Naked City

Off the Desk:

Sometimes the line between white elephants and sacred cows is very thin. Take Austin's Aqua Festival. In recent years, the annual live music fling has come up short, in both wallet and spirit. The latest cash crunch, detailed in a quietly circulated city hall memo, has festival organizers owing the city $124,214. Parks and Recreation director Jesus Olivares outlines in the memo a couple of options the city could take: 1) Give the Fest folks seven days to pay up and, failing that, file suit based on breach of duty, or 2) Renegotiate the payment installment schedule, an old-boy tradition that dates back to 1994 when Aqua Fest began paying out its 1993 license fee tab. The Parks and Rec board was expected to weigh the matter Tuesday eve, as we go to press... -- A.S.

You know that contract -- giving the city's largest industrial ratepayers a discount on their energy bills -- that our electric utility staffers were pushing the commission to sign off on all last week? Well, it looks like they changed their minds as of Monday night's utility commission meeting, and no longer recommend the original deal they promoted. "I call it the Emily Litella provision," says consumer advocate Scott McCollough, who is representing the interest of residential and small business customers. "Now that they see what a raw deal it was, it's `Never mind.'" Utility staff hurriedly drafted a new contract after revelations that a potential legislative bill the industrial customers are pushing behind the scenes would, under the city's deal, excuse them from paying their share of the utility's debt if they were ever wooed away by a cheaper power provider. After a request from McCollough for time to review the utility's latest draft of the proposal, the commission put off voting on whether to recommend it to the city council until next Monday... -- A.D.

House the Homeless, Inc. (HTH) president Richard Troxell says he is "reluctantly" taking the city to court. He and HTH attorney Cecilia Wood are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to come down on the city for building the new airport on federal property without sharing its resources with the homeless under the McKinney Act, Troxell says. At the very least, he adds, the housing sites at the former military base could have gone to the homeless instead of going for a profit or, worse, the way of the wrecking ball. "The idea of passing a `no camping' ordinance to deal with the problem of homelessness is about as sophisticated as preparing to demolish $200 million worth of housing," says Troxell...

Maybe you knew this already, but Texas isn't a good place to be a woman. That's the word from Heidi Hartmann of Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women's Policy Research. Lone Star sisters rank behind in political and labor-force participation. And next to New Mexico, Texas has the lowest rate of women's health insurance coverage, while ranking 39th in reproductive rights in this current climate of anti-choice, and among the highest in poverty. On a brighter note, the women folk finish in the middle third in earnings for full-time workers... -- A.S.

Real or Rhetoric?

If kick-off fundraisers are any indication, Ronney Reynolds is in for one hell of a mayoral race against Kirk Watson. Watson, former chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, already has a strong base of Democratic supporters to rely on. Financially, though, he's the underdog. Incumbent Reynolds has amassed a campaign juggernaut over the past year, and looks mighty impenetrable atop a $77,000-plus war chest.

Watson, however, no doubt narrowed that gap at a fundraiser last Wednesday night at Green Pastures. The entry fee was $35 per individual, or $50 a couple, and campaign volunteers allegedly handed out almost 800 name tags. Those figures are no doubt biased, but frankly, there were too many damn people to count. The masses in the huge reception area brimmed over into the expansive back lawn, and getting from point A to B made you feel like Billy in a "Family Circus" cartoon.

Another problem for Reynolds: Watson's promise for a new age of conciliation could be more than just recycled speechcraft, at least if the diversity of the crowd is any measure. Current and former Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce presidents (Kerry Tate, Ron Kessler) mingled with leaders from the environmental community (ex-councilmember and Save Our Springs spearhead Brigid Shea), East Austin activists (Ron Davis, Chris Fanuel), and gay representatives (Human Rights Campaign activist Eugene Sepulveda).

