The Austin Chronicle

Enough Is Enough

Councilmembers Are Fed Up With Mitchell's Antics

By Kayte VanScoy, June 13, 1997, News

They came to bury Eric, not to praise him. Last week's meeting began as political love-in bidding Ronney Reynolds a fond adieu after his six years of service. Nary a word was uttered during the tearful farewells, however, on the timely demise of Eric Mitchell's council tenure. In fact, the council seemed only too happy to be giving Mitchell the boot. Considering Mitchell's "sheet"-pulling sour grapes speech on election night, the only surprise was that the council put its foot down about Mitchell's antics so late in the game.

illustration by Doug Potter

With only last week's and the June 12 council meeting remaining in his tenure, Mitchell is trying to push through as much action on his pet projects as possible. In fact, council graciously bestowed approval of several contractors for his Central City Entertainment Center (CCEC) without a peep, but that was as much rope as Mitchell was getting for the day. When he tried to rush a public hearing on a Slum and Blight study of East 11th and 12th Streets onto next week's agenda, council swiftly laid down the law. Past Mitchell-sponsored public hearings have been famous for their quick degeneration into screaming matches, and the council would have none of it. To add to the distaste for Mitchell's East 11th and 12th Street dreams, the revitalization of that area as championed by Mitchell has drawn criticism from some neighborhood residents who accuse the project's leader of backroom dealing and community shut-outs. The hope is that those alleged practices will end now that Mitchell is out of the loop.

The mysterious Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA) board, a nonprofit corporation founded to oversee the revitalization of East 11th and 12th Streets, was stacked with Mitchell appointees when it was formed in December of 1995. Before protest by the neighborhoods surrounding East 11th and 12th Streets, the board did not have any neighborhood representatives, and even since the addition of four area residents to the board, their inclusion in the process has been spotty at best. Though there always seem to be defensible reasons, such as missed meetings, neighborhood residents and dissenters have routinely been voted off the ARA board.

Even more troubling, however, are the cloak-and-dagger tactics of a body which is ostensibly in place to serve the public. "Most of what's taking place nobody has any knowledge of except for a few people," says Van Johnson of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which owns $4 million worth of property in the redevelopment zone. "If it's good for the community, then why don't they do it in the light?" Not only has the ARA had terrible communication with the neighborhood organizations, but some members of three groups concerned with Eastside revitalization complain that the ARA has not been forthcoming about its processes, its intentions, or even its meeting times. These groups are the Community Development Commission (CDC), which oversees approval of the federal dollars which fund ARA, the Urban Renewal Board (URB), which is made up of members of the CDC and makes recommendations about condemning and acquiring blighted property, and the East Austin Development Corporation, which is the development arm of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. ARA neighborhood representative Letty McGarrahan confirms that the secrecy some of these group members complain about is an ARA policy. "We have to keep mum or we're kicked off the board," she says, adding that her input for this story will likely condemn her.

According to Mitchell, that elusiveness is just what he is now trying to avoid. "I suggested that we have a public hearing so that no one can accuse anyone of pulling something over on someone," he said, but conceded in the next breath that he was deliberately rushing the process. "I admit that I have a selfish motive of wanting to have [the public hearing] while I'm here, so I could participate." In fact, action to approve the completed Slum and Blight study, which is a necessary step in being approved for federal housing funds, has been so hurried that the CDC, URB, and even several ARA members had not even laid eyes on the study, although city staff were already busy convincing council that the study enjoyed the full support of the commissions. In fact, CDC chair Hilbert Maldanado turned out to be the first to put the brakes on Mitchell's push for the hearing.

"Those two projects have circumvented the CDC," complains Maldanado of Mitchell's pets, the entertainment center and the ARA. Though there is no legally binding relationship between the CDC, ARA, URB and the city's planning process, commissions such as the CDC are appointed by the council to ensure adequate community input into council processes. Maldanado says that instead of utilizing the resources of the commission, city staff have either ignored or misused the CDC. After Maldanado was contacted by Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner's office last week, in which she asked for an emergency meeting of the CDC to present the Slum and Blight study, Maldanado quickly polled the CDC membership and refused to convene before the members' scheduled meeting the following week.

