Naked City

Edited by Amy Smith, with contributions this week from Nate Blakeslee, Mike Clark-Madison, Robert Elder, Kevin Fullerton, Nicole Kleman.

Off the Desk:

The powerhouse law firm of Mayor Kirk Watson is splitting in two, with Watson preparing to move into the Littlefield Building downtown with two of the firm's six partners. The firm, Whitehurst, Harkness, Watson, London, Ozmun & Galow, specializes in medical malpractice and other personal-injury litigation. Watson is forming a new firm with Alice London and Gerald Galow, which will be up and running early next year. The split is amicable, Watson says: The firm's partners have been talking to each other for most of this year about the structure of the law firm and the type of litigation they want to handle. "We don't have different goals, but we're all at different points, wanting to evaluate where we want to go in the next five, 10 years," Watson says. The new firm, Watson, London & Galow, will continue to focus on major personal injury and negligence cases and will work in commercial litigation and possibly mediation -- "with some of the skills I've had to use here," Watson says of his new city hall duties... -- R.B.

Think of it as a local response to the chemical industry-sponsored Breast Cancer Awareness Month held every October, although its press releases make no mention of organochlorines or other known cancer causers in our environment. Three local grassroots groups are sponsoring a one-night mini-seminar called "Cancer: Who's Responsible? Women's Perspectives on Cancer and the Environment." Featured speakers will be Sandra Steingraber, a poet, biologist, and author, and Sylvia Herrera, a founding member of the Austin environmental justice group People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER), who will speak on cancer and Austin's high-tech industry. Also present will be Deborah Duncan, a boardmember of the Breast Cancer Resource Center at Brackenridge, and a founding member of the Sisters Network, an African-American cancer survivors support group. The event is 7-9pm Friday, Nov. 21??? at the Renaissance Women's Center, 3003 Bee Caves Rd. Call 447-6222 for details... -- N.B.

Save Barton Creek Association has their annual powow and awards ceremony, 6-10pm Tuesday, Nov. 25, at Zilker Clubhouse. There'll be turkey and other edibles, and liquid to wash it all down. The public is invited. Contributions, of course, always welcome...

Triangle Countdown

If you thought you'd never hear the end of the Triangle story, rest easy: The countdown has begun.

The clock started ticking last week, when Cencor Realty filed its zoning application for its controversial Triangle Square project. Under state law, because the parcel between 45th, Guadalupe, and Lamar is state-owned, the City of Austin has six months to act on Cencor's request. If the Triangle hasn't come before city council by the beginning of May, Cencor's proposed zoning automatically goes into effect. Of course, if the city council decides to deny Cencor's request, the same state law gives an ad hoc panel of local and (mostly) state officials the power to alter or reverse the city's decision and allow Cencor to build whatever it wants.

Meanwhile, the Nov. 14-17 Triangle charrette, spearheaded by City Councilmember Beverly Griffith, ended up getting mixed reviews. After a day of brainstorming and impromptu planning by nearly 200 interested citizens, the charrette facilitators -- from the Florida-based Genesis Group -- synthesized their visions into something that looks more like the latest Cencor plan than like the Triangle of today. (The biggest, and most welcome, difference in the charrette plan was the imposition of an actual street grid on the Triangle, turning much of the abhorred surface parking into roadways and re-orienting the buildings to them.) This did not sit well with the "radicals" who've energized the opposition, Neighbors of Triangle Park, who were especially tweaked by the Genesis team's decision not to reduce the size and scale of Cencor's equally abhorred anchor tenants (Randall's, Barnes & Noble, and Act III Cinema).

For their part, the Genesis experts felt that the megastores, and bunches of other development, could easily be accommodated on the Triangle site IF the city invested ample funds -- they're not sure how much -- in an elaborate program of traffic calming and street improvements around the site. Without this potentially multi-million dollar investment -- at least some of which would be coming out of taxpayers' pockets -- Triangle Square as proposed would, in their view, become the traffic nightmare its opponents think it already is. -- M.C.M.

Gasp! We Flunked Ozone

There were few gasps of surprise when the Clean AIR Force announced Monday that Austin's air failed to meet the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) strict new ozone standards. Austin was barely squeaking by under the previous standards, and must now significantly reduce ozone levels over the next two years or face non-attainment status and penalties, joining the ranks of Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso, and Beaumont.

