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Griffith campaign points to her record in support of public safety

Monday, April 29, 2002 by

Place Four City Council Candidate Brewster McCracken combined his campaign themes of regional representation and public safety last week, calling for several changes in the Austin Police Department.

McCracken wants a new police substation for Northwest Austin. He says the department has not taken appropriate measures to shift its manpower as the city’s population has grown and shifted through annexations. “Austin’s emergency response time is about twice what Houston’s is,” McCracken said. “The city’s gotten so big through annexation and expansion of population that it causes the police precincts and sectors to be too big. By creating a new police substation in Northwest Austin, we can improve response times.” McCracken cited a recent newspaper article ( Austin American-Statesman, Feb. 26, 2002) showing the average time it takes for an officer to respond to an emergency call had increased to 9 minutes while other major cities in Texas are closer to 5 minutes.

The Council does have authority to authorize a new police substation, and voted on Thursday to approve the construction contract for a new substation and forensics facility in central East Austin that was approved by voters in 1998. McCracken’s other suggestion, to rearrange the police precincts and patrol areas, would likely be an administrative function of the Police Chief. McCracken said if he were elected, he would use his position on the Council to put additional public pressure on the chief to make those changes. “Through political leadership, if we can compress these precincts and make them smaller, our officers can have less territory to cover and provide quicker responses to ensure public safety,” he said. The Austin Police Association and the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters are both supporting hi efforts.

McCracken pointed out that crime figures in Austin for 2001 had gone up for the first time in several years. “There’s a real spike in the crime rate in the fourth quarter of last year,” McCracken said, citing figures released by APD. In a news conference in mid-January, Chief Stan Knee said part of the fourth-quarter increase could be due to officers being removed from crime prevention programs and being diverted to homeland security duty, guarding water plants and other city facilities. McCracken said the Council should be doing more to ensure public safety. “We have a real choice of priorities. I’m running against an opponent whose major priority is major bond issues to purchase land. My priority in these budget times is on public safety. Voters have a real clear choice.”

While incumbent Place Four Council Member Beverly Griffith has been noted for her efforts to secure funding for parks and open space, officials with her campaign say she also has a strong record of supporting more money for public safety. They point out that over the past two years, spending on the police department has increased by $33.4 million while the budget for the Parks and Recreation Department has increased by $3.1 million. They also cite figures contrasting the increase in overall public safety spending in the current budget of $31.7 million with the total budget for the Parks and Recreation Department of $31.3 million as an indication of the priority the current council, including Griffith, has placed on public safety. And statistics compiled by the campaign dating back to 1996 show Griffith supporting an increase in police spending of approximately 15 percent in all years except one, leading to a cumulative increase of 83 percent.

McCracken also called for hiring additional firefighters to achieve “four-person staffing”. The practice of assigning four firefighters to each fire engine allows two to remain outside a burning building while two enter it to search for victims. If the two firefighters inside the building become hurt or disoriented, the two outside are able to go in after them.

The National Fire Prevention Association promotes this standard (see www.nfpa.org). Further details about the policy are available from the National League of Cities at http://www.nlc.org/nlc_org/site/policy_legislation/nfpa_proposed_standards/index.cfm. “We are putting firefighters lives at risk because we do not comply with state law of having two firefighters in reserve when two go into a fire or emergency response,” McCracken said. The Austin Fire Department, at the urging of the City Council last summer, adopted a program called “task force staffing.” The program went into effect at the beginning of this year and is designed to ensure that at least four firefighters arrive at each fire. While that does not put the city into full compliance with the “four-person staffing” level, it is in line with the “two-in-two-out” rule ordered by the Texas legislature in 2001 ( http://www.tml.org/legis_update092601a_bills.htm). Many cities and the Texas Municipal League have resisted the immediate implementation of four-person staffing because of the expense of hiring additional personnel.

In addition to the police and fire departments, McCracken also pledged to make changes in the court system if elected. Specifically, he said he would work to appoint municipal judges that would make it more difficult for accused criminals to be released on bond. “One out of every five persons indicted for child molestation is a fugitive from justice, because municipal courts set the bond amounts too low,” McCracken said. “My plan in that regard would be to work with the appointment process with municipal judges to bring our bond amounts in line with the rest of the state.” McCracken, a former prosecutor, is married to an Assistant District Attorney.

