Off the Desk:
Fri., May 14, 1999
Remember when tax abatements were verboten? What with Smart Growth and all, development incentives for growing companies are back in fashion, as we saw with the city's dealmaking with Computer Sciences Corp. and Motorola. Now the city's about to offer a similar, smaller-scale deal to another company, Sulzer Orthopedics Inc. Only this time, the catch is something to the effect of, "we'll pay you to stay put." The 1,000-employee outfit is looking to expand out of its facilities in northwest Austin, but the city doesn't want them to even think about expanding over say, the aquifer, so it's putting together an incentive package of about $1.3 million to encourage Sulzer to expand its existing site near Parmer and RM 620. The offer is in its infancy stage, so details are sketchy at this writing ...
Former police chief Elizabeth Watson, whose war-torn tour of duty at APD ended in February 1997, has turned up in Oakland, California, working for her friend Jerry Brown (the new mayor, former California guv, and three-time presidential hopeful) as a consultant in the restructuring of the Oakland Police Dept. Watson's contract calls for her expertise on "geographic accountability" where crime and crime prevention are concerned, according to Gilda Gonzales, chief of staff in the Oakland city manager's office. Gonzales said she doesn't know the monetary terms or length of Watson's contract. Back in Austin, the guys at the cop shop wondered if Watson was angling to replace the Oakland policechief, who leaves in July. But Gonzales says Oakland officials are looking internally for a successor and, if Watson is interested, she hasn't let on ...
A dense pack of Democratic officeholders turned out last Saturday to celebrate the official hitching of political strategist David Butts and longtime mate Sue Wiederspahn. Butts had a hand in sweeping most of the politicos in attendance into office, so it was understandable why the wedding reception at the American Legion Hall was thick with celebs like U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, Texas Reps. Sherri Greenberg, Glen Maxey, and Elliot Naishtat, most of the City Council crew (some of whom were pulling double duty with the same-day wedding of Kristen Vassallo, aide to Council Member Bill Spelman), and District Court judges Wil Flowers (who married the pair), Suzanne Covington, and Lora Livingston. Butts' wedding followed on the heels of a roast held in his honor by the Central Austin Democrats. The event raised a heap of cash to benefit the Dems. -- A.S.
? and the Mysterians
It was a stockholders meeting with almost no stockholders. But perhaps that isn't surprising. Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold usually holds its stockholder meetings at its swank New Orleans headquarters. Last Thursday's meeting was conducted in the too-warm basement of a squat one-story brick building in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, more than a thousand miles from company headquarters.
The explanation for the venue change was thin: A spokesman said it was done "to be closer to shareholders." But of the two dozen people in the room, the vast majority were Freeport officialsand security. There were just three shareholders who were not there to protest the company's actions. And another oddity: The CEO and board of directors didn't bother to attend. Indeed, there have been better days for Freeport chief executive Jim Bob Moffett and his board, which includes Henry Kissinger and former U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. The company's gargantuan Grasberg mine in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, is producing record amounts of copper and gold, and it's doing it cheaper than any other mine on earth; over the past year, Freeport's production costs have fallen by 47%. That's the good news. The bad news includes slumping copper prices, a slumping stock price, increasing corporate debt loads, lowered bond ratings, an unstable political situation in Indonesia, and persistent rumors that the company is for sale and that Moffett's health is not good -- which made the board's absence even more curious. (Company officials denied Moffett is ailing but refused to say why he and the rest of the board did not attend).
At any rate, Freeport president and chief operating officer Richard Adkerson, who conducted the meeting, put a positive spin on the situation, saying the company has "been profitable when virtually no other mining company has been profitable. We have continued to generate cash and profits during the depths of the metals cycle." Despite that assessment, all of the shareholders who spoke at the meeting expressed displeasure. Harold J. Mathis, a Houston-area shareholder, argued for his shareholder resolution, to require the company to elect its directors annually instead of for staggered multi-year terms. His proposal, which was supported by the New York City Employees' Retirement System, was almost identical to one he submitted at last year's meeting, when 28% of shareholders supported it. It got 41% this year, and Mathis says he'll try again next year.
