Naked City

Off The Desk:

Gus Garcia is resigning from the mayor pro tem post as of Oct. 1, he announced yesterday. Garcia, who has held the position since June, 1995, says he supports naming CouncilmemberJackie Goodman his successor. Recent health problems are not behind his decision, he says...

There's an election Nov. 3 - and it'll be a big one. Don't be left out. Early voting begins Oct. 17. If you haven't registered yet, go to the Travis County Voter Registration Office, 1010 Lavaca, before Oct. 5. Call 473-9473 for info. For a list of early voting polling places see http://www.co.travis.tx.us/elections. And for more info on the bond election, check out http:// www.ci.austin.tx.us/bonds ...

The Hyde Park Baptist Church's controversial proposal to develop the 58-acre tract known as Quarries Park will be the subject of a public hearing Sept. 30 at 6:30pm at Will Davis Elementary, 5214 Duval Road. Representatives from various city boards and commissions will be on hand to answer questions. Last year, the church submitted plans that include the construction of 11 buildings, including a secondary school, a child-care center, a storage building, a guest house for visiting ministers, and a multipurpose activity center with Sunday school rooms, day-care facilities, and a gymnasium ...

The Texas Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League (TARAL) hosts a Celebration of Choice, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade Friday, Oct. 2, 7pm, at Saengerrunde Hall,1607 San Jacinto. Tickets at the door, or call 462-1661 ...

-- L.T.

It was a weekend of disappointment for someWestlake boosters. First, the Chaparrals lost their 67-game football win streak with a 23-21 loss to Killeen Ellison on Friday. Then, 57% of Eanes Independent School District voters rejected the $49.9 million bond proposal that would have funded a second high school. A record 39% of EISD's registered voters turned out to reject the proposal that divided the West Lake Hills community. The election spawned competing PACs that reportedly spent over $90,000. But in the end, the naysayers prevailed. EISD school board president Jeanetta Sanders, an ardent supporter of the bond issue, said the election came down to money. "The voters were afraid of higher taxes," she said. But EISD is not without options. Sanders noted that Eanes still has $21 million left over from a 1995 bond issue. Brad Shields, the lone school board trustee who opposed the measure, says the vote did not merely reflect tax aversion. "This was not a tax issue. The community was not convinced that building a second high school was the right solution." - W.O.

John Graves bid farewell to the Brazos River in 1959 when he published his acclaimed book Goodbye to a River, an account of his three-week canoe trip down the Brazos. Recently, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group put a far less romantic spotlight on the river, naming the Brazos the nation's third most polluted river, in terms of toxic chemicals discharged into them between 1992 and 1996 ...

-- R.B.


All Together Now?

The contentiousness that has marked much of the discussion over the 54 acres where Palmer Auditorium and the City Coliseum sit seemed to have disappeared during Saturday's Town Lake planning workshop. About 75 residents took part in the half-day workshop, facilitated by Project for Public Spaces Inc., whose reps showed slides of urban parks around the world. Ideas for the Austin site included a play area, kiosks, lagoons, an outdoor cafe, an open stage for music and theatre, rowboats, and horseback rides. Attendees then split up into groups to ponder the big question: parking. City officials guess about 1,000 spaces will be needed to service visitors to the proposed performing arts and civic centers. While some believed that parking could be spread out over several paved lots, others were convinced that a single, stacked garage would mean more green space - though the jury's still out on where that garage should be. The city would like it to be aesthetically pleasing to fit in with the park theme, perhaps containing first-level office space or even a cafe. City officials also say they'd like to see sidewalks leading from downtown to the park, and parking near the events centers.

If approved by voters Nov. 3, Prop. 11 would raise the rental car tax 5% to fund the 70,000-square-foot civic center, garage, and park. Prop. 12 asks voters for permission to lease Palmer Auditorium to ARTS Center Stage, which wants to raise $50 million to renovate the auditorium into four performance spaces. The auditorium still would be owned by the city, but managed by ARTS Center Stage.

City officials and others at the Saturday session said they felt participants viewed the workshop more as "an opportunity" than a threat.-- B.M.


Sparks Fly

City Manager Jesus Garza's surprise reorganization of Austin Energy - the city-owned electric utility - drew immediate criticism this week from consumer activists and the attorney advocate for residential ratepayers. Garza's plans to restructure the utility were made publicMonday, less than a week after General ManagerMilton Lee submitted his letter of resignation, effective Nov. 30. Garza's changes supersede the utility's reorganization of April 1997, which the city-hired consultants, Metzler and Associates, helped put into place.

