Off the Desk:
A preliminary injunction hearing got underway Wednesday to determine if the city should halt its routine cleaning of Barton Springs Pool to avoid killing salamanders protected under the Endangered Species Act. A lawsuit filed against the city - ostensibly out of concern for the Barton Springs Salamander - has raised concerns that it could shut down the pool for good. At press time, the hearing was expected to continue into the afternoon in the courtroom of U.S. Judge Sam Sparks...
Washington City Paper - D.C.'s alternative weekly - is putting Austin's former City Manager Camille Barnett through the wringer. Barnett, the District's new chief management officer, took a number of hits in a recent "Loose Lips" column, which attacked the "pushy Southerner" on several fronts, including: her plan to get D.C.'s hobbled municipal recycling program back on track, which the city council rejected; her decision to take a vacation to Italy in May instead of August, the traditional month for District officials to get out of town; and finally, her top aide choice - none other than Byron Marshall, a former Austin assistant city manager. Marshall's hiring, the paper writes, ran counter to the "warnings" of D.C. officials who remembered Marshall from his earlier days at the D.C. Dept. of Human Services. More details are online at http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/archives/lips/lipindex.html. Once you're there, click on the column marked 5/15/98... - A.S.
Highly critical of a regional commuter rail district, Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire has said the only thing that would convince him to vote for it was "the Second Coming."
Somehow, Aleshire got a bit of religion Tuesday morning. But only a bit. The Travis County Commissioners Court surprisingly didn't kill the commuter rail district, but commissioners hardly gave it its enthusiastic support either. In a cautious move, commissioners unanimously voted for a resolution to create a "planning board on an informal basis" to consider the merits of a regional commuter rail system. Introduced by Commissioner Darwin McKee, the resolution calls for the planning board to meet with other potential members of the rail district (Austin, San Antonio, and Bexar County as well as the Austin Transportation Study, the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization, Capitol Metro, and VIA Metropolitan Transit Authority) to "actively participate in planning for commuter rail." The resolution also calls for the board to look at feasibility studies on commuter rail, and to open discussions with Union Pacific Railroad about getting the railroad to move off the Austin-to-San Antonio line, a necessary step if a commuter rail is ever to happen.
McKee said the resolution "gets us moving in the planning process without us saying that the rail district is the ultimate goal." But Richard Hamner, legislative aide to State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, contends the resolution does little. "It puts the county back to the situation we had in 1995," said Hamner, explaining that all of the entities that could be part of McKee's planning board met repeatedly two years ago. Those meetings resulted in the legislation passed last year by Barrientos and San Antonio's State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, which allows the rail district to be created. So is the glass half full or half empty? "It's positive," said Hamner. "But I don't know if the actions are a major step forward." - R.B.
One afternoon last week, as Cinema West adult theatre manager Bobby Pittman was telling of the harassment he and his theatre's patrons are regularly subjected to from the vice squad, he paused a moment. "Hell, some just walked in right now," he said, referring to the plainclothes officers who were walking around the South Congress movie house. Since its opening in 1971, Cinema West has been a favorite target of City Council, the APD, neighborhood residents, and area businesses who blame the theatre for crime and lewd behavior in the neighborhood. But prominent Austin real estate broker Henry Benedict's vow to purchase and renovate the movie house has those who would have been content to watch it burn dreaming of a family theatre that could be a cornerstone in the effort to beautify the up-and-coming South Congress area.
While he understands the neighborhood's enthusiasm for Benedict's proposal, Pittman, who has been Cinema West's manager for seven years, said the theatre is unfairly blamed for prostitution and drug peddling along South Congress. He said his theatre has always tried to be a cordial, unassuming neighbor. "We're a legitimate business and we don't break any laws," Pittman said. "People always want to make us out to be criminals; 90% of all our customers cause absolutely no trouble whatsoever. It's that other 10% that make us look bad. We even have cameras in our theatres. If we catch anyone doing anything lewd, we kick `em out."
Pittman estimated that vice squad officers have visited the theatre over 70 times in the past two years, responding to neighbors' complaints about shady characters wandering the premises. He said many times the police calls are unwarranted, and most of them are in fact false, but if the theatre complains about being harassed, "Who's going to believe us? They exaggerate in hopes that the city will close the business," Pittman said. "Naturally, they'll say anything to shut us down."
