Off the Desk:
A new grassroots initiative is afoot -- Our City, Our Choice -- which seeks to impose regulations requiring voter approval on water and wastewater facilities proposed outside the city limits. The idea is to limit city-subsidized growth in suburbia. The initiative is under the aegis of the Texas Campaign for the Environment. Campaign strategist Todd Main heads up the group, while another campaign warlord, Mike Blizzard, is leading the petition drive...
In an age of G.I. Janes, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors will ponder G.I. rights and militarism in general at a workshop this weekend, September 6-7, at St. Edward University's Mang House. The two-day affair runs 9am-9:30pm Saturday, and 9am-noon Sunday. Call toll free 888/236-2226 for more info... -- A.S.
Austin police officers are proving they are just a bunch of regular folk after all. Make that regular litigious folk. At least six men in blue have filed lawsuits against the Austin Police Department or fellow officers this year. To date, the most curious set of pleadings on record is the one filed by Assistant Chief of Police Michael McDonald, a one-time candidate for police chief. McDonald filed the suit on August 5 against Sgt. Jack Kelly, in retaliation for a whistleblower lawsuit Kelly filed in July alleging that McDonald was among several high-ranking police officials involved in "possible" wrong-doing.
"Possible" wrongdoing is awfully vague, and McDonald's inclusion in the lawsuit garnered nary a mention in the papers. But, ironically, in his suit, McDonald takes the curious step of spelling out the juicy details for us. McDonald's lawsuit claims that Kelly slandered him in an August 2, 1996 conversation with another police officer, in which Kelly allegedly accused the assistant chief of wanting to get kickbacks in exchange for halting gambling and prostitution investigations. McDonald's lawsuit isn't going anywhere, though; after bringing up the gossip on himself, he quietly withdrew the suit on August 29. In a statement released Wednesday, McDonald said, "Taking this action at this time regarding events that occurred a year ago would not be beneficial to the department, and I am committed to working with the department and the new chief [Stan Knee] to make this department one which the entire Austin community can be proud of." -- A.S.
What Price, Water?
Perhaps emboldened by the general consensus of praise for his innovative problem-solving methods, Mayor Kirk Watson on Tuesday introduced his second Draft Interim Ordinance for dealing with the repeal of SB1704. This version suggests an entirely new way for Austin to referee greenie/development confrontations. Although the new draft uses many of the same mechanisms borrowed from other cities in the first draft, at its heart is a new classification system for determining what mechanisms apply and when.
If the ordinance passes, land within Austin's planning jurisdiction will fall into one of two zones: a more protected Drinking Water Protection Zone (DWPZ), containing areas within the Barton Creek Zone, the Barton Creek Watershed, all Water Supply Rural Watersheds, and all Water Supply Suburban Watersheds; and a Desired Development Zone (DDZ), including all areas not in the DWPZ.
The length of the "permit windows," which lock projects into existing water quality and land development regulations, will be determined by each project's zone, with projects that potentially affect the city's drinking water supply getting smaller windows. The windows follow roughly the periods set out in the first draft, but do reflect various tightening and loosening tweaks suggested by the 1704 focus group at last Thursday's joint meeting. Significant changes include:
Under the first draft, all projects over 10 years old died automatically. Under the revised draft, DWPZ projects over 10 years old get one year to obtain building permits under their original regulations -- provided those projects have maintained a set level of activity, or "appropriate pursuit," over the past five years. Ten-year-old DDZ projects get two years, and they don't have to satisfy the "appropriate pursuit" requirement. These changes address concerns aired by development stakeholders at last Thursday's joint meeting -- concerns initially raised in a highly ominous and litigious tone by lobbyist-lawyer Richard Suttle.
Pre-existing commercial and multi-family DWPZ projects on the books less than 10 years will get two years to obtain building permits, provided their site plans are approved by the end of the first year. Similarly situated single-family DWPZ projects will have those two years to begin construction of infrastructure.
