Naked City

Off the Desk:

It wasn't a good week for Texas Democrats.

First, resident curmudgeon Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock told reporters he favors school vouchers. Then, Bullock, longtime mentor to gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro and the godfather of one of Mauro's kids, announced that he will support incumbent Gov. George W. Bush instead of Mauro. Bullock's endorsement may have killed the Land Commissioner's campaign even before it gets started, making Comptroller John Sharp, a conservative Democrat who is running for Bullock's old seat, the most viable Democrat on next November's ballot. The only good news on the horizon for Dems appears to be that Bullock will finally retire next year... -- R.B.

The local Buddhist group, Community for Contemplative Practice, has gained tax-exempt status as a religious organization. State Comptroller spokesperson Ross Ramsey says his agency's decision to grant the status does not reflect a change in policy, only an admission that Collins indeed operates a religious, rather than a counseling, practice. Comptroller John Sharp has stated that organizations that do not worship a supreme being are not valid religious groups. -- K.F.

Recycling's Downside

BFI may be the #2 solid waste giant in the country, but here in Austin it's a hurtin' cowboy. After losing to Waste Management Inc. in a bidding war over the city's recycling business, BFI -- the current holder of the city contract, possibly for another year -- now has to rethink its move out of East Austin while trying to turn a profit on the down-zoned property it leaves behind. The company had promised its neighbors it would relocate -- but only if it obtained the city's lucrative, 30-year recycling processing deal. BFI's written promise whipped the residents into a lobbying frenzy to get BFI the coveted contract. The widespread perception, of course, was that BFI was circumventing the city's anti-lobbying law by getting the neighbors to lobby in its behalf. Whatever the company's intent, city officials weren't amused and elected to pursue negotiations with the #1 waste company in the country -- Waste Management.

With that, BFI, along with bidder Texas Disposal Systems Inc., and a citizens advisory group, urged the city to bargain with all three competing companies. The idea was that the city would have greater leverage -- and each company a fighting chance -- if the three bidders were kept in the game. But city staff, for whatever reason, stuck with Waste Management, whose bid was said to be considerably lower than the others. "I am surprised that the city was willing to only look at the bottom-line dollars and not the bigger goodwill picture," said BFI's Lynda Rife. Meanwhile, city officials are considering the possibility of doing a land swap with BFI in keeping with a 1996 city council action that resolved to steer the facility out of the neighborhood, said Paul Saldaña, an aide to Councilmember Gus Garcia. A successful land swap would be cause for celebration, said Johnny Limon, president of Gardens Neighborhood Assoc. "We don't feel betrayed -- yet," he said. "We still have hope and faith that the city council will help BFI move. That's the bottom line." -- A.S.

Blight Fright

Try convincing property owners and residents in a historically neglected area that declaring their neighborhood a slum is to their benefit. That was the task facing City Councilmember Willie Lewis at a town hall meeting last week, just one day before the council unanimously approved the designation of the East 11th and 12th Street corridors as a "slum and blight" area, fulfilling a HUD requirement that allows the city access to a $9 million federal loan to revitalize East Austin. Residents skeptical of yet another government strategy to promote redevelopment east of I-35 voiced their concerns at the meeting -- concerns about the failure of other such urban renewal programs, lax enforcement of codes by the housing authority, and lack of confidence in the Austin Revitalization Authority. They also asserted that the city has used East Austin demographics to obtain federal funds in the past but then used those funds for projects outside of their community. Residents wanted assurances that that wouldn't happen again.

The proposal originally included a much larger swath of East Austin for master-planning purposes, but the city scaled back the area to include only the East 11th and 12th Street corridors. But property owners are still concerned about the effect the slum-and-blight status will have on their property values, and they fear further discrimination from banks. Asked Ray Ates, an East Austin homeowner and businessman: "When you classify it as slum and blight, will that take our taxes to zero? I'll go along with it if I get a rebate." At Wednesday's city council work session, many residents were not won over by the city's revitalization promise, and blamed the city for allowing the blight to exist in the first place. "I feel nauseous at this process," said Mark Rogers, a Guadalupe neighborhood leader. Added Scotty Ivory of the Chestnut Hills Neighborhood Association: "East Austin has been neglected by the city so long, now we are being punished for our condition." -- W.C.

