Naked City

Off the Desk:

After Mayor Bruce Todd barred environmental activist Karen Hadden from speaking at council meetings last fall, the Mayor asked for an apology for what he considered her disruptive behavior. Instead, he got a lawsuit accusing him of breaching Hadden's constitutional rights. Now, he's shamefaced. On September 17, Todd and the city legal staff settled out of court, agreeing to pay Hadden's attorney, Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project, $3,600 in court costs. "(The mayor) will think twice about denying someone else's rights," says Hadden. As part of the settlement, Todd will appoint a task force on council meeting decorum. Why that provision was included is uncertain -- maybe to appear that Todd got something from the settlement, even though he can appoint a task force any time he wants. Harrington joked that he'd use his spoils to hire a first amendment coordinator for the city. As for the city, its legal fees, paid to Dallas-based Haynes & Boone, stood at $12,781 as of July 31. The saga is expected to continue at today's council meeting, with Councilmember Ronney Reynolds' proposal to curtail public speaking... -- A.M.

The Save Our Springs Alliance is challenging last week's district court dismissal of its lawsuit against Austin Community College. S.O.S. attorney Philip Durst filed the pleadings Tuesday with the Third Court of Appeals. S.O.S. claims ACC violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it voted to buy the 79-acre Shadowridge property for a new campus in southwest Austin. ACC met behind closed doors on the matter, but the agenda didn't specify the topic of discussion. Durst says he expects a ruling on S.O.S.'s request for an emergency hearing some time before ACC closes on the Shadowridge deal in mid-October ...

S.O.S. attorney Bill Bunch says he's a voice in the wilderness no longer. Turns out Bunch has some legal experts agreeing that the S.O.S. ordinance was applicable to development regulations while it was on appeal, even though the weaker Composite II was in effect. Austin attorneys David Frederick and Mary Kelly, along with Philip Poplin and UT law professor John T. Ratliff, are backing Bunch's claims that S.O.S. must be applied to development applications filed after S.O.S. passed in August 1992 and before the Appeals Court ruled in S.O.S.' favor in July. They also support Bunch's contention that the weaker Comp II ordinance was illegally passed by council. Footnote: Bunch used to be a partner in the law firm in which Frederick and Kelly now practice, and the firm handles S.O.S.' salamander litigation. Bunch also has worked with Poplin, but not with Ratliff...

Quote of the week goes to Teresa Doggett, the GOP candidate for Congress who this week told The Daily Texan: "It is true that homosexuals are very capable of love..." News to us. We thought they just recruited little children. At any rate, Doggett was just talkin' straight on why she's opposed to same-sex marriages. Neither she nor the other Doggett (as in U.S. Rep. Lloyd D.), won the Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus endorsement this time around. The group endorsed Lloyd Doggett in 1994, but that was before he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act earlier this month... -- A.S.

Privatization Means Private

Mayor Bruce Todd's privatization blitzkrieg continues apace. And at today's council meeting, the inaugural victory could be forthcoming: The emancipation of the Austin Convention and Visitor's Bureau (ACVB) to a non-profit board of 20-plus hotel and tourism representatives. On the table are millions of dollars in public funding and a proposed five-year contract for the ACVB.

As with other privatization efforts at city hall, some councilmembers are concerned that ACVB staff has unduly ignored their input in readying the center for the transfer. What Councilmem-bers Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith, and Daryl Slusher have requested in the proposed contract, but haven't received, are assurances that board meetings and business affairs will be open to public scrutiny. "Every new draft [of the proposed contract] seems like the old draft and it seems like someone [is] not listening," says Goodman. "If they want my approval, they [will] need to start listening."

The concern is easily understood: The board will be responsible for about 18% of the city's hotel bed-tax revenue, currently $3.3 million a year. The last time that money was in private hands, in the mid-Eighties, an auditor found that financial records were inadequate and, contractually, cousins were sleeping with cousins. Moreover, the board's operating procedures, or by-laws, approved by the council five weeks ago, are fraught with enough holes to allow a truckload of money to drive through.

But former ACVB director Karen Jordan, who jumped ship for a similar job in D.C. -- a week after the by-laws were approved -- promised the council that public accountability would come in the contract, and Goodman joined Gus Garcia, Ronney Reynolds, and Todd in approving the by-laws.

Well, guess what? The proposed contract has only one safeguard: The council can cancel the contract if it's been breached, which is a clause any contract must have. Worse, the contract allows the corporation to amend the by-laws with city staff's written consent, meaning that what little public accountability exists in the by-laws could get thrown out without council's knowledge. Needless to say, Goodman, Griffith, and Slusher aren't happy with Jordan and other staff members who orchestrated the whole thing.

To remedy the situation, Goodman hopes to win support today to make the proposed executive committee responsible to the entire board, to ensure that all meetings are public, and to allow the council to amend the board's by-laws. But without adjusting Austin's city-manager form of government, the larger problem, that of staff bucking the council's wishes, will only worsen. Especially as the council's privatization duties increase... -- A.M.

