Off the Desk:
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Fish & Wildlife Acting Director John Rogers got slapped with a lawsuit this week by the Save Our Springs Alliance. The group alleges the two violated the Freedom of Information Act by "illegally hiding" the identity of folks who lobbied against listing the Barton Springs Salamander as an endangered species. Meanwhile, Babbitt has until April 25 to decide the salamander's fate... -- A.S.
It's "goofier than goofy." That's Councilmember Jackie Goodman's assessment of the CyberPatrol software on Freenet computers in city libraries. Goodman is convinced that the Internet-censoring program is making Austin a laughing stock all over the country. "When we start to become nationally known, I start to get worried," she said. -- K.V.
Ronney: Old MayoSigns, signs, everywhere are signs. And if you interpret them, you see that mayoral candidate and pro-developer Ronney Reynolds is a wanted man in the inner city. Many of the big red "Ronney Reynolds for Mayor" signs have been targets of creative vandalism, some defaced with acid, others gutted with exacto knives. After a nimble edit, for instance, one read: "Ronney Old Mayo."
Reynolds, of course, is not amused. He says his campaign has replaced "at least 25 signs." That's a pretty penny, since they can cost upwards of $50 a pop.
Reynolds blames the supporters of his main opponent, Kirk Watson: "I believe that Mr. Watson has some extremist friends that are trying to show support for him by cutting up my signs," says Reynolds. "I'm embarrassed for the Watson campaign."
Watson says he doesn't know who the culprits are: "If it is my supporters, I've made it clear that I don't appreciate it and it's not appropriate." -- A.M.
Bedbug Bites BackLinda Curtis, coordinator for Austinites for a Little Less Corruption, is continuing to mount a case against the city for throwing out a petition that sought to put campaign finance reform on the May 3 ballot.
The grassroots group, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, has sued the city for its refusal to recognize nearly half the voting-registered signatures gathered during the petition drive last year. City Clerk Elden Aldridge threw out the signatures after deeming them invalid.
A federal court judge has set a trail date for June 26, but that's not soon enough for Curtis, who had hoped to have the referendum up for a citywide vote in the upcoming city council elections. Curtis concedes that her group was unprepared for a court hearing on the case last month and had asked for a delay to allow more time to prepare arguments. But Renea Hicks, a private attorney retained to fight the city's fight, one-upped the group by winning an even longer delay -- until after the election.
While a majority of City Council voted last December to keep the item off the ballot, Curtis said she believed Mayor Bruce Todd influenced the decision outside chambers. "I can't prove a thing when it comes to who politically motivated the clerk, but knowing Bruce Todd and knowing his political treachery, I strongly believe he was behind the scenes directing the clerk in doing this hatchet job," Curtis said. "I don't think [Aldridge] would do this unless he was directed to."
To which Todd retorted: "She's crazy as a bedbug." Todd said that while he supports campaign finance reform, the city has yet to find the proper mechanism for instituting such a plan.
That's because, Curtis asserts, the city is too busy coming up with ways to thwart it. Curtis adds that it was inconceivable that Aldridge could throw out 50% of the collected signatures on the petition when 99% of Austin residents are registered to vote. She said 29,200 signatures were turned over to Aldridge, while only 15,900 were needed to get the item on the ballot. "When these signatures were checked, there were 16,000 out of 300,000 [people] not registered to vote," Curtis said. "50% of the homeless were registered to vote."
Jay Jacobsen, executive director of the ACLU, said the city "improperly struck names" from the petition which possibly could have remained. "The law is fairly well established that the policy should be a liberal one to allow things on the ballot," Jacobsen said.
Approval of the petition would have allowed voters to decide on whether or not future candidates for elected city positions should be limited to maximum donations of $100 per contributor, said Curtis, who is campaign manager for mayoral candidate Max Nofziger. The proposal would also have called for total political contributions not to exceed $75,000 per campaign. Too late now. Mayoral hopefuls Kirk Watson and Ronney Reynolds already are sitting on a wad of cash well above the proposed cap. Since last July, over $481,000 has ended up in Watson's collection plate, while Reynolds has raised $275,298. -- L.S.
