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Slusher says Mitchell can't win at polls

Wednesday, March 27, 2002 by

Kirk Mitchell, an opponent of Council Member Daryl Slusher, filed suit Tuesday against the incumbent and against City Clerk Shirley Brown in an attempt to prevent Slusher’s name from appearing on the May 4 ballot. Mitchell is alleging that signatures from the Committee for Voter Choice, a political action committee put together by former Mayor Bruce Todd, constitute an illegal campaign contribution. Slusher, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Jackie Goodman and Council Member Beverly Griffith have each delivered about 24,000 signatures to Brown. Griffith’s have been verified as meeting the term-limit requirements. ( See Whispers below)

Mitchell is an entrepreneur who serves as chair of the Save Our Springs Alliance. He was also a plaintiff in a lawsuit which forced the city to place a proposed Charter Amendment on the 1997 ballot. That amendment was approved by voters and provides, among other things that no person may contribute more than $100 to any City Council candidate. “There are no dollar limits on the independent expenditure of individuals and organizations to support the election of a Council Member, but such expenditures are prohibited to the extent they involve cooperation or coordination with the Council Member’s election campaign,” according to the lawsuit.

Todd, who was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said his committee hired an attorney, Jim Cousar, who advised the group on every action they took in gathering signatures for incumbents Slusher and Goodman.

Mitchell has attacked Slusher for not being an uncompromising environmentalist. That is not part of the lawsuit, but is a source of animus between the two men. Mitchell’s suit alleges that Todd, owner of Compass Public Affairs, is registered as a lobbyist for about 20 entities, including the Hyde Park Baptist Church and the Villas on Guadalupe. Attorney Richard Suttle represents those entities, among others. Todd laughed when told of the allegation. The only clients he currently has listed with the city are City Net Communications and Peter Barlin. Sarah Cowles, Todd’s assistant, said her boss had previously done marketing for Xerox Corporation and lobbying for Anheuser-Busch. However, they are not current clients, she said.

Mitchell told In Fact Daily, “The moment we found there could be a problem, we took steps to correct it. We have already filed at the court a correction of the petition. I don't have to lie about anyone’s clients to make my point.” He said the problem was caused by the City Clerk’s office, which was confirmed by a staff member.

Mitchell also alleges that Slusher accepted advertising in the Austin Chronicle, valued at more than $1500, without identifying the committee or person who paid for the advertising. But Slusher said the failure to put a disclaimer on the Antone’s ads was “just an oversight. It was paid for by Jackie’s campaign and my campaign . . . I think those were both after the Jan. 15 report and will be reported in the next report.”

Since the cost of gathering signatures is figured at roughly one dollar per name, Mitchell figures the fair market value of Todd’s 1,850 signatures is the same amount in dollars. He is therefore asking that Brown be prohibited from placing Slusher’s name on the ballot. At the very least, Mitchell wants Todd’s signatures to be removed from the final tally. Mitchell believes that removing the signatures gathered by Todd’s group will cause Slusher to fall below the 18,263 threshold.

Slusher said Mitchell is suing him, “because he knows he can't win the election at the ballot box. He wants to win in the courtroom, using his family money to hire lawyers and try to create a court case. I think the people of Austin want elections to be decided at polling places and not at the courthouse.”

“I have faith that Bruce was relying on sound legal advice and I was relying on sound legal advice as well. I may not even need (his signatures) to make it over the top,” Slusher said. “The law allows for independent expenditures. It was a totally independent campaign. “

He predicted that Mitchell would finance his campaign “with his trust fund. He is a big supporter of the $100 limit. Let’s see him live by the law that he supports so strongly.

Mitchell’s attorney, Brad Rockwell of Scanlan, Buckle and Young, sent notices of deposition to Slusher, Todd and Brown for this week, under expedited discovery procedures.

Subdivision approvals in ETJ to be combined

County Commissioners have signed off on the final version of House Bill 1445, an interlocal agreement that will combine subdivision plat standards and approvals for Austin and Travis County. The agreement will create a “one-stop shop” concept, based at city offices, which will combine the approvals needed for subdivisions in the extra-territorial jurisdiction.

However, County Judge Sam Biscoe pointed out that the bill has given counties a mandate, but failed to give them the proper authority to implement consolidated and consistent standards for plat approval. Commissioners agreed that HB 1445, while well intentioned, still needed some improvement.

“One size does not fit all,” said Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, pointing out the differences among the two-dozen cities that interact with Travis County. “It’s just the complexity of potentially 23 interlocals. I don’t think that was what was envisioned here.”

