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Austin Stories

At a hearing held last week, dozens of neighbors of the Holly Power Plant and representatives from leading environmental groups asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to deny a permit that would let the plant operate until at least 2009 -- when Austin Energy plans to shut it down. Connie Leaverton, who lives near Holly, says she and other permit foes don't have "hard and fast evidence" to prove the plant is noncompliant with state and federal environmental laws. But they hope the TCEQ will take the past few decades of plant-generated emissions, fires, and cancer cases into consideration. If the agency doesn't approve the Holly permit, the plant can't operate, she said. While TCEQ staff reviews the videotape of last week's hearing and analyzes permit opponents' comments, Leaverton and others will lobby the City Council to support denial of the permit. -- Lauri Apple

The field of candidates for Place 5, the only open seat on the City Council, narrowed slightly last week as city Environmental Board Chair Lee Leffingwell opted out of the race. His decision leaves five announced candidates -- Margot Clarke, Brewster McCracken, Carl Tepper, Robert Singleton, and Steve Swanson -- although at press time only McCracken and Swanson had officially filed. Filing ends March 19. Place 5 is being vacated by mayoral candidate Will Wynn. -- Amy Smith

Elsewhere on the ballot, while Place 2 incumbent Raul Alvarez still has no announced opposition, his Place 6 colleague Danny Thomas has drawn a challenger: Wes Benedict, who ran last year as a Libertarian against Travis Co. Commissioner Margaret Gómez. Benedict is not African-American, and his race against Thomas would flout the "gentleman's agreement" that ensures racial diversity on the City Council. "I'm ready for a gentlemen's agreement to get a Libertarian on the City Council," said Benedict. He chose to run for Thomas' seat, he says, because the other races on the ballot "would be a tougher challenge. ... I certainly don't think Danny Thomas is the worst city councilman by any means." An engineer and businessman, Benedict recently sold his interest in Custom Quality Marble Inc. to become a full-time candidate. He advocates typical Libertarian principles: no subsidies, low taxes, and minimal government. -- L.A.

At the top of the ballot, two mayoral aspirants -- restaurateurs Marc Katz and Brad Meltzer -- each held their official campaign kickoff parties last week. Katz has already filed his ballot papers (and, of course, a lawsuit challenging Austin's $100 limit), but Meltzer had not as of press time. But he has sent out a mailer to a massive list of Austin voters, promising that "using my extensive business background, I will work to reduce wasteful spending, keep our taxes low, and balance our budget." Katz -- who had said he doesn't intend to spend large amounts of his own money in the race, with or without a $100 limit -- has, meanwhile, undertaken a citywide telephone poll estimated to cost tens of thousands of dollars. -- M.C.M.

Yet more proof Austin is going to hell: The landmark greasy spoon G/M Steakhouse at 626 Lamar will soon be replaced by -- you guessed it -- a Smart Growth-style mixed-use project. Owner Steve Scott intends to tear down the G/M building and erect a three-story project (on what is a standard-sized house lot) with ground-floor retail and either office or residential on the upper floors. The project wouldn't require rezoning and is consistent with the adopted Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan, so it won't come before the City Council or Planning Commission, though Scott's architects presented last week before the city Design Commission. Message to KVET deejay and Tavern savior Bob Cole: Help! -- Lee Nichols and M.C.M.

As expected, City Council voted last week to move the city's cultural arts programs out of their current homes -- most notably the Parks and Recreation Dept. -- and into a new program of the city's Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services office (aka "the Smart Growth office"), which is funded by Austin Energy. The utility is kicking in an additional $404,000 to the EGRS budget for the arts program, which is a work in progress: The city's arts consultants, Dabney and Associates, are still working to design the final system, and saw their own contract with the city extended last week. The council also agreed to maintain an interim program for disbursing city arts funding, dispensing with controversial peer-review panels and limiting each applicant's potential fiscal 2004 funding to what they got in 2003. -- M.C.M.

Attorneys for Austin consultant Chuck McDonald plan to challenge a grand jury subpoena of their client at a March 25 hearing in state district court. McDonald was subpoenaed last week to testify about his role in a $2 million political advertising campaign funded with corporate donations solicited by the Texas Association of Business. McDonald's company produced several of the ads for T.A.B. as part of a statewide campaign targeting 24 legislative races. Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle initiated a grand jury investigation to determine if T.A.B violated state laws by failing to identify the corporate donors or if the ads were coordinated with any of the candidates endorsed by the business group. T.A.B. attorney Andy Taylor has filed similar motions to quash grand jury subpoenas in connection with the case, and those will also be argued March 25. The business lobby group denies engaging in any political advertising, but has claimed credit for Republican victories at the ballot box and the GOP takeover of the state House and Senate. -- A.S.

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