anyone would have projected six months ago. It looks like we're becoming a little less of a threat."...

"Give me that old-time, mainstream religion" will likely be the refrain at a soul-searching conference Sept. 27-28 at University Baptist Church, 2200 San Antonio St. Cecile Richards' Texas Freedom Network, along with the Texas Faith Network, is sponsoring the middle-of-the-road faith fest, with keynote speakers from near and far. Among the Washington, D.C.-based guests will be Elliot Mineberg of People for the American Way; Dr. James Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee, and the Rev. Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal. Topics will include the Ten Commandments for dealing with the religious right, and the role of the religious community in supporting policies that don't punish the poor. Call 322-0545 for more information...

That Hillary Clinton sure knows how to draw a crowd. A youthful mass of more than 1,000 turned out for her Sept. 6 appearance at the University of Texas. To be sure, the people who walked through the doors of the Texas Union Ballroom that mid-day weren't exactly there for the opening acts of Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, or Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, all of whom tried to work the crowd into a respectable frenzy before the First Lady took the spotlight. By the time UT Regent Bernard Rappaport grabbed the mike for a rather long-winded speech, everyone's patience was wearing thin. "Let her speak!" pleaded one. Mauro scored some points, though, for steering clear of the usual rhetoric and giving us a glimpse of Clinton rolling up her sleeves as a young volunteer canvassing South Texas barrios during the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign. -- A.S.

S.O.S. is S.O.L.

...At least for now, anyway. Members of the Save Our Springs Alliance and other local environmental groups have been beseeching the council to retroactively enforce the S.O.S. water-quality ordinance for those 20 months that it was on appeal, and to repeal the weaker Composite II water-quality ordinance. The council has leaned towards keeping Comp II in place, but has not voted on the issue. The undying holdout was Councilmember Daryl Slusher, who has requested a delay pending city staff information on just how much development Comp II would allow in the Barton Creek Watershed. The S.O.S. Alliance had hoped Slusher would use the information to help drum up council support to make S.O.S. apply to developers who were granted permits during the 20-month period. But there won't be a vote on the issue, because Slusher has fallen in line with his colleagues.

To make matters worse for the alliance, Slusher has severed the lines of communication. S.O.S. legal eagle Bill Bunch and his old pal Slusher are no longer speaking to one another. The tiff stems from an August 27 meeting at Threadgill's Restaurant, which Slusher called to hear environmentalists' positions on which ordinance should be enforced. At the meeting, Slusher announced that he favored the Comp II. According to Slusher, Bunch, who is pondering whether to sue the city, presented his legal argument to make S.O.S. retroactive, and then suggested that Slusher should at least abstain from the council vote on Comp II. That way, if one other councilmember also abstained, the council would only get five votes to keep Comp II in place, and S.O.S would still remain in effect.

"He didn't want me to mess up his case," Slusher says of Bunch. Slusher says he told Bunch that colluding with the Alliance would be tantamount to abetting a lawsuit against the city. "I immediately said it was wrong and suggested that no one say it again," recalls Slusher. "They did." Since then, he adds, "I have been ignoring, refusing to communicate, with them." Slusher plans to maintain the communication blackout as long as the Alliance considers suing the city.

Bunch, who says he would rather not litigate against the city, would not confirm Slusher's rendition, except to say, "That's not how it happened." He is also careful to add that there is no dispute: "Daryl's done an amazing job so far, and it would be real unfortunate if what's happened gets blown out of whack." -- A.M.

ACC Board-to-Be's

There are eight candidates vying for an appointment to fill the single vacancy on the Austin Community College Board of Trustees, but some observers already are putting their money on a board split between two top contenders: Sharon Knotts Green, external education manager at Motorola, and William Spelman, associate professor at LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT. Spelman narrowly lost to Board Chair Carol Nasworthy in last spring's election.

In that race, Spelman was among those questioning the wisdom of ACC's decision to acquire the Shadowridge tract for a new campus in Southwest Austin. The property is located in a contributing zone of the Edwards Aquifer. Green, on the other hand, is considered a moderate Shadowridge supporter.

Come September 23, all eight applicants will put on their interviewing suits and brace themselves for a public interrogation before the ACC Board. They want to fill the slot left vacant by banker Pete Foster, whose job recently took him to Houston. The penny-pinching board is trying to save money by appointing a new trustee instead of holding an election.

The candidates, in addition to Green and Spelman: Richard Durbin, director of development for Outreach Health Services; Christa Easley, vice president of Austin Clinical Research, Inc.; Hector Ortiz, community liaison for UT Neighborhood Longhorns Program; James Pfluger, owner of Pfluger Associates Architects; Richard Schafer, owner of Custom Model Products; and Fred J. Waddell, retired teacher and administrator. -- A.S.

Kickin' Grass

If you're wary of trying to nurse that water-guzzling St. Augustine grass through another scorching summer, try cultivating horseherb (Calyptocarus Vialis). The low-growing, four-leafed native plant with tiny yellow flowers has long been considered a weed in Central Texas, where it often springs up voluntarily on lawns. But thanks to Andy and Sally Wasowski, authors of Texas Native Plants, the weed has gained new respect among local lawn lovers. Unlike St. Augustine, horseherb doesn't require watering through dry spells. Since the recent deluge, scads of horseherb has sprung up where drought stress wiped out patches of grass.

Charles Pingleton, master gardener for the Travis County Agricultural Extension Service, says he encourages horseherb in the shady areas of his two-acre residential lot. Horseherb fades off during dry weather, but springs back with new rain, he says. It can stay evergreen during mild Austin winters, but will go dormant during a freeze. Plus, the hearty herb tolerates moderate foot traffic, and, unlike other ground covers, responds well to mowing.

Tony Gregg, the city's Division Manager for Water Conservation, has a similar water-conserving idea for gardeners. He recommends new strains of Buffalo Grass such as Prairie Buffalo, or 609, for sunny areas. The old standard Bermuda Grass is fine for sunny areas too, says Gregg. Drought browns it out, but does not kill it, and it comes back green after a rain.

Despite St. Augustine's craving for water, 80% of Austin's builders still continue to plant it around new homes since it is cheap and easy to establish, says Scott Seidel, manager of The Grass Patch Landscaping Company. Ironically, the St. Augustine may stay in full sun for years and require soaking with thousands of gallons of water before trees grow tall enough to provide shade. -- N.E.

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