Tuesday, February 8, 2000 by

Science and technology museum’s feasibility study starting next week

Boosters say Seaholm ideal home for museum

Council Member Beverly Griffith, back from a whirlwind tour of science and technology museums, said she is highly enthusiastic about the prospects of bringing such a museum to Austin. "We can do an Austin museum of science and industry. We need to do it and we need everybody's help," she declared. Griffith and eight other museum boosters flew from Austin to San Jose and San Francisco, California; then to Portland, Oregon; and on to Phoenix, Arizona, for museum viewing last weekend. Asked whether she expected the museum to be housed at the Seaholm Power Plant, Griffith said, "It's an opportunity the community should consider." However, she said, "We can't be presumptuous."

Cindy Debold, an Austin sculptor who is also president of The Technology and Science Museum of Austin, a new nonprofit corporation, told In Fact Daily the group has raised more than half the funds needed for a feasibility study for the museum. Melissa Gonzales, vice president of the West End Alliance, said the study would cost about $35,000. Harrison & Price Co. of Palo Alto, California, will be starting the study next week, Debold said. The company has done similar work for Walt Disney, the Smithsonian, and the Texas State History Museum, which is currently under construction, Debold said.

Gonzales said she was "enormously impressed by the way the Portland OMSI ( Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) was run."

Griffith said the OMSI, located in an old power plant on a river front, generates 88 percent of its own operating revenues through admissions, retail stores, summer camps, catering, and a number of other enterprises. Griffith said, "We can pull the best things out of each one. We are going to be the math and science education center of the Southwest. So our kids are going to have an advantage that no other group of young people will have. Wherever it ends up, we have to do it for our kids, and for our economy, and for our teachers. There will be a lot of teacher education."

Debold said the Tech Museum in San Jose is a colorful and well-designed building, and, as the name implies, emphasizes technology. "The City of San Jose has put a lot of money into it," she said. The Exploratorium in San Francisco began operations in 1969, she said. That museum, which has inspired others around the nation, "looks and feels like a great big physics lab," Griffith said.

Debold said the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, which is 120,000 square feet, has an added advantage of being close to other museums in the area. She said, "We all think Seaholm, at 110,000 square feet, is a great location. It already looks like a science museum."

The group, which included representatives from the downtown business community, chamber of commerce, the high-tech community and the Seaholm reuse committee, got to meet with numerous museum directors and city officials in the four cities, Gonzales said. Debold said the feasibility study would be completed in six to eight weeks.

Others have their eyes on the Seaholm facility as well. Allen Monroe, executive director of the Capital of Texas Aquarium, will be making a slide presentation to the Austin Pond Society at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Zilker Botanical Garden. For more information, see the web site at www.main.org/aquarium.

Police Oversight Focus Group zeroing in on final details for recommendations

Goal is to submit final report to City Council by March 16

Wanted: Police Auditor to interact with Civilian Review Board in oversight of Austin Police Department. Minimum qualifications include a law degree, minimum of eight years experience in criminal law, strong communications skills, and ability to supervise office staff of three to four employees. Additional skills desired but not required include experience as mediator or willingness to take training in mediation; jury experience; appellate experience. Pay $108,000 per year. Would work directly for city manager of Austin.

While this is only a theoretical job posting at this point, these are the qualifications thought to be needed by the person who would be the City of Austin's first police auditor. Outlining these qualifications was just one of the things accomplished yesterday by the Police Oversight Focus Group, which has been working since June 30 to determine whether Austin needs civilian oversight of its police department and if so how that oversight should be structured. The pay rate was pegged to the equivalent of what a county court-at-law judge is paid, and should be kept in synch with that rate, the Focus Group decided.

Neither the Police Auditor nor Civilian Review Board (CRB) can be established until approved by the City Council. In addition, it is the intent of the Focus Group that the system be negotiated through the Meet and Confer Agreement that governs the relationship between the City of Austin and the Austin Police Department (APD). Detective Mike Sheffield is both a Focus Group member and president of the Austin Police Association. He tells In Fact Daily that a schedule for opening new negotiations under the Meet and Confer Agreement is expected by March 1. He said negotiations regarding police oversight could be folded into those ongoing negotiations, which he expects to continue throughout the summer.

The Focus Group has met 18 times and its members have taken two out-of-state trips to learn the strengths and weaknesses of civilian oversight systems set up elsewhere. The last trip was to the Bay area of Northern California, where according to Focus Group members the foremost example of a police auditor is established in San Jose. The San Jose example is being copied but modified significantly for use in Austin. For example, in San Jose the police auditor works for the city council, not the city manager; that can't be set up in Austin without a change to the City Charter, Focus Group members say. In addition, San Jose has no CRB, and that body would be an important part of the Austin process.

