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Judge Covington to hear motions this morning

Friday, March 29, 2002 by

Place 3 candidate Linda Curtis yesterday filed a petition to intervene in Place 1 candidate Kirk Mitchell’s lawsuit against Council Member Daryl Slusher. Through her intervention, Curtis seeks to bring Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman into the lawsuit as a defendant. Curtis, a professional activist, is running against Goodman.

Attorney Ann del Llano is representing Curtis. Curtis told In Fact Daily that she would be making the same allegations against Goodman as Mitchell is making against Slusher—that taking signatures from Bruce Todd’ s citizens’ PAC was acceptance of an illegal campaign contribution. “We’re also claiming that the petitions are faulty,” Curtis said. She said the city’s auditors had failed to meet a state-mandated 95 percent validity rate.

Del Llano is also Mitchell’s campaign treasurer. She has most recently appeared before the City Council to ask that the question of who should appoint the police monitor be put on the May 4 ballot. Goodman supported del Llano’s request, while Slusher voted against it. The motion failed, and the controversial item will not be on the ballot.

District Judge Suzanne Covington is expected to rule on Curtis’ motion to intervene at a hearing this morning. The judge will also hear various other motions from both sides on the case.

In the meantime, Assistant City Auditor C’Anne Daugherty said, “We can now verify Goodman’s numbers at the same confidence level that we did Slusher’s and (Council Member Beverly) Griffith’ s yesterday.” That number was 99.98 percent. “The more we fine tune the numbers the better we all feel,” she said. As to why that was the case, Daugherty said, “At this point, there is so much misunderstanding and brouhaha about the methodology that was used, we’ve decided to let all those questions get answered in court.”

City Attorney Sedora Jefferson said she was anticipating that the city would file a motion for continuance since the plaintiffs had started to challenge the city’s verification methods. Mitchell had said he expected a trial on Monday, April 1. However, Slusher’s attorney, Buck Wood, is requesting a jury trial, and that could not happen before April 8, when jury panels will be available. The question of whether to keep or repeal term limits will appear on the ballot on May 4, along with a number of other important Charter issues.

As we reported Wednesday, Federal Judge Sam Sparks told the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Fish & Wildlife Service they had 40 days to conclude their review of pollution regulations governing construction in the Barton Springs watershed. The victor in the ruling is the Save Our Springs Alliance, which had earlier won an order giving the agencies an early September 2001 deadline. However, the EPA has been dragging its feet since the USFWS issued a draft opinion declaring that continued use of the current rules—the construction general permit—puts the Barton Springs salamander in jeopardy of extinction.

The judge notes in his ruling that the Barton Springs salamander has been on the endangered species list since May 30, 1997. Noting that the creature lives only in Barton Springs, the judge wrote, “Within a year of achieving endangered status, the Salamander expanded its exclusive habitat to include the docket of this Court and has lived here since then, sounding its three-inch presence from the piles of pleadings like a rhinoceros’ snort.”

Judge Sparks’ ruling includes the following description of the federal agencies’ failure to act: “The consultation was to have begun in early May of 2001, approximately eleven months ago. The defendants claim they need until July 25, 2002 to complete the consultation. The Court cannot fathom why an entity as resourceful and mammoth as the federal government needs fifteen months, the gestation period of a black rhinoceros, to complete a consultation concerning the effects of construction on a three-inch creature. The Court especially cannot see any legitimate, apolitical reason the defendants need over a year—the gestation period of an ass—to finalize a draft Biological Opinion.”

According to our calculations, the judge is telling the feds they must complete their consultation by early May. We look forward to all of Judge Sparks’ rulings.

Commissioners say Diving Esther sign must move

As the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) pushes to preserve the historic integrity of the Sixth Street National Historic Register District, its biggest current obstacle is interpretation of the sign ordinance.

Up to now, the Sixth Street sign ordinance has remained largely unenforced because of the sheer size of the project. It has taken Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky almost five months to catalog 160 locations, noting the approval, or lack or thereof, of hundreds of signs over the years. Sadowsky is trying to work out compromises with tenants to avoid taking them to court on code violations.

“Our plan is to work with owners and tenants on signs and signage plans that conform to the sign ordinance,” Sadowsky told the commissioners. “In the event that does not work, they will fill out applications and we will bring those applications to you. If they don’t file, we will take them to municipal court.”

The cases aren’t simple, Sadowsky said, as the ordinance is silent on topics such as ATM machine signage, neon in windows and temporary banners. The lack of clear definition has resulted, as Chair Lauretta Dowd admitted, in inconsistent enforcement and approval of signs from the HLC.

