Revenge Is Sweet

Slusher Crashes, Burns on the Southwest Parkway


Ronney Reynolds beams as a quaking Daryl Slusher faces the rowdy crowd at Covington Middle School.
photograph by Jana Birchum
Covington Middle School, Monday night. The auditorium is a standing-room only madhouse, a seething sea of silver-haired retirees from the uttermost reaches of Southwest Austin and beyond. As if on trial, a full council is seated at a pop-up table on a very empty stage. It's going to be a long night for four of them -- Daryl Slusher, Gus Garcia, Beverly Griffith, and Jackie Goodman. To them, the crowd is a geriatric lynch mob of about 500 opponents, each one foaming at the mouth.

The mistake of the latter three councilmembers is that they have been open-minded about Slusher's infamous proposal to barricade off one side of the six-lane Southwest Parkway. As a writer for the Chronicle, Slusher assailed the seven-mile road as a taxpayer-subsidized boondoggle for the rich and famous. Cutting through Austin's luscious Hill Country on its way to the hinterlands, the almost deserted road serves one key landowner: FM Properties Operating Company, spin-off of global polluter Freeport McMoRan. Because the pockmarked road was built over springs, it is slowly becoming one big sinkhole. To standardize the city's 4.4-mile portion, the repair bill stands at $2.2 million. More importantly, Slusher knows, and is not afraid to say, that overpopulating it means the end of Barton Creek. This crowd doesn't give a damn. The road is their catapult to downtown Austin. Slusher might as well have asked for their first grandchild.

It is safe to say that the four councilmembers, and their small and very out-of-place following of enviro-fundamentalists and council junkies, have stumbled into an ambush. Mayor Bruce Todd chose this Oak Hill locale for a public hearing, instead of council chambers, because he wanted to make sure Slusher and his vocal supporters look like buffoons. It's working. Few use the wide-open stretch of asphalt -- a city survey counted five cars a minute during rush hour! --but every one of them must have stopped by on their way home from work.

To kick the tar-and-feathering off, the wily Todd plays a video of the December 19 council meeting, when the public hearing was set and Slusher's proposal first considered. Through selective editing and shrewd argumentation, the video makes it appear that Slusher opposes a public hearing at Covington. That was never the case, says Slusher. Few in the crowd know this because they rarely attend Austin council meetings. Indeed, a good portion of the audience doesn't even live inside the city; dozens of Lakeway residents have been transported in two busses chartered by their town -- a town that doesn't pay Austin's taxes nor votes in its elections, but obviously uses the Southwest Parkway.

To begin the public hearing, or more appropriately, public assault, Todd grants open mike privileges to County Commissioner Bill Aleshire. In a 15-minute verbal projectile, Aleshire calls the proposal "idiocy" and "stupid." He sets his sights on Slusher and asks, "What would this city's environmental agenda be if we didn't let extremists set it?" The well-dressed and the perfumed pump signs and wear stickers with a number three stamped with a bar sign over it, to signify the number of lanes they don't want closed. This is more of a campaign rally than a council meeting, when you consider that mayoral wannabe and developer caddy Ronney Reynolds paid for the signs out of his campaign account.

Things aren't going well for gadfly Robert Singleton, et al. They have lost the home-field advantage, and are outnumbered about 20-1. They are jeered at every turn. Place 5 city council candidate Karen Hadden is showered with boos for suggesting, very politely, a cure for auto overpopulation. Another activist suggests that less lanes slow traffic and therefore increase safety. Shrill laughter ripples through the crowd. One enviro leaves the meeting cursing that it's a set-up.

"Take a bath!" someone shouts.

The enviros retaliate weakly. Save Our Springs Chair Kirk Mitchell goads the crowd by continually pointing out that they're a lot richer than most of Austin. He mentions that many here, particularly Lakeway folk, don't have to pay for the road's upkeep. Every reminder of their wealth only serves to boil the blood of the well-heeled, who look like they would stone Mitchell if they had the chance.

It goes like this for more than two hours, until Steve Beers, of the Sierra Club, shocks many by saying he opposes the closing, partly because of the spite it has created: "I hardly recognize my city with the kind of venom I've heard tonight." That sets the tone for the council debate, and in his long-awaited concession speech, Slusher taps the same vein. "We should not move ahead, polarized." He slides into a soliloquy about the fragility of the creek. The crowd moans. Slusher pushes on, "I really appeal to you to listen. You people live in one of most environmentally fragile areas in the state of Texas, if not on the North American continent. Is closing half the road a crazy idea?"

