Off the Desk:
Remember Max Nofziger? That guitar-strumming ex-councilmember guy who left office six months ago to start a new life? Hardly giving his council seat time to grow cold, Nofziger now is pining to be back on the dais again. He says he'll decide soon whether he'll make a run for mayor or the Place 2 seat, being vacated by mayoral hopeful Ronney Reynolds. Stay tuned ..
Pity the poor developer who has to shell out all that dough on building permits and the like -- now he's being asked to pay more in membership fees to The Man. That being the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA). The almighty lobbying group is raising its dues and keeping its fingers crossed that its 800 members agree to go along with the new fee structure. In a letter to RECA constituents, President Richard Hill said the extra cash will go toward strengthening RECA's work and "influence" on local issues. Some of RECA's high-profile involvement includes its support of the "conservation agreement" for the Barton Springs Salamander, its advocacy of a tax increment financing district for downtown, and, lest we forget, its gung-ho support of development-friendly political candidates. Hill's letter also outlines RECA's "influence" on various city task forces, perhaps as an added incentive to members to keep the dues money coming in through thick and thin. "To ensure our sustainability," Hill writes, "RECA needs to create a reserve account that will protect us in a down economy...." For the record, the new annual RECA rates are $225 per person...
If local real estate history repeats itself, hold the phone. Remember the Eighties? Back then, when the crane was known as the official bird of Austin, the construction of big office buildings was all the rage -- until the S&L debacle left Austin with a slew of vacant structures. The Nineties brought prosperity and multifamily developments up the wazoo, although activity in the apartment market is starting to slow. Now, Austin is in a flurry of hotel construction like this city has never seen. Since 1994, 20 new hotels have sprung to life and another 10 are on the drawing board, according to the city planning department's Growth Watch report for the third quarter. The report attributes the hotel frenzy to a growing demand from the "executive suites sub-market," fueled mainly by the local high-tech industry. Meanwhile, high-tech companies are laying off local workers by the hundreds and scaling back operations. If worse comes to worst in these unpredictable times, at least there'll be room at the inn... -- A.S.
Salamander GamesLast month, biologists identified maintenance methods used at Barton Springs Pool as the cause of the death of a dozen rare Barton Springs Salamanders at the Eliza Spring outlet. And while many observers are expressing relief that the cause was not a toxic spill or a malicious act, critics of the Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are saying the federal agency is purposely avoiding taking responsibility for rare species throughout the U.S.
Jasper Carlton, director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Boulder, Colorado, says the conservation agreement which the FWS and the Interior Department agreed to last August as a way of protecting the salamander has become a convenient way for the federal agency to ignore the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is long overdue for reauthorization. The conservation agreement calls for state agencies instead of the FWS to come up with a protection plan for the salamander.
Carlton's group has sued the Interior Department under the ESA many times, and currently has 27 ESA cases pending in the courts. Carlton says his group has been forced to sue in many cases because the Interior Dept. has tried to substitute conservation agreements rather than add species to the Endangered Species List.
The conservation agreements are unacceptable, Carlton says, because there is "no citizen supervision and no accountability." In addition, he says, none of the agreements have gone through the peer review process to assure that they will help rare species to recover.
Carlton says Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is using the conservation agreements to give the appearance that species are being protected. By doing so, Babbitt can also avoid drawing attention to the ESA, which sources in Washington say will definitely be brought up for reauthorization in Congress next year. By not listing species, Babbitt avoids offending property rights groups.
As for the Save Our Springs Alliance lawsuit filed in October in an effort to force the federal government to add the salamander to the ESL, lawyers for S.O.S. say the Interior Department is trying to limit their ability to review documents and take the depositions of officials who were involved in the decision to create a conservation agreement for the salamander. More on this as it develops.
Meanwhile, the city is adding sand bags around the springs to add to existing erosion sedimentation controls, and ward off any more salamander deaths. Tests run by the city Environmental and Conservation Services Dept. showed low water levels during pool maintenance to be the probable cause of death. -- R.B.
