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Council Members Lewis and Griffith at odds on Prairie Grass resort deal

Tuesday, February 29, 2000 by

Lewis favors the proposal and Griffith questions it

Council Member Willie Lewis said Monday he supports a proposal to put a resort hotel and golf course at Lake Walter Long on the May ballot. Lewis said, "Based on what we've done (with the park property) for the last 30 years, I don't think it's a bad idea. My thinking is at least we could get a dedicated revenue stream we could to do other things with."

Local developer Larry Beard, along with his partners Mark Levy and Pierre Gagne, is proposing to build an upscale Prairie Grass Golf Club and Resort on FM 973 on dedicated park land. The developers have projected payments to the city of $92 million during the first 20 years of the lease. Voters must approve release of the park land in order for the developers to lease it and build the resort. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 16, 23 and 28.)

Lewis said if the developers have to wait until November, the next election, they will likely abandon the proposal. He said he had not talked to all his council colleagues, but was concerned that some of them might not go along with the proposal. "They seem to have a problem with it. They seem to feel it's a mandate, rather than just an authorization. You can do things on dual tracks. You can negotiate things at the same time you put it on the ballot," he said.

Lewis said he wants the resort as a revenue-generator for a sparsely developed area of the city's Desired Development Zone. "We have two destination parks in the area. If we don't have this, they'll just sit there. We would have a dedicated revenue stream over the next 40 years," for parks improvements, he said.

Also Monday, John Gilvar, aide to Council Member Beverly Griffith, released a one-page summary of objections to the plan. Griffith has previously said she was concerned that such a deal would set a bad precedent. Attorney Jay Hailey of Locke Liddell & Sapp, who represents the developers, provided a memo to the city's Parks and Recreation Board last week outlining answers to questions and attempting to lay the precedent question to rest.

Griffith's response to Hailey is that under the developers' criteria, we would now have condos and hotels on Town Lake, as proposed by architect Sinclair Black more than a decade ago. Griffith also states, "Until the City Council adopts a policy on this issue that protects the integrity of the city's parks as recreational havens for the public, we should be very cautious about encouraging more proposals." Hailey told In Fact Daily, "If the council member has suggestions about criteria that ought to be established, that would be welcomed." Hailey said he believes the proposed resort could pass any test for appropriate use of park land "with flying colors."

Griffith also suggests there be some creative way to accomplish the developers' goal of putting the hotel on the water "without having the hotel on actual park land. We should be careful that our actions do not trigger a raft of developer bidding on various 'underutilized' parks around the city." Hailey said the hotel needs "walkable access to both the golf course and the lake. If somebody could figure out how to do that (without use of park land) we'd like to see it."

Finally, the Griffith memo asks, "How does this proposal jibe with the Eastern Route" of State Highway 130? Hailey has already said that the alignment of the roadway will not affect the developers' plans. An eastern alignment would put the highway east of the park, he said.

Austin's electric utility may now operate with less public scrutiny

Veil of secrecy can be drawn if City Council decides to do so

The city's electric utility has always operated like an aircraft carrier, sitting high in the water so anyone could see where it was going. But the state legislation that allows municipal utilities to opt into competition in January 2002 also allows Austin Energy to operate more like a submarine, making strategic moves completely out of view. It's entirely up to the City Council to give the order to dive, dive, dive, or decide to continue operating in the open. The City Council does not have to tell the public when they do give the order for silent running.

This was the gist of a brief presentation to the Electric Utility Commission last night on the impact Senate Bill 7, which passed in the 1999 legislative session, will have on city policies for open meetings and open records. The changes were codified as amendments to the Texas Government Code, with the inclusion of text in Section 552.131 regarding open records and Section 551.086 regarding open meetings.

The curtain of secrecy can be drawn by the City Council passing a "resolution that lays out matters that would place us at a competitive disadvantage," said Bob Kahn, Austin Energy's vice president for legal and regulatory affairs. "The actual resolution can also be confidential if the council so chooses."

The City Council has the option of choosing to keep certain electric utility decisions out of view regardless of whether it opts to compete, Kahn said. "The rationale is if you're opting in a few years (to compete) you don't want your financial plan to be released to the public."

