Off the Desk:
Over at the Austin Fire Department, the rank-and-file members aren't a happy lot either. They're dissatisfied with the city's fire chief selection process, but what can they do? Not much at this stage of the game. Last week, a panel of city staffers interviewed six candidates; next week that'll be whittled down to two or three finalists, with the top pick expected to be named by year's end. But the Austin Association of Professional Fire Fighters is asking the city manager to halt the process and start anew. Association Prez Doug Fowler says the city didn't extend its recruiting efforts beyond placing ads in five Texas newspapers and some professional publications, and that "well over half" of the 30-odd applicants weren't even qualified for the job. Nevertheless, says city spokesman David Matustik, the selection process will continue as planned. The six finalists as of now are: Interim Austin Fire Chief Gary Warren; Assistant Chief Leslie Bunte; Gary L. Warren, director of the Austin-based Texas Commission on Fire Protection; Hugo Esparza, executive deputy fire chief in Fort Worth; Jose Reyes, assistant fire chief in Houston; and Ronald Wakeham, adjunct instructor of the Maryland-based National Fire Academy. Though they oppose the process, the fire fighters' association has named its top three choices from among the current contenders: Esparza, and either Gary Warren... -- A.S.
No Pease for Eeyore?
Eeyore's annual birthday party is on shaky ground again this year. Not even a special task force has been able to negotiate a truce between Eeyore loyalists and those who want the event booted out of its Pease Park home. In a recent report to city council, the task force recommended moving the festivities to Waterloo Park -- but dissenting task force members say the city Parks and Rec Department stacked the deck against Eeyore's and rendered the vote a farce.
"I thought I was on a working group to try to solve the problems that the neighborhood and city had with Eeyore's being in Pease Park, but it was a group packed with parks staff and board members," says Susan Cook of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association. "They could have had the vote at the first meeting and it would have been the same as the vote at the last one." Mike McHone, who represented the University of Texas community on the task force, was equally dismayed. "It was the first committee I've ever served on where city staff gets to vote," he said. "I felt that I'd been set up from the very beginning."
Cook and McHone joined Eeyore's organizers Stacy Suits and Stewart Smiley as dissenting votes. The rest of the group -- comprised of two Parks and Rec staffers, two Old Enfield Homeowners Association reps (including Eeyore's arch-enemy Jim Christianson), and two Parks Board members -- voted to relocate the event. Parks and Rec administrator and task force member Kendall Moss says the Parks Board people, two of whom were not included in the group's original composition, were added to the committee because of their interest in the issue. Moss said they were not predisposed to vote one way or the other; in the end, however, they were the swing votes on a 6-4 tally, although one of the two, Mary K. Isaacs, had offered to abstain from voting. With no objection from other task force members, she voted to relocate the party.
McHone says Suits had already cooperated with residents and park staff by mitigating parking problems at last year's event and offering a stipend to fix any turf damage. But Old Enfield reps still complained about the noise, and parks staff argued that the event's size made it a safety hazard -- a claim staff failed to substantiate, McHone says. Suits says he has given up trying to appease Christianson. "I'll work with anyone and everyone who has concerns, but he and I are through talking," says Suits. "He's unmoveable." Councilmember Jackie Goodman, who last year pressured city staff to allow Eeyore's party to stay at Pease, says she is not at all satisfied that the task force showed any "brainstorming or innovative thoughts." She says city staff's participation in a working group's formal vote is inappropriate and "puts into doubt whether this was an objective and thorough enough discussion." Goodman says she may now form her own ad hoc committee, composed of neighborhood reps experienced in dealing with large, invasive public events. Will Eeyore's be held in Pease again this year? Says Goodman: "We'll have to wait and see." -- K.F.
Capital Metro buses are having no trouble navigating a narrower Guadalupe, but cyclists are calling the street's reconfigured bike lanes a drag. Specifically, cyclists are concerned about potential hazards for bikers riding in the new southbound bike lanes when drivers swing open the doors of their cars parked along the west side of Guadalupe. Bikers attending a Nov. 18 meeting to discuss the preliminary findings of a six-week demonstration of the Drag Improvement Project said they preferred the wider, undivided bike lane that used to be on the east side of Guadalupe. Officials said that the cyclists' concerns will be included in final recommendations to be released in January.
