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Green claims suit is politically motivated

Wednesday, February 27, 2002 by

Texans for Public Justice has sued Dripping Springs State Rep. Rick Green for refusing to turn over information on any legislative continuances he may have requested during the past two legislative sessions. Attorneys who serve in the Legislature may request an automatic delay in state court proceedings during and 30 days before and after legislative sessions. In some cases, legislators appear to have been hired solely on the basis of their right to receive such continuances—although Green has not been named in any such allegations.

The Dripping Springs Republican said, “It’s obvious to me it’s a politically motivated deal . . . they waited until 2 weeks before the election to file it . . . They’re picking on the one guy who has probably used (legislative continuances) less than anybody.” Green said he had “only used them two or three times.” He called Texans for Public Justice a “left-wing organization.”

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), denied that the lawsuit was politically motivated. “We just want the information,” he said.

McDonald explained that his organization asked for information concerning their requests for delay from all 50 representatives and 12 senators who are members of the State Bar Association. Only 14 of those provided such information and 48 of the 62, more than three-quarters, failed to respond at all. Texans for Public Justice believes that the information is public and should be available under the Texas Public Information Act.

McDonald said that Green was selected as the sole defendant in TPJ’s lawsuit because he alone said he was basing his negative response on advice received from the Texas Attorney General’s Office. McDonald said the Attorney General‘s office has not issued a formal opinion on this matter. While the suit only names Green, TPJ is seeking a ruling that will apply to every legislator.

Green has one opponent in the Republican primary, investment consultant Randy Robinson. Assuming Green wins the primary, he will face Democrat Patrick Rose and Green Party candidate John Schmidt in the General Election.

Keel provided information

McDonald noted that 14 legislator-attorneys provided some information in response to the organization’s request—including Travis County Rep. Terry Keel (R-Dist. 41) and Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen. Both Keel and Hinojosa sought continuances in order to represent tire manufacturer Firestone in products liability cases. Democrat Hinojosa is currently facing three primary opponents.

Austin attorney Joe Crews, who represented the family of a man and his daughter who were killed in a Firestone tire/ Ford rollover case, related the following: “We were scheduled for trial on June 18 (2001), and in late May, Firestone decided it needed Terry Keel to represent them in the case. And it was clearly done exclusively for the legislative continuance.” Crews said Keel is not a products liability lawyer and had never done such a case. “The reason he signed on was to get a continuance for Firestone . . . So something’s wrong with the system when that kind of atrocity can occur.” Crews said because the trial would have taken two weeks to a month, it could not have been rescheduled until January. At that time, he said, the case was settled.

Keel took exception to Crews’ remarks about him, noting that even though his practice is primarily criminal defense, he also does civil work and is often asked by out-of-town counsel to step into a case at trial. He said he is primarily hired for his expertise at jury selection. Although he did not remember the case at the beginning of the conversation, eventually Keel said he did recall the case. He said he also had a case representing Firestone in New Braunfels. He was unaware that this particular case had reached settlement. He said Crews had a grudge against him from a previous case filed when Keel was sheriff.

However, Keel had no disagreement with TPJ. He noted that legislators are asked to keep a log of administrative cases, which is turned in to the State Ethics Commission. Perhaps legislators should be keeping similar information on those they represent in other matters, he said.

As for Green, he says TPJ can “go to the courthouse” to get the information. True, and not true. If a person were to comb through the records of all the cases filed in a county, eventually he or she would find the information. However, in Travis County, for example, there is no way to search for cases by attorney. There are 254 counties in Texas, and it seems unlikely that most of them have more efficient search engines for that sort of information.

Sheriff says her agency is small part of large problem

County Commissioners may be ready to consider increasing the number of prison beds in the county, but only after they are satisfied that current jail operations are running at peak.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards issued a remedial order against Travis County at its meeting on Feb. 14. Sheriff Margo Frasier was at Commissioners Court yesterday to tell commissioners just exactly what she intended to do about the five areas of deficiency cited by the state, but even after the extended presentation, County Judge Sam Biscoe was not satisfied.

Biscoe told Frasier he wanted more specific information and more definite solutions on how Travis County would correct the problems. He wanted to be sure the county was going to implement all prior suggestions—what he referred to as “campaign speeches”—to improve the system. Biscoe also wanted to know how the shedding of variance capacity would be addressed. Variance capacity is state-approved temporary bed placement.

“If the right results are not produced, I’m looking at new beds,” Biscoe told his colleagues. “I ain’t there yet, but I’m headed that way.”

Frasier hit a common theme in her speech. Solving the jail problem, she told commissioners, is not just the sheriff’s problem. The problem belongs to the entire criminal justice system: the police, the magistrates, the court system and the sheriff. Of all the people who could make a difference in the system, Frasier said, she is the only one without the authority to release someone from jail.

It takes too long to book people into the Travis County jail, Frasier said. It takes too long to release them. It takes too long for cases to be disposed of in court. It takes too long for prisoners in the county jail to be sent to state prison.

Next week, Biscoe could choose to write a letter of support for Frasier and her efforts to address deficiencies. Travis County has until March 6 to respond to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. In April, Frasier will speak to the state agency about longer-term solutions, like ridding the county of variance beds. Right now, 739 of the almost 3,000 beds in the county are considered temporary.

The county is currently a little more than 300 permanent beds short of its needs, Frasier said. Other state concerns include maintenance issues and the licensing of security coordinators as jailers. Short-term the county is ready to open another 72 beds for additional inmates in the next week.

The county has worked out a few short-term solutions. A couple of judges have volunteered to assist in the magistration of offenders in Central Booking. Six cells in the Travis County jail next door are being set aside to serve as overflow holding cells while people wait to see a magistrate. And a recreational area built for 254 inmates—now serving over 400—will extend its hours of operation.

Frasier also suggested a review of the inmate population to determine which additional inmates, if any, may qualify for release into the community. The county could agree to construct additional facilities or contract with private facilities or other counties to house the overflow population.

The Director of the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) will come back to the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee in April with an “action plan” on addressing maintenance needs, including the need for more accurate data on the department’s maintenance backlog. The City Auditor’s office presented its report on the department’s maintenance practices to the committee on Tuesday. That report contained 19 specific recommendations for improvement, the majority of which were supported by city management.

Those recommendations include the call for a complete maintenance inventory. “The conditions that we observed are no secret to parks management and parks patrons,” said Audit Team Member Tom Albin. “The so-called maintenance backlog has been discussed for years. We can’t quantify the backlog given the available data because the data just hasn’t been kept.”

The report recommended studying the possibility of using some of the city’s hotel-motel bed tax revenue specifically for parks maintenance, given the importance of the parks in attracting visitors. Staff members also mentioned that some cities had had success with a “parks district” in which tax revenue from certain parts of town was devoted to parks in that area, but they did not include the idea in their list of formal recommendations.

Council members had some questions about the recommendation that non-park maintenance duties performed by park staff be reassigned. “The vast majority of the budget for forestry services is spent on work outside of parks . . . as is a significant amount of mowing,” Albin said. “Parks has the resources and the expertise to do that . . . but since it’s not really within their mission, when that workload goes up it eats at their ability to do forestry work inside the parks.” Those outside duties include trimming trees that block proper visibility on city streets.

Council Member Beverly Griffith asked if other city departments then reimbursed PARD for those services, but was told they did not. “This is a City of Austin function, and we get the job done,” said PARD Director Jesus Olivares. The system has developed over several years at the direction of city management, since PARD employees have the tools and experience in tree trimming, mowing and debris removal. “We work very closely with APD and other departments,” said Olivares. “When there’s a storm in this city, our crews are basically the front-line crews that go out first to clear the streets and sidewalks and cut branches or trees that have fallen down, so that when Austin Energy comes through they can repair the power lines.”

Griffith said she was interested in a “strategic plan” for PARD’s maintenance expenses, as well as a proposal to set up a “reinvestment strategy” for allocating funding for maintenance. City management did not concur with the audit’s call for a reinvestment strategy, according to Finance Director John Stephens, partly because many of the functions that would be included in that process are already part of the yearly budgeting process and the five-year budget projections.

PARD will present its action plan to the committee in sixty days. The committee also asked the auditor’s office to determine what additional data would be needed to pursue a long-term maintenance plan and report back next month.

Zoning for popular bar goes to Council without recommendation

The City Council will soon hear a proposal to move the Cedar Door bar to Toomey Lane, but it will come without the endorsement of the Zoning and Platting Commission.

The Cedar Door is currently in limbo, out of its long-time home on Cesar Chavez at Sandra Muraida. The most recent plan is to move the popular bar to the back of an RV park that fronts on Barton Springs Road, with more direct access from Toomey Road.

The deal makes sense to the RV Park’s owner Susan Toomey Frost. Frost pays more than $48,000 annually in property taxes on her RV Park, a small slice of land that sits on Barton Springs’ restaurant row. But to make the relocation happen would require a number of changes: a zoning change from CS to CS-1-CO on the part of the property where the bar would be located; a conditional use permit for the sale of liquor; and a waiver that would allow that liquor to be sold within 300 feet of a private school. The Council is expected to take up the issue of liquor sales near private schools on Thursday.

Agent Jim Bennett, who represented the owner at the zoning change, said the relocation was supported by almost everyone but the Parkside Community School down the street. Bennett compared the bar to Cheers, which struck a chord with Chair Betty Baker, and said it was not the type of “rowdy call-the-police kind of facility” that would be opposed by most neighborhoods. Proposed off-site parking for the bar is expected to be almost double what would normally be required.

The commission eventually would split on a recommendation, but Baker set the tone for the topic when she said that approving the zoning change and signing off on liquor sales before the Council approved an ordinance on the topic might “prejudice a subsequent request before Council.” That seemed to open the door for just enough doubt on the commission to eventually split the group 3-2-1. A vote of five commissioners in favor of the zoning change was necessary before the ZAP could endorse the proposal.

Frost made an emotional plea to the Council, clearly concerned about her ability to maintain a property that had been in her family for 80 years. Her 90-year-old uncle still lives on the site, and the pecan grove planted by her grandfather is the largest one along the Colorado River. She described the Cedar Door as a “good neighbor” and “compatible with the area.” It would be a use that would fit in well with that “funky laid back personality of Austin” that her family’s RV Park epitomized.

While Frost found the bar to be a perfect fit, the administrator of Parkside was less enthusiastic. Administrator Claire Bruno, who operates the school, said the nature of Toomey Lane was far more residential than commercial. The uses along the road were ball fields and the Zachary Scott Theater —not the bars that typified Barton Springs Road. Even though the Cedar Door would not open its doors until 4 p.m., Bruno still saw the presence of the bar as an intrusion on the more family-oriented roadway.

“I’m not at all opposed to this bar. The Cedar Door is a fine establishment,” Bruno said. “I’m just opposed to the entrance to this establishment on Toomey Road.”

The Cedar Door is likely to change hands with its new location. The prospective owner had told Bruno, initially, that the bar would front Barton Springs Road. No entrance or signage would be located on Toomey Road. Bennett said he had no authority to make such an offer and there was currently no option to move the bar so it would front Barton Springs. Even if the bar were moved to the Barton Springs side of the RV Park, zoning issues would require access from both Barton Springs and Toomey Road.

Staff considered the Toomey Road entrance to be compatible with the neighborhood. In his recommendation, Planner Glenn Rhoads said uses along Toomey Road included restaurant offices and offices for the City of Austin, as well as vehicle storage facility to the east. The tract is also within the Waterfront Overlay District and a cocktail lounge is an acceptable use within the zone.

With very little discussion, commissioners split on the final vote. Commissioners Vincent Aldridge, Joseph Martinez and Michael Casias voted in favor of the zoning change. Baker and Commissioner Angular Adams voted against it, while Commissioner Jean Mather abstained. Commisioner Keith Jackson was absent and Commissioners Niyanta Spelman and Diana Castañeda had already departed.

Villas on Guadalupe delay predicted . . . Mike McHone, consultant for the controversial student housing project on between at 27th Street, Guadalupe and Hemphill Park, said consideration of the case is likely to be delayed because city staff made an error when posting the case for this week's agenda . . . Betty Dunkerley is not missing . . . But she may be missing some phone calls, because SWB has failed to remove her number from the private section of its records. Council candidate Dunkerley said she asked the company to start releasing her number, 892-5433, a month ago, but as of yesterday In Fact Daily was unable to obtain it from information. Dunkerley can also be reached on her cell phone, 750-9215. She said she will have a campaign office soon and that number will be listed in information also . . . City Auditor lauded, at least nationally . . . The American Society for Public Administration honored City Auditor Stephen Morgan with the “Harry Hatry Distinguished Performance Measurement Practice Award.” It goes to someone whose “teaching, education, training and consultation in performance measurement has made a significant contribution to the practice of public administration.” . . . But scolded by Mayor . . . Mayor Gus Garcia told staff in the Audit Department that he didn’t want to read about the results of their work in the press, at least not before their reports are officially presented to the Audit and Finance Committee. “I would prefer that the reports to the paper come out of the reports that you make to this committee,” Garcia said. City Auditor Stephen Morgan said the department distributed its reports and backup material on the Friday prior to the Tuesday committee meeting. Those reports, Morgan said, were traditionally available to members of the public “who insisted” on having them, “but our preference was to encourage them to wait until Tuesday.” Morgan said he would see if the department could hold onto the reports until the Tuesday presentation. “The charter is very clear that your reporting responsibility is to the audit committee,” Garcia said. “For me to be reading about it in the paper makes me feel uncomfortable” . . . Baker working with only one hand . . . Betty Baker, chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission, appeared at Tuesday’s meeting with her right hand in a cast and two black eyes. The pavement got her, she said, as she was carrying some heavy items to a neighbor’s house. Baker’s doing well with the left hand, but did at one point have trouble reading her own writing and acknowledged during the meeting that her arm hurt.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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