With regard to open meetings changes, the description of electric utility business to be conducted in closed sessions can be stated in general terms on the City Council's agenda, Kahn said. "It defeats the purpose of going into closed session if you disclose what you're going to talk about," he said. Kahn noted that the City Council recently took advantage of this option. An item was posted on the Jan. 27 council meeting agenda for a closed session under "Public Power Utility Competitive Matters-Section 551.086." The description was, "Discuss power generation resource planning for Austin Energy."

Under this rule, nothing requires a public power utility governing body to conduct an open meeting to deliberate, vote, or take final action on any competitive matter. Before deliberating, voting or taking final action in a closed meeting, however, the City Council must "make first make a good faith determination, by majority vote of its members, that the matter is a competitive matter that satisfies the requirements." A competitive matter "is related to the…utility's competitive activity, including commercial information, and would, if disclosed, give advantage to competitors or prospective competitors." To prevent abuse of this provision, the statute lists 13 specific categories of information that may not be the subject of a closed meeting.

Teresa Reel, who was reelected chair of the Electric Utility Commission last night, asked if the new rules for closed sessions would apply to the commission, since it occasionally holds closed sessions. Kahn said that question has been put to the Texas Attorney General by the advisory board that serves the City of San Antonio's utility, City Public Service. The Attorney General has not ruled on the question yet, he said. Kahn said Austin Energy filed comments in the matter. "The thought was it's difficult for the advisory body to advise the council if it can't get information, and we filed comments along those lines."

After the meeting adjourned, In Fact Daily asked Austin Energy General Manager Chuck Manning and Kahn if Austin Energy was contemplating asking the City Council to pass a resolution that would keep utility decisions from public view. Kahn replied, "On open records, we're looking at options."

Manning fills the last vacant upper management slots at Austin Energy

Lujan takes Manning's old VP slot in power delivery

"It's really nice to have a full team," Chuck Manning, general manager of Austin Energy, told the Electric Utility Commission last night. Manning introduced several personnel changes that at last filled all the boxes on the utility's organizational chart for upper management.

Alfonso "Al" Lujan was named vice president of power delivery, taking the slot made vacant when Manning was named acting general manager in the wake of the resignation of Milton Lee in September 1998. Lujan is a 30-year veteran of the electric utility industry and most recently served as vice president of electric service delivery for Public Service Company of New Mexico, and electric and gas utility serving 279,000 customers. Yesterday was Lujan's first day on the job at Austin Energy. Power delivery includes transmission, distribution, and the energy control center.

There are four other vice presidents at Austin Energy: Andy Ramirez in power production; Roger Duncan in conservation, renewables and environmental policy; Elaine Kuhlman in finance and accounting; and Bob Kahn in legal and regulatory affairs.

John Baker, who had headed the Strategic Planning Team that helped devise plans for positioning the utility, was named director of customer care and marketing. Baker's division includes the call center, meter reading, sales, marketing research, energy products and strategic planning. Baker has been with the utility six years.

Cliff Braddock, an engineer, was named to oversee the energy products unit that will manage the utility's district cooling business. This includes the district cooling plant that will be built to serve Computer Sciences Corp., the new City Hall and the state Hobby Building, and possibly the planned Museum Park high-rise in which Intel Corp. will reportedly locate its new offices.

In a related action, the Electric Utility Commission voted unanimously last night to recommend the City Council approve four contracts for that cooling plant, including $7.2 million for construction, $1.1 million for three chillers, $809,000 for a cooling tower, and $666,000 for a thermal ice storage system. The City Council is scheduled to consider those contracts March 23. The City Council had previously approved $3.5 million for a cooling plant for the Austin MarketPlace development at 6th and Lamar.

Finally, Cheryl Mele, who has managed the Decker Power Plant for the past four years, has been named to a newly created position, assistant to the general manager. She is to serve in that capacity for one year. Charles Shell was named the new manager of Decker Power Plant.

Police Oversight Focus Group agrees to seek 30-day extension

Final report to council April 15 instead of March 15

The Police Oversight Focus Group will be requesting its second extension for a final report on civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department. The Focus Group voted 8-0 yesterday to request that it be permitted to turn in its final report on April 15 instead of March 15. The panel had previously gained an extension to submit the final report March 15 instead of November 30, which was the deadline assigned when the City Council established the Focus Group June 3, 1999. The group has been meeting regularly since June 30.