"Yes!"

"Well maybe it is, but I tell you what, if we become the first generation to not pass on Barton Springs to our children, they'll think we're crazy and they'll be a lot madder than anyone here tonight." He suggests a task force of various government and community representatives to look at solutions to the road's economic and environmental threats, but despite Reynolds' insistence, won't revoke his idea to close half the road. Gus Garcia, the swing vote, takes center stage. He likes the idea of removing only two lanes. The audience murmurs with displeasure. Garcia suggests shelving the lane removal and task force ideas for now, and having the city manager study the problem. Todd, Reynolds, and Eric Mitchell, who are having the time of their lives, vote no -- they want to force a vote now, up or down -- but the motion passes, and the crowd erupts with a booing and hissing avalanche.

No one can really blame the less-than-progressive minority councilmembers for relishing the moment. Todd, Reynolds, and Mitchell have spent countless Thursdays enduring the taunts of the masses, and for once, the tables were turned, and revenge was in the air. The very folks in Southwest Austin whom Slusher spent years pissing off with his endless talk about the proliferation of MUDs, the need for S.O.S., and the vulnerability of Barton Creek, showed no mercy in their attempt to burn Slusher at the stake. Reynolds looked like he might weep with joy.

Meanwhile, how does S.O.S. defender Bill Bunch feel about Slusher's retreat on one of his promised environmental initiatives? "I would have preferred that he stayed the course," Bunch says. "But I understand that without the votes, it's useless to push forward."


FAIR's Still There

To understand what the council did Thursday, taking the first step in showering six Austin corporations with a $32 million electric rate giveaway, it helps to picture a certain scene from an I Love Lucy episode. For five cents, Lucy is selling mayonnaise that cost her six cents. Asked how she'll make a profit, she answers: "Volume!"

Councilmembers Goodman, Todd, Reynolds, and Mitchell, all played Lucy last week. If they hang together for two more votes, and if the four (Un)FAIR (Federation of Austin's Industrial Ratepayers) members -- AMD, Motorola, Texas Instruments, and IBM -- accept their terms, the Electric Utility Department will have to sell a hell of a lot of electricity to turn a buck. That's because, as reported last week, the corporations, under the deal, may be paying only two-thirds of what it costs the city to produce electricity. So the logic of the council approving the reduction, which returns today for second approval, is hard to figure. But, then, some things just can't be explained at council meetings.

The approved reduction takes the corporations' rates from 4.5cents a kilowatt hour to 4.2cents (residents pay 7.4cents), saving the Selfish Six (in addition to the four FAIR members, Seton Hospital and Applied Materials also get the break as members of the same industrial ratepayer class) about $4.2 million each a year. In exchange, the corporations, as represented by FAIR, had promised six years of fidelity to the EUD, in the event that the Lege deregulates the electric utility industry and competitors offer lower deals. Goodman was in charge here, because she was the swing vote -- Todd, Reynolds, and Mitchell were the definite "yes" votes. She says the EUD needs the $40 million-plus a year in revenue the Selfish Six provides, in order to pay off the utility's weighty debt. But she was torn -- she usually favors the little man, and the EUD deal promises otherwise: Residential ratepayers will probably have to make up the difference somewhere.

So Goodman wanted to get all she could out of the corporations. Since the industry isn't expected to deregulate until at least 1999, and the deal would kick in ASAP, she didn't think it would be a big deal if she asked the companies to stay on an extra two years. They are, after all, good corporate citizens. And they would, after all, still get the reduction -- $8.2 million -- for those two years they couldn't leave the EUD anyway. But FAIR rep Alan Holman said nope, no way, one extra year only: "We'd just as soon call it off and go home." Goodman played their bluff and went ahead with her proposal. Slusher, Garcia, and Griffith still feared that the decision was premature, in light of the fact that most scenarios put deregulation at least two years away. But their four colleagues approved Goodman's plan anyway, and FAIR hasn't walked out yet. Citizen representative, attorney W. Scott McCollough, opposed Goodman's proposal, but says, "We're moving in the direction of reasonableness. It's still a loser, but it's better than what we had before."

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