Naked City

Austin Stories

Pity the poor council member. These days, it's understandable if Daryl Slusher is feeling a bit besieged, given the onslaught of e-mail that's been showing up in his mailbox in response to a letter -- which Slusher insists on referring to as a "report" -- defending his decision to support a land swap or other deal with Stratus Properties, which wants to develop 4,000 acres on the aquifer. Slusher has argued that HB 1704, the bill adopted during the '99 Legislature that lets developers build under the regulations in place when they filed their site plans, allows Stratus to build much more on its property than is allowed under the SOS Ordinance, and that the city should try to reach a compromise lest Stratus decide to pave the aquifer. But Slusher's argument has received no quarter among enviros, and they're letting him, and well nigh everyone else in the city, know about it.

Let it never be said that the tone of debate in this city was elevated by the invention of e-mail. In several letters, Mark Tschurr and Bill Bunch, the board chair and chief counsel, respectively, of the SOS Alliance, label Slusher's letter and subsequent responses as "misinformation," "spam," and apparently the work "of either Bruce Todd or Ronney Reynolds." Not to be out-last-worded, Slusher's e-mail responds that Bunch and Tschurr's comments are "intentionally insulting" and "devoid of any facts" to back up SOS's criticism of him.

Clearly, things have gotten personal. "There are concrete issues that Daryl is refusing to address on the merits," Bunch said in a response to questions (e-mailed, of course) on Friday. "It is a common tactic that when you don't have a good point on the merits then you change the issue to something personal." Of course, it doesn't help that Slusher and the SOS leadership are barely on speaking terms, if that. "We never hold grudges, so whenever he's ready to work with us to save Barton Springs, we're ready," Bunch said. But for the immediate future, the council appears more interested in dealing with Stratus than working out their issues with those pesky greens; two weeks ago, they started the process of procuring a master developer (possibly Stratus) for the former Mueller Airport site, the main property under discussion for a possible land swap with the company...

One of the top priorities of education committees this legislative session will be ramping up more rigorous coursework for public school students and better aligning that coursework with college requirements. Fine and good, say school districts, but what do we have to do, and how much is it going to cost us?

On Feb. 7-9, Austin ISD will bring state lawmakers, school finance experts, and higher education officials together with representatives from the Texas School Alliance, made up of 25 of the largest school districts in Texas, for a dialogue on that very question. AISD Special Projects and Intergovernmental Relations Director Dave Duty, who will ride herd over the three-day conference, says that if the Texas School Alliance doesn't get behind the reforms, they won't amount to much, no matter what the Legislature wants. "They've got to buy into it, or it's going nowhere," Duty says...

Watching the mayhem in Florida last year, you might have gotten the impression that "voter intent" -- a previously obscure phrase that's been integrated into public consciousness as smoothly as "political correctness" or "is that your final answer?" since November -- is a tricky devil to discern. Not true, says Travis Co. Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, who asserts that "the percentage of ballots where you cannot determine the intent of the voter is minuscule," especially in Travis County, which hasn't used a punch-card system like Palm Beach County's in 13 years. DeBeauvoir will talk about the efforts the county is taking to prevent voting errors and comply with federal law regarding vote counts before the Austin Area League of Women Voters on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 7pm at the South Austin Senior Activity Center, 3911 Manchaca. Also on the agenda: Although the federal directive issued by the Supreme Court in Gore v. Bush last year says that cities and counties can't use "subjective judgment" to determine a voter's intent, "how do you determine intent without making a judgment?" DeBeauvoir wonders. "That's a conflict we do not yet know how to resolve." For more info, call the League at 451-6710...

Are crowds of bicyclists doomed to disappear from Texas' rural roads? Will the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Lance Armstrong Foundation go belly-up because the bike races that provide a chunk of their funding have to be canceled? Will bicycle riders be forced to wear clunky orange triangles on their posteriors wherever they go?

That, and more, is what bicycle activists fear will happen if a bill by state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, passes at the Lege this session, and they're doing everything they can to make sure that doesn't happen. SB238 would force bike riders to ride with orange tractor triangles on the back of their bicycles; require them to ride single-file at all times; and, most controversially, prohibit them from riding in groups of more than two on farm-to-market (FM) and ranch-to-market (RM) roads with unimproved shoulders.

Wentworth did not return repeated calls for comment. But Gary Joiner of the Texas Farm Bureau, which is supporting the legislation, says farmers in Blanco County pushed for the bill because they're getting fed up with having to slam on their brakes when they encounter bicyclists "toodling around" on rural FM and RM roads. "We are not going to deny these people the opportunity to get out in the country and ride; we're just asking that the roads they ride on be the safest roads possible for the bicyclists and the motorists," Joiner says.

But Preston Tyree of the Texas Bicycle Coalition (www.biketexas.org) says the move would "shut down rides all over the state," including the MS 150, which raised $3.4 million for the MS Society last year. Another big impact would be on recreational riders and commuters, who use such rural roads as FM 2222 and FM 967 for travel and recreation. "Our question is, is this a public health issue? Are there economic impacts?" asks Tyree. "From anecdotal evidence, we think there are not." Another bill, which will reportedly be filed by Dripping Springs Republican Rick Green this week, would reportedly ban all bicyclists, even those traveling alone, from unimproved rural roads...

The city's Office of Neighborhood Services, which works to educate Austin residents about neighborhood issues and city services, is offering a series of free classes for neighborhood leaders and citizens interested in neighborhood leadership and organization. This month, classes include "Neighborhood Resources on the Net," "Reducing My Electric Cost," and "Smart Growth: The Basics." All the classes, which the city puts on in conjunction with Austin Community College, take place at ACC's Eastview Campus. For more info, call 499-7672; or go to www.ci.austin.tx.us/ons/neighboracad.htm...

Austin's proposed new City Hall won't be the shoebox critics feared it would be, but could citizens' input improve its design? New Mexico architect Antoine Predock's diminutive proposal -- constrained in size by the city's agreement with Computer Sciences Corp., whose corporate headquarters will be situated literally around our new civic center -- has been praised and criticized in equal measure by architects, future City Hall denizens, and citizens groups since it was released a couple of weeks ago. The fanciful design, which features a plaza and several outdoor "gathering" places, is likely to be a contentious item at this week's council meeting, where members will vote to approve, disapprove, or spend more time debating the design. If they do the latter, as Council Member Beverly Griffith has proposed, the council would send the design back to Predock for a more detailed drawing, or schematic, that would give the council a better idea of exactly what the architect is proposing to build. Last week, Chris Noack, president of the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects, sent a letter to Mayor Kirk Watson imploring him not to let the design get bogged down in deliberations, but to continue the "open design process" that has taken place so far...

Time's a-wastin' for the Austin Convention Center Hilton to get off the ground in time for the expand-o-Center's 2002 opening. But will anybody want to buy the "limited-offering high-yield instruments" ("junk bonds" to you and me) to pay for the hotel? Even after the city agreed to pitch $15 million of its Convention Center reserves into the kitty last fall, the money men have been slow to grab the carrot, and at press time the project was still nearly two-thirds short of its $280 million price tag.

-- with Mike Clark-Madison & Kevin Fullerton

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Stratus Properties, Daryl Slusher, SOS Alliance, HB 1704, Bill Bunch, Mark Tschurr, Texas School Alliance, Dave Duty, Dana DeBeauvoir, Jeff Wentworth, Gary Joiner, Texas Farm Bureau, Preston Tyree, Texas Bicycle Coalition, Rick Green, Office of Neighborhood Services, Cit

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