Speak No Evil
Just when it seemed things couldn't get any more contentious in the city of Georgetown, they have. Since the Chronicle reported last week about the city's political wrestling match over growth issues, members of the Citizens for Georgetown PAC have filed a complaint with Williamson Co. Attorney Gene Taylor, seeking an investigation of the council's July 30 "emergency" meeting -- during which the council voted 7-0 to pass an "emergency" development ordinance. "We contend that the 'emergency' passage of [the ordinance] was done in such a manner as to avoid public knowledge and public input in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, as well as in violation of the City's own Charter," PAC director/treasurer West Short wrote in a letter to Taylor. "[We] further contend that there was no 'emergency' sufficient to justify such actions."
The Monday meeting was posted one minute before the Open Meetings Act deadline and submitted to the Williamson County Sun after its deadline for printing a Saturday notice. Mayor MaryEllen Kersch told reporters that the council "couldn't afford to warn" the public because commercial developers would've had an opportunity to file applications that would be grandfathered before the "emergency" ordinance took effect. During the meeting, Kersch cut speakers short, and when questioned as to whether or not the meeting was supposed to be a public hearing, replied, "It is a public hearing, but we won't have this just going on until everyone runs out of breath."
Then last Thursday, Aug. 16, the council voted 4-3 to adopt Council Member Clark Lyda's proposal to restrict city employees from talking to any citizens or media representatives. The policy designates City Manager George Russell as the city's sole spokesman. Russell can authorize comment by other city department heads, but the policy also stipulates that no city employee -- not even Russell -- can comment on any council policy while "acting in their official capacity."
At least three recall petitions are now circulating, seeking to recall Mayor Kersch, along with Council Members Lyda, Sam Pfiester, Llorente Navarrette, and Hoss Burson. Petitioners say they've already collected more than 300 signatures; they need 740, and hope to have well over that by the Aug. 28 council meeting. Will the city respond? Don't ask.
-- Jordan Smith
One House to Another
An elected official can't very well expect to put his house up for sale without fueling speculation about possible motives. So why would Travis Co. Commissioner Todd Baxter want to sell his spacious brick home in southwest Austin? As of press time, Baxter had not returned Chronicle calls, but Appraisal District records and the local phone directory both show Baxter's address as the same as a listing on Realtor.com, where viewers can take a virtual tour of the residence. But back to the speculation: Popular opinion has the commish headed north of the river to West Lake (still within his newly configured Precinct Three), to position himself for a run for a House seat in District 48.
That's the district that incumbent Rep. Ann Kitchen got sliced out of in the latest, and still unsettled, redistricting plan. The courts will be the ultimate arbiter of the jumbled mess, which threw three Travis Co. incumbents -- Kitchen and fellow Democratic Reps. Glen Maxey and Elliott Naishtat -- into the same district. Kitchen says she can't imagine ever running against either of them, but that she does intend to run again -- as an incumbent in District 48. "That's my district as far as I'm concerned," Kitchen says. "I believe I did a good job in the last session, and I've received a lot of positive feedback. I've still got all of my West Austin precincts, and I have a track record at the Capitol. So I don't understand why anyone would want to run against an incumbent."
Baxter's financial contribution records might be just one other indication of his political aspirations; he raised $93,000 between Dec. 31 and June 30, and has about $200,000 in the bank.
-- Amy Smith
Statesman Editorial Page Editor Arnold Garcia's histrionic lament over the death of Jayla Belton ("The Case Is Closed, but What About Jayla?" Aug. 18) would be easier to endure had his newspaper lifted a finger on Jayla's behalf when it might have counted: right after the two-year-old child was killed. Instead of an ounce of responsible skepticism when Lacresha Murray was arrested for a brutal crime that appeared almost certainly to require the focused strength of an adult, the Statesman immediately featured the 11-year-old Murray's photo on the front page of its Metro section -- and thereafter swallowed whole the prosecutors' never-proven contention that the national plague of "children killing children" had reached Austin.