A proposed flow chart that shows how complaints against a police officer would be processed is being refined with each meeting of the Focus Group. Additional meetings are scheduled for Feb. 23 and Feb. 28, in anticipation of preparing a final report to reach the City Council by March 16.

One of the key points left to resolve is to what degree the disciplinary records of Austin police officers should be accessible. At present, records are available to the public only when an officer's discipline results in a suspension or termination. Focus Group Member Ann del Llano, an attorney who is co-chair of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, is arguing that APD disciplinary records should be subject to the same rules for open records as those of the Travis County Sheriff's Office. To further assess whether that is appropriate for the APD, Sheriff Margo Frasier, who is also an attorney, will be invited to speak to the Focus Group at one of its two next meetings.

The Focus Group reached consensus yesterday that investigative files available to the police auditor should be made available to both complainants and officers who are the subject of complaints. It was not decided whether copying those records should be allowed. Sheffield said at present an officer is not allowed to see investigative files for complaints against the officer even after being disciplined for an offense. "This would give the officer an opportunity to look at all the evidence before going into the disciplinary process," Sheffield said. "We have to go by faith that the investigation is complete."

In those instances where an independent investigation appears warranted, the Focus Group members agreed that it would be authorized in cases of death or serious bodily injury when two-thirds of the CRB members present agree, the police auditor agrees, and the city manager agrees. Further, the Focus Group debated at length before deciding that the city manager should choose the person to conduct these independent investigations, but the person must have no connection to the APD. Independent investigations would be monitored by the police auditor, just as APD investigations are monitored. An annual $25,000 budget would be established for such investigations, and more money could be requested from the City Council when needed.

Austin MarketPlace chiller to be bought by Austin Energy

Third major chiller project underway by Austin Energy

The Electric Utility Commission last night voted unanimously to recommend the City Council approve negotiation and execution of a contract with Lamar-Sixth-Austin Inc. for the purchase of a central chiller plant equipment, distribution piping, and air-handling equipment for an amount not to exceed $3.5 million. The recommendation is contingent upon Lamar-Sixth-Austin constructing its retail project–known as the Austin MarketPlace–located on the east side of Lamar Boulevard between 5th and 6th Streets, and provided Austin Energy sells chilled water to service the retail development for a period of not less than 20 years. The developer will build the equipment and Austin Energy will purchase it upon substantial completion of the development project. The recommendation is scheduled for consideration by the City Council Feb. 17.

Austin MarketPlace surfaced in August 1998 as the first project to be run through a new Smart Growth Matrix for development incentives downtown. The development qualified for $2.2 million in incentives in the form of fee wavers and accelerated infrastructure improvements (In Fact No. 156). It was also supposed to be a prize example of how performance contracting would make money off conservation programs for Austin Energy. Austin MarketPlace signed three contracts totaling $1.8 million, with the city to loan money for the chiller plant, and charge for interest, engineering fees and billing services. (See In Fact No. 160, September 1998, and In Fact No. 197, June 1999.) The currently proposed agreement replaces the one authorized by the City Council on Sept. 17, 1998, which would have provided financing for similar chilled water services.

Austin Energy's general manager, Chuck Manning, tells In Fact Daily that it now appears more feasible for Austin MarketPlace to handle the construction contract for the chiller plant and associated equipment as part of its overall construction of the project. Manning noted a key difference between the Austin MarketPlace chiller and the one to be installed in a state parking garage downtown to serve Computer Sciences Corp., the new City Hall, and the state's Hobby Building is the Austin MarketPlace chiller is smaller and would serve only this retail development. Still, it will enable conservation savings of 700 kilowatts in avoided peak electric consumption, compared with rooftop units.

As reported by the Austin American-Statesman Feb. 3, building a chiller plant at a cost of up to $8 million proved a key incentive for attracting Tivoli Systems Inc. to locate its headquarters in Austin as well.

Place 2 council kickoffs…Today's a big day for both the leading candidates for the Place 2 seat on the City Council being given up by Gus Garcia. Raul Alvarez, environmental justice director for the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter, will make his candidacy official with a noon announcement at Plaza Saltillo on East 5th St. (Alvarez was profiled by In Fact Daily Jan. 11.) Alvarez will follow that with a celebration and fund-raiser at Pato's Tacos, 1400 E./ 38-1/2 St., 5:30-8 p.m. His chief opponent, attorney Rafael Quintanilla, will be kicking off his campaign tonight with an announcement and fund-raiser at Serranos at Symphony Square at 6 p.m. Also running in Place 2 is Gloria Mata Pennington, who recently retired from the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

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