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Off the Desk:

April 30, 1999, News

Well, the early voting turnout for the City Council Elections was even worse than the dismal prediction. Only 5,967 -- about 1.5% -- of the city's 408,891 registered voters cast early ballots between April 14-27. That's significantly fewer than in 1997, when 17,823 voted early, or 1996, when 9,261 did. Let's do better Saturday, May 1, as 17 candidates are vying for three-year terms on the council. All three incumbents -- Place 1's Daryl Slusher, Place 3's Jackie Goodman, and Place 4's Beverly Griffith -- are seeking re-election. Polls are open from 7am-7pm Saturday. Call 499-2211 for info and check out our Web site for the complete list of candidates, our endorsements, and more.

If you missed the recent three-day Town Lake Park design workshop, you can still weigh in on the future of the south shore. There will be two sessions Monday, May 3: 1-3pm at Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs, and 6:30-8:30pm at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs. Residents are invited to refine the charrette plan and offer additional ideas for the park project. For more info, call 499-2357 or see A master plan is expected to reach the City Council in June ...

Austin Energy and other city employees who work on the 17th floor of Two Commodore Plaza at Ninth and Brazos were fed up with the so-called "mold problem" in the building. So when the city recently renegotiated its lease with building owner Tarantino Properties Inc., it specifically requested that the building's air ducts be cleaned. But, in an example of "be careful what you ask for," about 100 employees -- including, coincidentally, environmental and conservation services employees -- were sent home Monday and Tuesday because the fumes from a fungicide used to clean the air ducts over the weekend were still lingering. Employees complained of a burning in their throats and eyes, nausea, and dizziness. The city reports that fresh air was piped into the offices Tuesday night and everyone was back at work on Wednesday ...

The Austin Yellow Bike Project is sponsoring a Bicycle Film Festival the next two Mondays, May 3 and May 10, 8pm and 10pm, at the Ritz Lounge, 320 E. Sixth. A $3 donation is requested. See p.92 for a complete listing, or call Sam Bollinger at 457-9011.-- L.T.

Drug Wars, Part One

It was 50 against two and just short of a lynching. Monday night at Ben White Florist on South Congress, people squeezed around floral displays, sipped on sodas, and for nearly two hours let Dr. Heinz Aeschbach and his wife Margaret have it. Residents and business owners along South Congress just discovered that Aeschbach, a clinical psychiatrist, is planning to relocate his substance abuse treatment facility just doors away. Aeschbach's Addiction and Psychotherapy Services is currently housed on East Riverside -- and attendees at Monday's neighborhood meeting want it to stay there. Aeschbach specializes in methadone treatment for recovering heroin addicts, but from the tenor of Monday's "emergency" meeting, you would've thought he was planning to open a porn theatre. Coordinated by Dawson neighborhood resident Kelley Smoot, the meeting consisted of area residents voicing concerns that a methadone treatment facility will bring more drug-addled people to South Congress, increase crime, and put their families and businesses in jeopardy. "We don't want this type of business here," said off-duty police officer Sharon Voudouris-Ross, speaking on behalf of her elderly parents who live in the area. "We don't need any more addiction in this community."

"How is this going to improve South Congress?" shouted another woman. "I think where you are now is more suitable than here," added former councilmember Max Nofziger.

The residents argued that Aeschbach's facility would attract the same seedy criminal-types that presumably loitered the dark shadows of the late Cinema West Adult Theatre. They lumped the clinic in with prostitution, dive motels, and other undesirables that mar their streets. In his thick, German accent, Aeschbach repeatedly tried to assure residents that he's never experienced any problems with his clients. He said many are professionals and students, people with jobs who don't look for trouble. "People come to the clinic for treatment. They don't hang around," said Aeschbach. "You don't have to be afraid. Come to the clinic, watch and see, these are decent people."

But few listened. Instead, they begged him to turn his facility into a dentist's office, an elderly clinic, or to just go away all together. After the meeting, Aeschbach thanked everyone for sharing. As he and his wife stood in the parking lot, Aeschbach pointed to a sign hanging from the Austin Security Knowledge building next door that reads: Concealed Handgun Training. "I hate that," he snapped, shaking his head. "How's that supposed to improve South Congress?" -- B.M.

Drug Wars, Part Two

The Houston-based Drug Policy Forum of Texas believes the U.S. war on drugs is indefensible. To prove its point, the group is offering $500 to anyone willing to publicly and intellectually argue in favor of current drug policy. The group is looking for an individual to defend current drug laws -- and argue in favor of punishing possession of small amounts of marijuana -- in at least one debate.

