Naked City

Off the Desk:

Want to let the city know how you want your tax dollars spent? City Manager Jesus Garza will be at the Milwood Branch Library, at Amherst and Adelphi streets in North Austin, at 7pm Tuesday, May 12, to discuss the city budget and the September bond proposals. The Northwest Austin Neighborhood Alliance is sponsoring the event...

The Environmental Law Institute and the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter will sponsor a workshop on Saturday, May 16 on the TNRCC's new approach to improving water quality. The event begins at 8:30am at UT's Bass Lecture Hall in Sid Richardson Hall. Call 477-1729 for details... - L.T.

The fate of the Triangle Square project will have to wait another week before City Council makes its ruling. Council was to have considered the matter this week but postponed the agenda item until May 14... - A.S.

The Hopwood Spectre

What's starkly black and white but read between the lines? A lawyer's letter, for starters. On April 21, that's just what Southwest Texas State University received from Austin attorney Steven W. Smith, who represented Cheryl Hopwood in her discrimination lawsuit against the University of Texas. Smith now represents poet and novelist Michael Blumenthal, a visiting professor of English and creative writing at SWT, who claims the university discriminated against him when it didn't select him for a permanent teaching position. He's white. SWT hired Cyrus Cassells, a black gay poet who underwent the same extensive, two-day interview process Blumenthal did. Smith and Blumenthal are scheduled to meet later this month with SWT lawyers and administrative officials in an attempt to resolve the matter.

Tom Grimes, head of the creative writing program at SWT, explains the hiring process thusly: "Everything is voted on. Two candidates interview; they do the same thing. The discussion goes to the hiring committee - the hiring committee is five people - they make a recommendation to the senior [tenured] faculty, and the tenured faculty vote and recommend to the chair, and then it goes all the way up to the vice-president. And everybody agreed that we had picked the right person. He had star quality," Grimes says of Cassells, recalling that 20 minutes into Cassell's reading on campus in early February, Grimes knew he wanted to hire him. "When I spoke about this to the faculty, I said, `I'm a writer and I'll always go where my gut and my heart tell me literature's future is,' and that's what I heard in Cyrus Cassells' reading."

Smith's letter to SWT doesn't mention Hopwood, but it raises its spectre: "The Department and the University made unmistakably clear... in choosing merely to invite Mr. Blumenthal on a `visiting' basis for one year, its intention not to offer Mr. Blumenthal the position at all so long as an acceptable `diversity' candidate, whether less qualified or not, could be found to fill the position," the letter states. The letter firmly notes that Smith and Blumenthal intend to "move forward with legal proceedings unless some mutually satisfactory, and equitable, solution can be found soon... before it escalates into proceedings which could become costly and uncomfortable for both sides." Smith refused comment on the matter and Blumenthal did not return the Chronicle's telephone calls. Debra Monroe, an author and associate professor of English and creative writing at SWT, questions Blumenthal's allegations. "Have the race wars become so Byzantine that it's now become illegal to hire a black professor even if he is a better teacher? [Blumenthal]'s not mad at the university, he's mad at the universe." - C.S.

Pipeline to Trouble?

For 45 years, an 18-inch diameter pipeline carried crude oil from Crane, just south of Odessa, east to a refinery in Baytown. But now that a group of major oil companies are planning to reverse the flow of the pipeline and use it to send gasoline and other refined oil products westward through the line, which crosses the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expressing concern.

On April 28, David C. Frederick, the supervisor of the Austin office of the agency, sent a letter to four federal agencies, including the Dept. of Transportation, Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which stated: "We have concerns about the potential impacts of this pipeline on the federally listed endangered Barton Springs salamander... Any spill of refined gas products that would reach the groundwater in this area could have devastating effects on the salamander population."

Two days after that letter was sent, representatives from all four agencies were sitting in U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks' courtroom in Austin. And one by one, the representatives told the judge they weren't sure if they had jurisdiction over the pipeline project. The hearing in Sparks' court was forced by a lawsuit filed on April 22 by several Kimble County ranchers who are opposed to the new use for the pipeline. The ranchers contend that because the pipeline will cross state boundaries - the new use for the pipeline includes an extension of the line from Crane west to El Paso where it will connect with another line that crosses into New Mexico - it is an interstate project and thus requires federal oversight.

