Naked City

Off the Desk:

The mood was bittersweet Wednesday at Christopher House when leaders announced they would close the homey quarters after three years of providing care and comfort to people with HIV/AIDS. On the bright side, the reason is they've seen a sharp drop in admissions, due in large part to new "drug cocktails" and changes in the healthcare industry...

The Austin American-Statesman is losing its religion -- or rather, its religion reporter, Juan Palomo. The former Houston Post columnist turned in his resignation on the heels of a dispute over what he calls "an extreme case of over-zealous copy-editing" of one of his stories, but he declined to specify which article he believed had been butchered. Palomo says he had never had a problem with copy-editing in the past, and that the real reason he threw in the towel at the Statesman was because he had not been promoted from the religion beat to a position as general columnist. "I came here with the hopes that that would happen. I came to the conclusion it wasn't going to," Palomo explains. Statesman editor Rich Oppel praised Palomo's skills, but said there was no opening for another columnist at the paper. -- A.D.

A new twist to city council's Place 5 race comes at noon Monday (location TBA) when UT prof Bill Spelman makes official his plans to run for the seat traditionally reserved for Hispanic representation...

Brigid Shea has left the consumer biz to return to her environmental roots as the executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. After leaving her battle-weary city council seat last year, Shea spent about six months at the consumer watchdog group, Texas Citizen Action, before departing on "amicable" terms earlier this month. Shea, who led the S.O.S. during the initiative drive in 1993, will handle much of the day-to-day affairs of the organization...

Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy brings common cause to Austin today (Thursday, Feb. 20) to rap the taxpayer-funded U.S. Army School of the Americas (aka "School of Assassins") for turning out hooligans like ex-Panamanian Prez Manuel Noriega, among others. Kennedy's gig is from 5-7pm at Las Manitas, 211 Congress, sponsored by the Guatemala Action Network of Austin. Call 474-5677 for info...

-- A.S.

APD Under the Gun

The long-awaited audit of the Austin Police Department is finally out of the pen, and councilmembers are getting briefed on the contents. Full public unveiling is expected Tuesday, Feb. 25, and things look messier than all the Police Academy films combined.

While the APD budget has soared, going from 20% of the city budget to 30% since 1980, and while the city has hired 47 new police officers a year for the past several years, the complaints about an inadequate 911 system, slow response times, and an upward trend in violent crimes have only grown louder. Perhaps that's because, according to one councilmember's account of the audit, management is in shambles. Management training is virtually nonexistent, and promotions are based on seniority instead of skill. Frighteningly, crime data can only be measured in the aggregate; individual neighborhoods, for example, are not tracked.

Also, there is no coordination between different operations. A gang crackdown may be happening unbeknownst to a patrol unit in the same area. Interestingly, a similar audit found the same problems ten years ago. Mayor Bruce Todd and Councilmembers Ronney Reynolds and Gus Garcia have sat on the council for six of those years, but there's a good chance they'll point the finger at outgoing Police Chief Elizabeth Watson. Despite her claims to the contrary, there is strong speculation that Watson was pushed out the door à la former City Manager Camille Barnett, who played the scapegoat for the $21 million shortfall at Brackenridge Hospital a few years back. Council may cast Watson as the fall girl once she leaves for her gig with the Justice Department, but remember who's ultimately in charge. -- A.M.

Texas Observer Turmoil

When big changes are afoot at most publications, the editor is usually the first to know. Not so at The Texas Observer, according to Observer editor Louis Dubose. After getting wind that some colleagues were collaborating with outsiders on making alterations at the liberal-leaning journal, Dubose, with the figurative knife still stuck in his back, quit. "There were a series of meetings involving people from outside the organization," Dubose says. "I got pissed off, and said I couldn't work under those conditions."

The wounds may have healed somewhat since then. Dubose is now reconsidering: "I might not have resigned... It's probably just an intramural affair, and it might be settled by the end of the week."

