Off the Desk :
Susan Rieff, who left Austin a couple of years ago to become deputy chief of staff for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, is returning to River City to head the Austin office of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Rieff, who was former Gov. Ann Richards' environmental policy adviser, will take the NWF position in mid-March, overseeing NWF activities in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi. Rieff, who has been criticized by local environmentalists because of Babbitt's reluctance to add the Barton Springs Salamander to the Endangered Species List, said the decision to leave Washington has been in the works for several months and was not connected to the ongoing probe into Babbitt's alleged involvement in a decision regarding Indian gambling permits. "I'm leaving with a lot of sadness," Rieff said in a telephone interview last Friday. "I'm a huge fan of Secretary Babbitt. I'm not leaving because I want to leave here. Like most people from Austin, I wanted to get back."... - R.B.
The Lesbian and Gay Rights Lobby of Texas will kick off the 1998 election year the old-fashioned way - with a back-room smoker from 6-8pm Tuesday, Feb. 24, at the Speakeasy on Congress Avenue. Local and state politicos will avail themselves for hobnobbing activities. Proceeds from the $15-a-pop event benefit LGRL. There'll be food, a cash bar, and cee-gars a'plenty. Call LGRL, 474-5476, for info...
The life and times of local civil rights pioneer and 20-year NAACP head Volma Overton has been penned in a new Eakin Press book by Carolyn Jones, entitled Volma, My Journey (One Man's Journey on the Civil Rights Movement in Austin, Texas). Both Overton and copies of the book will be on hand for a reception and signing, 3-5pm Sunday, Feb. 22, in the Great Hall of First Baptist Church, 901 Trinity. - A.S.
Southeast neighborhood activists fighting a proposed manufactured home development near Bluff Springs Road unwittingly touched a sensitive nerve with Councilmember Jackie Goodman, who led a rare council offensive Feb. 5 against the residents on behalf of the developer and low-income homeowners. "For me, who once lived in a trailer with my mother and my father, as a young professional couple who couldn't make enough to buy a house, I really feel uneasy with this constant reference to `trailer park,' and that kind of thing.... If you can't afford a house... you're not some kind of undesirable person because [a manufactured home] is the only purchase of security and shelter you can manage," Goodman said.
The developer's plan, a compromise proposal that included donating 60 acres of landscaped park land on the Onion Creek greenbelt, and another 15 acres for a future school site, was reached after a year of negotiation with the adjacent Silverstone neighborhood. Consulting engineer Paul Bury, representing developers Chateau Development and Summit Properties, said that if the city did not zone as the developer wished, the free land for the school and park would be withdrawn. But Diane Sanders, president of the Southeast Corner Alliance of Neighborhood Organizations (SCAN), said she preferred single-family zoning even if it meant giving up the amenities. Asked by Councilmember Willie Lewis if the neighborhoods had considered that future single-family homes might be rented, rather than owned, potentially creating an even less desirable development, Sanders replied: "Well, the way we look at it, it couldn't get much worse." Soon afterward, with SCAN's agenda out in clear view, Goodman questioned whether the neighborhood reps, whose communities are perennially under-served with schools and parks, had lost sight of their priorities. "And what is the city supposed to do for the 40% of the population that cannot afford permanent homes, sweep them under the rug as people we don't know?" Goodman challenged. The council voted to approve the development on second reading.
Goodman said after the meeting that she felt the issue had degenerated into a class war. "You can't just broadbrush and ignore those people who have to buy a manufactured home or rent, as if they should be off by themselves," she said, adding that neighborhoods like Hyde Park prove that low-income residents can be integrated successfully into sustainable communities, but that many of these people - graduate students and young professionals, for example - don't come to mind when "affordable housing" is discussed. "Do the neighborhoods get to have the last say, even if it conflicts with the needs of the larger community?" Goodman asks. "We've got to find a way to talk about this." - K.F.
A press conference held by Eastside residents last week marked the third anniversary of the Cedar Avenue Valentine's Day incident, in which more than 50 Austin police officers converged on a party at 1607 Cedar Avenue, in the heart of black East Austin. After an officer intervened in an altercation and was injured, dozens of cops, according to witnesses, began indiscriminately macing the junior high-aged party-goers and their adult chaperones. According to depositions taken by investigators, witnesses reported that police also held guns to kids' heads, attacked them with flashlights, nightsticks, and stun guns, and verbally abused them. Several of the children and their parents have filed a federal lawsuit against the city, which goes to trial next month, with Austin attorney Gary Bledsoe representing the plaintiffs. Two of the police officers have retained their own attorneys, which was probably not a bad idea, judging from some of the damaging depositions given by fellow cops also at the scene. According to an affidavit filed by retired APD Capt. Louie White, several officers have already testified in their depositions that, among other things, the crowd was not hostile when police arrived, that mace was used inappropriately, and that there was no need for any weapons to be drawn. Yet the city has apparently never considered settling the suit, and recently filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that the plaintiffs had insufficient evidence to bring their case to trial.