As reported by In Fact Daily Feb. 28, Detective Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association (APA), had concerns and requested the latest extension. The Focus Group debated the matter for a half hour yesterday before voting to grant his request. Sheffield cited four reasons for needing more time, all centered on his position that the draft final report was incomplete.

(1) The report doesn't address whether civilian oversight of police would encompass other city departments with law enforcement, specifically the Airport Police under the Aviation Department, the Parks Police under the Parks and Recreation Department, and the City Marshall's Office.

(2) The report doesn't adequately address due process for police officers.

(3) The language in the report may be inconsistent in the meaning of words and terms.

(4) Police accountability in the report does not address the need for more supervision of patrol officers. Sheffield said the ratio should be six or seven officers to each sergeant instead of the current ratio of 12 to one at best. This opinion was voiced early on the Focus Group's meetings by police who addressed the panel.

"I want to submit all these as suggestions, a group of ideas, for inclusion in the report," Sheffield said. He said the APA would be meeting with city staff March 1 to set up a schedule of meetings for renegotiating the Meet and Confer Agreement, which governs relations between the city and officers. Sheffield said those negotiations took more than 11 months the last time. "I don't anticipate taking that long this time," he said. It has been the Focus Group's intent to ask the City Council to put the recommendations for police oversight into the Meet and Confer process for negotiation. This would theoretically achieve buy-in by rank and file officers and possibly achieve opening of police disciplinary records that are not currently obtainable by the public.

Focus Group Member Ann del Llano, an attorney and co-chair of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, asked if Sheffield was delaying the report in view of the upcoming City Council election May 6. Sheffield replied, "The makeup of the council doesn't matter."

Focus Group Member Tom Kolker, an attorney, was concerned that addressing some of Sheffield's issues in the report might shift focus away from major issues dealing with police oversight.

Focus Group Member Michael Supancic, who teaches criminal justice courses at Southwest Texas State University, said if the issue of the ratio of supervisors to patrol officers was to be addressed in the report then it should be linked somehow to police accountability, and not presented as a disconnected matter. "I think I can draft something that will tie it together," replied Sheffield.

Del Llano said a list of other issues that the Police Auditor and Civilian Review Board should address when established also might be attached to the report, including such issues as "driving while black," referring to the practice in some police departments to harass African Americans, and recommending a disciplinary matrix be developed so that officers are punished equally for similar infractions. "If we debate every one of those we'll need an extension for a year," she said. "We're setting up a system to address those."

Ultimately, Sheffield and other Focus Group members agreed to submit their written suggestions for modifications to the draft final report by March 10. Those will be incorporated in the draft and distributed to Focus Group members within a week, and a meeting will be scheduled from noon to 7 p.m. on March 27 to go over the draft page by page. The goal for that meeting will be to hash out agreement for the final report.

Whether to open Austin police disciplinary records still not resolved

Del Llano pushing issue, scheduled for further debate

A nettlesome issue that has not been resolved among members of the Police Oversight Focus Group is whether the disciplinary records for officers of the Austin Police Department (APD) should be made as open to the public as those of the Travis County Sheriff's Office. To gain insight into the matter, Sheriff Margo Frasier, who has been in office two years, appeared before the Focus Group yesterday to answer questions. Frasier was an attorney with Bickerstaff Heath & Smiley before she was elected, although she had previous experience in law enforcement as well.

Frasier said that once an investigation of a deputy sheriff is completed, discipline is administered, and the file is closed, then it is available upon request. Some of the material may be redacted, or blacked out, by a paralegal, but the bulk of the complaint is available, she said, noting that the Attorney General had directed this system of open records. Files are not available during ongoing investigations. Typically the process is completed in 15 to 30 days, except when a case involves fraud or possible misuse of funds, Frasier said.

Focus Group Member Ann del Llano, an attorney and co-chair of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, asked, "Have you been able to run an effective law enforcement agency with that policy or has it been a problem?" "There have been times when it was a problem but not a problem in running the department," Frasier replied. She said a deputy had been disciplined requested his file and then accused other deputies who had made statements against him of being informants.

Later del Llano asked if Frasier ever had a case in which rumors were put to rest by making a file public. Frasier replied, "I think there's some occasions that once people looked at the files they were satisfied. But if people choose to mistrust the process, giving them access to the files hasn't caused any great sense of enlightenment."