Managing editor Rebecca Melançon, who was rumored to be involved with Dubose's possible exit, said, "There are no editorial changes happening at The Texas Observer at this time." When asked if she knew what motivated Dubose's comments, Melançon said, "No, I don't. Obviously, we've had turmoil here... [but] I don't know what might have spurred that. We have a long history at the Observer of investigative reporting, and that's where the Observer will stay." -- L.N.

A Lesson Learned

At last Wednesday's worksession, staff presented council with a new bond sale proposal. Considering the b.s. spewed out by Mayor Bruce Todd at that meeting, it's surprising that staff didn't request funding for a new sewage treatment plant.

Instead, city financial wizards Betty Dunkerly and Charles Curry are requesting $39 million for an emergency communications system. That includes $1.3 million for the 911 system. Both should help reduce notoriously slow response times. Also needed is $35 million for improvements to the Ullrich Water treatment plant, which is nearing capacity, and threatening to become contaminated with backflow.

Because both requests are considered health and safety priorities, staff wants the money pronto. One option is a bond election in May or August, to obtain voter approval to issue the bonds. Todd and Councilmembers Beverly Griffith and Gus Garcia voiced support for a May election.

The other option is certificates of obligation (COs), which do not require voter approval, and could be issued ASAP. Ten million dollars in COs were proposed for the baseball stadium two years ago, until a citizens' initiative forced a council retreat. Though everyone on the current council (except newcomers Griffith and Daryl Slusher) voted to use COs for the stadium, they weren't so keen on the idea last Wednesday. Get this: Todd, who led the fight to avoid voter input when he wanted a baseball stadium, now says, "I can't subvert the will of the voters unless there's an overriding emergency."

Eric Mitchell, the only councilmember to openly support the latest CO proposal, couldn't let Todd's hypocrisy pass unnoticed. "If it's good enough for baseball, then it's good enough for an emergency," he said. "This is something we know we need. It's critical to public safety. I'm up for re-election in May, but we know we need this." -- A.M.

Thar's Gold, Jim Bob!

In the mad scramble for the world's richest gold deposit, New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold has apparently won. When Bre-X Minerals, a small Calgary, Alberta-based mining company, found the gigantic Busang deposit on the island of Borneo in 1995, some of the world's biggest gold companies began lobbying the corrupt regime of Indonesian President Suharto for the right to become Bre-X's partner.

Barrick Gold of Toronto used two members of their advisory board -- Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney and former U.S. President George Bush, to curry favor with Suharto, and also hired one of his daughters. Bre-X hired one of Suharto's sons, at a reported sum of a million dollars a month. Barrick and Bre-X were thought to have clinched the deal.

But Freeport's flamboyant CEO, Jim Bob Moffett, was quietly working in the background. Already mining the massive Grasberg deposit on the western side of Papua, New Guinea, Freeport also wanted a slice of Busang, which contains at least 70 million ounces of gold, worth an estimated $25 billion. Freeport has long had close ties to Suharto's regime. On Monday, Freeport and Bre-X announced that they are to be partners in the Busang deal. Freeport will own 15% of the venture, and kick in $400 million to build and operate the mine.

It's interesting to note that Congressional investigators are looking at several companies operating in Indonesia for potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits American companies from paying bribes to foreign officials. In 1995, Transparency International and the University of Goettingen released a ranking of the world's most corrupt countries, ranking Indonesia #1 by a wide margin. Last year, Indonesia ranked #10. The Busang mining contract was widely regarded as a contest to see who could provide the most lucrative deal for Suharto and his cronies. Freeport obviously won. -- R.B.