Demolition permit vote may have been based on misunderstanding

Neighborhood activist José Quintero probably had no idea what havoc he wreaked at the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday.

Quintero had apparently intended to speak on the demolition of a house at 2211 Haskell, in the Holly neighborhood. But then his angry speech touched on a number of disjointed topics. First, he railed about historic zoning that increased home values and priced Hispanics out of their own neighborhoods. Then he told the story of a man who lost his house because he couldn’t pay back a $12,000 loan and the bank ending up selling his house to someone who then sold it for $400,000. Then Quintero vented about a system that preserved German names but not Mexican ones. He topped off his speech by declaring the Historic Landmark Commission’s actions being “a big threat to us” before storming out of the room, leaving the commissioners in a confused silence.

Commissioner Teresa Rabago said she had overheard Quintero talking to a man in the hallway that she thought was the owner of the house, a man who may not have understood that his house was being demolished. But no one could tell whether Quintero was against the demolition on Haskell, or simply angry about the historic landmark zoning process in general.

What made the situation more difficult was that commissioners already had voted to demolish 2211 Haskell under a city loan program that would replace the substandard house with a new home. By the end of the evening commissioners had rescinded that vote and agreed to initiate historic zoning on a house that Deputy Historic Preservation Steve Sadowsky described as “clearly uninhabited and clearly uninhabitable.” City staff expressed doubts the house would even qualify as historic.

The request for a demolition permit was signed by Mark Dykhoff, a contractor hired by Luis and Angelina Castillo to demolish their Haskell home. But Quintero was so emphatic it raised questions in commissioners’ minds whether the Castillos had understood the document they had signed or even intended to see their house demolished. Sadowsky had to admit he had not spoken to the Castillos personally, although notice was sent to them of the demolition permit and Dykhoff was authorized to act on their behalf.

Everyone who could have answered questions on the Haskell demolition had cleared the room after commissioners voted on the item. Quintero spoke during citizens’ communications, and no one with the city’s program was present to respond.

Commissioners were left with unanswered questions. The window of action on a demolition permit is 40 days on a house that is or might be historic. So the commission had only that one meeting to act on the permit. Under the city ordinance, the HLC must initiate historic zoning on a house that does not qualify for a demolition permit. Dykhoff could choose to refile the demolition permit.

The commission voted 5-3 to rescind its earlier decision and initiate historic zoning, with Commissioners Liz Goins, Mario Sanchez and Dan Leary voting against the historic zoning. Goins said she did not consider it the commission’s job to verify the veracity of legal instruments, such as the one the Castillos had signed. Chair Lauretta Dowd left the meeting before the vote was taken.

Commissioner Julia Bunton picked up on Quintero’s point that Austin needs to preserve more homes in predominantly minority communities. Austin has yet to complete a complete historic survey in East Austin, she pointed out. Maybe it was time to open up a dialogue with East Austin residents on the process and benefits of historic zoning. Bunton added it was not the commission’s goal to treat communities like “we intend to railroad them or run them over. We’re here to preserve the history of Austin.”

Dowd pointed out such an effort to reach communities would fall under the commission’s revamped Special Tourism and Public Outreach Committee.

The demolition of 2211 Haskell was placed on the consent agenda. Commissioner Lisa Laky remarked that putting demolitions on the consent agenda might be a bad idea, but Dowd countered that the commission might be overreacting.

“We are reacting to one individual’s comments,” Dowd added. “We’ve never had, in the number of years I’ve been here, anyone who said, ‘You approved the demolition of my house, and I wanted to keep it.’ We’re just reacting to one individual’s comments, as well founded as those comments may be.”

Quintero is a member of El Concilio political organization. Another member of that group told In Fact Daily later in the week that the commission’s actions were the result of miscommunication. He said the owners of the house would not be able to go through with their plans until they can get a demolition permit.