Carl Veley, Drug Policy Forum operations manager, says the reward is an effort to ratchet up public discussion on criminalization, mandatory sentencing, and other components of the nation's drug war. Over the past few years the group, which favors decriminalization and regulation of illegal substances, has contacted dozens of government officials, elected representatives and civic leaders, but no one has been willing to debate. So the group offered the reward. But still, no takers. "We've had zero response," said Veley. "We can't find anyone who will become informed on the subject and argue against changing the law. Nobody will argue in favor of the current laws."

Alan Robison, a retired UT Health Science Center professor of pharmacology and Forum founder, complains that the unwillingness to debate has become a way for "drug warriors" to squash public discourse. He pointed to an incident in 1997 when U.S. Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey backed out of a State Bar of Texas Association meeting in Houston after a drug-policy critic was added to the program. "We began to realize many years ago that we can't get these damn guys to come out and debate," Robison said. "This is a deliberate strategy. These guys know if they don't come, there's no discussion." McCaffrey did not return calls inquiring about the incident. But the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the nonprofit famous for its "This is your brain on drugs..." TV commercials, said it had little time to argue the validity of anti-drug efforts. "We don't run a speakers' bureau or a debating school," said Steve Dnistrian, Partnership director of public affairs. "Part of the reason they can't find anybody is that nobody takes them seriously. What do you want to debate this for?" Dnistrian said the organization occasionally participates in public debates, though he didn't know how many. "We can't honor every request, even with a $500 bounty," he said. "Are they going to pay for travel? Is it the Sheraton or the Best Western? But either way I'm probably not coming -- not because I'm ducking. These issues have been debated for the last 25 to 30 years, and the debates get us nowhere."

The Drug Policy Forum of Texas has a mailing list of 1,500 and about 300 due-paying members -- mostly doctors, lawyers, ex-professors, and other intellectuals. The organization differs from the more activist-oriented Texas Hemp Campaign, which is known for less cerebral means of protest like candlelight vigils, rallies, and marches. Veley said if no one steps forward, the group may bump the reward up to $750. Besides trying to hammer home its point about the Drug War, the five-year-old Forum is hoping this reward offering can heighten its own profile, although Veley said contributions and new members aren't exactly rolling in.

Any defenders of U.S. drug policy interested in cashing in on the Forum's offer should call 210/641-6819 or write Drug Policy Forum of Texas, 888 W. Sam Houston Pkwy S. #248, Houston, TX 77042. --S.F.

Nowhere to Hide

The threat of violence in schools led Glenda Smith to move to Wimberley five years ago. Unfortunately for Smith and her eighth-grade son, Gary, the threat of violence appears to have invaded Wimberley, too. "I moved out of Houston to get away from this kind of stuff," said Smith, who was one of about 400 parents, students, and law enforcement officials who crowded into the cafeteria at Danforth Wimberley Junior High School on Monday night to learnabout the latest developments in the alleged plotof four eighth-grade boys to blow up the school.

Investigators believe four teens at the school began planning the attack in January and that the plan is not connected to the recent shootings in Littleton, Colo. The teenage boys are being held on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit arson, and conspiracy to manufacture explosives. Gary Orchowski, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, said no federal weapons charges are planned.

There were many parents at the meeting who are like Smith -- recent arrivals to Wimberley who thought they were escaping big city problems. Rick Morales, a burly parent who wore a gray cowboy hat, said, "We moved here six months ago from McAllen because of the crime situation with gangs down there." Sitting next to his eighth-grade daughter, Desiree, Morales said, "We were even home-schooling her to keep her away from that situation. The news of this blew us away." -- R.B.

Class Clowns

It was a 90-minute crash course in political humor, and who better to teach it than Mark Russell, Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, and Cactus Pryor? On Monday afternoon at the Bass Concert Hall, the four raconteurs provided more comedic material than a Dan Quayle press conference. But it was all in the name of academia. The four were the guests of Liz Carpenter, the grande dame of Austin politics. This year's Carpenter Lectureship was dedicated to the topic of political humor. Here are a few of the best lines:

  • Mark Russell on the local daily: "Today I read the Austin American-Statesman cover to cover. It was the most riveting minute and a half I've spent in a long time." And on our nation's capital: "Washington is a bilingual city; a city where truth is a second language."
  • Molly Ivins (who provided a rather dry discussion of writing humorously): "If you cover Texas politics, you don't need jokes."
  • Ann Richards on the advanced age of the speakers on the podium: "This group looks like an ad for Polident. If you dropped a bomb up here, you'd create a Social Security surplus." And on Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura: "This mixing of wrestling and politics has just about destroyed wrestling's credibility."-- R.B.

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