Naked City

Austin Stories

If you see someone scribbling notes in front of your house in the next few weeks, don't call the police. It might just be a News 8 Austin employee checking to see if you, like so many other Austinites, have made the switch to a digital satellite system. Employees will be paid to provide satellite owners' addresses to News 8 parent company Time Warner, which wants to bring DSS turncoats back into the cable-subscribing fold.

In a memo to all News 8 employees issued last Tuesday, News 8 General Manager Brian Benschoter encouraged all "non-editorial staffers" to "help identify the addresses of Satellite TV subscribers" in the Austin area. Although editorial employees -- those who actually write and deliver the news -- were not asked to participate in the marketing campaign, Benschoter noted that "if any of you on the editorial staff feel strongly that you would like to participate … please see me and I would be happy to discuss potential solutions." Time Warner's public affairs vice-president, Lidia Agraz, says News 8 editorial staff "usually [are] not allowed to participate in marketing campaigns."

Just how much is at stake in the war to win your $38 a month? Consider this: Time Warner is willing not only to pay its employees $3 for every address they turn over during the "Great Texas Dish Hunt," it's also offering a trip for two to Disney World to whoever collects the most addresses, says Agraz. And consider this hard sell, from a memo to Austin Time Warner employees: "We have the Digital TV services your neighbors really want, but maybe they don't know it yet. … Do your good deed and then collect the extra cash! Get ready to hunt the really big game and cash in!" The "really big game" in question -- the burgeoning ranks of digital satellite subscribers -- have been swallowing up an increasing amount of Time Warner's market share in recent months, according to Agraz. "We are having a lot of competition in the marketplace from satellites," she says.

Agraz is careful to emphasize that Time Warner isn't encouraging its employees to sneak into people's back yards, despite the toy binoculars that were handed out to promote the campaign. "It needs to be something that's fun and casual that you can do as you're walking by," Agraz says. "You're not going to go onto private property. The ones that you can't see [from the street], we don't know about." …

In the works: A proposal to make curb space in the Sixth Street entertainment district loading-zone only, allowing musicians direct -- and legal -- access to clubs' front doors. Currently, those spaces -- from Brazos to Red River -- are two-hour parking spots during the day; many turn into five-minute passenger zones at night. The curb space is prime real estate for downtown workers and clubgoers looking for close-in parking, which is why the street often gets clogged at rush hour with double-parked vans and liquor trucks.

Before you say, "But wait a minute -- haven't we heard this before?" -- well, yeah, sort of. In one version or another, the loading-zone-only proposal has been around since at least the mid-1990s, when club owners were repeatedly harassed by Austin bike police for allowing musicians to double park when unloading their equipment. In exchange for the commercial parking zones, club owners would agree to keep the sidewalks and alleys around their establishments clean, according to Urban Transportation Commission member Carl Tepper, who vetoed the proposal with council members and other city commissions earlier this month. At least three commissions and the Downtown Austin Alliance, which has long complained about the stench and general filth along the Sixth Street club corridor, would have to work together for the proposal to fly. All of which makes KGSR morning deejay and Music Commission chair Kevin Conner a bit skeptical, to put it charitably. "It's a good idea, but like all the various schemes to make Sixth Street work, one has to wonder if the theory can really be put into practice," Conner said in an e-mail. "If the bands, clubs, and cops all can agree on a plan and live by it, then by all means, bring it on."