Suicide or Scam?What was supposed to be the world's biggest gold deposit now looks like the biggest fraud in the history of the gold industry. And what initially appeared to be murder or suicide now looks like part of the scam. Michael de Guzman, the Filipino geologist who was instrumental in finding the Busang gold deposit and reportedly fell to his death last month from a helicopter flying over Borneo, may not be dead after all.
According to an April 11 story in The Sydney Morning Herald, the dental records from the body recovered by Indonesian police in Borneo do not match de Guzman's. In addition, the paper reported that "some 9 million Bre-X shares belonging to Mr. de Guzman were traded shortly after his reported fall."
In addition to the possibility that he is a scam artist, de Guzman was apparently a bigamist. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that de Guzman had married three different Indonesian women, one in Jakarta, one in Borneo, and one in Manado. He also had a wife and six children in Manila.
De Guzman's employer, Calgary-based Bre-X Minerals, had claimed that Busang contained in excess of 70 million ounces of gold. Bre-X's CEO, David Walsh, made some $80 million by selling some of his stake in the company to other investors. New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold won a 15% stake in Busang in mid-February after extended negotiations with Indonesian dictator Suharto. Now, the island of Borneo is crawling with journalists, none of whom are being allowed onto the Busang site. In addition, Rudy Vega, a metallurgist who worked for Bre-X, has also turned up missing.
Finally, both sides are claiming victory in the ongoing litigation over Freeport's gold, copper, and silver mine located on the western side of Papua New Guinea. On April 9, U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval dismissed a suit brought by Amungme tribal leader Tom Beanal against Freeport. But Duval also ruled that Beanal and other tribal members had standing to sue the company in the U.S. for human rights violations. More on this in next week's "Environs" column. -- R.B.
For Bikes' SakeMembers of Bicycling Advocates of Texas and the Yellow Bike Project took over the UT West Mall Wednesday in a public forum to garner voter participation in the May 3 city election.
Doug Lewin, a member of Bicycling Advocates, said before the forum that he hoped students would listen to the city council candidates (all of whom were invited) and become more involved in Austin politics. "In national elections, the single vote gets lost in the massive hugeness of it all," Lewin said. "It's locally where we can make a difference." The issues concerning Bicycling Advocates deal mainly with the city's traffic congestion, and how transportation can be improved without harming the environment. "We are basically advocating the rethinking of our urban transportation environment," he added.
While light rail could solve some of the traffic congestion, Lewin said he has not seen a viable plan for constructing light rail without having a negative impact on the local environment. More bike and pedestrian lanes are also needed along Austin's streets to encourage less traffic, and to make bicycling and walking safer for residents, he said.
Lewin added that while it is not illegal for drivers to park along bicycle lanes in Austin, doing so makes the lanes ineffective and dangerous when bicyclists are forced to swerve around parked cars and into traffic. -- L.S.
GOP RegressRepublican leaders want to change the Texas tax code, but they don't appear to be worried about how the changes will affect the poor. Last month, during a hearing before the House Select Committee on Revenue and Public Education Funding, Rep. Talmadge Heflin (R-Houston) promoted his far-fetched idea of abolishing all property taxes in the state and replacing them with a statewide sales tax.
Helfin's plan would tax everything including food and medicine, while capping the sales tax burden at 11cents per dollar. When asked about the effect of his plan on the poor, Helfin said he believed that property taxes were more regressive than sales tax. And he added, "Personally, I don't see regressivity as the end of the world."
Last Friday, during a brief press conference, Gov. George W. Bush danced around the issue, saying, "My main concern is that they [legislators] develop a plan that will achieve the broad objectives and one that will get out of the House and then get over to the Senate." And what about concerns that it hits the poor? "That's what has to be debated," said Bush. "I think that the most regressive tax there is is a property tax on people, poor people who own their homes. You've got one choice: sell or pay your tax." -- R.B.