Now Garcia wants to blame unnamed demonstrators or "the community" for not demanding "justice for Jayla." If his newspaper had done its job, perhaps that justice would be a little closer -- and another young girl wouldn't have had her life nearly ruined. -- Michael King
Members of Clean Campaigns of Austin turned in 28,341 signatures to City Clerk Shirley Brown at noon on Wednesday, calling their petition drive -- to once again put campaign finance reform on Austin's November ballot -- a success. Organizer Fred Lewis, who believes the signatures will have a high validity rate, says the petition has been endorsed by the NAACP-Austin, Common Cause of Texas, the Austin Neighborhoods Council, and many other political organizations.
Clean Campaign organizers also were behind the previous campaign finance reform measure, a 1997 city charter amendment that limited contributions to City Council campaigns to $100 per person. They've since admitted that such a low-contribution limit discouraged challenges to incumbents during the last election. Clean Campaign now seeks to replace the $100 ceiling with a publicly financed system that would provide qualified candidates with $16,000 ($32,000 for mayoral candidates) and institute a system of matching funds.
-- Lee Nichols
Unlicensed to Spill
The Save Barton Creek Association scored a legal victory last week that may give the group another chance to voice its opposition to a wastewater discharge permit for a development planned on environmentally sensitive property. District Court Judge Scott Jenkins remanded the case to the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, which last year denied the enviro group a hearing to air its concerns about the permit. The association subsequently sued the TNRCC, seeking a reversal on the decision.
According to SBCA attorney David Frederick, the TNRCC has in the past four years maintained a practice of discouraging public input during the permitting process -- even though the Legislature changed TNRCC rules in 1999 to make it easier for citizens to have public input at the agency. However, last week's ruling may force TNRCC to adhere to its own rules.
For now, the Aug. 15 court ruling sets aside the wastewater discharge permit, but does not directly order the TNRCC to set a hearing on the matter. Judge Jenkins instructed the TNRCC to notify the association about providing evidence to support its permit-related concerns. Dallas-based Prentiss Properties got the permit for a 211,000-square-foot office development at the southeast corner of Loop 360 and MoPac in southwest Austin, on a property known as the Bradfield Tract, uphill from Barton Creek and situated atop the highly porous recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer (see "Naked City," Aug. 10, austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2001-08-10/pols_naked6.html).
In defending the discharge permit, state attorneys and Prentiss lawyer Terrence Irion argued, among other things, that the development met all TNRCC requirements and that Prentiss had even agreed to a city request to recycle half of the effluent -- about 4,000 gallons a day. SBCA opposes the permit because the wastewater treatment system Prentiss intends to use is designed for domestic waste, not waste discharged from a commercial building.
"Fortunately," SBCA President Jon Beall said in a statement to members, "SBCA had the resources and a knowledgeable attorney [Frederick] to protect our interests and the interests of Barton Springs." -- Amy Smith
Chap. 10, Verse 5,227
More than 10 years in the making, the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan NCCD (Neighborhood Conservation and Combining District) finally comes before city council today (Thursday) at a hearing that will likely draw a fair share of placard wavers (for and against). Members of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Planning Team expect tonight's hearing to provide a good indication of whether council will accept or reject the NCCD, already greenlighted by the Planning and Historic Landmark Commissions. Holding out on an endorsement of the NCCD is the Hyde Park Baptist Church, which will propose an amendment that would also amend their own existing Hyde Park Civic NCCD. The hearing takes place in the LCRA Board Room, 3700 Lake Austin Blvd. and begins at 4pm.
Also on Aug. 23, along with a contentious budget hearing, the city council is set to discuss the second (or third) incarnation of the even more contentious new subdivision ordinance, designed to promote grid streets and connectivity, and discourage long blocks and cul-de-sacs in new developments.