Just how much parking would be lost? Tepper says the impact would be "minimal," since most of the available space is for parallel parking only, and since so much of Sixth Street gets shut down on weekends anyway. Council member Jackie Goodman has expressed an interest in supporting the proposal. …

George W. isn't the only Austin import earning mixed reviews in Washington. The D.C. spinoff of tony Clarksville eatery Jeffrey's won faint praise from Washington Post reviewer Tom Sietsema, who panned the crab cakes ("these tasted like outsiders") and wrote that the seared salmon "tasted like yesterday's news." (On the bright side, the beef tenderloin and the chorizo-stuffed quail both "showed merit.") Can Jeffrey's survive in Washington's cutthroat restaurant scene, where the influx of Texans has had, according to Sietsema, little impact besides "the sight of a few more cowboy hats in dining rooms?" Hard to say, but Sietsema doesn't seem too impressed by W's culinary predilections. "Whether he likes it or not, a new president is one of the country's most visible tastemakers," he notes. "Five months into his latest gig, we've learned that George Bush is a clock-watcher and a baseball fan … who hasn't used his passport much." But the more important question, Sietsema says: "does the guy ever eat out?" …

In the sort of anticlimactic turn that's become all too familiar to neighbors of Hyde Park Baptist Church, the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan, scheduled to be reconsidered by the Planning Commission because four commissioners say they didn't understand what they were doing when they voted to approve four weeks ago, was postponed Tuesday night. The plan puts a few new restrictions on the church, whose zoning is largely governed by an older, less stringent plan written in 1990. PC chair Betty Baker, who was among the commissioners who asked to rescind their votes in favor of the plan, postponed the vote until July 10, when commissioner Silver Garza, who was absent at Tuesday's meeting, could be there. …

What do the Girl Scouts, voting registrars, and would-be campaign finance reformers have in common? They're all banned -- along with abortion rights opponents, groups that want to save the whales, and the Salvation Army guy -- from petitioning in front of the Hancock Center HEB, where Clean Campaigns for Austin, a group that's trying to get public campaign finance on the ballot for November, has set up shop in recent weeks.

Outraged Clean Campaigners have threatened to drag HEB into court over the policy, which they say violates their constitutional right to free assembly. "The state constitution, unlike the federal constitution, has an affirmative right of free speech," says Fred Lewis, an attorney for the group. "Judges have written that the state constitution gives a right to petition on private property that has public access." But Kate Brown, a spokeswoman for HEB, says she has heard of no such case. "There's been no precedent set forth [by Clean Campaigns], even that they've been able to cite, that gives them the right to petition in front of the store," Brown says. In fact, the only Texas case that came up in a search of state and federal public-assembly lawsuits was one the plaintiff lost: a 1983 suit filed by Jim Harrington on behalf of the United Farm Workers, who wanted to petition and distribute leaflets outside an Austin Albertson's.

Still, Clean Campaigns petitioner Jeff Heckler says the group's not going down without a fight -- or, at the very least, a police escort. "They've asked us to leave several times and I expect they'll get the police involved," Heckler says. "I think we're going to go ahead and keep petitioning at HEB and allow them the opportunity to do whatever they're going to do." Bring it on, says Brown. "The landlord" -- shopping center management company Regency Centers -- "retains the right to remove them from that property, so the landlord is protecting the wishes of the tenant," in this case HEB. Brown says she's perplexed by the group's insistence on flouting the policy, which she says has "always" been in place at HEB. "Most folks respect that petitioning needs to be done in what is truly defined as public space and respect the right of property owners to determine what happens on their property," says Brown. "… This is a policy, and this is really the only instance I've ever seen where someone is not being respectful of that policy."

On a happier subject for Clean Campaigns, Heckler says the group is on track for its goal of gathering around 20,000 signatures (16,000 valid signatures are required) to get public campaign finance on the November ballot. …

The National Alliance for Choice in Giving -- an alliance of charitable federations that raise money through workplace employee campaigns, in order to advance "social justice, environmental protection, peace, human welfare, and human rights" -- has awarded its 2001 "Freedom Fighter" Award to Austinites Max Woodfin of Earth Share of Texas, and Diane Fanning of Another Way Texas Shares. Earlier this year, the Texas federations successfully defended the State Employees Charitable Campaign from an attempt, led by representatives of the state comptroller's office, to exclude dozens of progressive organizations from this fall's SECC campaign.

-- Contributor: Michael King

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