Naked City

Off The Desk:

No sleeping late this Saturday: A half-day brainstorming session to hammer out a community vision for the 54-acre Town Lake Parkstarts at 9am at the Austin Convention Center, Room 6. Citizens will work in groups to develop a plan for the tract where Auditorium Shores, Palmer Auditorium, and the City Coliseum sit. There's a city proposal on the table to authorize ARTS Center Stage to use $50 million in private donations to renovate Palmer into a multi-use performing arts center. Pendingvoter approval, the coliseum would be replaced by a new civic center, financed through a 5% rental car tax. For more info, or to pre-register, callMichaelKnox at 499-6418 or check http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/smartgrowth.townlake_park.htm...

And if that's not enough planning for you, you can still make it to Peter Calthorpe's presentation of the latest Triangle plan, since it's been postponed a week -- until 7pm Thursday, Sept. 24 -- and moved, to room 118 of the Stephen F. Austin Building, 1700 Congress ...

Molly Ivins and Mayor Kirk Watson are among those lining up to roast Texas Freedom Network founder Cecile Richards, who is moving to Washington, D.C. The TFN benefit begins at 6:30pm Tuesday at La Zona Rosa. Tickets are $25. For info call 322-0545 ... -- L.T.

The trial for Tim Jones, the environmental activist who faces criminal trespassing charges for entering land owned by FM Properties, now known as Stratus Properties, has been delayed until Dec. 7. Jones, a 55-year-old Earth First!-er with a video camera and an attitude, provided the key evidence last year that resulted in an unprecedented $1,080 fine being levied against FM Properties by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission for polluting Barton Creek ... -- R.B.

City and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives will meet with swimmers on Friday, Sept 18 at 1:30pm at Barton Springsto discuss a 45-day feasibility study of the city's salamander conservation plan, which includes a less frequent cleaning schedule, building a dam, and making other structural changes to the pool. The conservation plan is needed in order to receive a permit from the FWS to continue to allow swimming in the pool ...-- L.T.

Mayor Kirk Watson says he "made real progress" last week in Washington as he lobbied federal officials to support an environmental impact study on the possible effects of running gasoline through a 430-mile pipeline from the Gulf Coast to El Paso. The pipeline was formerly used to carry crude oil from West Texas to coastal refineries. Watson said the environmentalconsequences of a leak in the pipeline could be severe, and a study is needed to find out if the project and others like it would be safe. "What I'm saying to the federal government is, 'Don't join with the oil companies, they've got a financial interest at stake. You have a public policyat stake.' Are we going to permit this kind of activity without knowing the risk up front?" ... -- J.S.

The controversial Worthy Mothers documentary that almost screened at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) is no longer the subject of a lawsuit filed last week by participants in the film. The four plaintiffs, who included Travis Co. Sheriff Margo Frasier, agreed to drop the petition last Thursday, the same day the aGLIFF board was to appear in court on the matter. By then, the legal issue was moot because aGLIFF had already pulled the film about gay adoptions from its programming. A lawsuit is still pending against a second defendant, Jessica Bega. The plaintiffs claim Bega had falsely assured them the film would not be screened in public. Bega's attorney, Brian Engel, said the dispute is part of ongoing discussions between parties. "We are very hopeful that a resolution will be reached very soon," he said.Festival organizers,meanwhile, expressed relief that their end of the suit is over. "The Worthy Mothers issue is now a part of our 11-year history," said Ron Bowdoin, festival board president. "I really don't think there were hard feelings from any of the parties involved. It was an emotionally charged week, but I think the drama has passed." -- A.S.


Lee Leaving

Milton Lee, general manager of Austin Energy, announced Tuesday he will leave his post after 14 months on the job. Lee, who will stay at the city-owned utility through the end of November, said he is pursuing another position within the electric utility industry, but declined further comment on his career plans.

Word of Lee's impending departure spread quickly among utility watchers, who readily offered a variety of theories regarding his resignation. The first was that Lee is weighing a couple of offers from the private sector, where he could easily fetch much more than his $128,000 annual salary from the city. The second held that Lee clearly was not leaving his post on the high note the city's press release tried to strike in announcing his resignation. As one utility insider observed: "There's no question he was phenomenally unhappy the last few months at the city."

