Naked City

Off the Desk:

Say howdy to the 75th session of the Texas Legislature. State lawmakers opened their biannual run Tuesday with a meaty agenda and a lean budget. That means long days, long nights, and good floor fights. Beginning Friday (Jan. 17), the Chronicle will make a legislative splash of its own with a debut of a Web Lege page. Tune in to http//www.auschron.com for a capitol-eye view.

Understatement of the month: "Austin mayor says he's frustrated by his lack of authority." That line showed up under Mayor Bruce Todd's mug last week in The Dallas Morning News. Todd was quoted in a story about Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk wanting to up his power on council, a move that would give him authority to, say, fire the city manager without a majority vote. "One of the most frustrating things," Todd opined, "is not being able to institute policies that you think will be effective and stand on your record."...

Here's something the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce isn't shouting from the rooftops: Girlfriends Magazine has ranked Austin the most livable city for lesbians in the nation. Not to quibble with a national honor, but this one's a bit of a head-scratcher given the rankings of 135 other cities on the list (Northampton, No. 81?). The San Francisco-based pub, which featured the annual survey in its November/December issue, took sort of a Money Magazine approach to its study. Researchers based their findings on climate, economy, health, housing, education and job growth -- all categories where Austin shines on the U.S. map. But other factors figured into the study -- gay rights, lesbian resources, domestic partnership, and the absence of sodomy laws -- just don't add up. Gays don't have rights in Texas, sodomy is still a crime, and the city's domestic partnership plan died at the polls. The local resources, however, should do a lesbian proud. Here's the rest of the Top 10, by rank: Tampa, Atlanta, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Columbia, S.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Buffalo, and Houston.-- A.S.

FAIR?

Once again, the coalition of industrial giants seeking a reduction in electric rates is trying to strong-arm the city council into a decision that could push a larger burden of electric costs onto residents and small businesses. FAIR, the Federation of Austin's Industrial Ratepayers -- consisting of Motorola, IBM, Seton Hospital, Advanced Micro Devices, Texas Instruments, and Applied Materials -- says it won't wait much longer for the council to approve the rate reduction. "Our patience is running thin," says FAIR chair Ed Adams. "This was supposed to be done in December."

Council was scheduled to revisit the proposal today, but now the decision is delayed until Jan. 30. At its last meeting of 1996, council postponed FAIR's proposal for a $4.2 million annual rate reduction at the request of Councilmember Jackie Goodman, to allow time for a cost-of-service study. The council originally had intended to use market averages for industrial rates to determine the rate reduction. But first, Goodman wanted a better assessment of how much electricity costs to produce.

Diversified Utilities, a consultant firm hired by consumer attorney W. Scott McCollough, had determined that a $4.2 million discount in 1994 would have meant that FAIR would have paid less than the cost to produce electricity. Councilmembers have expressed concern that the same scenario could occur in 1997. "If you sell a product for less than it takes to make it, I'm wondering if there's a lot of future in that," said Councilmember Beverly Griffith.

Goodman's resolution ordered the council to use two formulas to determine the cost of producing electricity. One method takes a sampling of four days, the hottest day from each of the four hottest months. This formula is favored by the Electric Utility Department and FAIR. But some Electric Utility Commissioners, like Shudde Fath, believe that the second formula would provide a truer assessment of the costs because it considers the electricity produced by every generator, every hour of every day.

The EUD has completed a study using the first formula, but the company hired to do the study applying the second method -- Management Applications Consulting -- may not be done before council considers the proposal Jan. 30. And FAIR isn't happy about any more delays. Adams, the FAIR chair, wants council to use the available formula, and to forget the second study. "It's ill-advisable to wait," he says. "We may just pull the whole thing off the table."

While Goodman sponsored the resolution, she now says it doesn't matter whether the council sees the results of the study. "I don't think we can wait beyond the 30th because we've already delayed it," says Goodman, who is considered a swing vote. If she says yes to FAIR, residents and small businesses may be left holding the bag. -- A.M.

