Off the Desk:
U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks last week dismissed a lawsuit against six Austin police officers accused of using undue force at a Cedar Avenue Valentine's Day party three years ago. A related suit against the City of Austin is scheduled to go to trial Monday in federal court. Attorney Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, representing two of the officers, argued that there was no evidence to support the plaintiffs' claims the officers had violated their civil rights... - A.S.
As the City of Austin settles into its new digs at the Bergstrom airport, cleanup of the mess left by the previous tenants, the U.S. Air Force, continues. Last Thursday, city council approved a $377,817 contract with Houston-based Gulf Coast Remediation to dispense with any toxic or contaminated materials discovered on the site. Though the federal government is responsible for remediating any environmental damage done under its watch, and has completed work on about 70% of the 481 contaminated areas, its responsibility doesn't extend to contaminants inside buildings, such as asbestos and lead paint. And TNRCC rules allow the feds to leave a low level of contaminants on the site, leaving the city to make up the difference. The Gulf Coast contract is the third in a series issued by the city for environmental remediation at Bergstrom... - J. Staff
Home at Last
It's ironic that, on the day the city announced a $12 million plan for Austin's homeless, a sudden shift of the weather delivered a cold wind across the treeless field where advocates, clergy members, and local officials had gathered to trumpet the news. "We'll stand out here and feel the chill, but then we'll go home and feel warm. Many don't have that option," Mayor Kirk Watson told the crowd of about 50 people. The homeless package calls for a downtown men's shelter and two East Austin shelters for women and children. Counseling and substance abuse treatment services will also be provided. The more troublesome transients will get more jail time.
Much more predictable than the weather was the reaction from downtown business owners who say the proposed men's shelter, between Neches and Red River streets, is too close for comfort. Their argument: If the city is spending millions to revitalize downtown, why would it want to sully the area with a "homeless haven"? Under the proposal, the men's 250-bed shelter would be built on Salvation Army-owned land, and would provide meals, health services, referrals, and job training. Watson stressed that a key component of the plan is helping the homeless achieve self-sufficiency and accept personal responsibility. "We can't move forward with effectively revitalizing the downtown without addressing the needs of the homeless," said Councilmember Jackie Goodman. "We can't turn our backs on those in the community who need us the most."
A bond election in September will ask voters to approve more than $3 million to build the emergency shelter. Watson is also calling for the creation of a community court to deal with repeat nuisance offenders by ordering them to undergo drug and alcohol treatment and perform court-supervised community service, and the passage of zoning laws to prohibit the sale of liquor near a homeless shelter. Watson will appoint a "stakeholder's committee" to supervise the ongoing project. A town meeting to discuss the project was scheduled this morning (Thursday) at One Texas Center. - L.T.
Pool Snips Hours
Rules are rules, particularly when it comes to the feds. And ever since the Barton Springs Salamander was added to the Endangered Species List last April, city employees have been cleaning Barton Springs Pool without the required federal permit. The permit, called a 10a, allows the incidental "take" or harm, of endangered species - in this case, the salamander. But until it obtains a permit, the city has decided to stop cleaning the pool and, in doing so, has dramatically cut back operating hours. Thus, beginning Saturday, March 14, the pool will only be open from 5-9am, and 7-10pm.
The city was forced to take the action because two local biologists in January filed a notice of intent to sue the city and the Department of the Interior, based on the city's pool cleaning procedures. One of the biologists, Alan Hamilton, says he has been concerned about the city's pool cleaning regimen for years. He says Barton Springs is "being improperly managed, especially where an endangered species is concerned." City environmental officer Roger Duncan says the city filed its permit application with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within a few days of getting the letter threatening a lawsuit; he expects the city could receive a permit that would allow pool cleaning procedures to resume by mid- to late April. - R.B.
Pickin' Yes, Grinnin' No
The saga of California's strawberry pickers continued in Austin last Wednesday. United Farm Workers organizers, Watsonville, California strawberry pickers, and a smattering of local protesters, led by Austin civil rights guru Jim Harrington, descended upon Whole Foods Market at Sixth and Lamar last week to protest the store's refusal to sign a petition in support of the pickers' efforts to unionize. Whole Foods says it stands behind its decision not to sign the petition because not all of the strawberry growers using union labor practice organic or sustainable agriculture on their farms, which is important to Whole Foods' mission, president Peter Roy said.