Watson also has hired two of the city's most successful political consultants -- Alfred Stanley, who organized the fundraiser, and David Butts -- and he's also close to finalizing a deal with political strategist Dean Rindy. Reynolds, on the other hand, says he hasn't hired a fundraiser or consultant.

Conspicuously absent from the fundraiser were heavyweights from the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), like attorney Pete Winstead or Reynolds' old pal, Freeport-McMoRan attorney David Armbrust. Political overseers are keeping an eye on the powerful development group, which has swooned and fawned over Reynolds in years past. If a large number of RECA members defect to Watson's camp, many think, the race is as good as done. Already, last year's RECA president, Jay Hailey, has thrown his support behind Watson.

But ex-jock Reynolds has his own consensus-building strategy: He's attempting to camouflage himself in environmental green. Three weeks ago, he cast a surprise vote against the proposed Bloch Cancer Survivors' Plaza on Town Lake. The star supporter of the development community said it would spoil the purity of the greenbelt. And on Nov. 4, he showed up at the Save Barton Creek Association's annual board meeting and celebration at the Zilker Park Clubhouse. Perhaps he hopes everyone will forget his undying efforts to kill the Save Our Springs ordinance.

Wow. Chamber big-wigs mingling with tree-huggers, and Freeport caddie Reynolds hanging out with the SBCA... Is this is a new Austin, or just another election season?

Speaking of the SBCA and conciliation, the group presented Bill Bunch and the Save Our Springs Alliance with a certificate of appreciation for halting the proposed Austin Community College campus over the aquifer. With the SOS lawsuit against ACC prospering in the courts, ACC trustees recently retreated from their decision to build the campus at the proposed Shadowridge site in southwest Austin.

Key members of the SBCA and SOS, two of the city's leading environmental groups, have had their differences in the past, but the wounds were salved. Individual certificates of appreciation went to activist Karen Hadden for research, and to SOS attorney Bunch. Similarly honored were attorney Phil Durst, who argued the case, and activist Larry Akers, who originated the idea of a lawsuit since ACC's decision to purchase Shadowridge did not comply with the Open Records Act. -- A.M.

The Bubba Vote

They came by the dozens, South Austinites all, to remind the council that Austin extends south of the river, too. Anxiously, they filled the cafeteria at Bedicheck Middle School -- not far, they hope, from the police substation they've been awaiting for four years. Ignored at the expense of the new North and East substations, also approved in a bond package in 1992, South Austinites are fearful that crime will rise violently before the substation is built.

But as Eric Mitchell stated so eloquently, he, Jackie Goodman, and Daryl Slusher are all "bubbas" residing in Austin's lower latitudes. They've got a personal stake in the substation, what with gang activity in Dove Springs threatening neighborhood security in Southeast Austin, and with police tardiness in Oak Hill and South Central Austin unnecessarily high, due to the extra 15-30 minutes spent driving from the East Substation to those areas.

And if that's not enough, remember that the other councilmember in attendance at the Nov. 19 specially-called council meeting, Ronney Reynolds, has always been a stalwart police supporter. (Gus Garcia was in Corpus Christi warning Texas A & M students about the effects of global warming. Bruce Todd would not divulge his whereabouts and, in fact, says, "It's none of your business." Todd can say things like that because he's quitting.) Mayoral wanna-be Reynolds is not. He could use a gem like a new substation in the impending mayoral battle. It was, after all, he who brought the issue to the council's agenda, and he who is leading the charge for a new station.

The drawback is that the $2 million bond approval will now purchase only an 8,000-square-foot substation, instead of the original 18,000 square feet it would have bought four years ago. Reynolds has proposed that bubbadom wait a little longer, and he'll try to put a bond issue to pay for the original size on the May ballot. The 60 or so South Austinites who showed up concurred. -- A.M.

