Naked City

Off the Desk:

Five more Parks Police officers will be added to the undermanned Parks and Recreation Department staff, according to the terms of the recently passed city budget. But will there be enough officers to deal with all the land the city is planning to annex? The Parks Police staff has been dramatically understaffed for years, and the department currently has just 28 officers to patrol 193 different parcels of land covering 14,346 acres of parkland and 7,566 acres of preserve land, spread throughout Travis County. The addition of the annexed subdivisions and municipal utility districts, which contain some 30,000 residents, will put more strain on a department that is already overtaxed. The land being annexed -- about 15 square miles -- contains dozens of parcels of parkland. Parks are "the number one service-related issue we get in the calls from people being annexed," says assistant city manager Toby Futrell. While the outlook for parks policing is still somewhat in doubt, the Austin Police Department will be adding 60 officers under the terms of the new budget. The new officers should bring Austin to about two officers per 1,000 residents, the accepted standard staffing level for large cities. According to Mayor Kirk Watson, who visited the Chronicle offices earlier this week to talk about annexation issues, those 60 officers may benefit central city residents more than the areas being annexed. Why? Although the suburban areas that are being annexed help pay for those 60 officers, those areas don't generate as many police calls as do the inner city areas... -- R.B.

Austin Councilmember Willie Lewis and several African-American community leaders met Tuesday to discuss possible upcoming changes to Austin's election system. Ron Davis, an unsuccessful city council candidate in previous years, spoke in favor of single-member districts, while East Austin activists Dorothy Turner and the Rev. Frank Garrett spoke against; Lewis remained non-committal. The November ballot election will contain a provision allowing the council to consider revising the charter, but will offer no definite proposal pending the recommendations of a city-appointed task force studying the issue. See "Smarter Charter" below for more ballot details... -- N.B.

Former Austin American-Statesman writer James Garcia has launched Politico, a weekly online newsletter tracking Latino news in Texas and across the nation. In this week's issue, Garcia looks at racial tensions in the Dallas Independent School District, UFW struggles on the West Coast, and the appointment of a legislative committee to study affirmative action in state-funded Texas universities. Garcia plugs into international Latino events as well. For more info, call 478-9341, or write Politico1@aol.com... -- A.S.

Smarter Charter?

Looks like the success of the lawsuit by Austinites for a Little Less Corruption (ALLC) against the city is having an unexpected domino effect. Federal Judge Sam Sparks, who found in favor of ALLC's efforts to bring campaign finance reform to an Austin referendum, was so disgusted by the city's attempts to thwart ALLC that he ordered the item be brought to the voters at the earliest opportunity. That translates to November 4, the next scheduled election date, and the tight time frame poses some sticky questions for activists all over town. Because ALLC's proposed reforms will require revisions to the city charter, and the charter can only be amended every two years, other charter revision efforts are being put on the fast track as well. Most notable are Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia's push for single-member districts and the new grassroots effort, Our City, Our Choice.

In fact, the Our City, Our Choice initiative sprouted so quickly, director Mike Blizzard admits that the campaign was already moving faster than he expected before the November 4 deadline was imposed. The group wants to require voter approval for all city expenditures outside the city limits, and has already won over Councilmembers Bill Spelman and Beverly Griffith by compromising on a provision which allows for six votes of council to override the public vote in emergency situations. The group hopes to find further support by benefiting from the deadline plight of Garcia's single-member districts push.

Although single-member districts have failed at the polls four times in the past 25 years, the entire sitting council seems to favor some type of single-member reorganization. But the plan will have to be sold to voters, and six weeks will likely not be adequate for the campaign. So, Garcia is proposing that instead of putting single-member districts on the ballot, ballot language would simply allow for the abolition of the at-large system in future elections.

If abolishing the at-large system passes through voters, one possible option is that the details of single-member districts will not come to the voters again, but will simply be worked out by council. Another option has single-member districts back at the ballot box as a one-time-only charter election in the spring, in exception to the "every two years" rule. Our City, Our Choice hopes to ride this wave of "enabling language" to delay a public vote for their item as well. "If they want to help out single-member districts, they better help us too," comments Blizzard. Council will discuss and vote on the proposed ballot language for the charter amendments at the Thursday, Sept. 25 meeting. -- K.V.

Helmet Law a Goner?

