Naked City

Off The Desk:

The razzle-dazzle roll-out of "George W. Bush: The Presidential Candidate!" continued Sunday afternoon as The Big Tease introduced his star-studded exploratory committee to 200 reporters and well-wishers at the Austin Convention Center. But since all we've really learned so far from the Bush coronation is that superficiality equals popularity, we decided to avoid analysis and focus on the petty stuff, such as the number of times the phrase "...do for the nation what he has done for Texas" was used in various bigwigs' speeches, and the dizzying number of red neckties worn. Here's more:

  • Exploratory Committee Members: 10
  • Exploratory Committee Members who are former Canadian Football League quarterbacks: 1 (Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts Jr.)
  • Television cameras: 35
  • Still photographers: 19
  • Flags behind the dais: 15 (seven Texas, eight U.S.)
  • Loudspeakers:12
  • Microphones:11
  • Theatrical lights: 24
  • Teleprompters: 2
  • Times Bush spoke Spanish: 2
  • Media Outlets: 78 (including an international contingent that included press from Japanese television and newspapers, a British print journalist, a Danish camera crew, and a Star magazine reporter).

And finally, the lame joke of the day was the countless variations on the, "Hey!-Isn't-this-the-auto-show?" -theme (a reference to the doings at the other end of the building). The number of times that gem was beaten to death in the Main Ballroom was rivaled only by the times the word "compassionate" was uttered. Sounds like everyone needs some new material. In the meantime, the Exploratory Committee Web site, http://www.georgewbush.com, is up and running if you want to check out the latest on the campaign.--L.T., R.B.

As the weeks pass, it appears that Gov. Bush isn't so much running for the presidency as he is seducing the country into believing he's already got the job. The Bush campaign has taken on an air of inevitability. That sentiment is bolstered by the news that Bush's chief advisor,Karl Rove, is selling his political consulting business. Rove did not return phone calls from the Chronicle. --R.B.

What will Smart Growth look like in your neighborhood? City officials are visiting neighborhood association meetings all month, offering folks a chance to evaluate images of housing, businesses, and streetscapes, and talk about how their visions coincide with Smart Growth principles. The first presentation is tonight, Thursday, March 11, at Yarborough Library, 2200 Hancock Dr. For more, see the city's Web site, http://www.ci.austin.tx.us, or call Meghan Wieters at 499-6386 ...

Speaking of planning, the city is seeking public input on the master plan for the Town Lake Park that will surround the anticipated performing arts and civic centers. A hearing is slated for 6:30pm tonight, March 11, at the City Coliseum. Call 499-6418 for more info. --L.T.


What's the Frequency?

The patient isn't dead, but it's comatose and needs life support.

KOOP radio faced the greatest threat to its existence yet on Tuesday when it was forced to stop broadcasting. The 91.7FM signal was reduced to nothing but static at the 9am start of the community station's broadcast day when station engineer Jerry Chamkis turned in his immediate resignation and removed several vital pieces of broadcasting equipment from the station. Chamkis owns the equipment; he had been leasing some of it to KOOP and allowed the station to use the rest free of charge.

Chamkis said his action was prompted by what he characterized as continued mismanagement of the station. The straw that broke the camel's back was an attempt by the station's programming committee to possibly remove station founder Jim Ellinger from the air. Chamkis said station members Paul Odekirk and Donelle McKaskle had been pressuring the committee to punish Ellinger for violating Federal Communication Commission (FCC) rules against making personal attacks without offering an on-air chance to respond. Ellinger was accused of verbally attacking McKaskle on his show. Chamkis blasted the committee for not making similar investigations into programmers Eduardo Vera and Mac McKaskle (Donelle's brother), who are political allies of Odekirk. The rule is often ignored by the FCC -- a similar complaint was filed against KVET's inflammatory Sammy & Bob show in 1997, and nothing came of it.

"[There is a] complete disparity between the way they are dealing with Ellinger and how they deal with Mac and Eduardo," Chamkis said.

Les Jacobs, a programming committee member, said the committee was recommending some form of disciplinary action against Ellinger but had not come to an agreement on what that should be. Some of the seven members called for merely a warning, while others called for suspension, he said.

Chamkis' actions put the station in a double bind -- it can't broadcast without the equipment, and it is also required by law to have an engineer under contract. Chamkis said he had been leasing a studio transmitter link (STL) -- which sends the station's signal to its broadcasting tower -- to KOOP for $330 a month on a lease-to-own plan, and that the station was $650 behind on its payments. The station also is legally required to have an Emergency Action System (EAS, which alerts the station to dangerous weather situations and other emergencies), and Chamkis was allowing them to use one free of charge. He said that if KOOP pays him the remaining balance of $2,484 on the STL and purchases the EAS for $1,500, he will re-install the equipment. However, he said, he will not return as station engineer. "I will no longer have anything to do with the station," he said.

Ellinger had no comment on the programming committee's actions, but of the station's possible demise he said, "My so-called experiment in applying democracy to a media outlet has apparently failed in Austin, Texas. KOOP was on the air for 215 weeks, following my 11 years of work to get the frequency. I feel as though I'm telling people about a close friend dying."

KOOP Board of Trustees President Teresa Taylor did not return the Chronicle's call, but on Tuesday trustee Diana Castañeda said the trustees would have an emergency meeting to deal with the situation. In the meantime, UT student radio station KVRX -- which shares the 91.7 frequency with KOOP, normally broadcasting at night -- has begun 24-hour programming to fill the daytime void, at KOOP's request. If KOOP remains off-air for more than 30 days, KVRX can apply for sole control of the frequency. KVRX officials have not yet commented on whether they might do so, but the university and KOOP fought a long legal battle for the frequency about a decade ago. --L.N.


