Naked City

Austin Stories

Hold the phone. (And the e-mails, and the visits to City Hall, and the faxes, too.) Representatives of Hyde Park Baptist Church and two Hyde Park neighborhood groups have been prohibited from communicating with City Council members and staff on church-related issues for the past week, while the council attempts to sort out the legal questions surrounding the church's application to build a five-story parking garage in the historic neighborhood. The postponement from last week's public hearing, proposed by Mayor Kirk Watson but readily agreed to by the war-weary council, was decided after hours of testimony from both sides of the battle had pushed the hearing well into the early morning hours. That leaves the issue in the hands of the mayor and council, meaning the decision on the garage will be made behind closed doors and not in public, as garage opponents have hoped.

On its surface, the battle is fairly straightforward: Does the church have a right to unlimited impervious cover on the land it owns on Avenue D, or does the underlying single-family zoning restrict the garage to 40% building cover? Each side says it's absurd to think it would have agreed to what the other side says it agreed to: In the neighbors' case, a massive garage covering 90% of its lot, and in the church's, a smaller facility that church lawyer Richard Suttle says would only hold about 50 more cars than the surface lot that's there now.

But beneath the legal arguments, other motives may be lurking. Some suggest that Watson -- the only attorney on the City Council -- may have used the weeklong grace period to do a little lobbying of his own. In the year the garage issue has been before the council, Watson has consistently sided with the church on the development, which he and the church say neighbors agreed to during negotiations with the church in 1990. Neighborhood reps -- including some who were in the 1990 discussions -- say they would never have agreed to let the church build such a massive structure in their neighborhood. At the end of the public hearing, Council Member Daryl Slusher said he found it hard to believe the 1990 City Council would have agreed to the larger garage, either, when its presence would clearly be a detriment to the neighborhood. We'll see if he, and the rest of the council, still feel that way after a week behind closed doors.

Last week, Watson offered the neighborhood reps an offer they could, and did, refuse: Let the church win, and they won't start building until you've had a chance to sue. "What struck me as odd," recalls former council member and Hyde Park resident Bill Spelman, who spoke on behalf of the neighborhood at the hearing, "was Kirk's insistence that this was actually a deal." The mayor's position appears to be that since the case will almost certainly end up in court anyway, the council may as well let it move ahead, and let a judge sort it out. But that assumption, neighborhood attorney Rachael Rawlins says, could cost the neighborhood dearly. "We believe the ordinance [governing the church's property] is clear on its face, and to the extent that anyone could possibly consider it ambiguous, that ambiguity is resolved through the legislative history," including tapes and transcripts from the 1990 negotiations and City Council meetings, Rawlins says. But if a judge decides the ordinance is still ambiguous, Rawlins continues, he or she will likely uphold the council's decision, giving today's winner a very real advantage when the case goes to court.

Complicating matters is Watson's potential run for statewide office, which could kick off as soon as April. Running for office requires deep-pocketed benefactors, and few pockets are deeper than those of Suttle's firm, Armbrust Brown & Davis, and Hyde Park Baptist members. Baptists, it's worth noting, also make up a major voting bloc statewide. Could Watson be looking a few months into his political future? Hard to say, but that wad of bills some onlookers saw Suttle counting during the council meeting was (no pun intended) a subtle, if unintentional, reminder of the attorney's tremendous power and donating potential…

It's not everyday you see the phrases "American Civil Liberties Union" and "hit list" in the same sentence. But there it is -- in the phrase "the ACLU's law enforcement hit list" -- in a statement from Charley Wilkison, political director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), condemning the civil liberties group for "working … to undermine officer's [sic] rights protected by state law" and promulgating "cop bashing and cop-hate."

Cop killers? The ACLU? What appears to have gotten CLEAT so hot under the collar were statements which CLEAT claims were made by some ACLU members implying that the Travis County sheriff's department's aggressive drug enforcement policy contributed to the death of sheriff's deputy Keith Ruiz, who was shot during a raid on a suspected drug dealer's home. Wilkison says CLEAT is fed up with the "cop-bashing and cop-hating material [the ACLU has] put out over the last several weeks" -- a list that presumably includes statements by the ACLU lambasting what the group calls a "gutted" police oversight process that keeps civilian oversight of the APD's disciplinary procedures largely out of public view. The ACLU is also pushing legislation to require police departments to include misconduct among the factors considered in granting promotions, make departments keep records on racial profiling, and close other "loopholes that let bad cops stay on the force" -- all measures, Wilkison says, that would "weaken civil service and strip away the protections and rights of civil service officers." Officers with the Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas police departments, as well as the Texas Dept. of Public Safety, disagree; they stood at a press conference with Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU, and state legislators Senfronia Thompson and Rodney Ellis, in support of an anti-racial profiling bill filed this week. CLEAT's statements, Harrell says, don't represent the views of the vast majority of police officers statewide. "CLEAT has one role," says Harrell, "and that is to protect bad cops." In response to the allegations about Ruiz, Harrell says it is "absolutely not the statement or the position of the ACLU" that the man suspected of his murder "had every right to fire that shot," as CLEAT has claimed…

On a related subject, the NAACP will hold a town hall meeting today, Thursday, at 7pm, to discuss the rather timely issues of police brutality and racial profiling. The meeting will be at Huston-Tillotson College; for more info, call Nelson Linder at 454-6161 or 695-6674…

Y'all won't have Eric Mitchell to kick around any more. The irascible former council member made it clear during last week's public hearing over renaming Rosewood Avenue for the increasingly iconic Dorothy Turner that he won't be back "unless I've come to get money from you for me." Contrary to rumors that have spread like brushfire (including in these pages; see "Mayor-o-Meter," March 2), a dapper-looking Mitchell -- decked out for the occasion in black suit, shirt, shoes, and tie -- promised that his days lobbying (and presumably running for) the City Council are over. "You won't have to worry about me causing problems for you any more," Mitchell said, adding, "You ought to take up a collection. If y'all get me enough money, I'll leave town." Council members were no doubt wishing that Turner would do the same…

No, you weren't dreaming. But if you were among the five Austinites awake and watching the City Council meeting at 1:30 Friday morning, it's understandable if you chalked it up to late-night hallucinations when Linda Dailey, aide to Council Member Danny Thomas, strode to the podium to present a proposal to rename Hargrave Street for the late Velma Roberts, an Eastside civil rights activist. Weirder than the council aide's late-night appearance at the lectern -- a move that's pretty much unprecedented in council history, since aides, after all, are not hired to be advocates before their bosses on the council -- was that the motion was being presented at all, since most on the council assumed (after the Turner name change proposal died without a vote) that Roberts would simply be dropped from the agenda. But as long as Dailey was going forward with her presentation, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman had some pointed questions to ask her, chief among them: Who was Hargrave? Who, Goodman wondered, would the city be de-memorializing by renaming the street for Velma Roberts? Apparently stunned by the question, Dailey said that to the best of her knowledge, Hargrave was "just a name," not the name of any person in particular -- a contention Goodman called "peculiar," given that Hargrave is, unlike Rosewood, a proper name. (Dailey isn't alone in her confusion; the Austin History Center, which searched its records for a mention of Hargrave, was unable to identify the street's namesake.) Thomas' motion died only after -- in a particularly surreal moment in a night full of them -- Watson obligingly rattled off a long list of speakers who had signed up to testify on the proposal, all but one of whom had vacated the building several hours before…

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