Naked City

Off the Desk:

Nov. 11 marked the first day to file bills for the 1997 legislative shindig, and Warren Chisum, the Pampa rep who rants against sodomy so much it makes you wonder, wasted no time setting his agenda for the new year. The Democrat-turned-Republican's first bill out of the gate: a law banning same-sex marriages. "It's just an opportunity for him to gay-bash," says Dianne Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. "We don't have the right to marry in Texas anyway, so there is really no need for his legislation."...

Which brings us to ethics in the media. Steady anchor Dan Rather will give a lecture on said topic at 11am Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 25-26, in the LBJ Room of UT's Communications Bldg. Tuesday's talk will be a live, in-the-flesh lecture; Monday's lecture will be broadcast live from Sam Houston State University, Rather's alma mater. It's open to everyone, so ya'll come... -- A.S.

Forcing the Issue

The Nov. 21 city council meeting could be zero hour for a Jan. 18 referendum on the citizens' petition cynically known as "Austinites for a Little Less Corruption." Though City Clerk Elden Aldridge determined that the petition lacked 1,606 registered voters and therefore did not qualify for placement on the ballot, the petitioners, organized under Priorities First!, have since made strides in proving that the clerk's office erred.

Two weeks ago, the group presented a sample of their findings to Councilmember Daryl Slusher, who has shown the most interest in their cause. For the sample, the group checked 295 of the 14,783 signatures ruled invalid by the clerk's office, and discovered that 53 signatures had been wrongfully negated. Slusher sent those signatures to Aldridge requesting an explanation. According to Slusher, Aldridge replied that 40 of those 53 could indeed be valid signatures.

Slusher then asked the group to examine a larger sample, and promised that if the percentages held, he would put the item up for a council vote. To expedite the process, Priorities First! hired political statistician Jeff Smith of Opinion Analysts to evaluate the signatures. "We're looking for enough [wrongfully invalidated signatures] to put them over the top," Smith says, adding that, "Right away we've found that there's a lot of people that shouldn't have been invalidated."

As of Monday, Smith told Slusher that he is on course to find 2,000 such signatures. So Slusher and Beverly Griffith will sponsor an item at this week's council meeting to put the measure on the ballot. "We're convinced that enough voters signed the petition to put it on the ballot," Slusher says. A sum of 15,964 signatures is required to put the campaign reform measure on the ballot.

The petition seeks to at least partially reduce influence-peddling and back-scratching by limiting contributions to local candidates to $100 and to PACs to $25. Since it's not exactly favorable to the current political machine, much curiosity arose last month when Aldridge negated more than half of the total 29,231 signatures. Like Smith, members of Priorities First! say they immediately found some voters who had been inexplicably struck, meaning the information they had included on the petition exactly matched the info on the voter registration rolls. In other cases, signatures were ruled invalid because voters had signed, for example, J.B. instead of Jim Bob, as listed on the voter registration rolls.

Needless to say, the group raised hell, lambasting the clerk's office, which works directly for the council, with charges of conspiracy. At the time, Aldridge denied the office had negated signatures that weren't identical to names listed on the official rolls. Slusher says Aldridge, who could not be reached at press time, now admits their occurrence, and blames faulty instructions among subordinates.

The intrigue is not outlandish, but another ulterior motive may be at work. Could it be that the council simply isn't ready for a vote on the campaign finance reform measure? The proposal would be an amendment to the City Charter, and if voters approve it, another charter election could not be held for two years. The council can't wait that long because there's an even bigger charter election in the works: the creation of a governing board to manage the city's Electric Utility Dept. But the council has dragged its feet on a charter election on the EUD governing board, partly because it's awaiting more info on when the electric utility industry will be deregulated.

Placing a measure on the ballot must occur at least 45 days before an election date. The only such date between now and the May 3 city council election is Jan. 18, which gives the council a Dec. 3 deadline to set the ballot. With the Thanksgiving holiday, the only council meeting before then is today. If Smith doesn't find enough valid signatures by today's meeting, the group may request a special council vote. Mike Blizzard, a grassroots organizer with the petition drive, has said Priorities First! might be willing to go along with a May election, but they will need a confidence vote from the council. But the group already has threatened to sue the city clerk's office, so don't expect them to wait much longer. -- A.M.

Power Hungry

"Don't Panic." That was the advice from Tom "Smitty" Smith, the director of the Texas office of the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, to members of Austin's Electric Utility Commission at a public hearing Tuesday night, Nov. 19.

The commissioners were considering whether to recommend that the city council cut a special deal on behalf of six of Austin's largest manufacturers, that would collectively reduce the companies' annual utility rates by $4 million. Smith called the demand for a rate break a "greed fee by the largest customers in Austin," and urged commissioners to wait before needlessly giving away money.

The threat is that the public utility's six largest corporate customers will take their energy business elsewhere once the power industry is deregulated. If that happens, Austin stands to lose $24 million in annual revenues from these customers. The proposed agreement the commission is considering, which would go into effect on Jan. 1, would lock the six companies into staying with Austin's utility for five years at a savings to them of $4 million per year; after that, the corporations would have to stay another five years with the utility as long as Austin matched any rate offers from competitors.

