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Hearing today also on Curtis' suit against Goodman

Tuesday, April 2, 2002 by

Judge Suzanne Covington said Monday she will be issuing a ruling at 8:30 this morning in Place 1 candidate Kirk Mitchell’s lawsuit against Council Member Daryl Slusher. Covington had requested written briefs from attorneys from both the incumbent and Mitchell, who is attempting to have Slusher’s name removed from the May 4 ballot. She indicated Monday that she would not be hearing additional oral arguments.

On Friday, Covington dismissed City Clerk Shirley Brown from Mitchell’s lawsuit, ruling that Brown must place Slusher’s name on the ballot under the Texas Election Code. Yesterday, however, Mitchell amended his pleadings, naming the City of Austin as a defendant and again requesting that Brown and the city be enjoined from putting Slusher’s name on the ballot.

Mitchell’s amended lawsuit also alleges that Brown failed to conduct a review of the petitions “to ensure that Mr. Slusher was the stated individual whose candidacy was being supported by the signatories . . . One or more petitions, for example, were for the candidacy of Pete Winstead for Place 1. Signatures on these petitions were counted as valid and contributed toward the Slusher signature total.”

Attorney Pete Winstead said, “I collected four or five signatures for Daryl and Jackie and did not pay one dollar to anybody.” He said there could have been some mistake as to which line was filed in, but that he has never been a candidate for Place 1.

City Attorney Sedora Jefferson said, “From the city’s perspective, we will defend any kind of allegations against the process the city used to verify the signatures . . . We feel like we used sound methodology. We don’t see any basis for having a candidate declared ineligible.” Jefferson noted that “State law requires us to keep names that meet the application requirements on the ballot . . . if we didn’t have a final court adjudication by last Friday, it’s too late—we have to put their name on the ballot.” There can be no final adjudication until at least be 30 days after a judge has made a decision. If there is an appeal, the delay would be even longer. “So we’ll continue to defend the city and hopefully have it resolved before the election early voting period begins.” Early voting starts on April 17.

At 9am, at least some of the lawyers present for Judge Covington’s decision will move to the courtroom of Judge Jeanne Meurer, who will be hearing from attorneys for Place 3 candidate Linda Curtis and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. Curtis, like Mitchell, is seeking judicial help in removing her opponent from the ballot. The city is named in that lawsuit also.

Mitchell agreed that the lawsuits have distracted him from “the normal campaign track,” but that he thought the effort was worthwhile. He said today’s meeting with the American-Statesman editorial board would be one of the most important appearances for him, and for other candidates as well. That meeting, of course, is not open to the public or other members of the media, but Mitchell described it as a round table discussion among Place 1 candidates and the board.

Without little public notice, few citizens attend

Four people, including an In Fact Daily reporter, showed up for the first in a series of public meetings the city scheduled to get input on the proposed single-member district map. The meeting was held at the Thompson Conference Center and lasted only 40 minutes due to the exceptionally low turnout. (See link to map on our front page .)

Dominic Chavez, a frequent spokesperson for the Real Estate Council of Austin, said RECA likes the idea of single-member districts, but he was there to make comments for himself. He also likes the map and the idea of having a Council member from the “trenches” who would relate to any problems or issues that other people living in the district might be concerned about. But he said he would like to see the Council adopt a map after voters decide whether to increase the number of City Council members and the way they are elected. He is concerned people may focus too much on the boundaries, rather than the issue of single-member districts itself.

Former Planning Commissioner Robin Cravey said he wants voters to decide on the idea of single-member districts before the Council approves the districts. He said the increased number of Council members would provide more opportunity for citizen access by bringing Council members close to the people and decreasing the cost of running for office. Cravey, a former aide to Council Member Daryl Slusher, said he appreciates staff efforts to keep districts within neighborhood association boundaries.

No Council members attended that meeting. Rosie Truelove, executive assistant to the City Manager, said there weren’t many people at the meeting because the press release was sent out late, but added, “Things will pick up for the other meetings.” The release did not go out until Monday morning.

At the meeting in the proposed District Six, city staffers outnumbered the public in the cafeteria of Murchison Middle School. Only two citizens showed up to hear from representatives of the City Manager’s Office, Legal Department and Planning Department. City Council Member Will Wynn hopes future meetings have improved turnout. “It's not a very sexy issue, but it’s important. It’s how we’re going to elect our City Council members for the foreseeable future,” Wynn said, in what may prove an overly optimistic statement from an avid fan of single-member districts. “We’re looking for as many comments as possible from as many folks as possible in every part of town.”