The city's housing grant manager, Jeff Folmar, says Maldanado obviously does not understand that the Slum and Blight Study is merely a fact-gathering stage, and a necessary step in acquiring federal funding, much like a census. "When we tried to present it to (the CDC), they got really frustrated that they were not being asked to take action, but there is no action to take," says Folmar.

According to Maldanado, the only reason Conner bothered to run the study past Maldanado and his CDC was in order to circumvent the Urban Renewal Board, which had failed to secure a quorum to convene. Conner was not available for comment, but Greg Smith, who worked with Conner to organize the meetings for the city housing staff, confirms that the CDC was being consulted in lieu of the URB, but says the meetings were merely an attempt to keep CDC in the loop.

Maldanado interprets the city's intentions differently. "(City staff) were just doing it so that they could go to council and say that CDC has gotten information, when that really doesn't say anything about the process," says Maldanado. When asked what the proper process should be, Maldanado and other CDC and ARA members were hard-pressed. It seems that Austin's urban revitalization is as much a mystery, even to insiders, as the eventual outcome.

Despite CDC's refusal to hastily convene and give the study its blessing, Mitchell was still pushing full throttle for his public hearing. He was backed up by Conner, who painted a picture to council of the ARA board fully supporting the Slum and Blight study and the CDC ready to jump on the bandwagon. Mitchell made it clear that no public process is legally required to approve the study, and that any attempt to keep the community informed was merely a nicety. Obviously, Mitchell feels that his projects are now on a tight deadline. "You're going to try to kill this project and try to kill all other projects East of I-35 because they're identified with me and other people that are not part of the group," groused Mitchell at the remaining progressives on council.

But the council was not being bullied this time around. "The new council wants to do something about improving East 11th and 12th, but we don't want to do it in an environment of yelling and calling names," argued Gus Garcia.

"Everybody screams and yells and acts crazy about the damn birds, and bugs and salamander, and nobody has a problem with it," Mitchell said. "There's something soothing about getting things off their chests and out in the open. It's better to get it out in the open than to go burn down Congress Avenue."

Councilmember Daryl Slusher said that when the new council does move forward on these initiatives, "We hope that... we won't have some of the divisiveness, and we'll include some of the folks that haven't been (included in the past)," noted Slusher.

Mitchell protested Slusher's characterization, despite the fact that five minutes earlier Mitchell had ticked off a hate-list of East Austin neighborhoods which overlap or border the revitalization zone. "Guadalupe has never supported anything I've tried to do, Chestnut Hill is Portia [Watson] who was on the ARA board but never made meetings, Swede Hill -- no love lost there, and Blackshear has never supported me," Mitchell complained. Unfortunately for Mitchell, three years of grandstanding and vilifying have not earned him any allies on the council willing to go to bat for him at the end. Even his old "ER" half, Ronney Reynolds, had nothing much to say to argue his cause.

Place 6-elect Willie Lewis, who came to observe Mitchell's council downfall, says he supports East Austin revitalization, but that in sharp contrast to his predecessor, alliances will be his strong suit. "It doesn't matter how good the ideas are if you don't have three other people behind it," says Lewis, who was not willing to discuss his ideas for East Austin just yet. "I have to talk to some other councilmembers about them first. I don't want to get out on a limb and have to fight constantly."

Too bad Mitchell didn't think of that. A substitute motion by Slusher successfully bumped the public hearing to July 10, when Mitchell will be long gone. In classic fashion, Mitchell abstained, along with Reynolds, on his own item, and it failed 4-0-2. When asked to comment for this story, Mitchell's one statement summed up the afternoon perfectly: "You don't want to talk to me. I'm history."

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