Naked City

Off the Desk:

City Manager Jesus Garza threw city clinic workers a bone last Thursday. While clinic labs are still going under the private control of Laboratory Corp. of America, clinic advocates fought to retain four quality control inspectors at the lab sites at least through next September. Keeping the employees will cut the predicted savings from privatization $1.2 million to $900,000, but after an impassioned appeal from Councilmember Beverly Griffith, who visited the sites firsthand, Garza gave in on the point without a fight... -- K.V.

Bluff Springs residents say they aren't opposed to mobile homes. They are, however, opposed to the planned Regency Village Mobile Home Park, which, if approved by the city council today (Aug. 28), could quadruple the population of their neighborhood. California-based Summit Properties wants to put 539 mobile homes on a 160-acre tract in Bluff Springs, a mile or so upstream of McKinney Falls State Park. "We don't care about the mobile homes, it's the density we are concerned about," says Lin Sutherland, vice president of the Bluff Springs Neighborhood Association. Sutherland says the proposed site lies alongside Onion Creek: "Six weeks ago we had flooding problems... the last thing we need is 500 homes with more impervious cover." Jim Gallegos of Bury Pittman Consulting Engineers, the firm working on the project for Summit, did not return Chronicle phone calls. -- R.B.

By most accounts, the city manager's top pick for police chief -- Stan Knee, of Garden Grove, Calif. -- meets the approval of a cross-section of local contingents. Even the Austin Police Association is willing to go along with the selection, although the group's big dogs would have felt more comfortable with one of their own -- interim Police Chief Bruce Mills -- getting the job. At any rate, Knee, if approved by city council, will have his hands full trying to straighten out a host of internal matters, not to mention fending off some pretty provocative whistleblower lawsuits filed by officers... -- A.S.

City Wins Again

In a strongly worded opinion handed down Tuesday, State District Court Judge Scott McCown sided with the city in ruling a 1995 Austin-bashing bill unconstitutional. HB 3193 granted special powers and privileges to an area surrounding the Circle C Ranch development. "HB 3193 is indeed unconstitutional," wrote McCown. "The Governor refused to sign HB 3193. The Attorney General refused to defend HB 3193. The court refuses to validate HB 3193."

The controversial bill exempted about 8,000 acres in southwestern Travis County from Austin's water quality laws, and preempted the city's ability to annex the area, which includes four municipal utility districts at the Circle C development. McCown's ruling is the latest court victory for the city in its ongoing fight with the Texas Legislature.

The ruling comes more than two years after Austin's senator, Gonzalo Barrientos, filibustered against the bill by talking for more than 20 hours. Barrientos told his colleagues that HB 3193 -- written by former house member Robert Saunders, who is now a lobbyist -- created "a governmental body that is the antithesis of democracy."

McCown found the bill unconstitutional on three fronts. The most important was that the bill violated the Texas Constitution's prohibition on special legislation. The judge wrote that the water quality district authorized by the bill was created to "remove the area" covered by the district "from the regulatory jurisdiction of the city." McCown pointed out that "If laws can be passed to favor particular people or disadvantage particular localities, then -- as the constitutional framers knew too well -- private interest will prevail over the public interest."

McCown's ruling is not the final word in the matter. He has ordered the city and the defendant, Southwest Travis County Water District, to go into mediation to try and resolve some of the issues. The water district's lawyer, Robert Howell, a partner in the Austin office of Baker & Botts, refused to comment on the mediation. But he said that an appeal of McCown's ruling is "very likely." However, a lawyer close to the situation says that McCown has written a very "thoughtful, thorough" opinion and that an appeal of the ruling will be difficult. The lawyer added, "Nobody can say this was an outrage."

The two parties most affected by McCown's ruling are Gary Bradley, the flamboyant developer who heads Phoenix Holdings, the company that controls the residential portion of the Circle C development, and FM Properties, the subsidiary of New Orleans-based mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, which owns the commercial portions of Circle C. Bradley did not return a phone message left by the Chronicle, nor did Garland Robinette and Bill Collier, spokesmen for Freeport-McMoRan. -- R.B.

Sid's a Hero

Anyone expecting ethnically charged fireworks at last Tuesday's Planning Commission meeting would have been sorely disappointed at the ho-hum affair, featuring lots of postponements and off-stage negotiations. Of the three new commissioners debuting on the dais, only Betty Baker made a dent, closely questioning staff and applicants, and on one case -- the rezoning of the old Texas Medical Association building on Lamar -- ending up on the bottom of an 8-1 vote.