Populists Rise Up

In his opening address at the first convention of The Alliance on Nov. 21, Texas Observer founder Ronnie Dugger quickly laid out the problem facing America: "We are ruled by big business, and big government as its paid hireling, and we know it. Corporate money is wrecking popular government in the United States. The big corporations and the centimillionaires and billionaires have taken control of our work, our pay, our housing, our health, our pension funds, our bank and savings deposits, our public lands, our airwaves, our elections and our very government. It's as if American democracy has been bombed."

The four-day gathering centered on gaining control over corporate special interests -- an effort that drew 250 participants from 28 states. For those familiar with Texas history, the theme was a familiar one. The populist movement in America, whose legacy now includes rural cooperatives and credit unions, began 119 years ago when farmers in Lampasas County rebelled against merchants, cotton ginners and railroads which prevented them from making a decent living. Dugger has sought to revive the Populist spirit with the formation of The Alliance, an organization that grew out of his call-to-arms article in The Nation in August, 1995.

Radio commentator and former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower warned the attendees that controlling the corporations won't be easy. Nor will it be easy to rally the constituents for a third party. "Getting progressives together is kind of like trying to load frogs in a wheelbarrow," Hightower told the appreciative crowd. And for hours, attendees from places like Chicago, Birmingham, and Sonoma County grappled with some notoriously uncooperative frogs, including slippery issues like workers rights, international trade, environmental justice, economic equity, taxation, immigration, and health care.

Between breakout sessions, a host of liberal luminaries addressed the crowd -- Duke University history prof and author Lawrence Goodwyn (The Populist Moment); columnist Molly Ivins; author Howard Zinn, (A People's History of the United States), and David Korten, who wrote the recently published When Corporations Rule the World.

Whether or not The Alliance's confab will turn into anything lasting is hard to say. But many attendees were upbeat, saying that the events of the last two elections (increased corporate sponsorship coupled with declining voter turnout) show that America is ready for a third party that is not dependent on PACs and corporate donations. Ivins exhorted the crowd to forge an alliance with the Reform Party, arguably the biggest of the nascent political movements in the country. Others pointed to the Green Party and New Alliance Party as examples of the existing discontent with politics as usual. -- R.B.

What Commuters Want

Don't be shy about speaking up on how federal dollars could go toward improving the business of getting around town. Friday, November 29, is the deadline to submit written comments to the Austin Transportation Study, which is expected to consider and vote on the proposals Dec. 9.

ATS already got an earful of requests at a Nov. 18 public hearing in which suburbanites demanding more roads, and inner-city residents pleading for sidewalks and bicycle lanes, lined up by the dozens in a grueling four-and-a-half-hour session. The ATS is slated to receive $19.2 million in federal transportation funds in 1999 and 2000.

One item that has become a recurring theme is the proposal to synchronize the city's traffic light system. Peter Rieck, director of Austin's Department of Public Works and Transportation, has asked ATS for $4.5 million to go toward the project. He noted that city voters approved $11.5 million for computerized lights in 1992, and Public Works plans to ask for another $16 million in the next bond election as well. However, cyclist Mike Lippard complained that spending large sums on traffic light synchronization does little to reduce "lots of fast-moving metal" that turns arterials into barriers for non-motorists.

Bee Caves Road, always an automotive challenge, is under consideration for a center left-turn lane between Loop 360 and MoPac. West Lake Hills and Rollingwood officials asked for $4.1 million to help foot the bill for the $14.2 million project. But former Sierra Club Chair Dick Kallerman countered that adding another lane would only increase traffic. "You don't solve obesity by loosening your belt, and you don't cure traffic congestion with more road capacity," Kallerman said.

Also, about 35 citizens signed up to speak out on hike-and-bike trails. A proposed trail along Slaughter Creek in South Austin, which had initially stirred up controversy, (The Austin Chronicle, Nov. 15) was withdrawn from requested funding. Several trails advocates asked the ATS to consider funding a trail on Walnut Creek in North Austin instead. Written suggestions to ATS may be e-mailed to ats@austinmpo.org, or faxed to 499-6385 by Friday, Nov. 29. -- N.E.

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