Off the Desk:
Mayor Bruce Todd's chief aide, Trey Salinas, is bidding city hall adieu to work for Don Martin Public Affairs, whose clients include the likes of Texas Utilities and Waste Management Inc. -- two firms that could benefit substantially if the outgoing mayor's pet project (privatization of the city utility and garbage collection services) ever materializes. Former Todd aide Kristen Kessler also went from Todd's office to Martin's; she has since moved on to ad agency kingpin GSD&M. As to what the laws are with respect to Salinas' future lobbying work with the council, Salinas says, "It's real hazy as to who can and who can't [lobby], and what the timeframe is." His new job will focus on real estate development in Williamson County. "I don't envision me having to lobby the city for anything, but you never know what might happen," he says... -- K.V.
Louis Malfaro, president of the Austin affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, made a quick run up to New York City last week to appear on the Gordon Elliott Show (which airs locally at 10am weekdays on KTBC, Channel 7). The topic of the show was school violence; Malfaro was tapped as a guest because the statewide chapter of the organization, the Texas Federation of Teachers, has been a front runner in the U.S. in pushing for "zero tolerance" of violence in the classroom. An air date for the program has not been set yet... -- R.A.
Let Them Eat SludgeSoutheast Austin residents finally got a full explanation Monday night on why the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) wants to build a 15-foot-diameter tunnel to drain stormwater runoff from the I-35/Ben White interchange into Williamson Creek. Seven TxDOT representatives and a legislative aide to State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos spelled out the complicated and harsh realities of the tunnel at a meeting of the Southeast Corner Alliance of Neighborhoods (SCAN).
Barrientos aide Richard Hamner told the disgruntled crowd that the tunnel all boils down to one thing: money. Any alternatives would be too expensive and might kill or delay the project altogether, said Hamner. TxDOT engineers tried to assure the crowd that the runoff would not increase the likelihood of flooding in Williamson Creek. But the residents, many of whom recently were redefined into the 100-year flood plain by federal engineers, remained skeptical.
Still another point of contention is pollution of Williamson Creek and, farther downstream, McKinney Falls. A Bouldin Creek neighborhood representative noted that since construction of a similar tunnel that drains runoff from Ben White into East Bouldin Creek, the creek's flow bears a closer resemblance to sludge than water. Hamner responded that East Bouldin Creek's flow is almost pure freeway runoff and that Williamson Creek has plenty of upstream flow to dilute the sludge before it reaches McKinney Falls.
SCAN president Diane Sanders noted that the $100 million freeway interchange isn't yet funded, and construction is at least three years away. "So what's the big hurry to start the drainage tunnel?" she asked. Why can't TxDOT wait for an environmental impact assessment and a public hearing?
Because, Hamner said, TxDOT has already signed the contract to build the tunnel, and could lose money if the project is delayed. He added that any hint of delay in construction of the interchange could bring down hordes of screaming commuters onto state and local officials à la the Southwest Parkway. But Hamner said TxDOT might be able to jerry-rig a detention and filtration device to diminish greasy runoff from the tunnel before it reaches Williamson Creek. Meanwhile, there's a hearing before the Austin Transportation Study at 6pm Monday, Feb. 10. The agenda includes consideration of the US 290 Task Force's recommendations to narrow the freeway through Oak Hill and to filter out highway gunk before it hits the Edwards Aquifer on its way to Barton Springs. The meeting is at the UT Thompson Conference Center, 28th and Red River. -- N.E.
Max(imum) Air TimeWhen Max Nofziger's Council Choir hit a sour note on the Austin Music Network this past holiday season, it wasn't just a gaggle of councilmembers singing flat. Given the backlog of local live shows waiting as long as a year to see air time, recent critics of AMN's management want to know how Nofziger's project found its way on the air shortly after taping, and only two days before Nofziger announced his candidacy for mayor. Some suggest that Esther Matthews, Nofziger's former executive assistant and campaign manager who is now AMN's program manager, is behind the advantageous scheduling slot.
"Max likes to sing carols," explains Matthews of the sing-a-long taped at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Even though Nofziger led the event, she says, the choir included so many other past and present councilmembers that its airing did not violate the network's agreement to give equal time to all council and mayoral candidates. She adds that because the City's Channel 6 had continued to run Ronney Reynolds' weekly Childcare and Parenting show until last week, she was justified in giving airtime to a challenging mayoral candidate.
As for Nofziger, he says he doesn't understand what all the noise is about. "I can't imagine it would be much of a boost to my candidacy," he notes of the council sing fest. For some, though, the concern is less for equal candidate time than it is for AMN's programming priorities. One former AMN executive, citing the backlog of unedited videotape that Austin musicians are clamoring to get on the air, says Nofziger's airtime smacks of favoritism. "If they edited that show and got it on the air before Max announced, that is highly, highly unusual," he says. Matthews is quick to defend her programming and her former boss. "There wouldn't be a music network if it hadn't have been for Max," she says. "I recognize the danger of putting him on there. I think the network is very politically delicate because of this situation." At any rate, all candidate air time unrelated to campaign coverage is expected to cease this week. -- K.V.
Poco a PocoChange for the better ain't easy to come by, but the Eastside is getting there. On Jan. 28, the Austin Planning Commission took a step towards banishing environmental racism from East Austin. Late last year, a coalition of Hispanic Eastside organizations began working to remove some of the polluting factories that make some parts of East Austin appear like a distant cousin of border cities like Nuevo Laredo. Health and safety are other concerns. When the BFI Recyclery caught fire last year, neighbors feared the wind would carry the flames to their homes nearby. When word that another plant, Balcones Recycling, and a gay bathhouse would also be moving to East Austin -- without notification of residents -- the flame of activism grew.
Now, the Planning Commission has agreed to downzone BFI's property from industrial use to office use, and may do the same with some other sites. The downzoning won't be apparent for years, since it won't become effective until the current businesses move out, and new ones move in. But it's a start, at least. Due March 13 is a city study comparing industry in East Austin to other parts of the city. -- A.M.
No Questions AskedIn the wake of new national welfare laws cutting off federal benefits to legal immigrants, Austin has joined the ranks of other major U.S. cities with a city council resolution declaring a "safety zone" for immigrants utilizing city services. Councilmember Gus Garcia introduced the resolution last week at the request of Francisco Lopez, development director of El Buen Samaritano Episcopal Center, which provides assistance to 8,000 people annually, most of them immigrants. Lopez sought the resolution out of concern that a growing number of immigrants -- fearing their legal status would come into question -- were reluctant to file crime reports with the police or seek medical care from city health clinics.
The resolution says it's not the purview of city employees, such as police or clinic staff, to ask for proof of citizenship. Councilmember Ronney Reynolds initially opposed the resolution, fearing that failure to enforce federal law at the local level would be illegal. Once that question was laid to rest, the measure passed unanimously.
A host of community groups were on hand last Thursday to support the resolution. One representative in attendance, Maria Loya of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER), explains the importance of distinguishing between local policy and federal law: "If you're talking about restricting access to health care, that puts everyone in jeopardy. Those are the things that aren't thought about," she says, adding that contagious diseases such as tuberculosis and chicken pox could spread quickly through untreated communities. Garcia aide Paul Saldaña added: "The resolution addresses changing people's attitudes about discrimination. [Police] interest should be to protect local laws and not take it a step further and act as INS officials."
Challenging arguments against the resolution, Lopez noted that fears of Austin becoming an illegal immigrant magnet reflect a certain naiveté. "The perceptions have been that immigrants are just an expense, when in reality you see who is working in the kitchens, cleaning the office buildings, who is building the new buildings -- that's immigrants." -- K.V.