Dan Rogers, Motorola director of public affairs, spoke at the hearing on behalf of Motorola, IBM, Texas Instruments, and AMD. (Seton Hospital and Applied Materials are the other companies involved.) According to Rogers, the city would be wise to cut a deal now before legislators open up the industry to retail wheeling next session. If the city doesn't go along, Rogers warned commissioners, "I can't guarantee our lobbyists won't be at the capital working on deregulation as fast as they can."

But attorney W. Scott McCollough, a utilities specialist hired by the city to represent the interests of residential and small business energy consumers, advised the commission to recommend that the city wait and see. Both McCollough and Smith said it will take at least two, if not three more sessions for a deregulation bill to pass. "Competition will not come 'til after the millenium," Smith said. McCollough said the council would be better off spending the money to reduce the general fund transfer and pay off debt. "That would benefit all customer classes, not just large corporations."

Residential ratepayers can let the utility commission know what they think at 6pm Thursday, Nov. 21, at Town Lake Center on 721 Barton Springs Rd. The city council will vote on the rate reduction Dec. 4. -- A.D.

DAA Bets on Betts

The Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) searched the world over for an executive director and ended up right here at home with Charles Betts. Now, DAA's leadership has a strong real estate bent, which could be good or worrisome, depending on where you stand on the TIF district, the proposed tax increment financing plan designed to pave the way for more retail and residential development downtown.

Betts moves to the DAA on Dec. 2 after clearing out his desk at the Texas Association of Realtors (TAR), a trade group that packs a powerful lobbying wallop at the Lege. Judging from the direction local power brokers appear to be headed -- i.e. hell-bent on creating a tax district downtown -- Betts may be just what the TIF doctors ordered.

"We wanted someone who knew how to work with Austin's political scene, so to speak," says DAA Chair Tom Stacy. Other TIF backers equally adept at working the local scene are the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Austin Area Research Organization, which is chaired by the very polished Pike Powers. Frustrated by city council's lack of enthusiasm, some downtown chieftains last week chatted up the idea of asking state lawmakers to pass a TIF law whereby newly generated property tax revenues would automatically be funneled into downtown projects, including public-private ventures.

But downtown Austin doesn't need a TIF, says Jim Hudson, a former Austin Convention & Visitors' Bureau committee member who keeps tabs on city government. "The only place I can see a need for a TIF is east of I-35," he says. "But no, we have to go where there's prime property, in the heart of the city."

TIF matters aside, though, the DAA is impressed with Betts' overall "understanding of the real estate financial development challenges" facing downtown. Betts hails from an S&L background, to boot. From `71 to `84 he was president of Franklin Savings, which bit the dust in 1988 in the S&L debacle that left taxpayers shouldering a heavy load. Then he presided over Austin Federal Savings & Loan from '84 to '90.

"This is a good opportunity for me to be involved in downtown again -- it's almost like coming home," says Betts, who champions the preservation of historic structures. He headed up the restoration of the Tipps Building on Congress, and has a record of involvement with other fixer-upper projects downtown.

Betts will be in good company at his new post with DAA Chair Stacy, who hails from Omni Commercial Realty, a downtown property brokerage house, and is also a member of Betts' soon-to-be former employer TAR. And since we're on the subject of real estate connections here, Thais Austin, who politicks on behalf of the Austin Board of Realtors, is another active DAA board director who holds downtown near and dear to her heart. There's a handful of other real estate wheeler-dealers on the board, too.

This new leadership environment is a far cry from the old days under former DAA director Jose Martinez, who resigned last summer amid a swell of whispers. It seems that Martinez, a city planner for many years, couldn't shake his bureaucratic roots fast enough for the DAA board, which was itching to move ahead on the heavy-lifting projects of the day -- big money-making dreams to give downtown that special lived-in look, with residents and bustling retail, maybe even a grocery store.

Yes, it's a new ball game down at the DAA. All that's missing now are the referees. -- A.S.

Cochran Courts Fans

Nobody cheered or applauded, but a definite hush fell across the room when Johnnie Cochran strode in, flanked by an entourage of men in gray suits. "There he is," came the excited gasps and whispers from the line of more than 250 fans and curiosity seekers -- mostly women -- who had waited for over an hour for the man who won O.J. Simpson his acquittal.

The dapper defense lawyer swung by Book People Nov. 14 as part of a 35-city tour promoting his new book, Journey To Justice, in which he writes about his illustrious law career, which spans 25 years and includes a long list of clients the likes of Michael Jackson, Reginald Denney (injured in the L.A. riots), Tupac Shakur and Queen Latifah.

"It's so good to see a black man succeed in life in a positive way," said Jeanette Brown, while waiting in line. Clearly, many who came to meet Cochran identified his success with their own. Denise Williams brought her graduation certificate from a business course for Cochran to sign because she was so inspired by his image. "He's a one of a kind man," she gushed, admitting that she also found him quite attractive.

Afterwards, Cochran chatted while he signed extra stock books. He pondered the question of what he represents to African-Americans. "Competence can come in all colors," he said. People "understand there can be only one Michael Jordan, but there can be many Johnnie Cochrans." Asked whether he thought O.J. Simpson was a good role model for African-Americans, Cochran responded, "At what point? Before June 12?" Right about then a member of his entourage tapped this reporter on the shoulder. "That's it," he said. -- K.V.

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