Tonight’s hearing is scheduled from 6:30 to 8pm at the Spicewood Springs Branch Library, 8637 Spicewood Springs Road. Another hearing is scheduled for Wednesday from 7 to 8:30pm at Bowie High School, 4103 Slaughter Lane. The City Council also has scheduled a hearing for 6pm Thursday at the LCRA Board Room, during the regular Council meeting.

Fifty-year-old gates cause "crossed fingers" for staff

The Lower Colorado River Authority will spend more than $17 million to replace the 10 bear-trap gates on Starcke Dam, which forms Lake Marble Falls.

Paul Thornhill, executive manager of Water Services, provided an update on the gate replacement at the latest LCRA board meeting. Thornhill explained that the bear-trap gates are both an engineering marvel and a maintenance nightmare. When opened, the gates fold across the top of the dam, allowing water to flow into the lake and continue downstream.

Lake Marble Falls provides both hydroelectric power to the area and drinking water to the City of Marble Falls. The gates, installed during the dam’s initial construction, are now more than 50 years old. Thornhill said the 60-foot gates, when closed, trap a huge amount of air in a highly humid environment, thus exacerbating rust on the steel gate and bolts—even with conscientious maintenance.

The bear-trap gates also provide serious safety concerns for the LCRA, Thornhill said. To open the gates, agency employees must go out to the gate locks and manually reach down to open them.

“If you don’t get out there in time (during a flooding situation), it can be very dangerous,” Thornhill told the board. “That was a condition we wanted to change.”

Keeping the Starcke Dam well maintained has always been a “fingers crossed” situation, Thornhill admitted. The discussion to replace the bear-trap gates began back in 1991. The LCRA decided to move forward with the project in 1999, even though Starcke Dam was not part of the state’s program of mandated dam safety improvements. Construction on the new gates won’t be completed until next March.

The new gates, which are being built at the Smithville Railcar Company, are radically different in design, Thornhill said. Each crest gate is sealed steel and built in two 30-foot pieces. Hydraulics will push the pistons on each gate up and down, allowing water to flow in and out of Lake Marble Falls. The design by Gerace Construction should increase safety and decrease corrosion, Thornhill said.

Although Thornhill praised the design, the new gates have had some problems. A small fuse malfunction on the high-pressure control system caused a critical valve to leave the gate stuck open during its initial testing in February. Both Thornhill and General Manager Joe Beal assured board members that design changes had addressed the problem. A safety cut-off valve has been added. Even if that fails, Thornhill said, a special computer program or a manual override could close an open gate.

“LCRA works on great big things, like a turbine in a power plant or a dam like this,” Beal said. “You can engineer and you can plan and you can hope everything goes right, but ultimately, almost all the time, something will go wrong. It takes skilled labor to make these great big systems work.”

Utility cutoffs increasing . . . Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza said Monday that accounts overdue by more than 30 days have decreased by nearly one-third as compared to last year. The utility has stepped up collection efforts and is now sending out 2,000 service termination notices per day, he said. AE’s Ed Clark said there are approximately 200 cut-offs per day, and that is done only after the customer has received and ignored a series of letters. The utility is willing to make arrangements with those who have problems paying immediately, he said. A consulting firm has reviewed the utility’s collection procedures, Garza said, and a task force is working to implement the firm’s recommendations . . . Holly mitigation recommendation still pending . . . The Electric Utility Commission last night decided not to send its recommendations to the City Council for direct payments to Holly neighborhood residents until after it has met with staff of the utility on May 15. The commission also declined to make recommendations on five proposals from a number of organizations seeking mitigation fund money, saying they need to know what relationship, if any, those organizations have with the neighborhood . . . ZAP meeting tonight . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission is having its monthly work session tonight . . . Noontime concert series starts today . . . Rotel and the Hot Tomatoes are kicking off the Tuesday noon concert series today at the Frost Bank Plaza, 9th & Congress. If you don’t have to be in court, check it out . . . Home tour goes east this year . . . The Heritage Society’s Home Tour will head to East Austin for the first time with a tour of the Robertson Hill/Guadalupe neighborhoods on May 10-11. Mayor Gus Garcia will serve as honorary chair of the 10th annual event. Pre-sale tickets are $10 for Heritage Society members and $12 for non-members. Buy your tickets online at http://www.hsaustin.org

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