Naked City

Edited by Amy Smith, with contributions this week from Kevin Fullerton, Claiborne K.H. Smith, and Kayte VanScoy.

Off the Desk:

Sunday, June 29, marks the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that rocked America. The Furman v. Georgia ruling declared the death penalty unconstitutional. Local poets, musicians, and activists will gather on that anniversary date Sunday to commemorate the ruling with words, songs, and speeches. Food and drink will be provided at the celebration, which starts at 1pm at the southwest corner of 11th and Congress, across from the Capitol building. The observance is sponsored by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Call 481-0647 for more info...

Texas Triangle writer-columnist James Garcia says he got the boot last week from the gay and lesbian paper. Garcia covered local news for the weekly and wrote a "Straight Talk" column -- a hetero's perspective on the gay world. The Triangle maintains that Garcia quit because he wasn't satisfied with the terms of a renegotiated contract offer. Garcia, a former Statesman reporter, is starting up a new publication that addresses Hispanics in the political arena.

If you're reading this and it's still Thursday but not yet 7:30pm, then bolt up the stairs to the fourth floor of UT's Studio 4D in the Comm Building at 26th & Guadalupe, for an evening of documentaries produced by MFA grad students. Rebecca Campbell will preview her The Town That Jack Built, about the community of Picher, Okla.; Tassos Rigopoulos will show Texas and the Death Penalty; Steven McIntyre will screen Our Lady of the Rio Grande; and David Plane will preview They Call Us Boat People.

Details are a mite sketchy, but expect to hear more from a new grassroots group called the Austin Cooperative. Not a food co-op or anything New Agey like that; rather, it's a coalition of 16 Hispanic and African-American reps that formed after the last city council elections left many in those communities feeling a bit disillusioned, says one group member, who asked not to be identified. The group is expected to bare its soul soon. -- A.S.

Out the Door

Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, a chief crusader against two recycling plants and other industrial sites in East Austin, can kiss her seat on the city Planning Commission goodbye. Councilmember Gus Garcia, who first appointed Vasquez-Revilla to the commission in 1991, says he will not reappoint her for another two-year term. Instead, Garcia is fulfilling his campaign commitment to appoint more Asian-American representatives to city boards and commissions, and has lined up Ray Vrudhula, the owner of a computer software company, as his next appointment to the Planning Commission.

Vasquez-Revilla is not happy about leaving the commission, particularly with many of her East Austin land-use issues still on the table. She conferred with Garcia on June 17 to ask if he would at least extend her term for another six months. Garcia declined, and Vasquez-Revilla left the meeting in tears. "I said, `Gus, I'm pleading with you, I've got to finish my work. I'm trying to save East Austin,'" Vasquez-Revilla recalled of the conversation.

Garcia defended his decision. "Cathy has been on the commission for six years and she has served her terms well," he said. "At the same time, we need to make sure that Austin's Asian community is represented in city government. We want to make sure they become a part of the fabric of this community."

Vasquez-Revilla says she can think of a few reasons why she isn't retaining her commissioner's post for another two years. She actively supported unsuccessful Place 5 city council hopeful Manuel Zuniga, who doesn't claim many friends in the environmental community. After his loss, Zuniga blasted Garcia for "abandoning" the Hispanic community when he jumped from his Place 5 post for a run for Place 2. Also, Zuniga labeled Garcia a puppet of environmentalists -- not a good way for a losing candidate to curry favor with sitting councilmembers. That Vasquez-Revilla was so closely aligned with Zuniga may indeed have played a role in Garcia's decision. "There wasn't any huge rift between Cathy and the environmentalists, but Cathy believes that the environmentalists pull my chain a little too much," Garcia said. "But that's not true. I've been an environmentalist all my life."

Vasquez-Revilla may have rankled the green community, too, when she began her crusade against two recycling plants in East Austin -- Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., and Balcones Recycling. Vasquez is pushing some rezoning proposals that would affect both facilities, but many green activists are quick to defend Balcones, perhaps because its majority owners, Melba and AISD board member Ted Whatley, have contributed time and money to the local progressive cause. Regardless of ownership, says Garcia, "Balcones should be treated as a different case altogether. Those two facilities are significantly different from each other. The two issues need to be handled separately."

Vasquez-Revilla is likely only the first of several post-holders who won't be securing reappointments. -- A.S.

New City Hires

One would expect to see some familiar faces around city hall after the election squalor calmed, but it looks like none of the campaign workers for newly elected Councilmembers Willie Lewis and Bill Spelman are going to be included in the hiring frenzy downtown.