Anti-Prop 1 billboards up . . . Fifteen bright yellow billboards have gone up across the city, each with the same simple message. Vote no, they say, on tax money for candidates. Whether this last-minute effort will have any effect remains to be seen. But the signs themselves are highly visible . . . Televised candidate forum . . . All Austin City Council candidates attended last night’s forum, sponsored by the city’s Ethics Review Commission, with assistance from the League of Women Voters. Candidates were generally courteous and refrained from attacking one another. Place 1 candidate Vincent Aldridge was reminded sternly after his opening that he was not to name other candidates. Aldridge had attacked Council Member Daryl Slusher, claiming that his court victory over fellow candidate Kirk Mitchell was not really an exoneration of the incumbent. In that suit, Judge Suzanne Covington ruled that signatures received from the independent Citizens for Voter Choice did not amount to a campaign contribution. Aldridge has also written a letter to the Council asking that Slusher “remove himself from the City Council election.” If you are interested in watching the forum, Channel 6 will be playing it throughout the day beginning tomorrow. Today, Channel 6 will be showing proposed single-member district maps . . . Words from Jennifer Gale . . . Perennial candidate for various offices though she is, Jennifer Gale had this admonition to Channel 6 viewers. If only eight percent of voters actually bother this year, they will be a very powerful minority and will effectively dictate who will have governing powers over the city . . . Campaign contribution and expenditure reports . . . Reports were due to the City Clerk on Friday, for the period from March 26 to April 24. In Fact Daily reviewed reports by the three major candidates for Place 4—incumbent Beverly Griffith and challengers Brewster McCracken and Betty Dunkerley. Griffith reported collecting and spending more than $35,000 during that time period. McCracken said he brought in more than $20,000 and spent about $35,000. Dunkerley said she raised more than $25,000 and spent about $18,000. Griffith, whose eye-catching TV spot started last week, paid television advertising specialist Dean Rindy about $20,000. Grassroots Solutions, her political consultants, received more than $7,200. Dunkerley paid nearly $9,000 to Map, Inc., which is helping with her media, including the TV ad that started playing this weekend. McCracken said his new TV spots will begin on Tuesday or Wednesday . . . Israeli/Palestinian supporters to gather in dueling demonstrations . . . The Jewish Community Association of Austin and several other groups, are sponsoring a rally at the south side of the Capitol from 11am to 1pm on Tuesday. The group wants folks to bring signs showing solidarity with Israel. Richard Fawal, president of the Austin chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, is hoping his friends and supporters will come out for a counter rally, same time and place. He writes, “Our goal is not to confront the pro-Israel participants, but to show that MORE Austinites believe it is the Palestinian people in need of our solidarity . . . Futurist to speak . . . David Pearce Snyder, lifestyle editor of The Futurist magazine, will discuss the long-term promise of the 21st Century at 7pm Thursday at the Jones Auditorium at St. Edward’s University. Snyder, who has a 30-year career in predicting future trends, is the keynote speaker for the Central Texas Chapter of the World Future Society’ s kickoff event. Admission is free, but you should register via email: ctwfs@globalvantage.com For more information on the society, which claims 30,000 members in more than 90 countries, visit www.wfs.org . . . Proposition 7 causes confusion . . . Journalist Neal Spelce is confused, says one of his readers. In last Friday’s edition of his Austin Letter, we hear that the veteran reporter opined that the creation of a consumer analyst position to advise the City Council would “dramatically alter” the current council-manager form of government. He said the analyst would be the only person, other than the City Manager to report directly to the Council. Not so, of course. The City Council appoints the City Auditor, the City Clerk, the Municipal Court Clerk and all the Municipal Court judges. So it seems unlikely to have such great impact on the form of government. The more important questions, of course, are do we really need another person reporting to the Council and what will that do to the utility? . . Today is the next to last day to vote early . . . Mobile early voting locations today are at the Seton Northwest Hospital on Research, Manor ISD Administration Office, Waller Creek Center on 10th St. downtown, and Town Lake Center on Barton Springs Road. For a list of permanent early voting locations, click here: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/election/5_4_er_perm.htm

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