Off the Desk:
An outspoken fan of community policing, new Austin Police Chief Stan Knee has hit the ground running with the creation of an Office of Community Liaison. Working with neighborhood associations and citizens' groups like LULAC and Austin Interfaith, the office will help coordinate new community-based police initiatives and keep tabs on the public pulse. It's currently staffed by two civilian vets of the police department, with two or three more hires and a citizens' volunteer program also planned. But first, they need a place to be. To that end, APD is scouting for donated space to house the office in a neighborhood storefront. Potential real estate angels should call Lolita Slagle at 480-2110... -- S.E.M.
The U.S. Department of the Interior has added three rare aquatic invertebrates to the Endangered Species List. The animals, endemic to the Edwards Aquifer, include the Comal Springs riffle beetle, the Comal Springs dryopid beetle, and Peck's cave amphipod. Scientists at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos have studied the species for many years. The Dec. 18 listing was proposed in 1990 by Parks and Rec officials in the city of New Braunfels, which derives tens of millions of dollars in tourist revenue from Comal Springs, the main discharge spring for the southern section of the aquifer. While the listing was not nearly as contentious as that of the Barton Springs Salamander (which is found only at Barton Springs, the main outlet for the Edwards central portion), it could give more ammo to those who want to limit groundwater withdrawal from the aquifer's southern segment. -- R.B.
Dell Center Gets Nod
A half hour into Tuesday's meeting of the Austin Planning Commission, four uniformed Austin police officers entered council chambers and asked the capacity crowd to clear the aisles and move into two additional rooms carrying a closed-circuit broadcast of the proceedings. Beyond the irony of the Planning Commission breaking the fire code was the fact that most commission insiders say the standing-room-only situation was almost unique. "I've been here five years and never seen the police called in," said Don Perryman, a project manager for the Dept. of Development Review and Inspections. "I'd guess you'd have to go back to... S.O.S. to find that kind of community interest in a planning commission issue."
So what was the issue that brought out nearly 300 people, almost half of whom wanted to speak to the commission? The answer -- however convoluted the issue became during the five-and-a-half-hour discussion -- was the Dell Community Campus and its ongoing battle with the Northwest Austin Civic Association (NACA) -- a group that believes the Jewish Federation of Austin's (JFA) plans for a campus with two synagogues, a community center, two educational buildings, swimming pool, fitness club, child development center, athletic fields, and associated parking, reach beyond the capacity of the 40-acre campus. Opponents say the proposal would be incompatible with their existing neighborhood and would create additional traffic, noise, and environmental concerns. With their own plan in hand, NACA asked the commission not to approve the JFA proposal.
To that end, both the JFA and NACA called upon their supporters to attend and speak at Tuesday's meeting. "We believe that any opportunity for an elected or, in this case, selected official, to see the people their decision's going to affect and gauge the support of who's there makes a lot of difference," said JFA President Sandy Dochen. On the other side of the debate is Alan Tannenbaum, the leader of neighborhood opponents who sported buttons declaring "Traffic, Lights, Compatibility." He said he asked his supporters to attend the meeting for a similar reason -- to explain and illustrate firsthand the Northwest Hills' community standards. "Our position was to uphold standards," said Tannenbaum, "so if we hadn't come out in the numbers we did, it would have been entirely possible for the developer to come in there and just tell the commission what he believes the standards are."
After the ensuing discussion, which focused primarily on the traffic impact, the commission recommended to city council a plan for the campus only slightly modified from what city staff recommended earlier in the day -- a plan that grants some requested zoning and use variances, but makes the JFA responsible for additional traffic lights and tree conservation. Tannenbaum, who says he's disappointed by the decision but willing to acknowledge that his group's resistance ultimately forced some concessions, says he hasn't decided whether to appeal the commission's decision. But Dochen noted that even with the likelihood of another crowded chamber and another marathon meeting, he'll immediately begin campaigning for his troops to regroup -- to appear again when city council considers the issue next month. "We'll do the same thing, the same show of support," he said. "If we can do it for the commission, why not do it for council?" If nothing else, let that be a warning to the fire marshal. -- A.L.
Travis County's labor voice wasted no time endorsing candidates running in the March 10 primaries, with union reps casting their votes just one day after the Jan. 2 filing deadline. Some 30 voting members of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council PAC endorsed a Democrats-only slate. In the county commissioner races, the PAC votes could spell trouble for two incumbents -- Precinct 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner and Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez -- neither of whom secured labor backing this time around.