Former Mayor Roy Butler asked if Frasier thought the Sheriff's Office needed a Civilian Review Board. Frasier replied that civilian review would happen when the sheriff was up for election. Later she noted that under the manager-council form of government that Austin has, the City Council is relatively powerless regarding police matters. "The only way they can fire the police chief is to fire the city manager till he does what they want him to do, but the city council should be involved. They're not completely powerless but they're relatively powerless."

Del Llano noted that APD disciplinary records were currently protected by civil service laws and the Focus Group was contemplating recommending that they be opened through renegotiating the Meet and Confer Agreement, which overrides civil service laws. Del Llano tried to elicit opinions from other Focus Group members. "Does anyone here object to a recommendation that our (APD) files be as open as the Sheriff's Department?" Butler said he didn't have an immediate objection but wanted to hear why the APD followed the current procedure. Detective Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association, said it was specified under the Local Government Code.

Del Llano asked if the degree of openness in the Sheriff's Office has increased civil liability or decreased it. Frasier replied, "I don't think it increased it, but I'd have a hard time saying it decreased it. In a couple of cases, when we shared files with the attorney for a plaintiff, the attorney said, 'No, I'm not going to put my money and time into that.' In some cases they would (otherwise) have sued me and got the file further down the road." She added, "That doesn't mean (the plaintiff) won't go find another attorney, but the initial attorney turned them down."

After the Focus Group informed Frasier of the proposed qualifications for the Police Auditor, Frasier said she wasn't sure that experience in criminal law is the key. "Someone who understands and has experience in civil rights and understands what officers can and cannot do is as important as the prosecution of criminal cases," she said.

In Frasier's more than an hour with the Focus Group, the discussion also ranged over her opinion of how the public perceives law enforcement in Austin. Butler asked, "Do you feel that our community distrusts or has apprehension about law enforcement?" Frasier said that depends on where you go, but one telling indicator was what she hears when she visits schools. At Barbara Jordan Elementary School yesterday morning, Frasier said, she was upset to be asked right off by kids, "You're not going to beat me are you? You're not here to arrest me?" Frasier said, "I see a difference in dealing with those kids than in dealing with predominantly upper-class white kids. Somewhere those kids are getting it. They're mirroring something."

While she stresses the positive role of law enforcement in her school visits, Frasier said, "It's amazing how much kids are aware of. Today kids were talking about the New York case." She was referring to the incident in which four New York police officers who shot to death Amadou Diallo in the entryway to his Bronx home were acquitted last Friday. The unarmed man was shot with 41 bullets.

Later as the Focus Group was getting ready to wrap up the meeting, del Llano again asked, "Does anyone at the table have objection to opening records the same as the sheriff?…I hear no objections." Sheffield said, "Silence means I'm thinking about what you said."

Butler noted that in one respect the proposed system would be more open than the Sheriff's Office because officers would have access to the case file from the Police Auditor's office.

Galton closed the meeting with instructions that members should be prepared to discuss the open records question at the March 27 meeting.

Second mayoral candidate files…Not to be outdone by Jennifer Gale, the other homeless candidate for mayor has filed for his or her place on the ballot. Albert Leslie Cochran, 48 years of age, filed the application Friday. Cochran's favorite attire at his hangout at 6th and Congress Avenue, weather permitting, is high heels and a mini skirt… Architects on parade…The four design teams vying to get a contract to design the new City Hall will strut their stuff Thursday sometime after 1:30 p.m. when the council meets in the Hancock Building of the Lower Colorado River Authority. The teams are: (1) Cotera Kolar Negrete & Reed Architects, lead designer Antoine Predock, and associate architect and sustainability consultant Lars Stanley; (2) Carter-Burgess Inc., lead designer and sustainability consultant Rick Archer of Overland Partners, and plaza designer Robert Murase; (3) Black & Vernooy + Barnes Architects joint venture, lead designer Sinclair Black, plaza designer Dan Biederman, and sustainability consultant Stewardship Inc.; and (4) Moore/Anderrson Architects, lead designer Arthur Anderrson, plaza designer Richardson Verdoorn, and sustainability consultant The Weidt Group. The council will take no action Thursday but is expected to award a contract March 9.

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