Naked City

Off the Desk:

Councilmember Eric Mitchell often complains that his council salary ($30,000) is too low. He must not be counting the fringe benefits. At last week's council meeting, he may have once again violated city and state ethics laws by voting to award a city contract that could reap financial returns for his insurance company, Wormley Mitchell & Associates. The contract is a $78,000 loan to Prism Development, which is owned by Michael Van Ohlen, head of the Capital Metro board. Prism plans to use the new loan to double its operations and to relocate and renovate property at 2705 and 2713 E. Fifth St. All of that, of course, requires more insurance, and Van Ohlen says Mitchell's company has been a longtime provider of Prism's insurance needs. Perhaps Mitchell should have abstained... -- A.M.

Step up to the mike tonight (Thursday) and have your say on the six-point Electric Utility Dept. proposal, including the proposed rate reductions for large corporate consumers. Public comments at 6:30pm in council chambers (see "Council Watch" for details)...

Bursting at the seams in cramped and dreary digs, the Govalle Branch Library is ready for a complete makeover. Last week, the city awarded Flynn Construction Inc. a $1.2 million contract to build a new library at Seventh and Pleasant Valley. In other library developments (proving that some bond elections actually materialize into something concrete), the new Oak Hill branch opens in early 1997, and the new Millwood site opens in June. Plus, a new Dove Springs site is underway, while the Hancock Street site is still on the drawing boards...

The Guatemala Action Network of Austin (GANA) plans to give the Phillips-Van Heusen clothing company a dressing down, of sorts, as part of a national day of protest against the corporate giant. GANA says the company has refused to negotiate in good faith with workers in PVH's Guatemala factory. GANA will protest outside PVH stores in the San Marcos outlet mall. Meet between 9-9:30am Saturday, Dec. 14, at Pato's Tacos, 1400 E. 381/2, for a free ride down. Call 474-5677 for more info. -- A.S.

`C' World Adventures

If city councilmembers were not elected at-large, you might think Eric Mitchell's single-member district was Circle C. In late October, you may recall, Mitchell was the only councilmember who wouldn't agree to the city's lawsuit against House Bill 3193, which many believe unconstitutionally prevents the city from annexing the autonomous Circle C's lucrative tax base. Mitchell boycotted city council's closed-door briefings on the suit, hissing that it would bring down retribution from the Lege.

Although he promised forthrightness at his re-election announcement in October, Mitchell hasn't informed Austinites about his ties with Circle C residents and landowners. His kick-off fundraiser, "The Eric Mitchell Golf Tournament," was held at the Circle C golf course, and it came just two weeks after he protested the lawsuit. You see, Circle C residents don't want to be annexed because they'll have to pay higher taxes. And Circle C developers don't want annexation either, because it means the still-developing district will have to adhere to the city's water-quality standards, which would eat up their profits.

So the thousands of dollars that Mitchell has received over the past three years in campaign contributions from Circle C developer Gary Bradley and other Circle C interests should continue. And though residents there can't even vote for him, they may feel inclined to help the Circle C sugar daddies shore up Mitchell's campaign war chest, which held a lowly $5,000 this summer.

Last weekend, another benefit for Mitchell was held beyond the tree-lined esplanade that marks the entrance into the duchy. Circle C resident Angela Shelf Medearis, author of numerous African-American children's books, threw a Books and Ballots Benefit for Mitchell. Part of the proceeds went to Mitchell's re-election campaign, and the rest to buy books for underpriviledged schools in East Austin. Though only a handful of guests attended, Mitchell may have a challenge from Northeast Austin neighborhood activist Willie Lewis, so he'll need all the money he can get.

When Mitchell announced his re-election hopes, the councilmember made another promise. He promised to "continue to represent everyone." Apparently, he didn't just mean Austin voters. -- A.M.

Drag Strikes a Pose

Everyone who has lived in Austin for a while knows that the Drag -- that strip of businesses on Guadalupe between Martin Luther King and 29th -- has seen better days. Business prof E. Lee Walker and a cadre of students are on a mission to revitalize the area, and they began the process last Wednesday at a presentation and brainstorming session with some 200 academic, business and community leaders.