Spelman, an associate professor in the UT LBJ School, has retained an LBJ grad in Kristen Vassallo, 26. Vassallo's political background includes doing aide work for Sen. Lloyd Doggett, with a concentration in health care, housing, immigration, and welfare. She also ran the phone banks for former Gov. Ann Richards' last campaign, and worked as an account executive for the Dallas ad firm, The Promotion Network.

Both Lewis staff members, aide Dwight Burns and administrative assistant Adana Barry, hail from the halls of the Texas Capitol, and both say they are ready for the change of pace from state to local politics.

Burns, 28, earned a master's in public policy from the LBJ School, and later interned under another LBJ School alum, City Manager Jesus Garza. He is leaving a permanent position as a policy analyst in the Texas Senate, where he focused on issues of economic development. As a UT undergraduate, Burns paid his dues as a volunteer in East Austin, especially with the East Austin Strategy Team, headed up by Lewis campaign advisor Ron Davis. "The main reason I was brought in is because I get around," says Burns, citing his ties to environmental groups, the development community, and the "established black community in town."

Barry, 29, who left a position as an administrative assistant in the state Dept. of Banking, says she cut her teeth in Austin-style politics as an assistant to the general manager of Capital Metro. She was recommended for her new position by Lewis campaign insider Sammie Glasco, who worked with Barry at Banking. "I've never worked for an elected official. I believe that it's going to be three years of learning," says Barry.

Although neither Burns nor Barry had met Lewis prior to applying for the job, both are excited about the hands-on work to come. Says Burns, "I have city politics in my blood. I love this up close and personal stuff." -- K.V.

Ready to Run?

Capital Metro General Manager Justin Augustine says he has a plan to "fix what is broken" with the beleaguered transit company, but some wonder why it had taken him a year to come up with a plan. Was it legislative pressure that pushed the administration to finally make changes? Public outcry over the tax increase?

No, says Augustine emphatically. Rather, it's Augustine who's driving the "back to basics" program ahead, and Augustine who from day one has been establishing the "finite pieces" of the greater "philosophical plan."

"The first thing we had to do was ensure our professionals understood how to provide the building blocks, the core services," the GM said in a splashy press conference on Tuesday. "You have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run."

But not everyone will be along for the ride as Capital Metro moves to tighten its ship and earn the public's respect. Declining to elaborate on specifics, Augustine said he had in mind "positions" and "sections" which could either be consolidated or eliminated for greater efficiency, as well as a possible 15% reduction in payroll costs. He hinted, however, as to where the ax may fall: "We can't have our administrative costs out of whack with our operational capacity."

Capital Metro says the transit authority's on-time percentage has improved, and ridership is up 4% over last year. Moreover, compliments from riders are up, and complaints are down. Augustine said he received a call from an
82-year-old blind woman who was thankful for the courtesy his staff had shown her on city buses. Augustine's challenge now is to keep the buses moving through increasingly congested streets in a timely manner, without pushing efficiency and staff reductions to the point where passengers and taxpayers start feeling like they're being taken for a ride. -- K.F.

Rent Settlement

A vociferous group of University of Texas students, mostly married graduate students, scored a victory last week in negotiating a reduction in what could have been a 7-8% increase in rent at student housing properties.

Tenants and UT's Division of Housing and Food Service settled on a 2.5% boost. But getting to that point was no small task. Jason Turner, the president of the University Student Tenants' Organization (USTO), and other student leaders had waged an aggressive telephone and e-mail campaign to UT Housing officials -- and that was only after they felt stonewalled by the housing division's lack of response to their initial inquiries. They also contacted Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos' office. Charles Schotz, one of the senator's legislative aides, said Barrientos is sensitive to student housing issues, particularly those who are struggling to make ends meet.

The students had questioned the economic feasibility of the original proposed rent increase, particularly coming on the heels of a 15% hike in 1996 and a 7% jump in 1995. Graduate student salaries, they argued, have only risen 2% over the same period.

Another concern was the lengthy periods of vacancies at student apartment sites. Students complained that they were indirectly paying for those vacancies. Doug Garrad, assistant director of the housing and food division, said that the division "is not in the business of managing vacant apartments," but he acknowledged that there has been less demand for the apartments. The division's original draft proposal for the rent increase predicted a 3% vacancy rate for the next year, but according to one source, 15 of 96 apartments in one section of the 200-apartment Colorado apartment complex, or 15.6%, are currently vacant. -- C.S.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle