Naked City

Off the Desk:

Last week, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept. became the second state agency to officially oppose the addition of the Barton Springs Salamander to the Endangered Species List. They join the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which voted last month to intervene in the case known as Save Our Springs Alliance and Dr. Mark Kirkpatrick vs. Bruce Babbitt. That suit, filed last October and now pending in federal district court, is seeking federal protection for the salamander... -- R.B.

Former Assistant City Manager Byron Marshall, now a higher-up with the city of Atlanta, is said to be negotiating a part-time consulting gig with the Austin Revitalization Authority, the nonprofit board charged with breathing new life into East 11th and 12th Streets. The ARA has gone for more than a year without an executive director, so developer/lobbyist Cal Varner, who pretty much has been calling the shots at ARA anyway, decided Marshall would be the ideal man for the job, albeit in a consulting role. Neither Marhsall nor Varner returned phone calls...

Consider that timing is everything in comedy and politics, and then consider this: The day after Mayor Bruce Todd appointed Richard Moya to the board of the badly frayed Austin Housing Authority, Moya's name cropped up in a meaty Dallas Morning News story last Friday, Jan. 24, that outlined who's who in the Texas lottery. Moya, former Travis County Commissioner and aide to former Gov. Ann Richards, was among the Austin folks (nearly all of them Democrats) who made the list. Moya, along with former Texas Commerce head Cathy Bonner, is employed by FIRSTeam, a subcontractor of GTECH, the lottery's prime operator under federal probe...

Chris Hearne, founder of Austin's celebrated and now defunct Third Coast magazine, as well as The Houston Press, is hunkered down in Houston these days preparing to launch Sidewalk, an online city entertainment guide. The ambitious effort is being bankrolled by Microsoft Corp, which has chosen Houston and a dozen other U.S. cities as the initial target sites ...

Come gather ye people at the Mexican Consulate, Sixth & Brazos, at noon Friday, Jan. 31, for a demonstration in support of the Zapatista Army's efforts to add indigenous rights to the Mexican Constitution. A follow-up rally is at noon, Feb. 5, same place. -- A.S.

10-4, Chief Watson

With a hesitant smile and restrained demeanor, Police Chief Elizabeth Watson announced her resignation at a press conference Wednesday. After five years of duty, she leaves a police force desperately trying to close a shortfall of more than 100 officers, and leaves a legacy of a department in self-doubt. Austin's first female police chief, Watson's ambitious streamlining and focus on community policing left her frequenly embroiled in controversy. The Austin Police Association gave her a vote of no confidence last year, when response times and crime were on the rise, and the size of the police force was decreasing because of unplanned retirements.

But the spite of the opposition was equaled by the appreciation of supporters. Watson focused on minority police advancement, and responded well to community concerns, as with the creation of a citizens' task force to deal with the 1995 Cedar Avenue "Valentine's Day Massacre" in East Austin, and the creation of a Chief's Forum to improve neighborhood relations.

Shortly after the officer shortfall became hotly criticized last spring, Watson began speaking with Justice Department officials about creating a new position on officer leadership education. The Justice Department responded with a $247,000 one-year fellowship, and Watson is scheduled to begin on March 1, at an Austin-based office. Despite the timing, Watson says Austin's bloody politics did not provoke her job search. "I am not running from anything," she said. "It's the ability to chart my own destiny. That's what it's about." City Manager Jesus Garza will put out an All Points Bulletin for a successor, and the fate of Watson's community-policing philosophy hangs in the balance. -- A.M.

FAIR, You Say?

Hardly. Last week, the Electric Utility Department released its analysis of the proposed rate reduction to Austin's largest ratepayers, represented by the Federation of Austin's Industrial Ratepayers (FAIR). The results show that Seton Hospital, Advanced Micro Devices, IBM, Texas Instruments, Applied Materials, and Motorola could pay as low as 67% of the cost of production, if the council approves the $4.2 million annual rate reduction today. What a deal.

Four different formulas were used to derive the cost. Three were recommended by the Electric Utility Commission in 1994, but were never implemented by EUD Director John Moore. The fourth has been an EUD mainstay, and shows FAIR at 98% cost-of-production. Even under that scenario FAIR is a liability, but staff doesn't want to lose the $24 million annual income from the Selfish Six in the event of a competitive, deregulated market. The EUD wants that income to help pay down the massive debt, and recommends the reduction. A majority of the council seems to concur. As Councilmember Jackie Goodman notes, the only relevant factor in an auction are the other guy's prices, and the EUD's industrial rates are currently among the state's highest. Under the proposal, those rates will decrease from 4.5cents to 4.2cents per kilowatt hour. Residents pay almost twice that, at 7.4cents.

Considering that the Selfish Six could be so far below the cost-of-production, and that they've received three rate reductions in 10 years, and that the state Lege isn't even expected to deregulate the industry until at least 1999, Councilmembers Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher oppose the deal. "This is corporate welfare and the last time I checked, these people were slightly above the poverty line," says attorney W. Scott McCollough, who was hired by the city to represent residential ratepayers. Interestingly, McCollough notes, the local daily was given the cost-of-production results on Friday but, as of Wednesday, had not reported on the findings. -- A.M.

No Comment

One of the onlookers waiting outside the House chamber after Gov. George W. Bush's State of the State speech on Tuesday was University of Texas Chancellor William "Dollar Bill" Cunningham. Asked how the $655,422 he made last year by exercising stock options granted to him by Freeport-McMoRan benefitted the University of Texas, the ethically challenged head of the UT System, who has never talked to the press about the issue, responded, "Call my office at your convenience."

After the question was posed several more times, he replied, "You are the only one that cares about this issue." Cunningham then was reminded that the local daily had also weighed in on the subject, calling his financial windfall "unseemly." His response to the editorial: "That wasn't fair." -- R.B.

Political Roadkill

The long and winding road of egg-headed decisions and government bailout that resulted in the Southwest Parkway will come to a head at 7pm, Monday, February 3 at Covington Elementary in Oak Hill. A public hearing will be held on Councilmember Daryl Slusher's proposal to close half of the oft-empty road, which rolls out like a grey carpet to the opulent estates of a few hundred homeowners, some in Freeport-McMoRan's Lantana and Barton Creek Community developments.

As a journalist with this paper, Slusher railed against Freeport and the roadway, and against current Mayor Bruce Todd, who had an extensive hand in creating it. Expect an old fashioned head-to-head between Slusher and Todd, who've kept their mutual dislike relatively low-key since Slusher took office last year. Slusher complains that as a Travis County Commissioner, Todd voted for a $3.5 million loan to bail out the road, which had been initiated by private developers. Slusher notes that Todd also voted to refinance the road district's bonds, taking the tag from $60 million to $230 million, courtesy of Travis County taxpayers. Now, the city has to maintain much of the parkway, which is often in disrepair because, ironically, the Edwards Aquifer underneath is causing water damage to the asphalt. Moreover, Slusher notes that traffic can get by just as quickly with three lanes as six, and that a smaller road may result in less development, thus preserving the aquifer.

Todd, who did not return calls, is expected to rally an army of opposition, and purposely chose Covington Middle School in Oak Hill, to ensure that enviros would be outnumbered; funny thing is, few from Oak Hill actually use the parkway. If anything, Monday's head-butting session could be a good time to put that new bike helmet to use. -- A.M.

Mellow Yellow Bikes

Turns out there is such a thing as a free ride, thanks to the Jan. 25 Bikes Not Bombs (BNB) release of 24 bright yellow "community bikes" at Wheatsville Food Co-op for destination points all over Austin. The bikes are hard to miss, since even their tires are painted yellow, and stickers proclaiming, "Please don't lock me up," and "Free to ride, but not to keep," adorn every surface. Though BNB's Yellow Bike Project coordinators Dave Butler and John Thoms are basing their efforts on a similar and highly successful program out of Portland, Oregon, they have concerns about the yellow bikes' viability in Austin, considering the recently passed mandatory helmet ordinance. Riders "aren't the owners of the bikes, so you can't really expect them to have a helmet on their person when they find them," says Baker. So far there have been no reports of yellow bike riders receiving tickets, but Baker is not waiting for the inevitable. BNB has already called upon councilmember Daryl Slusher, who is critical of the helmet ordinance, to help draft a waiver of the helmet law for yellow bike riders.

The non-profit BNB's primary concern now is getting more yellow bikes out on the street. With only 24 released, Baker admits "they're pretty tricky to find, [but] we've been functioning on zero money, so far." He credits volunteers and donations of everything from bike parts to yellow paint for keeping the project afloat. Portland's project, which doesn't have a helmet law to contend with, maintains about 300 bikes on the street at any given time, but has lost twice that number to vandalism and theft. Baker confirms that several of Austin's yellow bikes have already been stripped, but that all have been retrieved and will be back in the fleet soon. -- K.V.

Power Talk

Now that consumer and environmental groups are out of the pro-deregulation alliance with business interests, legislation that would loosen up the electric utility monopoly may be in limbo. But the issue is still far from dead. Last Wednesday, the day before negotiations broke off, the hot topic at the Austin Area League of Women Voters' annual State of the City powwow was, appropriately, the future of the city's Electric Utility Dept. (EUD).

Holding forth with varying opinions were Terrell Blodgett, urban management professor at UT; W. Neal Kocurek, Electric Utility Commission member and Radian executive; and Jim Marston, director of the Texas Environmental Defense Fund.

As Marston sees it, the city needs to pursue alternative power sources, particularly in light of tougher air quality standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Should those standards become law, Marston added, Austin's increased level of pollution no doubt will put the city in a "non-attainment" category. Marston noted that polls indicate consumers are willing to pay more money for cleaner sources of power, but in order to make intelligent choices, "consumers need information on the kinds of emissions from the various sources."

Kocurek likewise stressed the importance of information. Advocating an overhaul of the city's EUD, he spoke in favor of an independent board that would be free of day-to-day city control. The utility, he said, "needs to be operated like a business...

We can't make the same mistakes we've made with Brackenridge Hospital." Kocurek reiterated the ever-popular idea of reducing the amount of utility money transferred annually to the city's general fund. Retaining some of the transfer would bolster the utility's financial position and provide more leverage for development and investment, Kocurek said. Even with the changes, he added, the $550 million-a-year utility would still be a small mom-and-pop business.

Picking up on the analogy, Blodgett declared, "We're operating a mom-and-pop store in a Walmart economy." And he implied that some city councilmembers have been naïve in so readily embracing the idea of a separate board for the utility, when there are still so many questions left to answer. Though the creation of a truly independent board would require an amendment to the city charter, Blodgett said, "The board proposed is so weak, it hardly requires an amendment." Blodgett pushed for an informed debate on the other choices, which include regionalizing the utility, merging it with another utility, or selling it outright.

Most of all, he warned, voters need to be informed about deregulation. "We need an educational effort. We have to cut the transfer or increase taxes or decrease services. We can't go on the way we have." -- L.C.

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