While other Texas cities' pollution is largely an industrial creation, 43% of Austin's bad air is created from car emissions. And increasingly heavy traffic is outpacing conservation efforts. Also Monday, the Clean AIR Force Board chose Mayor Kirk Watson to chair its coalition, which is made up of representatives from government, business, and community organizations. Watson is no stranger to air quality issues; he was Gov. Ann Richards' appointee to chair the Texas Air Control Board. Watson stressed the importance of making regional efforts to maintain Central Texas' economic and physical health.

The EPA's old standard demanded the air contain less than 0.124 ozone parts per million (PPM) during a one-hour period. This ozone season -- April to October -- Austin scraped by at 0.12PPM. The new standard requires less than an average of 0.084PPM over an eight-hour period. Austin exceeded this with 0.087. -- N.K.

Annexation Angst

After weeks of public abuse from residents opposed to annexation, some city staffers felt compelled to vent their frustrations at the end of one recent council meeting, after Our City, Our Choice activist Mike Blizzard complained to councilmembers about the financial secrecy surrounding the process. The remark prompted Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell to sweep down from the dais and lead Blizzard into the hall outside, where for over an hour she explained how MUD shenanigans prevented her from making certain revenue figures public.

Futrell told Blizzard that as part of their effort to sabotage annexation, MUDs are refusing to set their 1998 taxing rates, hoping to first divine what tax revenues the city expects from its areas in the year following annexation. MUDs hope to set tax rates low enough to poison the deal, said Futrell, but not so low that they are left "sucking air" if the city backs off and doesn't annex them. That's why, Futrell explained, she has to hold her revenue figures close to the vest, but she promised that when the figures are included in a January city budget amendment, "it'll be the most public document you've ever seen." For now, Futrell said, staffers are in the "miserable" position of asking the public's trust while being accused of treachery by MUD boards who have spent millions in lobbying fees to stoke contention between Austin and the legislature, yet who claim to be negotiating in good faith over annexation. "Do you want seven MUDs operating on the fringes of our city?" Futrell asked Blizzard. "I know I don't."

Public trust in city administrators notwithstanding, both the Austin American-Statesman and the Chronicle have filed open records requests for the city's financial figures. -- K.F.

Health and Commonwealth

The unavoidable trade-offs between accountability and efficiency should figure prominently into the restructuring of the Austin/Travis County public health care system, which is costing the city more money in the face of shrinking federal dollars. Last week, the Indigent Care Work Team, a group of health-care professionals who have been researching the public health system for nearly a year, introduced to the public eight possible solutions that illustrate some of the trade-offs the city will have to weigh.

"You're constantly trying to design a system to not spend a penny more than you have to, but that doesn't prevent you from spending that penny when you need to do it," commented work team consultant DeAnn Friedholm. The city's public clinics currently receive Federal Quality Health Care (FQHC) status, which means they qualify for complete, cost-based reimbursement for Medicaid services. But in three years the federal government plans to cap those payments and force Medicaid providers to hold down service costs, leaving the city to decide if FQHC status is worth the effort of maintaining the requisite public oversight -- a governing board composed of at least 51% clinic users -- and whether the clinics' operating expenses can be sufficiently trimmed -- through better management, record-keeping, and staff training -- to match the smaller Medicaid payments.

However, relinquishing control of the clinics to a nonprofit corporation like Seton Hospital or purchasing services directly from private providers also has pitfalls for local government. Besides the obvious risk of sacrificing access and quality care for the poor, city/county taxpayers would still have to shoulder the medical costs of the uninsured and any revenue shortfalls of the nonprofit operator. Speakers who responded to the work team's report at the hearing included Gray Panther Charlotte Flynn, health-care activist Venola Schmidt, Eastsider Gus Peña, a clinic nurse, and a physician, all of whom urged the work team not to jeopardize indigent health care by recommending privatization measures. "Health care is not a marketplace commodity," said Flynn. "Health care is a right for these people." Flynn also said clinic staff were capable of making the system work if given more authority, a view echoed by others.

But work team members say some solutions -- such as creating a "stand-alone" FQHC, which would operate as a nonprofit but retain a client-dominated governing board -- utilize the expertise of corporate health care management and access private funding sources without necessarily sacrificing the public's commitment to indigent health care. Friedholm, the work team consultant, says the most crucial issue is not whether the poor get treatment from private or government-operated clinics, but the level of service local government will guarantee them. "We have to say what our commitment to the safety net is, and then belly up to the bar and do it," she says. The work team's report should reach a joint city council/county commissioners work session in mid December. -- K.F.

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