Sonleitner lost the sought-after endorsement to Pflugerville Mayor Haywood Ware. The Precinct 4 race yielded no endorsement when union reps couldn't drum up a 2/3 majority for either Gómez or her opponent, Richard Moya; that doesn't bode well for Gómez, whose precinct is home to a fair number of county employees and AFSME members. In the race for county judge, the PAC endorsed Sam Biscoe over Valarie Bristol. Of the two, the labor group has long considered Biscoe a stronger advocate of workers' rights, says AFSME's Carol Guthrie, who coordinated the endorsement meeting. Biscoe and Bristol both resigned from their county commissioners' seats (Pct. 1 and 3, respectively) to run for the spot.
Precinct 1 candidate and current seat-holder Darwin McKee, an attorney, took the labor endorsement over Democratic rival Ron Davis, an East Austin activist and businessman. And in Pct. 3, attorney Ann Graham won out over Democratic opponent Nan Clayton, a former AISD trustee. Kirk Mitchell, former president of the Save Our Springs Alliance, is running as an independent in Pct. 3.
As political consultant David Butts sees it, Democrats face their biggest threats in Precincts 2 and 3, where Republicans have laid down stakes in recent years. The GOP lineup in Pct. 2 includes former Democrat and ex-county commissioner Bob Honts, and chiropractor Jim Shaw, while Precinct 3 contenders include lawyer Todd Baxter, banker Al Holmes, and businessman Rick Schafer. "That precinct is only marginally Democratic, and [Gov. George] Bush is going to be much stronger in that district than he was four years ago," said Butts, a Democrat who is assisting Gómez and Davis in their commissioners' bids. "I would imagine that the Republicans will try to turn out every suburban white voter in western Travis County," Butts added. GOP candidates are expected to pose less of a threat in the other county races; their candidates include former commissioner and ex-Democrat Hank Gonzalez for county judge; engineer Greg Parker for Pct. 1, and former City Councilmember Bob Larson for Pct. 4. -- A.S.
A Call for Justice
More than 75 people braved rainy weather on Jan. 2, rallying outside the Mexican Consulate in downtown Austin to demand justice for the victims of the recent Chiapas massacre. Against a backdrop of giant newspaper headlines that read "45 massacred in Chiapas," the peaceful protest seemed to have all the trappings of street theatre, with tambourine playing, baby-sized coffins piled under ornamental trees on the sidewalk, and protestor Rodney Garza sounding a conch shell that echoed long, mournful howls throughout downtown. For two hours, Austin poet laureate Raul Salinas led the crowd in chants: "What do we want?" "Justice!" "When do we want it?" "Now!"
At one point, five protestors tried to enter the Mexican Consulate building to present a list of demands -- which included calling for an independent international investigation into the killings, and for demilitarizing all indigenous communities in Chiapas -- but Austin police officers prevented their entry. The protestors then continued parading up and down the sidewalk. Members of the crowd called out for the Consular General to come down and speak with them; they chanted and sang songs, but no one came out or entered the building. -- C.H.
The economic malaise in Asia is catching up with mining companies, and Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold appears caught in the maelstrom. On December 31, Standard & Poor's, the New York bond rating house, downgraded all of the company's bonds and placed it on its CreditWatch list. The move, according to a press release from the bond house, "reflects concerns relating to Freeport's exposure to the heightened fiscal and political risks of the Republic of Indonesia, as the company's primary asset is a massive copper and gold mining operation in Indonesia."
The downgrading of Freeport's debt comes on the heels of similar action taken by Standard & Poor's to downgrade all of Indonesia's foreign debt, a move which made front page headlines in the Jan. 2 Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald. Numerous press reports have pointed to corruption as a primary source of the economic turmoil in Indonesia, and the International Monetary Fund, which is preparing a massive bailout of Indonesia and several other Asian countries, has made corruption a primary focus of its reform plan. A message left for Freeport spokesman Bill Collier was not returned.
On another Freeport note, a Dec. 22 USA Today article listed FM Copper & Gold as the fifth worst performing stock of 1997, with a 49.6% value loss last year. For the latest on all things Freeport, go to Robert S. Boyer's webpage at: http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/boyer/fp/. -- R.B.