Naked City

Off the Desk:

After knocking around for a couple of years with odd jobs and pass-the-hat singing gigs, Max Nofziger is now gainfully employed. Okay, okay, it's part-time and it's temporary, but it's a job. The former city councilmember and unsuccessful mayoral candidate is working for The Man - the Austin Police Dept. - as a liaison to the South Congress business and residential community. The part-time, one-year position is funded through a federal grant APD received to clean up Congress Avenue's "prostitution row," said Lt. Sharon Voudouris-Ross. Wearing his liaison hat, Nofziger is fulfilling a longtime goal of upgrading this stretch of town where strong retail and tourist growth is starting to be the dominant force over prostitutes and junkies. Nofziger is also turning up the heat in his efforts to shut down the Cinema West adult theatre. He may get his wish there, if the city agrees to go in with local real estate broker Henry Benedict to buy the movie house. "Max is a very big supporter of getting rid of those types of businesses," Voudouris-Ross said...

Nan Clayton, Democratic candidate for Pct. 3 Travis Co. Commissioner, "sailed through surgery" last week and expects to make a full recovery from breast cancer thanks to early detection, a campaign spokesperson says. Clayton, a former longtime trustee on the AISD board, will make an announcement some time next week on whether she intends to stay in her race against GOP hopeful Todd Baxter and indie candidate Kirk Mitchell...

Local state reps and neighborhood leaders have a couple of words for Sen. Phil Gramm: Butt out. Gramm's notion that the Texas Dept. of Transportation should be the sole decision-maker on the SH130 route is drawing increasing criticism from locals. Gramm and TxDOT favor a route close to East Austin, while Austin reps would rather it be on the other side of Lake Walter E. Long. Last week, Rep. Dawnna Dukes gathered local notables to stand behind U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who supports the eastern route to avoid disrupting East Austin communities. Carl Siegenthaler, president of Windsor Park Neighborhood Association, stressed the importance of residents having a say in the matter. "We are very interested in sustainable communities," he said. "A route west of the lake would serve to bisect communities, just as St. John's was bisected by I-35, and Clarksville was bisected by MoPac...

Former farm boy Pete Patterson brings his "safe food policy" campaign to the Westlake Farmers Market on Saturday, May 30, at 10am. The Democratic nominee for Agriculture Commissioner is capitalizing on his safe food proposal in a big way, particularly since GOP opponent Susan Combs has naysayed his platform. If elected, Patterson promises to: develop a "Certified Texas" set of standards for Texas-grown and processed foods; create a Safe Food Task Force to champion organically grown foods; and appoint a Rapid Response Team - a SWAT team of sorts - to react quickly to food safety problems, crop failure, and drought. The farmers market is held in the Westlake High School annex parking lot, 4100 Westbank Dr. - A.S.

Rail Vote Delayed

Call it a stay of execution. Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire is itching to kill the proposed commuter rail district between Austin and San Antonio. But on Tuesday, rather than kill the proposal - a move that could preclude the city of San Antonio and Bexar County from ever voting to opt into the district - Aleshire and his fellow commissioners agreed to delay a vote on the matter for another week. That didn't mean, though, that Aleshire was going to hold his fire (or his tongue) when it came time to discuss the project. He found reasons to criticize the proposal on almost every front, including the collection of sales tax on the district's trains. When Richard Hamner, the legislative aide to Austin's State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, later explained to Aleshire that the district would keep any sales taxes collected on the trains because it would be too hard to keep track of which sales occurred in which taxing jurisdiction, Aleshire snapped, "I've already figured that out."

So it went for more than an hour as Hamner, who played a key role in writing the legislation that permits the creation of the rail district, tried to allay Aleshire's fears about the district. After long discussions about eminent domain, financing, legislative intent, and several other topics, an exasperated Hamner told Aleshire, "We can look at this thing for hobgoblins, but I don't think they are there." But Aleshire, as usual, has hobgoblins on the brain. Look for him to kill the proposal next Tuesday. - R.B.

Have Gun, Will Graduate

Following last week's fatal shooting spree by an Oregon high school student, Austin Independent School District officials told the Austin American-Statesman that the incidence of weapons in Austin schools is "dramatically low," and that the district enforces a "zero tolerance" policy of expelling any student who brings a gun to school.

But just days before that article ran on Saturday, May 23, an Austin High School graduating senior had shot a hall monitor in the leg with a pellet gun from a car in the school parking lot. After the victim identified the shooter from yearbook photos, AHS principal Dr. Tina Juarez recommended that the student be suspended, and also prohibited from crossing the stage during graduation ceremonies. But that punishment was rescinded by AISD administrator Dr. Kay Psencik.