No Red Carpet Here

Two long-running and painful neighborhood/developer battles came closer to their ends last week, as the city council finally voted on Southeast Austin's Regency Village and Northwest Austin's Riverlodge Apartments. Regency Village is a proposed mobile home -- excuse us, manufactured housing -- park, originally to house 540 units, on the south bank of (flood-prone) Onion Creek, off of (narrow, two-lane) Bluff Springs Road. Opposition from a host of neighborhood associations, mostly over the density of the "community," has been so fierce that a mediator was called in to resolve the dispute, without success where density was concerned.

What the council approved -- restricting the project to 200 units, among other conditions -- was the NAs' proposal during this mediation, and thus ostensibly confidential. However, the NAs disseminated the mediation agreement among councilmembers, and even began discussing elements of it before the Channel 6 cameras. This led to protests from the developers and misgivings from Mayor Kirk Watson, who has put great stock in mediation and fears seeing developer trust in such efforts eroded.

Meanwhile, on the other end of town, the Riverlodge Apartments -- part of the larger planned 2222 Business Park, a multiple-use project across from 3M -- have borne the brunt of neighborhood opposition that, at this point, has nowhere to go, since the zoning was passed in 1996. The 2222 Coalition of Neighborhood Associations appealed the Planning Commission's approval of the Riverlodge site plan under the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance, even though the Riverlodge plan complies with the HCRO in all respects. Developer Pete Dwyer has arguably violated an agreement reached with local landowners to phase in the apartments, contingent on traffic improvements to already-overburdened RM 2222. But since this is outside the purview of the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance, the council had no choice but to deny the appeal, with entreaties from Watson for the two sides to settle the dispute on their own. He didn't mention mediation. -- M.C.M.

What Price, Work?

If you persuaded everybody in the country to take their current wages, adjust them for inflation, and compare them to what they (or whoever else had their job) were earning in 1980, 80% of the nation's workforce would be a little tweaked. Workers are earning less now than they did 17 years ago. If you further pointed out that both profits and productivity are up, they might be mad enough to go and do something about it -- like join a union. Or so the new leaders of the national AFL-CIO are hoping; they've invested millions of dollars in organizing and outreach to non-union workers and community members getting the short end of the stick.

Labor brought the good news to Austin last weekend at a conference organized by the unlikely combination of the Texas AFL-CIO and the UT Law School. Their message was simple: For a broad section of working and middle-class Americans, the country has kind of gone to hell in the last 20 years or so. One in three children in the U.S. are without health insurance of any kind, and one in four live in poverty. So it should come as no surprise that after years in retreat, organized labor is showing signs of life.

Whatever happened to organized labor in America, anyway? According to United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts, who addressed the conference Friday night, the low point in recent labor history happened when President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers in 1981: "Franklin Roosevelt told the country it was all right to join a union; Ronald Reagan told America it was all right to break a union," Roberts said. The upside to all this, according to several speakers, is the potential for a new progressive politics in America. As progressive U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota (who is rumored to be considering a presidential run in 2000) told the conferees, it's the "kitchen table" issues -- living wages for parents, quality education for kids, and universal health care for everyone -- that appeal to people in a time of declining standards. Which, like it or not, is where we're at now -- 80% of us, anyway. -- N.B.

War Story

Nothing makes the eyes glaze over like the words, "United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia." After all, we're a nation of Court TV junkies. We like our courtroom dramas played out on cable with celebrity defendants and catchy nicknames. No one knows this better than the Honorable Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, presiding judge of the tribunal charged with bringing to justice those responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. The former Houstonian was in town this week for the Executive Women in Texas Government conference. She challenged the 300 attendees to recognize the importance of prosecuting those responsible for mass torture, rape, and murder in the war-torn country.

Since 1993, McDonald and her colleagues have handed down 77 indictments, but only 20 are in custody because of the lack of a police force to make arrests, and a lack of cooperation by countries housing the accused, said McDonald, one of two women and the only American serving on the UN tribunal. "We are faced with the obscenity that a person stands a better chance of being tried for the murder of one person than for the killing of hundreds or thousands," she said. "You can ask how is this relevant to Americans, but I ask, how is it not relevant? How can you not be moved by the slaughter?" -- L.T.

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