The pipeline project is being pushed by Longhorn Partners Pipeline, a consortium of oil companies that includes Exxon, Amoco, Williams Energy, and two other companies. Longhorn attorneys told Sparks that they believed their project did not need any additional federal permits to begin operating. But Sparks was clearly annoyed by what he called the "gray area" that the pipeline project is falling under. "We are dealing with a potential hazard that could affect a lot of people," said Sparks. And "every agency in the federal government is saying it's not my responsibility. As a layman, that scenario concerns me," he said.

In the end, Sparks ordered the agencies to submit briefings within 30 days as to their plans for the pipeline. Longhorn officials will also have to provide more info to the plaintiffs about the project. More on this later... - R.B.

Smart Subsidies?

They make about $4 million a day selling personal computers over the Internet alone, but the City of Austin still sees fit to pay Dell Computer Corp. almost $6 million to build a road, water and electrical lines, and a water-quality-control project that will serve Dell's new manufacturing campus in Northeast Austin. An oft-cited example of Mayor Kirk Watson's Smart Growth strategy, the campus is scheduled to open later this year and will eventually employ a workforce of about 1,200. The city estimates that the $6 million expenditure authorized by the council will be recouped more than five times over; the campus will generate revenues of more than $31 million.

Though the Dell deal may turn a profit for the city, Buzz Avery, chairman of the city's Environmental Board, said the decision to reimburse Dell for water-quality-control expenditures could create a climate where companies feel entitled to large subsidies from the city. "There are already others saying, 'You've done this for Dell, why haven't you done it for us?' Mayor Todd's council never met an abatement it didn't like. The Watson council is starting to follow in those footsteps."

Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell stressed that the city expenditures are investments, not abatements - in fact, she said, a fundamental principle of the city's Smart Growth plan is to eschew abatements in favor of the type of "infrastructure investments" - such as roads and water lines - that will not only entice specific employers, but make targeted areas generally more appealing for businesses looking to build. But Avery said the wet ponds, as a pollution control measure, do not fall into the infrastructure category and should be paid for by Dell, not taxpayers. "This is a precedent," he said, "paying developers to control the pollution that they are creating." - J.S.

Adopt-a-Chisum Ban

About 250 gays and lesbians from across Texas met in Austin last Saturday to map out strategies for combatting what likely will be one of the more emotionally charged anti-gay proposals in next year's legislative session. Rep. Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) plans to introduce legislation to ban lesbians and gays from becoming adoptive parents. The Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas (LGRL) says Chisum and his cohorts should prepare for a bruising battle on this front. Additionally, Austin Reps. Elliott Naishtat and Glen Maxey, and Houston Rep. Debra Danburg, who attended last week's meeting, vowed to fight Chisum's bill.

"We have to talk about this issue as a real threat. It would prevent us from adopting even our own family members," said Dianne Hardy-Garcia, LGRL executive director. "The legislative process is not logical, it's emotional and political," she said. "If it were purely logical we wouldn't be facing this legislation." Chisum's history in the Texas Legislature is marked by his championing of anti-gay bills. Last year, he introduced an unsuccessful bill to officially outlaw same-sex marriages. - A.S.

Death Penalty Protest

The rush-hour traffic and late afternoon sun didn't keep two dozen death penalty opponents away from the Governor's Mansion last Wednesday to protest the execution of Frank McFarland, the 150th prisoner put to death since Texas reinstated the death penalty in 1982. McFarland was found guilty of the 1988 fatal stabbing and rape of a 26-year-old woman who shined shoes in a topless bar.

Jay Jacobson, executive director of the Texas American Civil Liberties Union, said during the protest that such prisoner executions only serve to highlight that the U.S. - and Texas in particular - is "lagging behind the world" in its commitment to human rights. Joining the usual stalwarts at the Governor's Mansion were several members of The Journey of Hope... From Violence to Healing, a group comprised of murder victims' families that travels the country speaking against the death penalty. The group, founded by Bill Pelke, whose grandmother was murdered by four teenage girls, will travel to Austin for three days of public action beginning June 12. They will be joined by Sister Helen Prejean, whose friendship with a death-row inmate is chronicled in the book and movie Dead Man Walking. For more info on the Journey of Hope, call 1-800-973-6548... - E.C.B.

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