US290's Toll

No sooner had the results come in from one task force study on water pollution from US290 West than the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) assigned another task force to examine runoff from the eastern section of the freeway. At an ATS meeting this month, State Rep. Sherri Greenberg, task force chair in the first study, reported the results of the year-long effort and offered recommendations on protecting the Edwards Aquifer from highway runoff, including eliminating a proposed flyover at US290 and State Hwy71 in Oak Hill, and narrowing the freeway corridor through Oak Hill. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is reviewing the study, but is not obligated to follow the recommendations. Meanwhile, the ATS lifted a moratorium on TxDOT's further right-of-way acquisition for the freeway through Oak Hill.

At the same meeting, the ATS also voted to establish a second task force to investigate a 15-foot-diameter tunnel that TxDOT plans to build to drain stormwater from the I-35/US290 interchange into Williamson Creek. State Rep. Glen Maxey advocated studying the tunnel's effect on flooding and pollution in Williamson Creek and McKinney Falls. "There is something woefully wrong in our process if TxDOT can state that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) done in 1987 is adequate, when existence of the tunnel wasn't even thought up at that time," Maxey said.

Southeast Austin citizens complained that the highway department never notified them about the tunnel until the contract was signed for its construction. And Save Our Springs Alliance attorney Bill Bunch described TxDOT's 1987 EIS as "a joke, given what we've learned in the last 20 years about water quality." He called for a supplemental EIS study on the entire US 290 project. "With this (US 290 Task Force) report in, it is now a joke and a crime for the highway department to claim that it is protecting the Edwards Aquifer," Bunch said. -- N.E.

A Real Live Wire

While conceding that the new Telecommunications Services Ordinance will create an unsightly mess of wires around town and force small companies to shell out extra bucks to stay in business, city council last week nonetheless unanimously passed the measure in the name of progress.

The new ordinance, which goes into effect Feb. 24, will govern, and set fees for, the use of city rights-of-way for wiring above and below the street. Councilmember Gus Garcia framed the ordinance as a gentler version of the Federal Telecommunications Act, which requires municipalities to encourage local phone service competition.

Smaller "reseller" companies opposed the ordinance because they'll be forced to pay the same fees as the big companies in order to franchise their service. Another point of contention is the $850 application fee to the city. Gwen Rowling of reseller Westel, Inc., said the ordinance could set a precedent, leading other Texas municipalities to set fee requirements. Given that Westel intends to enter at least 1,000 markets across the state, application fees alone could run as high as $850,000, Rowling said.

The city's Financial Services staff expressed little sympathy for the resellers, pointing out that by lowering the fee from the originally proposed $5,000 to $850, the city will barely be able to recover costs for processing applications.

From an aesthetics perspective, one Austin resident complained that more telecommunications providers will mean more wires cluttering the city. Councilmembers Garcia and Beverly Griffith agreed that more wires were likely under the new ordinance. "There's no question about the fact that the whole wiring system is ugly," said Garcia. Griffith expressed confidence, however, that Austin will tolerate the wires as a necessary part of progress, and that technological breakthroughs will eventually render excessive wiring obsolete. -- K.V.

Just Kidding

A University of Texas staffer's idea of a harmless e-mail joke has produced four months of unwanted phone calls, the threat of a libel suit from the editor of The Daily Texan, and requests for interviews from Inside Edition, NBC News, and reporters from London to Los Angeles.

The saga began when Kim Antell, an administrative assistant with UT's Mechanical Engineering Department, e-mailed a whopper of a story as a joke to a list of her e-mail correspondents. The popular urban myth, now at least 20 years old, goes like this: An intoxicated man wakes up in a bathtub full of ice to find that both of his kidneys have been "harvested" at a resale value of $10,000 apiece.

One cyberspace recipient tweaked the tale, placed the story in Austin, and attributed it to the Daily Texan. The prankster also wrote that Antell was the campus paper's editor and listed her work phone number. The Texan was not amused and ran a story debunking the rumor. Antell, who refers to the episode as the "bane of my existence," said that Texan editor Tara Copp told her the prank was libelous. Copp said she later ferreted out the real culprit in the case -- one Michael Van Slyke, who wrote a letter to the Texan claiming responsibility. -- K.V.

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