Betty who? With the fuss over Gus Garcia's and Bill Spelman's obligations, perceived and actual, to Hispanic neighborhood leaders, no one noticed, or cared, that Jackie Goodman also named a new Anglo to the PC. (Back in 1993, Goodman appointed El Concilio fixture Frances Martinez to the commission for a term, so maybe she's already discharged her cultural obligation.) Of course, Baker isn't really new: She's been a powerful force in Austin's historic preservation community for decades and is well known in the neighborhoods. Had she not been a city employee -- back before her department, the Convention & Visitors Bureau, was privatized -- Baker would likely have been appointed ages ago. Her activity level Tuesday contrasted starkly with the torpor of Ray Vrudhula and Rachael Rawlins, Garcia and Spelman's widely debated appointees, who between them said about six audible words all night.

Before the meeting, outgoing chair Sid Sanders -- who's resigning to allow Mayor Kirk Watson to appoint a Hispanic, realtor Art Navarro, in his stead -- read a statement explaining his decision, and was thereafter treated to elaborate praise from his fellow commissioners. Even though she's often disagreed on policy with Sanders, said Commissioner Jean Mather, the move "has made you a bona fide hero in my book." -- M.C.M.

Save Riverside

If city officials thought that, by delaying and then downplaying the closure of the Riverside Drive branch library in the proposed budget, they would avoid a public whipping, they were wrong. A coalition of library advocates and Southeast Austin neighborhood leaders, organized as "LEND" -- "Libraries Encourage Neighborhood Development" -- held a press conference Tuesday to mobilize support to, according to the T-shirt worn by Library Commission chair Chip Harris, "Rescue Riverside."

Though the decision to ax Riverside -- which has been offered up for sacrifice three times over the last decade -- is not entirely the work of City Manager Jesus Garza, he bore 100% of the blame as the issue was laid out by speakers at the press event. Their objections, some obvious, some not, conflated and coalesced into three main themes:

  • For the level of service it's expected to provide, the Austin Public Library is seriously underfunded, and closing branches, cutting hours, or reducing the materials budget will not solve this problem and are unacceptable to the people.
  • Southeast Austin's needs are routinely not met by the city, even as they grow. According to previous library planning goals, the Riverside branch is already too small for the area it serves.
  • The move toward a "regional" system with fewer-but-larger branches -- as floated in the budget proposal and the library's Affordability 2000 audit -- did not appeal to those in attendance; Friends of the Library president John Laakso described such facilities as "glittering fortresses of inaccessibility."

The Rescue Riverside forces already have a Web page -- http://www.realtime.net/~chip/save-riverside -- and are circulating petitions; the City Council will hear staff presentations and public input on the Austin Public Library budget on September 8. -- M.C.M.

The Price of Parking

Travelers will pay steeper parking rates at Robert Mueller Airport beginning in October, but they will at least be getting something for their money -- more than 150 new valet parking spaces, which will theoretically free up short-term parking space. That's a better deal than they would've gotten under parking contractor Ampco's first rate-hike proposal, which would have essentially taken both space and revenue from the airport by roping off a staging area out of short-term parking for valet parking. Under the plan approved by city council, Ampco will proceed with valet service, but will also expand property next to lot "D" for the cars of the new valet customers. The city will get $5 of every $15 Ampco collects for the service, but a portion of fees will be allotted to reimburse Ampco the expense of the new paving.

Aviation director Charles Gates says that "a light went on" as aviation staff reviewed Ampco's original plan and realized they could increase parking capacity by purchasing a plot of land the city would have to purchase anyway when Robert Mueller closes. Airport Advisory Board member Leonard Lyons, however, doesn't give Gates' staff much credit for dealing shrewdly with Ampco, and at the council meeting questioned why the company is to be reimbursed for a capital investment it intends to profit from. "I voted for the plan," said Lyons, "but I don't like the process."

Aviation deputy director Phil Brown says the arrangement is more than fair to the city. "We're actually getting a better deal than we've had," says Brown, since the new revenue will be on top of the 89% cut the city already gets for self-parking. "Everybody makes more money."

Indeed, with parking running at capacity, neither the city nor the contractor can lose by adding more spaces and hiking rates; construction costs for the new lot will likely be recouped in a scant few months. "This was the deal that allowed us to provide better services for everyone," said a smiling George Clift, vice president of Ampco's airport division, after the recent council vote. -- K.F.

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