While Pittman says the theatre makes over $10,000 a week in ticket sales and video rentals, he thinks the theatre's Houston owners will sell - if the price is right. Benedict, who owns 40 properties in the same area, is asking the city to help pay for his proposal to return the movie house, built in 1939, to its original splendor. Benedict estimates he can buy the theatre and restore it for about $750,000. He figures he can raise about $100,000 by selling the property's zoning rights to the city, but he also needs the city to grant him a $400,000 loan through the Austin Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office to buy the theatre.
So far, Benedict says, he's had dozens of phone calls from people who say they'll volunteer their help to get the theatre up and running. "They're dancing in the streets," he said of area residents' response. "They've been trying to get rid of this place for years and years. I've even got a line of people who say they'll work for free." Particularly pleased with Benedict's proposal are parents and teachers at Fulmore Middle School, who have long felt the theatre's patrons posed a potential threat to children attending school across the street. While the city passed an ordinance in 1986 forbidding adult-entertainment businesses from operating within 1,000 feet of a school, day care, or church in a residential area, Cinema West already was in business and therefore exempt. Fulmore assistant principal Linda Wilkinson said parents and faculty members are "jumping for joy" over Benedict's offer. "It's an eyesore," she said. "It's right where the kids board the city bus at the end of the day and that's not a good place for them to be. I think this is the best news this area has had in a long time."
Still, Wilkinson and neighborhood resident Damon Howze agree that Cinema West's management has tried to be sensitive to the neighborhood and school's concerns, saying that the theatre has always hired someone to clean the premises each morning. "I have no negative feelings toward them," said Howze. "They've been a great neighbor." He said a far less accommodating neighbor is St. Ignatius Martyr Church on Oltorf, whose parishoners often block people's driveways, leave garbage, and empty ashtrays in flower beds.
Councilmember Jackie Goodman voiced support for the theatre's transformation and says she is optimistic the council will step up to Benedict's offer, but more discussion needs to take place as to where the money will come from. "I suspect that if there's a way to do it, there would not be any reason why we wouldn't," she said. If Benedict is indeed successful, he could stand a chance at becoming public citizen number one. "Whatever I do," he said, "the community is going to be better served with me owning this theatre." - B.M.
Report Details Abuses
At least 137 people have died in Irian Jaya over the past 18 months during a crack down by the Indonesian military, according to a report released last week by three church groups. Early versions of the report were leaked several weeks ago (see "Environs," May 1). Officially presented to the Indonesian Human Rights Commission on May 25, the report was prepared by local parishes of the Catholic Church, Indonesian Evangelical Church, and the Christian Evangelical Church. It claims that in addition to the deaths, Indonesian soldiers based in the province have burned 13 churches, 166 homes, two health clinics, and 29 other buildings. The report was compiled after an arduous investigation that in one instance required the researchers to spend two weeks walking in the jungle to reach remote villages.
The report says the vast majority of the deaths were caused by starvation after local people were forced out of their villages by the military. Eleven of the victims were shot to death. The Indonesian military, infamous for its brutality, began intensive operations in an area 100 kilometers east of the huge Grasberg mine, operated by New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, in 1996, after 26 hostages were taken by members of the Free Papua Movement. Some of the Indonesian soldiers implicated in the abuses are members of KOPASSUS, the elite "red berets." According to recent stories published in The Nation, KOPASSUS troops have been receiving training from the U.S. military in violation of a Congressional mandate. The article reports that through the Joint Combined Exchange and Training program, U.S. Green Berets, Marines, and Air Force commandos were training Indonesian troops in sniper tactics, psychological operations, and air-assault techniques. According to the story, there were at least 41 such exercises between 1992 and 1997, and 20 more scheduled for 1998. This training was in violation of an Executive Branch understanding with Congress, which had cut off its military education program to Indonesia after a 1991 massacre in a cemetery in Dili, East Timor, in which more than 200 unarmed civilians were shot to death by Indonesian soldiers.
Since the release of the latest human rights report, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights and other groups have called on newly installed Indonesian president B.J. Habibie to allow a team of independent human rights monitors to study the human rights problems in Irian Jaya. The team would be headed by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. In a May 27 letter, the group also asked Habibie to immediately demilitarize the region and to allow the Red Cross full access to the now-closed region. Read the full human rights report at http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/boyer/fp/... - R.B.