All DDZ projects less than 10 years old will have five years to obtain building permits. The original draft's distinction for projects filed less than five years ago has been removed. Also, future projects will see their time lengths increased from the earlier draft. Permits for DWPZ projects will now last three years with a possible one-year extension, and DDZ projects will now last five years.
The key here is the emphasis on drinking water quality, a concept Watson attributed to Councilmember Daryl Slusher. "There are other sensitive areas out there" besides Barton Creek, said Watson, "and as we looked at those areas we noticed they all fed into the drinking water supply. We determined that if it is something that ultimately feeds into water our people are drinking, it will have shorter limits." While splitting Austin into strict and lenient protection zones allows the council task force to implement suggestions from both factions of the focus group, no one supposes that either the developers or the environmentalists are happy. "Frankly, it's depressing," said Brigid Shea, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. "I guess we're not used to being in power," she observed of city council's environmental majority. "Even though the [greens] won control of the council, they're trying to appease the developers. If the other side had won, they wouldn't be giving environmentalists the time of day."
But as has been apparent since the first news of 1704's repeal, the constituency whose approval matters most in this debate is the Legislature. "We looked at SB1, the Comprehensive Water Quality Act passed last session," said the mayor, "and the legislative intent was pretty clear: They wanted to protect drinking water." Austin's new permitting scheme will not only hinge on a factor that the Legislature has already deemed significant, it will also give the city's 1999 lobby something to sell at the Capitol besides salamanders' rights. Meanwhile, arguments for and against the latest proposal will be heard at 6:45pm tonight in council chambers. Council is expected to act on the interim ordinance at 3pm Friday. -- J.S.
Royal Boxed Thrones
If you are paying $833.33 per seat for each home football game, you probably won't mind that a glass of iced tea costs $10. Those are the going prices for the new skyboxes at Royal-Memorial Stadium on the UT campus. And the $833 figure doesn't even include the cost of the actual ticket. All 14 luxury suites on the east side of the stadium are completed and ready for UT's opening game against Rutgers University on Saturday. All of the buyers of the new boxes were required to have given hefty sums of money to the UT sports department in order to be able to buy the luxury boxes which came in three sizes: eight seats for $39,000, 12 for $50,000, and 20 seats for $65,000.
Here, courtesy of the UT Sports Information Dept., is a list of the buyers, along with the cost of their suite and the amount of money they've donated to UT: Peter Coneway, eight-seat suite, donated $67,500; Southwestern Bell, 12 seats, donated $21,300; Austin Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 12 seats, donated $72,900; Carol Winkel, 12 seats, donated $1 million; Red McCombs, 12 seats, donated $3 million; Frank Denius, 20 seats, donated $1.7 million; Thomas Hicks, 20 seats, donated $1.1 million; Jim Bob Moffett, 12 seats, donated $3.2 million; Mike Myers, 12 seats, donated $3.2 million; Knox Nunnally, 12 seats, donated $31,270; Johnny Warren, 12 seats, donated $62,050; Robert Reviere, 12 seats, donated $55,275; Robert Utley, 8 seats, donated $437,500.
The final owner's name was not released. -- R.B.
Fit to Be Tied
What do you get when you mix contraception, a Catholic organization, and the City of Austin? A contract dispute, among other things. Back in 1995, when the city-owned Brackenridge Hospital was itself in need of critical care, the city signed a lease agreement with Seton (aka the Daughters of Charity Health Services of Austin), stipulating that Seton would provide the services which had formerly been performed by Brack. Seton agreed to operate Brack as a "primary safety net hospital," dispensing medical care to Austinites regardless of the patients' ability to pay for that care. One service which was covered by the lease was women's reproductive services, including tubal ligations.
The current conflict between the city and Seton centers on whether Seton will provide tubal ligations under the charity care program and, if so, who will pay for those procedures. Under the contract, the city agreed to reimburse Seton for up to $5.6 million for costs associated with charity care. One issue to be resolved is whether so-called elective tubals (those performed as an individual procedure, rather than those which are performed immediately following a childbirth) will be covered by the reimbursement money.
