The Austin Chronicle

Off the Desk:

September 20, 1996, News

Freeport-McMoRan has cancelled an insurance policy it had with the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), according to TAPOL, the London-based human rights organization which monitors Indonesia. MIGA, an arm of the World Bank, has had a $50 million political risk insurance policy on Freeport's controversial gold mine in Irian Jaya since 1990. "Reasons for the cancellation are not known," TAPOL says. But it has been common knowledge for several weeks that MIGA was planning to do an environmental analysis of Freeport's mine much like the one that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation did in 1994. According to the Inter Press Service, Freeport quit MIGA on September 11, just weeks before the insurance company's investigative team was set to visit the mine site in Irian Jaya. Is it possible that Freeport had flashbacks to October 1995 when OPIC, citing environmental problems, cancelled a $100 million insurance policy it held on Freeport's mine? Rather than allow another embarassing scientific assessment of their mining operation, perhaps Freeport has decided to quit MIGA before it has a chance to quit Freeport. Company spokesman Garland Robinette, reached after business hours, responded: "You know we don't talk to you." More on this later... -- R.B.

Gerald Miller, a key player in Michigan Gov. John Engler's administration who is credited with crafting much of the federal welfare overhaul bill, could be the next manager of Texas' privatized welfare services program. That's the word from Tuesday's Detroit Free Press, which said that Miller will move to Austin next month to run Lockheed Martin Corp.'s new welfare management division. The giant defense contractor is angling for a whopping $563-million-a-year contract to run Texas' welfare system. Lockheed and Miller are expected to compete against Electronic Data Systems, which has teamed up with the Texas Dept. of Human Services in an attempt to preserve state jobs. "Playing a key part in Texas' bold privatization plan would put Miller at the center of a high-stakes competition by private companies to nudge more welfare recipients into jobs and off public assistance," the Detroit daily wrote. The news of Miller's move to Austin was not greeted warmly at Human Services, which has a lot riding on EDS winning the contract. "That just made my day," sighed disappointed DHS spokesman Mike Jones...

"Beyond Beijing: What We've Done and Where We're Going" will be the order of the day Sept. 28 at the Austin Convention Center as local women debrief on the Platform for Action adopted at last year's massive Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing. The day-long forum will include a presentation (live via satellite) by Hillary Clinton, who co-chairs the President's Interagency Council on Women. $5 donation. Call 447-6222 for reservations... -- A.S.

The Plot Thickens

No saga is complete without a dash of intrigue, and the epic-in-progress starring the Save Our Springs (SOS) water-quality ordinance has had plenty. It should come as no surprise, then, that there's a new motif of suspicion, and the author is none other than former Councilmember Brigid Shea. As the activist who spearheaded the effort to pass SOS in 1992, Shea claims that city staff misled the council when they recommended in December 1994 that the council replace SOS with the much-weaker Composite II water-quality ordinance.

At council meetings and environmental strategy sessions, debate has raged over which ordinance governs, and the answer lies in that time period. Back when it was enacted, a trial court had just ruled SOS null and void, and staff advised the council that SOS would not remain in effect during appeal. Comp II was created and put on the books as a result.

But according to Shea, a legal brief proving that SOS would hold on appeal was suppressed by Assistant City Manager Jim Smith and City Manager Jesus Garza, and the council never saw it. Shea says she learned of the suppression only after leaving office this past June, and that it came via Michael Cosentino. Cosentino was acting city attorney at the time and an author of the alleged brief; earlier this year, he became an inexplicable "budget cut."

Whether Shea's rendition is true or not, of course, can only be verified by Cosentino. When reached by phone two weeks ago, he apologetically refused to comment about the alleged suppression, citing attorney-client privilege. But as if he wanted something off his chest, he offered an option. He said he could sing if a council majority waives the attorney-client privilege. He added that that's been done twice in recent history.

Not surprisingly, Smith denies Shea's claim. "I don't know what she's talking about. I have no role in making legal advice to the council." Garza could not be reached for comment... -- A.M.

Pet (Ped) Projects

Pedestrians, cyclists and motorists have two months to prepare arguments in favor of their preferred transportation projects for a public hearing before the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) on November 11.

At its Sept. 9 meeting, the ATS released a list of projects for which the city, county and state are seeking a share of the federal funding that ATS controls -- roughly $7.5 million a year available for alternative modes of transport.

