Naked City

Austin Stories

The Constitution may not allow the city to prohibit sleeping in public places, but there's another way to get the homeless off sidewalks in the Central Business District -- don't let them sit or lie down. An ordinance passed on first reading by the City Council Thursday essentially reinstates a provision of the city's 1996 camping ban, struck down last year by a Travis County judge, that outlaws people from bedding down under bridges and doorways. But this ordinance is more legally adroit: It doesn't ban sleeping per se, just contributing to "a sense of fear, intimidation, and disorder"; being "disturbing and disruptive"; discouraging "the free passage of pedestrians"; and contributing to "the loss of access to and enjoyment of public places" by sitting or lying in the public right-of-way. But as House the Homeless president Richard Troxell pointed out at Thursday's meeting, the effect of prohibiting people from sitting or lying down on the sidewalk is the same as that of the reviled camping ban: "People do not sleep standing up. Horses and cows do that. These are people."

Council members who supported the measure could take comfort in the notion that they weren't really giving an order to sweep the streets clean of homeless people, since it requires police officers to ask anyone sitting on the sidewalk to move before taking them away. But Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas refused to go along with their colleagues, saying the city's first priority should be providing shelter for the homeless.

The ordinance -- which applies downtown and throughout the Central Business District, but according to assistant city attorney John Steiner "would probably be possible citywide" -- was modeled after a similar law in Seattle, upheld by a federal judge in 1994. Unlike the Seattle ordinance, which prohibits sitting or lying down between 7am and 9pm, Austin's law would apply all the time. The reason, Steiner says, is that many downtown businesses stay open late, and so need the "protection" from the homeless promised by the ordinance round-the-clock; Steiner doesn't think the constitutionality of the ordinance will hinge on the issue of when it can be enforced…

Two dollars and 60 cents a month may not seem like a lot for the routine (and often badly needed) task of street maintenance, but Arlington resident Lawrence Scalf doesn't think you should have to pay for it. He's filed a lawsuit against the city of Arlington, claiming the fees, charged on city water bills, constitute an illegal tax. Scalf wants the city to stop charging the six-month-old fees and refund the approximately $2 million they've garnered for the city. Arlington's response: See you in court.

What does all this have to do with Austin? If you look at your monthly utility bill, you'll find a special charge (somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.50) called a "transportation user fee." That fee, which pays for everything from "preventive street maintenance to street repair," according to José Lara of the city's Public Works Dept., has generated about $18 million for the city since it was first implemented in 1991. Assistant Public Works Director Matthew Kite says the fee was not controversial when it was passed 10 years ago. City Attorney Andy Martin adds that home-rule cities like Austin and Arlington have the right to charge fees for city services; so far, he says, no one has attempted to challenge the fee. "We're confident [the fee] is constitutional," Martin says. But Kite says the city will be "keep[ing] an eye on what goes on in Arlington." Lawsuit-happy anti-taxers will no doubt want to do the same. …

The dogfight over the future of West Austin Park has gotten progressively uglier, as neighborhood dog owners continue to press Parks and Recreation officials to explain their decision to ban off-leash dogs from the park. According to the Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan -- adopted by the City Council last June -- part of the south end of the park is intended as a leash-free area. But last month, "all pets on leash" signs began popping up around the park; since then, park police have been aggressively targeting the dog owners who congregate there in the early evening. Since PARD handed down its decision on the park, dog owners Sarah and Hector Uribe have filed three open records requests asking for specific correspondence relating to PARD's decision. Sarah Uribe says the city has failed to meet the first two deadlines for producing the information she requested; moreover, she says, the information she has received has not contained any of the documents she asked for. Uribe says she was given several copies of the Old West Austin neighborhood plan, a 1973 letter from a Union Pacific official about constructing a pipeline, part of a fired employee's personnel records and a couple of copies of her own information request, among other things. Assistant City Attorney Raoul Calderon said he isn't sure why Uribe hasn't received the documents she requested, attributing the mishap to "a breakdown in communication." Meanwhile, the OWA neighbors have been contacting City Council members in hopes of getting some specific answers from PARD…

"SOS attorney lands job in mayor's office; Watson seemingly unaware of latest development."

Yes, that's a real press release headline. No, Grant Godfrey hasn't gone over to the dark side. More like the other side of the world: Come June 4, the longtime Save Our Springs attorney is heading for the Ivory Coast of Africa, where he'll work in the office of a local mayor (the exact mayor and town will be determined when he gets there) as a community developer for the Peace Corps for the next two years.

"I've been wanting to work overseas for a long time," Godfrey says, "and I kind of reached the point where I felt like I've given what I can to Austin for now and it's time to go help out some other parts of the world."

Meanwhile, rumors that lead counsel Bill Bunch would be checking out for the Czech Republic in a year continued to swirl, although Bunch says, "to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of my departure are premature." Still, the organization's legal team may be ready for a shakeup. Bunch says SOS wants to hire another attorney and possibly another staff member in the coming months. "We're going to be continuing to litigate, because there's a lot of noncompliance out there. If the laws were being followed we wouldn't be litigating," Bunch says.

Other, more dramatic changes might be in store. "SOS needs to figure out what they want to spend their resources on" and what their focus should be, Godfrey says. His advice? Get people excited about the environment again. "The Austin environmental community really needs to bring in some younger blood." Bunch says SOS is working toward at least the former goal, launching a membership and fundraising campaign that he hopes will double the organization's budget in the upcoming year…

Planning Commissioner Jim Robertson called this week to set the record straight on the commission's adoption of the Hyde Park neighborhood plan last week. Robertson says that to the best of his knowledge, the plan governs zoning for the whole neighborhood, not just the areas outside the Hyde Park Baptist Church Neighborhood Conservation and Combining District adopted in 1990. Wherever the church's zoning overlay, or NCCD, is silent on an issue -- such as height or impervious cover requirements -- the neighborhood plan would govern, restricting building height to 30 feet, for example. Needless to say, the church hasn't exactly warmed to this interpretation, and has claimed that -- as we reported last week -- the new restrictions in the neighborhood plan don't apply to its property. Some city staff members appear to agree with that interpretation. One thing is clear: No one's going to have the final say in this long and muddled case until it clears a federal courtroom, where a lawsuit over the church's right to build its proposed five-story parking garage has been sitting since April. ...

President George W. Bush must be longing for the days when he could just ground daughter Jenna, now a 19-year-old student at UT, and send her to her room. The president's daughter, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of minor in possession of alcohol just two weeks ago, is at it again: According to a statement released Wednesday by the Austin Police Department, on Tuesday at about 10pm, Bush daughter Jenna -- accompanied by twin sister Barbara -- was reportedly caught attempting to buy alcohol at Chuy's on Barton Springs Road. A source told the Chronicle the president's daughter was using a legal ID -- except it wasn't her own. The APD said that since no offense was witnessed by police, no charges will be filed without further investigation.

-- Contributors: Kevin Fullerton, Michael King, Jordan Smith

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