Charles Barnett, president and CEO of the Seton Healthcare Network, is quick to point out that tubals have always been done at Brack since Seton took over. "Pursuant to the lease," says Barnett, "this is required. We will continue to provide the service, but we believe that it would be fair to have additional compensation from the city if it turns out that the tubals aren't covered by the $5.6 million."
Councilmember Beverly Griffith expresses concern that Seton live up to its end of the deal. "The city's obligation is $5.6 million for all services. We need to be sure this includes tubal ligations." Her worry goes beyond the money involved. "Whatever the reason [for the contract dispute], it has to be solved. Poor women need equal opportunity and equal access to health care."
There is concern that Seton's Catholic philosophy, and its concomitant prohibition on birth control, will interfere with the organization's ability to provide sterilizations and other reproductive services to patients. Barnett emphatically denies this. "This is absolutely not a religious issue. It is purely a contract dispute. Service will not be impacted by this problem."
If money, rather than spiritual conviction, is truly the issue, perhaps Seton will look towards saving money in the long run by spending some now. As Griffith points out: "Tubals should actually save money for charity care by holding down the expense of pre-term babies. The cost of one pre-term baby will exceed the cost of 50 tubals." In this sinuous debate, one thing is clear -- tubes may be tied, but tongues certainly aren't when it comes to the issue of reproductive freedom. -- L.H.
Mr. T. Goes to D.C.
What do Lockheed Martin, Ross Perot, and former Austin mayor Bruce Todd all have in common? If you guessed welfare privatization, you've won coffee with Newt Gingrich. Just kidding. But this is no joke: As reported by the The Texas Observer's Michael King, defense mega-contractor Lockheed Martin and Ross Perot's flagship enterprise Electronic Data Systems were two of the companies that submitted competing bids last year to operate some or all of what they hoped would soon be our state's newly integrated, automated, and for-profit social safety net.
Where does Todd come in? In May of last year, then-Mayor Todd announced the formation of Todos, a new consulting consortium that would combine the talents of the mayor, his wife Elizabeth Christian (a PR person), and several other Austin area suits, among them Greg Hartman, a former executive assistant to state comptroller John Sharp. Hartman is currently employed by MGT of America, a company chosen by Lockheed Martin as a sub-contractor in its bid to win the state contract. As a former aide to Sharp, who was instrumental in designing the state's automation/privatization plan, Hartman's value to Lockheed and company is clear.
What Todd apparently offers the privatizers is his knowledge of state and local politics, and his ability to facilitate relations between the private and public sector. Unfortunately for the privatizers, Gov. George Bush's vision for a Brave New Texas suffered a setback this May, as the Clinton administration put the brakes on privatizing eligibility determination, prompting the state legislature to drastically scale back its plans, for the moment at least (though EDS did win a large consulting contract for service delivery redesign).
But when the going gets tough, the tough take it on the road. According to an article by Barbara Ehrenreich in the August edition of Harper's Magazine, Todd was one of several featured speakers last March at a Washington, D.C., seminar on welfare privatization, where he shared the stage with such right-wing luminaries as Michael Tanner of the ultra-conservative Cato Institute, and the equally warm and fuzzy Robert "welfare causes poverty" Rector of the Heritage Foundation. Rector is perhaps best known as the main author of the welfare-gutting provisions of the gone-but-not-forgotten Contract on America.
For the record, Todd claims he has never worked on welfare privatization specifically, just privatization in general, and "has no idea" why he was asked to spend a weekend with Tanner, Rector, and the rest of the Welfare Incorporated visionaries. Though Todd and his fellow conferees offered a spirited and thorough exegesis on how to "capitalize on the massive growth potential of the new world of welfare reform," the conference apparently left unasked several disturbing questions, according to Ehrenreich, such as whether the for-profit corporation was really the best-suited institution to turn to for expressing our compassion as a society. But for Todd at least, his former experience may serve him well. According to a Statesman puff piece on the merits of the Todos group, what Todd brings to the alliance, among other things, is his experience in helping corporations get tax breaks from local governments, a compassionate project if there ever was one. And, after all, welfare is welfare, right? -- N.B.