As part of their unionizing attempts, workers are trying to enlist retailer support as leverage against retaliation from growers and distributors. Through collective bargaining, pickers hope to address low wages, unsafe drinking water, sexual harassment in the fields, and indiscriminate use of pesticides. Austin-based Whole Foods stands as one of the last major retailers unwilling to sign the petition. "We don't understand how a big chain that holds itself up to ideals of being progressive and environmental, of enriching the lives of everyone it comes into contact with, doesn't support the struggle of the strawberry workers," Harrington said. After protestors were unsuccessful in meeting with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, Roy, the store president, came outside to talk with the crowd. "If you want to join [the UFW], then go for it," Roy said. "This is not our issue and we won't be used."
A Watsonville picker spoke up, extending an invitation to Mackey and Roy to visit the fields where he and other pickers work under conditions he described as "drastic." Roy responded: "We won't, because it won't change our position. We haven't met with every one of the workers, but some on the farms we buy berries from, and we've found that some of the reported conditions are not true." A UFW organizer then asked Roy if Whole Foods buys berries from Driscoll or Wel-Pict, two California distributors. "Yes, I believe we do," Roy said. "But that's where these pickers are from," Harrington said as Roy turned and walked back into the store. - J. Smith
Local politicos say they want SH130, but the financing and planning of the billion-dollar bypass has nonetheless evolved into a tail-twisting contest. Only days after city councilmembers and county commissioners on the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) voted earlier this month to pour out a $5 million offering to the Texas Dept. of Transportation (TxDOT) to speed area highway building, those same leaders stated their opposition to the department's preferred SH130 route, saying the road should be moved further east, even if doing so cuts into toll revenues from Williamson County commuters.
Local officials on the ATS policy advisory committee include city councilmembers Jackie Goodman, Gus Garcia, Willie Lewis, and Mayor Kirk Watson. Goodman says the Austin contingent voted to sacrifice the money, which otherwise could have gone toward regional street and highway improvements, because it had not yet been earmarked for any specific projects. The ATS committee had to break its own rules when it approved the use of federal money for SH130, however, because it was supposed to wait to examine two yet-to-be-released traffic studies - one on truck diversion off I-35 and the other on the socioeconomic impact on East Austin neighborhoods - before making a decision. But the committee apparently believed that it was more expedient to show TxDOT the money now and haggle over details later.
Three days later, councilmembers took political cover by passing a resolution supporting an alternative route further from East Austin. The Eastern route would work equally well as an alternative to I-35, they point out - since it doesn't add any distance to trips between Dallas and San Antonio - but TxDOT is worried about toll revenues there. Why? Because, as Rep. Glen Maxey explains, and both ATS coordinator Michael Aulick and TxDOT engineer Sharon Barta confirm, the highway department has calculated that it needs the tolls from Williamson County commuter traffic to make the road pay for itself.
That admission represents a major policy shift, one that SH130 backers have been slow to acknowledge. Maxey says that TxDOT's toll revenue projections assume up to six interchanges between US290 and Highway 71, even though the original SH130 design, which dates from the early Seventies, was drawn strictly as a bypass parkway. Now SH130 is slated to become a toll road that has raised concerns about the road becoming a commuter feeder from the suburbs to the central city. "It was never conceived or discussed as a way for Round Rock commuters to get to the central city," says Maxey, "nor has there ever been a [ATS] vote to recommend that."
TxDOT, of course, has the final say on the SH130 routing, but it needs the cooperation of regional governments to acquire the right-of-way. Plus, local politicians comprise a majority voting bloc on the ATS committee, through which all federal funds for the project must flow. Without federal money, says Maxey, "this is a dead project." But, he adds, it's not likely TxDOT will walk away from the project. "The political landscape is of such height that ultimately, something's going to happen there.... It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know something's gotta be done," Maxey says, referring to traffic-clogged I-35. An ATS delegation met with the state Transportation Commission on Feb. 26 to apply for area highway funding, and a TxDOT decision is expected in the fall. - K.F.