Naked City

Off the Desk:

Multimedia producer David Stansbury has jumped the Human Code ship to head up the editorial end of City Search Austin, a new Web venture in town preparing to launch a cyberspace kiosk, of sorts, on what's doing in Austin. City Search (http://www.citysearch.com) expects to make its local debut early next year. The company has similar community-based Web sites in New York City, Raleigh-Durham/Chapel Hill, Pasadena and San Francisco. Besides Human Code, Stansbury has also paid his dues at Third Coast and Texas Monthly magazines...

There won't be any welcome wagon waiting for Balcones Recycling Inc. when the firm moves into the East Sixth Street neighborhood in December. Balcones CEO Kerry Getter promises the plant will focus primarily on high-grade paper, but that's little comfort to area residents. They're dismayed that Balcones and another existing company, BFI Recyclery, prefer East Austin above anywhere else. Some residents plan to ask Austin City Council on Thursday (Nov. 7) for a moratorium on future permits, pending a new study of zoning laws... -- A.S.

Lena Guerrero, a lobbyist for auto dealers and electric companies, was unusually forthright in a recent interview. When asked by Suzanne Gamboa and Michele Kay of the local daily how to become a highly paid lobbyist, Guerrero, who resigned in disgrace from the Texas Railroad Commission after it was discovered she had lied about having a college degree, said, "Run for office and learn the system. You learn the system and then people hire you to work the system." -- R.B.

Shuttle Scuffle

Last Thursday, the Austin City Council awarded a very lucrative and exclusive contract for airport shuttle service to Star Shuttle, but only after contentious debate. The council chose the San Antonio company over Super Shuttle, a franchise which would have been owned by Austin residents.

Some councilmembers disputed the bid process' rating system that gave the lead to Star Shuttle, which has formed a joint venture with Austin Cab Company. The minority-owned cab company is headed by East Austin icon Bertha Means, who has for decades fought for the neighborhood of her origin, helping to get rec centers and park space opened there. With Means on the ticket, then, numerous standouts from East Austin turned out to rally around Star Shuttle. After various councilmembers took turns questioning the bid process, and seemed inclined towards runner-up Super Shuttle, Eric Mitchell began his usual litany.

"Every week, I'm reminded more and more why the public has no confidence in this council and how we do business and just how subjective this is," he groaned. "If we don't like who won, we rebid." From the quiet audience, that longtime East Austin firebrand Dorothy Turner bobbed her head during Mitchell's sermon and praised, "Mmm, hmmm. Tell `em what's really going on, Eric."

Mayor Bruce Todd, who chaired the meeting, tried to block the church-like call-and-response atmosphere that Mitchell's speeches often evoke from his supporters. "That is simply not allowed," Todd blurted.

Mitchell shot back, "It's allowed from her when I'm talking. If you want to cut me off, go ahead." Todd backed down, and Mitchell went on, complain-ing that black companies continue to get the shaft. "Now they won, and what's the excuse today? I can't go out like that, I can't be quiet." -- A.M.

Asian Paper Debuts

With the arrival of Samsung and Tokyo Electronics in Austin and the formation of the Texas Asian Chamber of Commerce earlier this year, it's no surprise that a new community newspaper would spring from this growth. The first issue of The Asian American Quarterly made its first debut this month as the only English-language newspaper serving the diverse Asian community on the Third Coast. Published quarterly by the Asian American Alliance, the newspaper is designed to foster communication between different Asian populations in Central Texas, say the paper's backers. "We want to be able to speak the truth about who we are from our points of view," says Amy Wong Mok, president of the alliance.

The free publication, available at Asian restaurants and markets, is staffed entirely by volunteers and editor Susan Wan Dolling, who penned most of the articles and edited the newsletter-sized publication from her Northwest Hills home. Only 2,000 copies of the first issue were printed, but the alliance hopes to increase its circulation to 10,000 by next fall. The first issue's family theme coincides with the alliance's Nov. 9 conference on "Raising Our Children in a Multicultural Society" at the University of Texas School of Social Work.

According to the Texas Asian Chamber of Commerce, the Asian American population in Central Texas is growing at a rapid pace. The 1990 Census reported that Asians make up 3% of the Central Texas population, but the Chamber places that at closer to 5%. "Samsung definitely made the Asian presence more real, more obvious," says David Sizmur, chamber secretary. Though it is less than a year old, the chamber already has 60 member businesses, due in part to the growing number of Asian-owned start-up companies in the area, says Chamber president David Chan.