Libraries Strike BackAt one library in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, an aggrieved patron torched the library's copy of the gay-themed kids' book Daddy's Roommate, nearly burning down the building in the process. Texas librarians have been targeted with death threats for allowing controversial books on the shelves. Some have lost their jobs, and their careers. Vandalism -- of both the library's and the librarians' property -- is almost a commonplace.
With the anti-First Amendment forces loose upon the land, it's a scary time to be a librarian, and the Christian right's increased attention to libraries, instead of just to schools, in the last year makes matters worse. So, when the Texas and American Library Associations, along with Cecile Richards' Texas Freedom Network, put on a workshop called "Defending the Right to Know," it's no surprise that more than 200 people from throughout the state -- about five times the original projections -- made their way to Austin on December 13 and 14.
TLA, which offers insurance to its members that protects them if they get sued or fired over censorship battles, was of course pleased with this turnout, especially considering that the geographically, culturally, occupationally and organizationally diverse attendees (that is, not just librarians) laid the groundwork for community coalitions throughout the state to fight back against Focus on the Family and similar proponents of moral dictatorship. Developing grass-roots networks to counter increased censorship struggles is also a major goal of TFN and ALA. -- M.C.M.
NAACP's MissionThis week, Parisrice Robinson begins his two-year term at the helm of the Austin branch of the NAACP. Calling on the young and old to become more active in community projects, the 34-year-old president has named increasing economic development in East Austin as a top priority.
Robinson knows a thing or two about community projects. He is director of the "Austin HOPE VI Project" of the Austin Housing Authority, which strives to transform traditional public housing units into community-based developments. The new president also hopes to revitalize the chapter's youth group. "We need to groom and inspire our youth to be productive citizens and leaders," he says. "Youth are critical to the success of the organization. After all, someone had to introduce me to the NAACP when I was younger."
Robinson's statements echo a national revitalization movement led by NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. Emerging from the less-than-flattering media spotlight on former national president Ben Chavis' resignation in 1995, the NAACP has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past year. Membership has increased dramatically, and once-closed branches across the nation are re-opening.
Locally, the 300-member organization has remained active. In 1996 alone, the local chapter organized the Coalition for African-American voters, sponsored a get-out-the-vote rally, and led a door-to-door voting effort on election day. Youth programs include a summer entrepreneurial institute, various seminars, and the Afro Academic Cultural Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO), a nationwide science and arts competition.
Robinson defeated Argus publisher Charles Miles in his bid to replace Jeffrey Travillion, who served a five-year term as president of the local chapter. Robinson served as first vice president under Travillion, and has headed up both the Texas NAACP Strategic Plan and the Political Forum committees. -- G.A.D.
Ethics on TESTLegislators' legal loopholes just keep getting smaller and smaller. But not small enough, evidently, for the Texas Ethical Standards Task Force, a newly formed watchdog group that answers to the name of TEST.
TEST is a rainbow coalition, of sorts, made up of social, religious and public interest representatives bent on forcing state legislators to adhere to the purest of principles. "It is a humbling thing to challenge anyone else's ethics because we are always reminded of our own failings," said Weston Ware of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Conference, in a statement announcing TEST's formation. "Nonetheless, it is incumbent on us to call upon Texas' elected officials and public servants and challenge them to higher ethical standards."
Texas Public Citizen director Tom "Smitty" Smith noted that while the law clearly addresses ethical behavior, there are always going to be loopholes. "We are urging officials to not look for the loopholes, but to abide by the spirit of the state's ethics laws," he said.
The TEST agenda for the upcoming session includes support of ethical reforms regarding conflict of interest, campaign finance reform, "soft money," and the revolving door between public office and special interests. But the real fun comes at the end of the session, when the task force compiles a scorecard of who voted how on ethics reform legislation. -- A.S.