The case, which never ceased to be a hot issue in East Austin, does not appear to be on the city council's radar; Councilmember Gus Garcia says he doesn't recall the last time City Attorney Andy Martin or any of his staff briefed the council on the issue. Meanwhile, some Eastside residents question whether any real progress has been made with racial problems at APD since the Cedar Street incident. Parisrice Robinson, head of the Austin NAACP, expressed concern about an arrest late last month that ended in the death of a black man, Rodney Wickware. "Things haven't changed at all," was the verdict of Chantell Bedford, who lived at the house on Cedar Avenue, and who was in the seventh grade back in 1995. "They maced me for telling them I lived there," she recalled. - N.B.
Art of the Deal
The city's contract awards process has come into question as a result of a non-competitive contract agreement that calls for Landmark, Inc. to turn an old Bergstrom Air Force building into a new airport Hilton hotel. When the city received Landmark's over-the-transom proposal to renovate and lease the "Donut" building from the city, the plan seemed like a winner all around. For one thing, the city avoids having to shell out $2 million to raze the building that officials had informally shopped around to developers, to no avail. Still, there's the pesky fact that the contract was awarded without a competitive bidding process, and that concerns Airport Advisory Board member Diana Castañeda. "I don't know how anybody out in the public could have had the information necessary to compete," she said. "I wonder what other deals are being done under this kind of situation?"
It took someone with detailed knowledge of the development possibilities at Bergstrom - former Airport Advisory Board Chairman Girard Kinney - to alert Landmark of the Donut's availability. Landmark, in turn, has retained K+CDA, Kinney's venture with long-time partner Donna Carter, as architectural consultant for the hotel. But Kinney said his subcontract with Landmark does not constitute a conflict of interest. People involved in a given industry, who volunteer their time on boards and commissions, shouldn't be prevented from taking paying jobs in their field, he said. And the Aviation Department's Charles Gates says there was adequate competition for the Donut project through public forums and discussions with developers. Councilmember Gus Garcia agreed with Castañeda that a Request for Proposal might have created a different result: "I wish it hadn't happened that way," he said. "But RFPs can be grueling. Sometimes the best people for the job don't want to come to the table." Councilmember Beverly Griffith, meanwhile, has circulated a memo at city hall calling for a clear city RFP policy for leased property. - J.S.
With the prospect of war mounting between the United States and Iraq, Mike Brewer came to town last week to offer a human perspective on life in Iraq. Brewer, a member of the Voices in the Wilderness delegation that traveled to Iraq last month, told an Austin audience about the devastation in that country due to seven years of U.N.-imposed sanctions - devastation that's hidden by diplomatic phrases and mass media simplification. "We read in our media about `economic sanctions' and `blockades.' Those are empty words," he said. "We have no image behind them. You have to go there, travel 7,000 miles away. And when you go there, you have to go to the hospitals, and then you see what those words mean."
Brewer went to Iraq with the Voices delegation to deliver donated medicine to barren hospital pharmacies and to attract attention to the suffering of the 21 million Iraqi people. "It's as real as any war we've ever had with anybody. It's as real as napalm or bombs," he said. While the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization reported in December 1995 that 576,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of economic sanctions, Brewer now sets that figure at 750,000. He pins a major problem on waste water treatment facilities that were either destroyed in 1991, or can no longer function without banned spare parts and chlorine, leaking contaminants and disease into drinking water. - N.K.
Pennies From UT
Cries for equal pay are growing louder at the University of Texas in the wake of a recent study showing that staff members earn nearly 18% less than the average salary market in Austin. A 1997 compensation study revealed that 94% of 6,200 UT staffers are paid below average when compared to salaries paid for equal or similar positions in Austin. The study also found that the highest 300 paid positions at UT are held mainly by males who are paid at or above the local market salaries.
"We have to take responsibility for what is going on and stop being silent," said Peg Kramer, president of the University Staff Association. Kramer, a student development specialist at the UT School of Social Work, added that most UT staffers who are not in management and executive positions cannot keep pace with Austin's high cost of living. Meanwhile, the group has collected more than 800 signatures on a petition which Kramer said will ultimately go to the Texas Legislature. - L.S.