“One of the most difficult issues we’ve had to deal with has just been being educated about what we’ve approved in the past,” Dowd told her colleagues. “I do think we put staff in a difficult position if we’re not consistent. It’s really hard to vote against something that someone has spent money on . . . but we do need to stand with our staff.”

This week, the case at hand was Esther’s Follies, the first Sixth Street business confronted by enforcement. In its second round with the commission, the venerable entertainment venue saw its illuminated “Diving Esther” sign approved, as long as it was placed along the Red River side of the business. Consultant Sarah Crocker still questioned the accuracy of staff calculations of the sign’s square footage and said she would return to the commission with a revised plan.

HLC also declined to approve an Automated Teller Machine in an inset doorway of the Dittlinger Building at 302 East Sixth Street, saying the machine would be better placed inside the building. Sadowsky pointed out that the city’s ordinances remain inconsistent on ATM machines. HLC has a right to approve the placement of machines in front of historic buildings, but they aren’t allowed to rule on where machines are placed in non-historic buildings, even if both buildings are located within a Historic Register District .

In his report to the commission, Sadowsky cited other areas of the ordinance that were difficult to enforce. Even though lighted signs are necessary for many businesses on Sixth Street, the ordinance is fuzzy on just what kind of lighting is appropriate. Neon is appropriate in a vague “certain limited amounts.” The code does not deal with how signs on ATM machines or multi-tenant buildings should be handled. And the code that applies to signs on Sixth Street is silent on the size and display of temporary banners.

Commissioners agreed that the HLC should come up with clearer deadlines now that more accurate data on just what the problems were on Sixth Street –. Sadowsky will spend the next 45 days defining his recommendations on the signs. In May, the commission will appoint an ad hoc committee to review those signs, with the intention of offering amendments to the current historic district sign ordinance.

Commissioner Jane Manaster suggested a 90-day moratorium on sign approval, but Dowd said Sadowsky had moved well beyond a moratorium. Now, Dowd said, the commission had information in hand both to enforce current guidelines and come up with any changes to the ordinance.

Once the new code is in place, Sadowsky said, it would be important to strictly and consistently enforce the new policies. Too often, the commission has made exceptions for businesses—e.g., the neon signs for the Iron Cactus and Hard Rock Café—that have made it easy for new applicants to ask that exceptions be made for them, too.,

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Friday.

Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Plan moves ahead . . . Six members of the Planning Commission unanimously agreed that the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Plan should move ahead with their blessing. Explanations and testimony lasted for nearly three hours, but no blood was shed. The commission told planners they needed to do some fine-tuning on a couple of properties, but otherwise they could head on to the City Council . . . CAMPO leaders seeking money from the Texas Transportation Commission for the “Y” at Oak Hill on Thursday got some words of encouragement about a separate project. Commissioners said they expect an announcement on funding for the right-of-way for SH 130 “within the next ten days.” While voters in Travis County approved a bond proposal last fall to set aside up to $65 million to buy land for the proposed toll road through eastern Travis County, the state’s participation—if any—has been in question. Commissioners predicted CAMPO members would find the announcement “reasonable,” but also warned that the amount of federal money coming to the state for use on road projects would be down significantly. Members of the CAMPO delegation, for the most part, took the comments as a positive sign. “I think we were getting a message from the commissioners that they believe they had figured out a way to make all this happen with our support,” said Neil Kocurek, who made part of CAMPO’s presentation. “That is very gratifying and that sounds very good” . . . Gaining Ground . . . During this week’s announcement of a major expansion by the St. David’s Healthcare System in Central Texas, St. David’s President and CEO Jon Foster gave the audience a briefing on the concept of a hospital district. (See In Fact Daily, Feb.08, 2002.) “Austin is unique in the State of Texas in that we have nothing like that here, so the burden of caring for the indigent patients and those without insurance falls directly on the providers,” he said. Foster noted that Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe had recently come out in support of a hospital district. “We certainly applaud him for that,” he said. “We certainly must find a way to find a more stable source of funding for our care for indigent patients” . . . Honoring Mary Arnold . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance is honoring Mary Arnold, who has served as a volunteer worked for a multitude of good causes over the past 30 years. The celebration will be at the Austin City Limits Studio. Turk Pipkin will be the Master of Ceremonies and music will be provided by Ted Roddy and the Tearjoint Troubadours. For more information, call SOSA at 477-2320.

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

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