Walker, an ardent Save Our Springs supporter and former president of Dell Computer, teaches a UT graduate business course in Frontline Management and an undergraduate course in Community Building, which has a spin-off service club called The Good Society. MBA students and club members joined forces this semester to poll Drag patrons and conduct other studies of the area as part of an ongoing Guadalupe Street Revitalization Project.

Last week, they presented their findings at the UT Thompson Conference Center. Although the types of businesses and organizations with a stake in the Drag is very diverse, the pollsters were able to identify three common areas of concern: Safety, maintenance, and the economic viability of the district. Toward that end, both UT and Capital Metro have earmarked millions of dollars for a Drag renovation.

In historic terms, the Drag has bustled with pedestrian shoppers since the turn of the century. Today, there's a concern that the district is a haven for street people. The students' poll found that 80% of respondents feel unsafe walking on the Drag, and 40% have actually been threatened, although incidences of crime in the area remain low. However, the pollsters' findings revealed that the influx of transients is not the sole root of the Drag's problems. Respondents described the area as unattractive, uninviting and difficult to maneuver on foot because of heavy automobile traffic.

Retooling the parking, planting trees, amending ordinances to allow sidewalk cafes, banning cars on the Drag, and tearing down the wall that borders the campus side of the street were held up as possible solutions. "It's extraordinary to note how much we're trying to invent right now what existed before," Walker noted. Jeanette Nassour, proprietor of the Cadeau since 1952, was cheered by the fact that last week's session was the first time in 40 years that the entire community concerned with the Drag were together in the same room. Work continues in January. -- K.V.

Austin's Bad Air

Austin could face major ozone obstacles if proposed new air-quality standards go into effect nationwide. That's bad news for drivers who may have to cough up extra money for emissions inspections and cleaner fuel, but good news for asthmatics and others who suffer from chronic lung problems.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reckons that, nationwide, its proposed stricter standards for ozone and airborne industrial particulates would save 20,000 lives a year, reduce severe asthma attacks by 250,000, and prevent 250,000 children from developing acute respiratory problems.

Under the current regulation, cities become nonattainment for air quality if they show at least four one-hour readings of 120 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone in a three-year period. The proposed new standard (which may be officially adopted in June) would average together the third-highest eight-hour ozone readings for each of three consecutive years. If the average is greater than 80ppb, the city becomes nonattainment. Bottom line: Austin would have failed the new standard had it been on the books for the years 1993-95.

Ozone is produced when nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons are heated by the sun's rays; 62% of Austin's nitrogen oxide and half of its hydrocarbons come from automobile-related emissions. Rather than encouraging less time behind the wheel, early-stage EPA regulations for nonattainment areas typically concentrate on reducing ozone by requiring stricter emissions inspections.

But according to Austin's former air quality coordinator, Charles Albert, the city's current freeway build-out and consequent urban sprawl growth pattern continue to dramatically increase the amount of area driving, along with the average number of trips a person takes in a day, and the average length of each trip. All of these factors are likely to defeat the purpose of car emissions improvements. -- N.E.

Crackdown on Greens

Given the bloody history of the Indonesian dictator, Suharto, it's not surprising that his government would crack down on dissidents. But the timing of the latest enforcement appears to be related to the increasing activism of Indonesian environmental groups.

On Nov. 4, the Indonesian government informed 31 environmental groups -- including WALHI, the Indonesian Environmental Forum which has been critical of Freeport-McMoRan's mining operation in Irian Jaya -- that they could be disbanded if their criticism of the government continues. On Nov. 20, eight American environmental and human rights groups asked Vice President Al Gore to remind the Suharto regime that America will not allow environmental groups to be intimidated. "Indonesia's crackdown on environmentalists reminds us of similar efforts of the Kenyan government to silence environmental advocate Prof. Wangari Maathai and of the Nigerian military's silencing of environmentalist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa," the groups wrote in their letter to Gore. "We believe that no country can feign environmental awareness when its citizens are forbidden to speak freely, when they are forbidden to assemble, or when they are persecuted for protecting the environment," they wrote. -- R.B.

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