"The Asian community in Central Texas is reaching critical mass out of which the future expansion will accelerate," Chan predicts. Mok echoes that notion when addressing the increase in Asian Americans in Austin in recent years. "We are trying to prepare ourselves, to put down a good foundation," she says. -- K.V.

PSAT's Gender Gap

Last month, America's high school juniors, hoping to snag a National Merit scholarship for college, filed through the only door into that prestigious enclave -- by taking the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test (PSAT). But at least one watchdog group has long slammed the PSAT for being an inherently gender-biased exam -- because it's heavy on strategic guessing at answers, which tends to better suit boys' learning styles.

According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), 56% of test-takers are girls, but girls only garner about 40% of the scholarship awards. The College Board, which develops and writes the PSAT, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and other such exams, recently announced that they, too, had come to the same startling conclusion and will modify the PSAT in 1997 to address the inequity.

"I applaud the College Board's attempt to balance the scales but I remain highly skeptical that companies which have produced biased exams for decades will suddenly correct the flaws in their products," said Heather Jennings, executive director of Austin's branch of the Princeton Review, which helps people prepare for (and outwit) all manner of standardized exams, including the PSAT and its big brother, the SAT. "One reason these tests are so coachable is they are biased." Services like the Princeton Review do more than just allow practice and drill on the exams -- they also help test takers learn to recognize traps and wrong answers that look good, a strategy that favors boys. The "new" PSAT will add a writing skills section, where girls tend to do well.

Although the Austin Independent School District (AISD) produces four to six times the number of National Merit Finalists expected for a district of its size, the gender gap is about the same as at the national level. Over 60% of scholarship recipients in AISD are boys. -- R.A.

Green Builders Return

Green building is entering the mainstream. In the past 12 months, the New York Times and Parade magazine have done extensive articles on the trend. The Times ran a lengthy profile of Pliny Fisk, the green guru from Austin's Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems. Parade did a cover story on Steve Loken, a green building innovator from Missoula, Montana.

When the annual Green Building Conference started in Austin five years ago, that kind of attention from the national press was just a dream. But now the green bricks-and-mortars trend appears to be business as usual for many architects, builders and homeowners who applaud energy efficiency, waste reduction, water catchments and other green-building concepts.

The latest ideas and best minds in green building are returning to Austin for the fifth annual Green Building Conference. Already the biggest endeavor of its kind in the country, the conference enjoys a healthy growth spurt with each new year. Some 1,400 people are expected to attend this year's conference and trade show, which kicks off at 7pm tonight (Nov. 7) at the Austin Convention Center with a judging of "green" birdhouses. The meeting moves into high gear on Friday, Nov. 8, with a full slate of topics ranging from rainwater catchments and straw-bale construction to steel construction and photovoltaics. Speakers include Fisk and Loken, as well as Rodolpho Ramina, a city planner from Brazil who is implementing green building concepts throughout the Brazilian city of Curitiba.

Admission to the event, which ends on Sunday with a self-guided tour of area homes and businesses, costs $65. One-day passes are $35. The City of Austin Green Builder Program, the Lower Colorado River Authority, and a host of others are sponsors. For more info call 499-7827. -- R.B.

Dag Nabbit, Babbitt

It was only a matter of time before Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt got sued on his decision not to list the Barton Springs Salamander as an endangered species. On Oct. 29, the Save Our Springs Alliance filed suit in U.S. District Court under the Endangered Species Act, claiming that Babbitt ignored the law in September when he agreed to a state-sponsored plan to preserve the rare species. The suit says Babbitt's decision not to protect the amphibian "must be because the Secretary has reinterpreted the `endangered' definition in the Act to require that, in politically sensitive locations, a species must first be extinct to establish that it was once, in fact, `endangered.'

"Fortunately," the suit continues, "the U.S. Constitution does not allow a cabinet officer to rewrite the laws of Congress. And Congress, anticipating the potential for Executive Branch hostility to the Act, explicitly provided for citizen enforcement lawsuits like this one."

Bill Bunch, the lawyer for the S.O.S. Alliance, said he hopes to get a ruling within two months. He said he plans to take the depositions of officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to show the "political influence on the decision" not to designate the salamander an endangered species. The complaint can be read on the Web at http://www.sosalliance.org. -- R.B.

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