Wish-list pedestrian and bike projects that just might see the light of day include a link between the Town Lake and Blunn Creek hike and bike trails, and new trails along Slaughter, Boggy and Gilleland Creeks. The Austin Dept. of Public Works and Transportation is seeking $3 million in funds for traffic-control devices such as speed humps and traffic diverters in residential areas. The city already has installed 99 speed humps in neighborhoods and has 700 more requests pending. In a similar vein, Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator Rick Waring is requesting $110,000 for a demonstration project that would employ the latest in traffic-calming techniques that have proved successful in other cities in the U.S. and abroad.

Other funding requests include $8.6 million to widen the Lamar Boulevard Bridge to six lanes, $3.5 million to widen Fifth Street east of I-35, $4.27 million to add two lanes to Congress Avenue south of Williamson Creek, and a yet-undetermined amount to add a left-turn lane to Bee Caves Road.

Head ATS planner Mike Aulick will rank the projects on whether they meet criteria for air quality, safety, gap completion, cost effectiveness, travel time, compact city goals and neighborhood preservation. He'll present those rankings at the Oct. 14 ATS meeting. A vote on the projects is expected December 9. -- N.E.

B-1 Stays Home, Again

Earlier this month, when President Bill Clinton decided to punish Saddam Hussein for his foray against Kurds in northern Iraq, did the Pentagon use the B-1 bomber, the U.S. Air Force's vaunted supersonic bomber, for the task? No. Instead, the military used ships and vintage B-52 bombers to deliver cruise missiles to targets in Iraq. And it appears there are no plans to use the B-1 any time soon. Instead, the Air Force has moved four B-52s to a military base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in case the U.S. sees the need to bomb Iraq again.

Over the next seven years, the Air Force will spend $2.9 billion to retrofit the B-1 with new weapons and electronics. They argue that the B-1, which has never flown in combat and costs American taxpayers about $1 billion per year to maintain, is needed. But it is the B-52, which has been flying since 1952, that continues to be the workhorse of the Air Force. The B-52 flew 1,741 sorties during the Gulf War. The B-1, which was unequipped for conventional warfare, stayed home. Since then, the B-1 has been retrofitted to carry conventional weapons. But it can only carry unguided "dumb" bombs. Nearly half of America's fleet of 95 B-1s, which cost $280 million apiece to build, are stationed at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene. The base provides some $300 million per year in economic benefits to the city. But the plane, which was designed to drop nuclear warheads on the Soviet Union, is looking increasingly like a huge waste of money.

Why not use the B-1 against Iraq? A spokesman in Air Force Public Affairs at the Pentagon said, "I don't know," and referred questions to officials at U.S. Central Command headquarters at McDill Air Force Base near Tampa. Captain Mark Neuhart, a spokesman at McDill, said, "That's an Air Force question that I can't really address." -- R.B.

What Women Want NOW

You could argue that Patricia Ireland has it all. For starters, she's the president of the National Organization for Women, (NOW) she has a successful career in corporate law, and she has a new book that's taking her on the lecture and book-signing circuit. On Saturday, Ireland's city-to-city tour brought her to the Texas NOW state convention in Austin, where she delivered the keynote address to a small but rapt crowd of about 60, led a workshop on combating "wedge issues," and then popped in at Barnes and Noble bookstore in Northwest Austin to sign copies of her book, What Women Want.

As it happens, Ireland didn't always know what she wanted. She humorously illustrated her own slow awakening to the feminist movement, recalling her days as a Pan-Am stewardess when women were subjected to daily weigh-ins, and ad slogans that were something akin to "I'm Cheryl: Fly me." Still, Ireland recalled, "If you asked me if I'd been discriminated against I would have said no. I was one of those frustrating women that said, `Oh, me? I've never faced discrimination.'"

When she learned that medical benefits were only extended to the families of Pan-Am's male employees, Ireland very swiftly emerged from her denial state. She picked up the phone and called her local NOW office. She's been fighting for women's rights ever since.

The day-long Texas NOW Convention, entitled "Women Changing the Law," included workshops on how to affect legislative change. Local NOW representatives also expressed dismay over the Austin Independent School District handing over its student health services to Seton Health Care Network, a Catholic-run institution. "I am very concerned that the only adult that some young women, and some young men, feel they can turn to for information about sexually transmitted diseases and reproductive information will now be a representative of the most powerful anti-planning organization in the world," declared Hannah Riddering, president of Austin NOW. -- M.P.

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