The county has less than a week to draft similar interlocal agreements with another 23 smaller cities. The state has set a deadline of April 1 for consolidation plans.

Biscoe asked Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols and Executive Director Joe Gieselman of Transportation and Natural Resources to draft a list of concerns for Travis County. Commissioners are expected to attend interim hearings on the topic to better offer feedback on the bill. Commissioner Margaret Moore urged the court to submit those concerns to Sen. Frank Madla (D-San Antonio), who has already sent a letter to counties asking for feedback on the effectiveness of House Bill 1445. Madla chairs the Interim Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations. The committee is expected to make recommendations to clarify the statutes impacted by the bill, passed last session.

Nuckols pointed out that some minor changes to the interlocal agreement had been made between the time Commissioners Court saw the draft and the City Council approved it last week. Those changes included the ability to consult with special interest groups for advice, to maintain a record of fees paid for the benefit of an auditor and to allow the fiscal report on the projects to be filed at either the city or county.

Northeast site could be facility for washing garbage trucks

Travis County may have no choice but to offer a permit to the property owner of what neighbors fear will eventually become a new BFI landfill on Old Kimbro Road.Officials are concerned that the permit will sneak in before the county’s more stringent landfill-siting ordinance takes effect.

The possibility was enough to bring those neighbors—who have already waged one battle with BFI—to Commissioners Court yesterday. Gayle Anderson, daughter of one-time county commissioner Arthur Swenson, told commissioners she was in a fight to save her family farm. Already, the existing BFI landfill in Travis County was home to garbage from 14 surrounding counties, Swenson said. She saw nothing but bad news ahead for the farmers in Northeast Travis County.

“How can you allow family homesteads to be lost?” Anderson asked the commissioners during citizens’ communications. “You set 500 acres aside to save the Houston toad. Apparently, you’re more committed to treating our citizens worse than the toad.”

Anderson even went so far as to accuse commissioners of improving the bridge on the infrequently traveled Old Kimbro Road back in 1999 to pave the way for a BFI facility.

Unconfirmed rumors are raging in the community. James Brizell, who bought his farm four years ago and lives next door to the 100-acre site, said BFI had assured him the land next door would be a “state-of-the-art” garbage facility. According to Brizell, the landowner, Bill Sweeney, had formed a limited liability partnership to build a $3.2 million treatment and storage facility to be leased back to BFI. Brizell called for commissioners to act quickly on the controversial site.

BFI Regional Manager John Fields did not return calls to In Fact Daily. All County Judge Sam Biscoe could tell homeowners yesterday was that the county would look into it. Chief Environmental Officer John Kuhl said the property had been brought to his attention only in the last week and he was still awaiting further information.

Several weeks ago, Sweeney brought a site development plan to the county for a 1,400-square-foot building and a driveway on his 100-acre tract. In the last week or so, however, Sweeney returned with an amended plan. The new plan called for a 45,000-square-foot warehouse, possibly to be used as garbage truck washing facility. The owner did confirm to county staff that he intended to lease the property back to BFI, Kuhl said.

“It really makes you scratch your head,” Kuhl said. “If you followed our briefings on the landfill siting ordinance, this is one of those few yellow areas that doesn’t have major constraints for a landfill. It’s one of those parcels where you could pull a permit for a landfill.”

Neighbors noted yesterday, and Kuhl confirmed, that the property had been “red tagged” by county construction inspectors. That, however, was only because the landowner did not post a permit on site before starting to clear the land. And, even if the location is red tagged, construction can continue under certain circumstances, Kuhl said.

Sweeney’s amended plan must still go through the county’s engineering group for approval. But he has put nothing on his site plans that would require county commissioners to look it as a site where the landfill-siting ordinance would kick into play.

“If this is all he intends to build, he will get approved,” Kuhl said. “This doesn’t exactly fit under the solid waste siting ordinance. I don’t know if we can really stop it.”

Not all funds will be released this fiscal year

County Commissioners pledged $500,000 in additional basic needs funding for Austin providers yesterday, although County Judge Sam Biscoe told his colleagues it was a month late in coming.

The Community Action Network notified city and county officials of a $1.5 million shortfall in late February. County officials, however, were hesitant to hand over such a large sum because of additional anticipated shortfalls in the county’s own Health and Human Services Department.