Salamander Intervention

On December 18, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) voted unanimously to try to intervene in a lawsuit which seeks to have the Barton Springs Salamander added to the Endangered Species List. The Save Our Springs Alliance lawsuit against Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is pending in Senior Judge Lucius Bunton III's U.S. District Court court in Midland. Bunton is expected to rule on the case some time after February 7.

TNRCC general counsel Geoff Connor said the agency is intervening "to protect the state's interests in its water quality management plan for the area." Connor said that his agency, along with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Department of Transportation, signed the conservation agreement with the Interior Department last summer to protect water quality in Barton Springs. "We believe it is adequate protection for the salamander," Connor said.

The TNRCC's move did not alarm the plaintiffs. "I'm not surprised," said Amy Johnson, a lawyer for the S.O.S. Alliance and a partner in the Austin law firm of Henry Lowerre Johnson Hess & Frederick. "They [TNRCC] have consistently tried to intervene in all the endangered species litigation that we have been involved in, and not on the side of the species." If the TNRCC had done a good job of protecting the salamander in the past, said Johnson, "We wouldn't have an endangered species and they wouldn't need to intervene." So far, the TNRCC is the only state agency that has asked Attorney General Dan Morales to intervene in the case. However, TPWD is also expected to vote to intervene. Connor said he expected the Attorney General to file papers intervening in the case later this week. -- R.B.

More Helmet Hoopla

The Travis County Supercyclists Project waved the flag of victory last week when the group announced that bicycle helmet use is up 36% since the Austin City Council's helmet mandate helmets went into effect last August. But opponents of the law aren't ready to retreat. Bobby Sledge of the League of Bicycling Voters, which is leading the petition drive to repeal the ordinance, says the Supercyclists' statistics are misleading. "The reason there's more people out there wearing helmets is because there [are] fewer people out there riding at all," Sledge asserts, citing the helmet law as a deterrent to commuter cycling.

Doug Ballew of Supercyclists says he doesn't know if the number of cycling adults has decreased because it is not his group's focus. Neither Sledge nor Ballew knew of any study on helmet use and cycling frequency. For its most recent study of helmet wearers, Supercyclists conducted a random head count of 449 riders.

But cyclists insist that automobile drivers should also be educated about bicycle safety. Andrew Dugas, co-owner of Ozone Bike Department at 35th & Guadalupe, says the city didn't do its homework before enacting the law. "The city council asked no one in the bike industry about the helmet law. We see accidents as often as the hospitals do." Dugas says he is so familiar with accident-prone locations, he is ready to start painting yield signs at danger zones where cars and bikes repeatedly collide.

Sledge agrees that the primary issue in bike safety is automobiles. "The problem is how bicyclists and motorists interface," he says. Eventually, the Bicycling Voters group plans to focus its energies on improving roads and bike lanes. Meanwhile, members are hustling up signatures on anti-helmet petitions. The group needs to gather 35,000 signatures by April 8, after which time the council may either vote to overturn the ordinance or put the matter on the ballot for a special election Aug. 6.

Or, council could decide to postpone action until after the May city council elections. At least two candidates -- mayoral hopeful Max Nofziger and Place 5 contender Karen Hadden -- want to ride into office on a wave of anti-helmet sentiment, and have promised to support the repeal. -- K.V.

Freeport Joins Lawsuit

Last Thursday, January 9, U.S. District Court Judge James Nowlin granted Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold's request to intervene in The Austin Chronicle's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. The Chronicle seeks documents generated by OPIC during its environmental analysis of Freeport's vast Indonesian copper, gold and silver mine. That investigation led to a landmark decision by the federal agency to cancel a $100 million political risk insurance policy it held on the mining project.

Freeport's motion to intervene was submitted by local attorney Roy Minton, a partner in the firm Minton Burton Foster & Collins, who asked the court to allow two other attorneys to also work on the case. The two, John Rich and Erika Singer, work for the Washington D.C. office of the Shea & Gardner law firm, which represented Freeport during its arbitration fight with OPIC.

In its brief, Freeport argued that its business interests are at stake. Freeport also filed a cross claim which seeks to prevent OPIC from releasing the documents. Should OPIC release its records, Freeport wants to be the first to review the documents. -- A.S.

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