Next came critics representing the Seattle Mennonite Church, Christian Brothers (a Catholic order), and Project Underground, a California-based environmental group, all of whom threw darts at the company. Michelle Chan, who represented the Catholic order, said that a pending human rights lawsuit brought against Freeport by local indigenous people "is an example of how the company has failed to address management issues. Why did relations degenerate to the point where the company is facing a $6 billion lawsuit?" she asked. The lawsuit, currently pending in state court in New Orleans, was filed by local tribal leaders in 1996. Adkerson told Chan the lawsuit is "without merit and [we] are confident the court will agree with that."
John Rumbiak, a human rights activist from Irian Jaya who has documented numerous human rights abuses in and around Freeport's mine, then stood up near the back of the room and pleaded with the company's leaders. "My people are fighting against you so that you can recognize our dignity as human beings." He said local villagers have sued Freeport because the company won't deal with them properly. "You talk about community development. But I question why you guys are doing such things without consulting the people. They are in a very difficult situation. They don't have any money. They don't have any power like you people. They are trying to negotiate with you. But you keep denying them." Rumbiak's passionate speech failed to sway Adkerson, and less than an hour after the meeting began, it ended. Within minutes, security people began ordering shareholders to clear the room. -- R.B.
Get on the Peace Train
As NATO forces accidentally blasted the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and President Clinton ducked war protesters in Austin, former U.S. attorney general and UT alum Ramsey Clark delivered a sobering keynote address to Peace Action Texas, calling for a 90% reduction of the military budget. "It is imperative that we create a unified peace party in the United States that demands demilitarization," said Clark, who since serving as LBJ's AG from 1967-69 has dedicated his life to the peace movement, traveling to nearly every country attacked by the U.S. to survey the actual damages not reported by corporate-owned media. With no notes and a powerful, deliberate tone, Clark pieced together the story of increasing U.S militarism, a trend supported by a $300 billion military budget. China, with four to five times as many people, spends $34 billion, he noted. "We now manufacture and sell more than 75% of all weapons that are killing people all over the planet," Clark said, providing lurid details of Iraq's current conditions under U.N. sanctions. He called the sanctions "deliberate destruction of human life," claiming that we "are responsible for the deaths of way more than 1.5 million people who never hurt us, and couldn't."
Sanctions against Iraq, the continued bombing of Yugoslavia, and the ongoing conflict at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA) were the top issues at the weekend Peace Action Texas membership meeting, featuring activists Martin Sheen and Jennifer Harbury. The national nonviolence organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is trying to build its lobbying strengths by recruiting new members, especially in Texas, said Lon Burnam, the state chair who doubles as Fort Worth's Democratic representative in the Texas House. Sheen, a longtime social justice activist, was in Texas to visit his friend Kathleen Rumpf, an anti-SOA protester in federal prison in Fort Worth. Rumpf is serving a one-year sentence for defacing the sign in front of Fort Benning, Ga., home to the SOA. Burnam said Peace Action Texas intends to send as many buses as possible to November's annual protest and civil disobedience at Fort Benning, where 10,000 protesters are expected to gather. -- J.F.
Community Policing 101
Pop Quiz: Do you know what a police district representative is? You're not alone. The Austin Police Department implemented this community-policing program last September and, while the concept has possibilities, the real fruits of this labor have yet to be seen. "I think it's going reasonably well for the short time it's been implemented," said Police Chief Stan Knee, arguably one of community policing's biggest fans. "Some officers have aggressively pursued the tasks and opportunities, while some are still learning to develop skills for problem solving." As part of the program, officers are assigned to oversee neighborhood issues in one of six specific districts (which align with the traditional department patrol sectors), where they teach dispute resolution and problem-solving skills to residents. While there still seems to be some skepticism about the viability of community policing among veteran APD officers, Knee thinks the program will prove itself over time. "We'll be able to identify the problems that need to be solved," he said, "which will mean getting much closer to the community." To find out who the district rep is in your neighborhood, call 480-5017. --J.S.
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