Computer science teacher Guy Davis said teachers were struck by the irony of Psencik's decision as they discussed the Statesman article on Saturday. "We were saying that here it is in plain black-and-white and they aren't enforcing it. We were concerned about that," says Davis. Austin High teacher Wayne Packwood was so incensed when he learned of the shooting and subsequent district action that he organized an impromptu meeting of 70 AHS staff on Friday, who heard the victim's story and drafted a letter protesting the overturning of Juarez's punishment.

"To reverse Dr. Juarez's decision is unacceptable," the letter states. "It contradicts the District's stated policy of Zero Tolerance, and it sends the message that there will be no consequences for bringing weapons onto campus." Packwood added later: "It doesn't seem to make any sense, does it? On the same day that the shooting was taking place in Oregon, it's absolutely incomprehensible that that decision could have been made." A teacher who spoke with Dr. Juarez after her decision was countermanded says the administration is pressuring the principal to keep the event hushed up and not contest the ruling. "My belief is that they told her not to talk about it with us, and the punishment for disobeying superiors is fast and severe," said the teacher, who declined to be named.

Robin Matthews, of the Austin Association of Texas Professional Educators, says his group is consulting with an attorney about filing a grievance against Dr. Psencik for violating AISD policy and failing to enforce a federal law which prohibits firearms on school campuses. - K.F.

WMI's Landfill Woes

Four environmental groups have petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to halt the cleanup of a toxic waste dump at Austin Community Landfill, a site on Giles Road that is owned by trash giant Waste Management Inc. Some 21,000 barrels of industrial hazardous waste, including toluene, acetone, and sulfuric acid, were buried at the site in the early 1970s, before WMI bought the landfill. Earlier this year, WMI unveiled plans to dig up the hazardous waste and dispose of it at a cost of some $10 million. But on May 5, in a letter to EPA chief Carol Browner, the environmental groups asked that the cleanup be halted.

The letter, written by Austin attorney Richard Lowerre, says reports generated by WMI "suggest that hazardous materials have already been released." The groups contend that testing the site with probes "could release toxic gases and/or cause explosions as the wastes mix. Public records suggest that WMI does not even know where the drums are located and, thus, how to avoid puncturing them." In addition to asking that the cleanup be halted, the environmental groups - the Save Our Springs Alliance, People Organized in Defense of the Earth and Her Resources, Clean Water Action, and the Sierra Club - have asked the EPA to add the site to the National Priorities List (Superfund), and to prevent WMI from doing any further examination of the site until the EPA is available to assist in evaluating the site. WMI spokesman Loren Alexander told the Chronicle in March that the company is remediating the site "even though we aren't required to because it's the best thing to do environmentally." Asked for a comment last week about the groups' request to the EPA, company spokesman Al Erwin offered, "One of the reasons we are doing this industrial cleanup is that our insurance company has agreed to pay for it. And so we are pretty interested in getting it cleaned up from that perspective."

The toxic waste was buried in unlined pits at the landfill beginning in 1971. The following year, the state ordered the site closed due to possible groundwater contamination. Since then, the site, which covers about nine acres near the center of the 108-acre WMI landfill, has been covered with dirt. WMI bought the landfill in 1981. They are currently in negotiations with the city of Austin on a 30-year contract for waste disposal and materials recycling.

Lowerre says the four groups want to see the toxic waste site cleaned up. But, he says, the state "hasn't notified anybody and hasn't required Waste Management to notify anybody. If this were a Superfund site, as it should be, there'd be all kinds of public notification. That's the minimum we expect: to open this process up to allow citizens to have more input." - R.B.

Money Cuts Sink Gardens

A 23-year-old Austin institution suffered a serious setback Friday when Austin Community Gardens, whose most prominent project is its six-acre Sunshine Garden near Lamar and 45th, announced drastic cuts in its staff and services due to major funding shortfalls. ACG, whose projects include school wildlife gardens, a food pantry donation program, and community gardens in low-income areas, fired its only two full-time staff members and eliminated all staff support for its 17 satellite community gardens in neighborhoods, homes for the elderly, and schools. Executive Director Frank Fuller, one of the two employees whose jobs were eliminated, said he had expected such a drastic restructuring for some time. "Something had to change," he said.

Funding from the city and county - always hard to come by for an organization whose principal focus is on "community-building," not hunger alleviation - had dried up long ago and local foundations and business community members were unable to permanently fill the gap. The problem, Fuller suggested, was in the organization's mission. "The county came to us and said, 'Why should we give you $30,000 to help people grow food when we can give the same amount of money to a food pantry to go out and buy $30,000 worth of food themselves?'" The value of the gardens, Fuller suggested, is in their ability to provide recreation, beauty, and community rather than in their ability to provide food for Austin's hungry or educate its community about gardening techniques. The funding cuts affect virtually all of ACG's programs, including its small community gardens like the Mosby Community Garden in East Austin, its Wildscapes gardens in local elementary schools, its urban educational programs, and its Food Pantry Garden, which produced over two tons of vegetables for two local food banks in 1996. - E.C.B.

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