Under the new structure, the utility will be divided into four parts - energy services, operations, finance, and communications. Chuck Manning and Elaine Kuhlman will oversee operations and finance, respectively. Garza has not yet named a director to head the newly created communications post. Garza also said he will be handling much of the GM duties over the next 60-120 days before deciding the future of that position. The most contentious aspect of the new structure, however, is the shift of energy conservation services from the city's environmental division to the utility. Roger Duncan, director of Planning, Environmental & Conservation Services, will move to the utility to oversee energy services. Meanwhile, former environmental director Austan Librach (who left the city briefly for a private-sector job) will reassume the enviro duties of his old post.

Conservation advocates, including W. Scott McCollough, the attorney hired by the City Council to represent residential ratepayers, expressed concern over transferring conservation services to the utility. McCollough and others contend that the utility's mission to sell electricity runs counter to the interests of conservation. McCollough, in a strongly worded letter to Garza on Monday, complained that he learned of the changes from an "outside source,"and that he should have been allowed to provide input from a consumer perspective. McCollough noted that he will not renew his contract with the city when it expires at the end of the month, but Garza said he will ask McCollough to reconsider. He also reiterated his commitment to the city's conservation efforts: "The conservation program's success is critical to the city, to our ratepayers and to this utility. We want to integrate that program into the utility and make it a very successful program." The text of Garza's memo to City Council outlining the utility reorganization, as well as the letter to Garza from McCollough, are available here. -- A.S.


Waste Not

Opponents of the Sierra Blanca radioactive waste dump are calling President Bill Clinton'ssigning of the $50 million Texas/Maine/Vermont Radioactive Waste Compact into law an inappropriate act, far more serious than anything involving Monica Lewinsky. Calling the decision a violation of his own 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice, critics said on Tuesday that Clinton "traded the civil rights of the low-income Mexican-American people of Sierra Blanca, Texas for the nuclear power industry."

The future of Sierra Blanca now rests with the TNRCC, which will decide whether to build the nuclear waste disposal facility 16 miles from the Mexican border and open it for use. Two state administrative law judges have already recommended against licensing the facility. -- L.T.


Shell Game

An explosion that killed three people at a Shell Oil plant in Ohio four years ago has suddenly become an issue in The Austin Chronicle's effort to obtain federal government documents under the Freedom of Information Act. In 1996, the Chronicle filed a lawsuit against the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) in an effort to obtain documents regarding the agency's cancelation of a $100 million political risk insurance policy it held on an Indonesian gold mine operated by New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. OPIC canceled the insurance on environmental grounds. The Chronicle is seeking OPIC's environmental reports on the mine. All of the paperwork in the lawsuit was filed in federal district court more than 18 months ago.

But on Sept. 15, Jennifer Ramsey, a lawyer with the Austin law firm Minton Burton Foster & Collins, which represents Freeport, asked U.S. District Court Judge James Nowlin to consider a ruling from a Houston federal court in a case called Shell v. OSHA. Ramsey included a copy of the final order in the case.

Shell Oil sued OSHA to prevent the federal agency from releasing a report produced during OSHA's investigation of a May 1994 catastrophic explosion and fire at a Shell plant in Belpre, Ohio, which killed three people. At least one million pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the air and water. In November 1994, Shell agreed to pay over $3 million in fines for violations discovered by OSHA during its investigation. But just a few days before OSHA was to release its report on the plant explosion, Shell sued the agency in Houston district court, claiming that its "trade secrets" were at risk. In March, U.S. District Court Judge Vanessa Gilmore agreed with Shell and ordered OSHA not to release the report without redacting all "confidential information produced by Shell," and ordered the case sealed.

But how was Ramsey able to send Nowlin a copy of the order in the Shell case? In a footnote to her letter, she wrote that the enclosed order "was provided by the Department of Justice." In other words, the Dept. of Justice, which is representing OPIC in the Chronicle's FOIA lawsuit, has provided legal documents unavailable to the general public to a private company wanting to avoid public scrutiny. There are two dangerous precedents at work here: First, the federal government is using American tax dollars to provide assistance to private companies wanting to avoid scrutiny. But also, the FOIA itself could be gutted if all information a company provides a federal agency during an investigation can be kept under wraps. Freeport is asking that FOIA exceptions be extended not just to protect legitimate trade secrets, but to protect a company from any public scrutiny. In a Sept. 18 letter to Nowlin, Chronicle attorney Peter Kennedy wrote: "Apparently, when Freeport concludes that disclosure of information in the government's hands is useful, it has no qualms about releasing that information publicly, whether it be an order in a sealed case or an environmental study. But when Freeport decides that the release of government information will not help its interests, it seeks selective application of exemptions to our open government laws." A ruling from Nowlin's court on the Chronicle's case is expected within the next few months. -- R.B.

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