Perhaps emboldened -- or embarrassed -- by the sight of so many unhelmeted motorcyclists riding around town, city hall appears poised to repeal one of the more notorious ordinances of the previous council -- the bicycle helmet law. Led by Councilmembers Bill Spelman, Willie Lewis, and Daryl Slusher, the city has been negotiating for several weeks with the League of Bicycling Voters, a group that formed immediately after the former council passed the most stringent bicycle helmet law in the country.

The League proposed a compromise ordinance that would apply only to persons under age 15, contain no penalty provision, and grant amnesty to everyone with an outstanding ticket. According to Spelman aide Kristin Vassallo, while there is general agreement (at least among the negotiators) on exempting adults from the ordinance, some councilmembers may have a problem with the no penalty provision, as well as the amnesty for past violators. There's still a lot of perpetrators out on the streets -- only about half of the some 1,000 helmet law citations written since June of 1996 have been resolved, according to the Municipal Court.

One of those perps, bike advocate Bill Twitchell, won't be satisfied with less than full amnesty. "They've admitted it was a stupid law," says Twitchell, who just completed 20 hours of community service for his helmet crimes, "so why not tear up the tickets?" What, and risk the public's losing respect for upholding the law? "Paternalistic laws like the helmet ordinance are what cause people to lose respect," Twitchell responds.

Haphazard enforcement doesn't help either. Almost 90% of the ticketed riders in the last year were male, while over 70% of the violators under 16 were black or Latino. Last time we checked, little white kids still rode bikes. In any event, the measure may come before the council as soon as October 2. After a great deal of hard work by bike advocates, and thousands of dollars in fines for our city's most ozone-friendly commuters, another case in the "wrong answers to tough questions" file may finally be coming to an end. -- N.B.

Power to the Students

After a performance by the school choir and a sermon about the importance of spiritual guidance, Huston-Tillotson College celebrated the inauguration of its first elected student senate members. Long a forgotten element in a city known for its high percentage of college-educated residents and institutions of higher education, the Huston-Tillotson ceremony gave the student body and faculty reason to celebrate. The college has been under a barrage of bad press lately with the ongoing investigation by the Department of Education into alleged misappropriation of student aid funds, resulting in some students' inability to pay tuition due to the delay in receiving their financial aid.

But on September 10, there was good news coming out of Huston-Tillotson. State Rep. Gonzalo Barrientos was on hand to deliver the keynote address and swear in the new student senators. Praised by student leaders for his assistance in Tuition Equalization, which provided college scholarships for $500,000 for students across Texas, Barrientos congratulated the students on their commitment to their school and the community. "Public service is a high call," said Barrientos. "Don't believe those who say that all people who serve in government are bad."

The new student senate, whose theme is "It's a new day... empowering ourselves to make a difference," is under the leadership of Nathan Flowers, an English major who said he believes the function of the senate is not to confront, but to work with the administration and its policies. "We will hold hearings with students as far as improvements on campus and present resolutions to the administration," Flowers said. "We want to see things in black and white from this administration. Not just promises." -- W.C.

Needling Issues

If logic guided public policy, members of the Austin Coalition to Save Lives would not have been sweltering on the steps of the Capitol last Wednesday to urge the state and federal government to legalize needle exchange programs. And if logic were the rule, lifting the ban on needle-exchange programs would be a no-brainer: Reports show that AIDS is spreading fastest among intravenous drug users. Many of these same reports call needle exchange programs an effective, money-saving means to prevent the spread of HIV infections among this high-risk group.

But more than a dozen Austinites still found themselves at the Capitol, joined by Rep. Glen Maxey, pleading for common sense and science -- not politics and morality -- to guide AIDS policy. Over 1,000 miles away, several hundred members of the National Coalition to Save Lives were making the same demand outside the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. "The government has shown the worst kind of head-in-the-sand on this issue," said Maxey, who has unsuccessfully introduced legislation the past two sessions that would legalize needle exchange programs in Texas.

An estimated 70 to 80 needle exchange programs operate in more than 40 U.S. cities in varying degrees of secrecy. While some operate with full knowledge and tacit support of law-enforcement officials, others remain underground, providing clean syringes, treatment referrals, and education to drug users. The programs are operated mostly by volunteers and funded by private sources, yet despite their limited resources seem to be making a difference. Still, the number of people contracting the HIV virus through dirty needles continues to climb, said Dr. Eduardo Sanchez of the Texas Association of Public Health Physicians. "It is good public policy to prevent the spread of HIV," he said. "It is known that syringe exchange programs prevent the spread of HIV. So it only makes sense that the ban should be lifted." -- L.T.

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