Still, Shudde Fath, a longtime member of the Electric Utility Commission, credited Milton with keeping employee morale relatively high during last year's somewhat rocky period of utility layoffs, intense scrutiny by an outside consulting firm -- Metzler & Associates -- and high fervor over preparing the utility for competition in the event the Texas Legislature moves on deregulation next year. Other utility sources say Lee had grown dismayed over what seemed to him to be a gradual chipping away of his autonomy, given that City Manager Jesus Garza was playing a greater role in the utility's day-to-day affairs than Lee preferred. Despite his short stint as a general manager, Lee was fairly entrenched at the utility; he first worked there from 1984 to 1987, then left and spent two years at the Lower Colorado River Authority (there's speculation he may return to LCRA), before returning to the city in 1990 as the utility's chief operating officer.He was promoted to GM in July 1997, succeeding longtime GM John Moore.

Lee has drawn some heat from consumer advocates who oppose the notion of merging the utility with the city's energy conservation division. Lee said he supports the idea. "Strategically, I think it would be a good move to merge," he said. "I see nothing that would be a conflict, and I think it's in our best interest." Consumer/ enviro activist Paul Robbins does not share Lee's enthusiasm. "The conservation department is consumer-oriented and designedto conserve electricity. Its mission would surely be compromised by the electric utility, which is in the business of selling electricity."

For now, though, the city has a bigger job ahead -- finding a new general manager. Earlier this week, utility junkies were fueling rumors that Roger Duncan, who oversees the city's environmental and energy conservation department, was the next in line for the job, at least on an interim basis. City officials would not comment on how they plan to pursue the search for a new GM.-- A.S.


Taken to TAASk

Those who think there is far too much emphasis placed on the TAAS test got some ammunition this week when it was revealed AISD administrators tinkered with TAAS test results to improve some schools' ratings.

Last May, there was much chest thumping when the district received TAAS scores that showed significant student gains in reading, math, and writing. But a cloud now hangs over that achievement. Deputy Superintendent Kay Psencik and director of research Ricky Arredondo have been disciplined and three elementary schools -- Travis Heights, Bryker Woods, and Blackshear -- had their TAAS-based school ratings lowered for manipulating the way the test results would be evaluated, the district says. Travis County prosecutors are currently investigating the incident.

According to state and district officials, the ratings of three elementary schools were higher than they should have been because identification numbers of students whose low scores would have affected the campuses' overall rating were changed.

It's not exactly the credibility boost AISD needs as the Board of Trustees dives back intothe arduous task of drawing attendance-zone boundaries to accommodate new schools and alleviate crowding at existing schools. So far the biggest controversy has surfaced over a proposal to reassign all sixth-graders into middle schools. At Monday night's Board of Trustees meeting, scores of parents registered their opposition to the idea, pleading to keep sixth-graders in elementary school. The board is expected to hear a staff presentation on the controversial question on Monday, Sept. 28 at 7pm, before the next boundary work session at 6:30pm Wednesday, Sept. 30. -- L.T.


The Breakfast Club

"When the president of the United States invites you to breakfast, obviously you go," were the second words of wisdom Rev. Gerald Mann, head pastor of Austin's non-denominational Riverbend Church, issued last Friday. The first came during President Bill Clinton's now-famous prayer breakfast with about 130 representatives of America's clergy, during which Clinton tearfully issued his most contrite apology to date regarding Monica-gate. Immediately following Clinton's "I have sinned" speech, the president turned the microphone over to Mann, who led the group in prayer before breakfast began.

By noon that day, the phones at Riverbend were ringing off the hook. And by 6pm, when Mann's plane landed at Robert Mueller Airport, a swarm of local reporters eagerly lined up at the gate to pounce on Austin's little slice of scandal pie. Mann explained that he was asked to attend the breakfast on Thursday, but wasn't told until he arrived in Washington, D.C. on Thursday evening that he would be giving the prayer following the president's speech.

According to Mann, Clinton first became familiar with him through his book, When the Bad Times Are Over for Good, which is about Mann's personal journey regarding his daughter's congenital deafness, and subsequently by watching Riverbend's national broadcast of Sunday services. In 40 years of ministry, Mann has often turned to down-to-earth admissionsof his own sins and weaknesses, and is known for his "come one, come all" approach to the ministry, which has made Riverbend one of Austin's highest-attended churches, with a membership of over 9,000. Although Mann says that he has previously been invited twice to the White House, he says he would not go so far as to call himself a spiritual advisor or a particularly close friend of Clinton's. Still, Mann did come away from Washington impressed.

Though Clinton's mounting contrition doesn't seem to have much play on Capitol Hill so far, the prayer breakfast did have the desired effect on America's clergy. On the Sunday when Christian liturgies call for the reading of the biblical story of the Prodigal Son (who is welcomed home after a leading a life of debauchedexcesses), Mann joined clergy people across the nation in using Clinton's story as a tale of sin, forgiveness, and redemption. -- K.V.

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