Grave Robbing?

Embalming isn't cheap. Particularly if it's done at any of the Austin funeral homes owned by funeral giant Service Corporation International. According to a recent study by the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society (AMBIS), the five local Cook-Walden funeral homes, all of which are owned by SCI, now charge $725 for embalming. The next most expensive competitor, Thomason Funeral Home in San Marcos, charges $400. Embalming prices at other Austin-area funeral homes range between $200 and $360.

"It's clearly price gouging since they can contract for that service with a local mortuary service that does it as cheaply as $195," says Lamar Hankins, the president of the board of AMBIS. Hankins says that Cook-Walden's prices for embalming have more than doubled since last year. "Price gouging is a fair description of it. No one else comes anywhere close to charging what they do." The AMBIS survey also found that Cook-Walden's funeral homes have the highest prices for direct cremation ($2,255), immediate burial ($2,865), refrigeration ($350 per day), and rental caskets ($995).

SCI's prices have been the subject of numerous news stories. Last year, the company sued author and former funeral home owner Darryl J. Roberts for defamation. Roberts was critical of SCI's pricing methods, and his book about the funeral industry, Profits of Death, offered advice to consumers on how to obtain low-cost funerals. Last September, SCI dropped its lawsuit against Roberts without explanation.

Bill Miller, the Austin-based lobbyist and political consultant who is acting as SCI's spokesman, defended the company's prices. "The price is set because we try to provide a quality product. We set our price accordingly. That's just what it costs. That's what we've established and settled on," he said. The AMBIS survey of funeral prices is available on the Web at http://www.funerals.org/famsa/ambis.htm. --R.B.


Police Interrogated

When Austin Police Assistant Chief Bruce Mills walked into the tiny room at the A.B. Cantu/ Pan-American Recreation Center Monday night to discuss a recent report on improving police-community relations, little did he know he'd have to answer for years of alleged police misconduct and public mistrust himself. And fast.

On Monday, the APD released the results of a much-anticipated study by Philadelphia-based law enforcement consulting team A.W. Dean and Associates that outlines 16 recommendations on how the APD and the Austin community can better live in harmony. The consultant's services were enlisted as part of the city's settlement of a federal lawsuit stemming from the 1995 Cedar Avenue incident.

The Dean report, based on information gathered in interviews with APD officers and during community forums held last year, calls for an overhaul of the APD's Internal Affairs division, frequently criticized by residents for ignoring complaints about officer misconduct and questions about whether officers were reprimanded. It also calls for better minority education within the department, hiring more minority officers, and for the APD to build better relationships in neighborhoods where a large number of minorities live. But the oft-heard suggestion that APD form a civilian review board was not one of the recommendations.

But what was billed as a thorough explanation of the report Monday night quickly became a frenzied Q&A with Mills, who readily admitted to the breakdown in accountability within the department. Mills, maintaining composure and patiently answering every question, said that while the department is cleaning its own house, overall improvement will also depend on continued checks and balances by the community. "The first stage is to hold us accountable," said Mills, holding up the report. "We're acknowledging here that we're not doing everything right. I ask everyone to read this information and hold us accountable. Otherwise, it's just another report sitting on the shelf."

In the report's first pages, APD Chief Stan Knee replied to the consultant's recommendations, listing actions already being taken or planned for the future. He wrote that the department has already hired additional staff to reduce the workload in Internal Affairs. The department is also looking at ways to better attract more minority officers, and has forged a partnership with UT to teach a course in working with minority neighborhoods.

After the meeting, South Austin resident Sam Guzman said the public needs to demand accountability not only from APD officers but also those who hire them. He said the improvements in police-community relations will depend largely on "how much commitment there is, not only with ranking officers, but also the police chief, the city manager, and the City Council."

"I believe there's a lot of fine, outstanding officers out there and I tip my hat to them. It's because of them this system needs to improve," Guzman said. "They need to be proud of where they work, they need to be appreciative of what they do. But as long as these things are going on,they get painted over with a broad stroke." --B.M.


Unwelcoming Party

Controversial from the moment of its conception, the brief appearance made by Ward Connerly, a prominent black affirmative action opponent from California, became incendiary when hundreds of students waiting to hear him speak at the UT Law School on Monday were locked outside the doors of a lecture hall designed to hold only 200. Of those seats, at least 30 were reserved for members of the Young Conservatives of Texas and the Federalist Society, two conservative campus groups who invited Connerly to speak.

As students shouted and stomped their feet outside, Connerly spoke for about 15 minutes to an audience divided evenly between supporters and opponents, who attempted to drown one another out with boos, stomping, and applause.

Connerly himself did little to defuse the situation. After telling one heckler that his "mental capacity is being reflected by that kind of a stupid comment" (a statement he repeated to students holding a "Ward Connerly Half-Baked Bake Sale" outside), Connerly repeatedly requested that the ample police contingent remove a group of rowdy students. After a tentative agreement with the hecklers was forged, Connerly presented, albeit sketchily, his "vision of a color-blind society" that has taken him on a multi-state tour. " Our government should treat everyone the same. Equal protection under the laws -- that's what it means," Connerly said. "You may not like the Hopwood decision, but the Hopwood decision is going to be the law of the land ... the question is, how do we make the transformation from a body of law that is very race-conscious to one that is not?"

Those seeking great revelations on the questions of race relations in America went away empty-handed. Connerly never quite got around to answering his own question, despite its repetition several times by members of the audience in a lengthy Q&A session after his speech. Instead, Connerly repeated statements he had made several times throughout his talk: "We can't be indifferent to the fact that one ought not hold someone to a different standard just because of their race. Civil rights are not just for black people. They're for everyone."--E.C.B.

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