-- Mike Clark-Madison
Three months ago, "Naked City" reported the story of Sandy Smith, a Hazy Hills resident who was the victim of a Travis Co. Sheriff's Office-led drug raid ("No Weed, Just Dopes," May 25). Numerous officers, in marked and unmarked vehicles, along with a low-flying helicopter, descended onto her two-and-a-half-acre spread outside Spicewood claiming she was growing marijuana on her property. After trashing the house and holding Smith and her roommates at gunpoint, the officers realized the plants in question were nothing more than a strand of milkweed -- about as common in Texas as fire ants.
Since the incident, Smith has received a letter of apology from County Commissioner Sam Biscoe. But she had yet to hear anything from anyone at the sheriff's office until early August, when two deputies came out to her house to answer a neighbor's complaint that Smith had "vicious" dogs on her property.
The officers "pretty quickly realized my dogs aren't vicious, but they asked to see my I.D. anyway," Smith says. She gave them her driver's license, which a deputy then called in over the radio. When the voice on the receiver came back, she was shocked. "I heard them say over the radio that I was a possible narcotics violator. I said to the [deputy], you mean to tell me this is on my record now?"
The deputies told her "not to pay any attention to that," but she is incensed. "I think it's awful," she laments. "They make a mistake, and now it's on my record. I had a spotless record before all this." Not exactly the apology she'd hoped for.
Apparently Smith isn't the only one who thinks the ongoing debacle is awful. As a result of the initial raid, Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project says he is preparing to file a lawsuit against the sheriff's office on Smith's behalf. "Fourth amendment, no warrant," he says.
Roger Wade, spokesman for the sheriff's office, says the department initiated an investigation after the May raid; and at least one sergeant has been reassigned as a result. But he didn't know anything about the incident being on Smith's record, and said he'd "have to check." As of press time, Wade had not called back.
"To think they could do this stupid-ass, bogus thing, and now it's on her record," says Smith's friend and attorney Sybil Autry. "It's truly pathetic." -- Jordan Smith
Also on Harrington's Plate ...
Folks in the Guadalupe neighborhood already have a view of the Capitol, but they'll soon be getting a close-up of the courthouse. The Eastside neighbors have announced a lawsuit against the city of Austin to overturn the City Council's recent decision to leave the Bennett Tract (between 7th and 11th Streets., east of I-35) zoned for developer Matt Mathias's proposed office-hotel-residential mega-project. The suit, to be filed by Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington, will allege racial discrimination against Guadalupe's predominantly Hispanic residents, since the new zoning allows for intense development that wouldn't be allowed in such close proximity to homes anywhere else in town. The city, obviously, denies that allegation. -- Mike Clark-Madison
On Wednesday morning, longtime parks matriarch Mary Arnold was fit to be tied. The night before, the Planning Commission had signed off on a zoning measure that will allow Lumbermen's Investment Corp. to build a 180-foot high condo tower on Town Lake's north shore. "It's a massive, oversized project," Arnold fumed. She and other parks and neighborhood advocates argue that the Lumbermen's project will encroach upon and detract from the "quiet beauty" of what little public space remains downtown. The project is moving ahead based on a back-room settlement of a boundary line dispute between the city and Lumbermen's. Clarifying what we wrote about that settlement in this space last week, Lumbermen's will fork over its settlement money to the city -- $750,000 to buy nearby railroad property, and another $500,000 for landscaping -- only if the city approves their site plan.
Arnold, for one, hopes council members don't approve the measure when it comes up for consideration, probably on Sept. 20. The city at this point is counting on the Lumbermen's settlement money to further its plans for the Seaholm District Master Plan, which includes big (though unspecified) plans for converting the Seaholm power plant for public use. Arnold blames the city legal department for keeping other boards and commissions in the dark about the agreement and believes the Planning Commission would have voted differently had members been better informed about their options. They approved the project 7-1, with one absentee: Commissioner Robin Cravey, who had unsuccessfully sought a postponement on the matter so he could participate. Commissioner Jean Mather cast the dissenting vote.
Said Arnold: "It's all economics that's driving this project, not the public interest. The public is getting screwed." -- Amy Smith