Cap Metro's Sam Archer said initial reports indicate that traffic congestion was not as bad as anticipated during the demo, and the 10-foot-wide traffic lanes and elimination of right-turn lanes had virtually no impact on buses. However, a comment line established to collect residents' concerns about the improvement project has received a number of calls complaining about delays due to these changes. The $2.6 million effort to make the Drag more pedestrian-friendly is scheduled to begin in the spring. In addition to the revamped roadway and reduced parking, plans include increased lighting, landscaping, and more visible crosswalks. -- L.T.
Lone Star Loser
The Lone Star Imaging System -- a $17 million electronic fingerprinting apparatus designed to wipe out welfare fraud in Texas -- has had only lackluster success in detecting scammers, a year-long study reveals. Playing to the public's growing concern over welfare cheats, the Texas Legislature this year earmarked state funding for the system, which uses electronic fingerprinting to identify those applying for or receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamp benefits. But according to a study by UT's Center for the Study of Human Resources (CHR) the high-tech system has little impact. The electronic system is only effective in identifying those applying for duplicate benefits -- a very small percentage of welfare fraud cases, said CHR associate director Deanna Schexnayder.
The CHR study focused on 10 state Dept. of Human Services offices serving Guadalupe and Bexar counties -- the locale of the imaging system's pilot program -- and compared them with 10 DHS offices in other parts of Texas. Researchers found that no declines in caseload -- and therefore no savings -- could be attributed to the imaging system. Schexnayder said that while fraud does exist, 80% of all cases involve people failing to report income or providing false information about household composition.
Electronic fingerprinting has gained popularity among government officials following reports that similar systems in New York and Los Angeles were producing significant savings. But subsequent reports found these savings were attributable to various factors other than imaging. Also, since Texas' AFDC benefits are among the lowest in the nation, the amount Texas can save per case will be significantly lower. Unfortunately, the Lege didn't wait for the CHR study to be completed before agreeing to spend millions over the next two years on the image system. "There's no evidence this is a good investment," said a diplomatic Schexnayder. "Current scientific evidence seems to point in the opposite direction." -- L.T.
For the past two years, citizens who oppose confined animal feeding operations have been unable to get hearings before the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. But last week, State District Court Judge Margaret Cooper ruled that the TNRCC's decision to deny hearings "lacks a reasoned justification." Cooper's ruling could affect some 50 permits that have been issued to confined animal feeding operations around the state. It could also have ramifications for citizens who opposed TNRCC permits for water or air discharges but were denied hearings. For instance, citizens in Grayson County who opposed increased wastewater discharged from the city of Sherman's treatment plant, and citizens in Lubbock who opposed a wood waste incinerator, could have greater leverage in court.
The ruling could also be pivotal for the burgeoning Texas swine industry. The judge's ruling invalidates about a dozen permits that TNRCC has issued to hog operations in the Texas Panhandle. The ruling in the case known as ACCORD vs. TNRCC is particularly important for a group of farmers in Ochiltree County who oppose Osaka-based Nippon Meat Packers, which is investing $200 million on a massive swine production operation. Landowners in the county formed the group known as ACCORD and filed suit against the TNRCC because they have had ongoing odor problems from the hog farms. In addition, they claimed that their rights of due process had been denied.
Stuart Henry, an Austin attorney who filed the suit against TNRCC, said "I'm glad we won. But I'm not surprised. You just can't treat your neighbors like they have been." In a prepared statement, Geoff Connor, the TNRCC's general counsel, said the agency is "disappointed" in the judge's ruling, and that it will work to "prevent a disruption of the state's current authority and regulation of new and existing" animal feeding operations. What happens next will be largely up to Cooper and the county governments. Since the hog farms are operating without permits, they could be shut down. But that appears unlikely. Instead, the judge's ruling will likely become another chapter in an ongoing nationwide battle between rural citizens and the rapidly expanding meat industry. -- R.B.