Supporters for the new funds, wearing “Put People First” lapel stickers, were on hand at yesterday’s meeting. They urged the county to approve the expenditure, pointing out that funding for health and human services as a percentage of the county budget had fallen significantly over the last 15 years. Passage of the funding brought a standing ovation from many members of the audience.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner apologized for the extra time it took for funding approval, explaining that commissioners had needed to see specifics on the subject. Commissioner Margaret Gomez added that she preferred not to do her budget amendments from the dais without thorough consideration and reflection. However, Biscoe said the decision to move the funds to pay for basic services took four weeks too long.

“But I’m glad we have gotten where we have gotten,” Biscoe said. “If we say we put people first, then we ought to act on stuff like this.”

The City Council approved $500,000 last week. Commissioners proposed a similar commitment, but made some last-minute changes to the funding mechanism and the timing of the expenditure.

Under the original proposal, the county would have paid for the $500,000 needed between now and year’s end with $100,000 in tobacco grant monies and $400,000 in emergency downturn reserves. Those emergency reserve funds would be reimbursed in fiscal year 2003 from Housing Finance Corp. funds. But after some discussion at the table, commissioners proposed other alternatives. Gomez said the complicated funding formula only “muddied the water” on what the county intended to commit.

Under terms approved unanimously by the court, the county will still pledge $500,000 but only release $335,000 this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. That funding will come from the emergency downturn reserve funds; nothing in the motion indicated that those funds would be reimbursed from the county’s non-profit Housing Finance Corp. Commissioners agreed to look, again, at the situation before the end of the fiscal year to determine additional funding.

Contract amendments for the county’s major basic services providers will come next week. Emergency funds will be made available immediately to those organizations that need them. Stephen Williams, executive director of Health and Human Services, said additional funds would be allocated on a reimbursable basis, a common funding arrangement for many providers.

The current split for health and human services is 60-40, with the city paying the larger share. A memo on the expenditure refers to the 50-50 agreement as simply a “one-time arrangement.”

Commissioner Ron Davis urged Williams to come up with a more accurate picture of what the needs are in the county and how much the county should commit to spend.

“We need to do a better job of tracking what we’re doing here,” Davis said. “We’re talking basic needs, and that’s something that folks can’t wait on.”

Griffith’s signatures verified at over 80 percent . . . After doing a random sample of 25 percent of the signatures turned in by Council Member Beverly Griffith, the City Clerk and the City Auditor’s office have “estimated” Griffith’s valid signatures at 20,790. That represents 80.1415 percent of those turned in, according to Assistant City Auditor C’Anne Daugherty. Griffith said, “I am so grateful to all the folks who signed the petition and those who asked others to sign it . . . It is very humbling and gratifying that almost 21,000 people would feel that way about my service to this great city.” She said Linda Curtis’ group of paid activists collected a lot of the signatures, but she said she also wanted to thank Kevin Miskell, who collected for all three campaigns, as well as Clean Water Action, and campaign manager Brandi Clark . . . Cousins talks about East Lake Project . . . Tom Cousins made a well-timed speech at the Downtown Rotary Club yesterday. Cousins, the chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Cousins Properties, was in Austin to talk about the 175-acre Villages of East Lake. East Lake, dubbed “Little Vietnam,” was one of the most crime-blighted neighborhoods in Atlanta. It’s now a model of urban renewal, home to a mixed-income neighborhood with its own charter school and golf course. Cousins Properties is a key player on the Mueller Redevelopment Team, one of two finalists in the race to redevelop the 700-acre Mueller airport property. Coincidentally, Cousins has been on the circuit for months talking about East Lake. He made a similar speech to the Dallas Real Estate Council in December . . . What he really meant . . . Place 4 Candidate Eddie Bradford says he really did know that the city funded health care for the poor, including arrangements with Brackenridge Hospital. He meant to say he didn’t know the city funded health insurance “to the general population.” Of course, that is not the case . . . Capital Metro talks about rapid transit at RECA . . . John Almond, Cap Metro’s Rapid Transit Project director says the agency is currently thinking the best route for light rail is along Guadalupe to 26th Street, over to San Jacinto, across MLK through the Capital complex, eventually going down Brazos. He said the University community has shown enthusiasm about the San Jacinto route. He and consultant William Lieberman will be meeting with University and Capital area stakeholders during the next 30-40 days, he said, to get more input. One of the questions RECA members asked was, basically, why do we have to have an election this fall? Almond said the election could be put off to 2004, but that federal officials had encouraged the agency to apply this year, when there are more transit funds available.

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

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