Algae Blooms Eternal

The salamander count has dropped dramatically, thousands of tiny Mexican Tetras are gone, crayfish are dying off, and ugly brown clumps of algae are floating on the water's surface. Welcome to Barton Springs swimming pool -- Austin's tarnished crown jewel. What's happening here is the worst algae outbreak in years, and an abundance of sediment washing down from roads and construction sites, says city biologist Robert Hansen. He also believes the sediment buildup is killing off salamanders. On September 9, he counted only seven salamanders, compared to 29 in August. He also noted the demise of other fish and the appearance of larger predator fish like bass and sunfish near the main springs.

The algae, which started blooming five weeks ago after the rainfall frequency picked up, is a product of two nutrients -- nitrogen and phosphorous -- passing through the springs from the aquifer. The clumps floating on the surface are Bluegreen Algae, moss and silt. The algae grows on the silt, which first began accumulating on the bottom of the pool about two years ago, Hansen says. The biggest silt culprit, some hydrogeologists believe, is the Texas Dept. of Transportation, whose massive US290 freeway project is three miles upstream. Possible sources of the nutrients are lawn fertilizers, leaking sewage lines and septic tanks, animal feces and highway runoff. Visibility is also at an all-time low. "When you're scuba diving near the main springs," says Hansen, "visibility is half what it was before the rains came." -- N.E

Drug Net Nets Concerns

A letter questioning the rationale of a police raid at an Austin housing complex has been turned over to the Austin Police Department's Internal Affairs division, according to spokesman Mike Burgess.

While the department's much-touted "Crime Net" operations at city Housing Authority sites are, for the most part, applauded by residents who want drugs and gang members out of their neighborhoods, one particular sweep on Sept. 12 at Meadowbrook, in South Central Austin, prompted a letter to Police Chief Elizabeth Watson. The letter questioned the "disorganized, violent... harassment and intimidation of people who were doing nothing but walking through the apartment complex in which they live." Rebeca Siegel, a teacher at the Family Learning Center, an after-school program at Meadowbrook, and Fred McGhee, a former Housing Authority employee, urged Watson in the letter to reevaluate the tactics of police officers indiscriminately casting a wide net in their search for criminal activity. -- A.S.

Cap Met Mea Culpa

"We've sinned in the past, but now we're on the road to reform." That appeared to be the atonement of the Capital Metro Board and administration at a public hearing Monday, Sept. 23, on the transit authority's proposed $118 million budget. That's up $21 million from last year, thanks to an extra 1/4 cent in sales tax revenue that the Capital Metro board approved last summer. Critics, led by long-time Cap Met gadfly, Gerald Daugherty, have lambasted the transit authority ever since.

A few days before the public hearing, Austin American-Statesman reporter Laylan Copelin ferreted out a 1995 consultant's report detailing wasteful purchasing policies at the bus company. Copelin's difficulties in getting access to the document suggested stonewalling from a bunkered-in Capital Metro bureaucracy. Recently appointed Capital Metro Director Justin Augustine said he and board members knew nothing about the consultant's report, and that the findings were from 1994 and not relevant to today's new and improved transit authority.

Daugherty, on the other hand, isn't so quick to let bygones be bygones. He believes Capital Metro should roll back its sales tax share to
3/4 cent and kill plans for a light rail system. Many Austin business leaders appeared to share Daugherty's opinions until earlier this month when the Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin, and the Downtown Austin Alliance supported letting the transit authority keep its
1 cent sales tax and setting aside the extra 1/4 cent for long-term projects, such as the light rail.

With the blessings of the economic powers-that-be, Capital Metro board members now have little incentive to roll back the sales tax at next Monday's meeting, and it looks fairly certain that the board will set aside the quarter-cent for long-range projects -- a good sign for transit advocates. -- N.E.

Let the Posturing Begin

It's finally official. At the Hyatt on Sept. 19, in an unprepared speech that came "from the heart," sixth-year councilmember Ronney Reynolds announced his desire to become the city's mayor in 1997. As mayor, Reynolds would "not only have vision, but have a shared vision" with his fellow councilmembers. "I'd like to be the councilmembers' mayor. And both business-wise and politically, we can lift others up so there's no political piracy. If someone has an idea we all need to support it."

Reynolds says the major issue facing city government is making the Electric Utility Dept. competitive so the city can keep it. Recreational pursuits like parks, museums, and arts deserve attention as well, he says, and he includes the provision of clean air, water, and landscapes as one of the top three issues facing the city. Reynolds' strongest opponent, Kirk Watson, plans to announce his candidacy Oct. 8. -- A.M.

Free-Net Goes East

It looks like Washington has taken an interest in getting East Austin wired. The U.S. Dept. of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration has presented Austin Free-Net, the local non-profit group which provides Internet access to libraries and an Eastside housing project or two, with a whopping grant -- $246,679 -- to develop even more sites east of I-35. Free-Net got news of the award along with congrats from the Clinton Administration (via e-mail of course), stating the group had been chosen as one of 67 grants awarded out of 800 applicants vying for the $18.6 million in federal funds. Lauded as the kind of working public-private partnership that Clinton encourages, Free-Net will serve as a model for communities across the country to get all citizens online. Here in Austin, the project will be carried out by the East Austin 11th/12th Street Community Network, a joint effort of Free-Net and the Austin Learning Academy, to place Internet-capable, networked computers at 13 public sites by 2000. -- J.S.

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