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McCracken blames Griffith for loss of HEB early voting

Wednesday, April 17, 2002 by

The campaign season for Austin City Council began in earnest Tuesday as candidates were grilled on traffic, growth, the economy, and the city's development regulations before a pro-business audience. The Real Estate Council of Austin, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce sponsored the forum, which drew about 300 attendees. Candidates fielded questions drawn at random, but were also allowed to ask questions of each other—which resulted in some of the sharpest attacks and most surprising moments of the afternoon.

RECA President Kirk Rudy began the luncheon at the Four Seasons hotel touting the group’s political involvement over the past ten years. He read letters from Republican politicians, including State Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, Judge John Carter (the Republican nominee for U.S. Congress in the newly-created District 31) and State Representative Edmund Kuempel of Seguin . Kuempel was described by Rudy as the "father of HB 1704,” a property rights bill that’s had a significant impact on the City of Austin’s efforts to regulate development in environmentally sensitive areas in southwest Travis County.

Questions for the were prepared beforehand and selected at random by moderator Dick Ellis. Some of the first questions dealt with Proposition 1, championed by attorney Fred Lewis and the “Clean Campaigns” organization to provide some public funding to City Council candidates. One question noted, “There is a substantial budget shortfall,” and then asked, “Do you think it is appropriate to allocate $3.9 million in general revenue funds for Proposition 1?” The $3.9 million estimated impact is one provided by city staffers in a scenario with a large number of qualifying candidates. Council members are set to discuss the issue at today’s work session.

Others questions focused on issues closer to home: the candidates’ positions on real estate and development. One question referred to the city’s “misguided and burdensome regulation of the development process,” saying that regulation “negatively impacts the price of a home.” Another question was even more pointed, remarking, “Much is made about urban sprawl. However, when push comes to shove, someone on the current Council has consistently balked when faced with specific zoning cases or developments that seek high-density development particularly in the urban core.”

Several candidates highlighted positions likely to appeal to the group. Council Member Beverly Griffith noted her experience as a bank vice-president and member of the City Council’s Audit Committee. One of her opponents, Brewster McCracken, earned an enthusiastic round of applause when he told the group he would be against another light rail election. “We’ve already had a vote on light rail,” he said. “Let’s respect that vote.” Other candidates received similarly warm responses when discussing their support of various roads, including SH 130. Place 1 Candidate Kirk Mitchell touted his business experience, including his efforts at redeveloping historic properties in the downtown area. “If you like developers, free enterprise, tax equity and local control, we’re going to get along just great.” “I’m a real estate developer and I’m trying to reinstate free enterprise,” Mitchell said. “I’m for local control, and I’ll be for your support when we go to the legislature and ask them to quit passing the unconstitutional laws against our city’s home-rule powers.”

The debate took a somewhat more strident tone when candidates were allowed to pose questions directly to one another. The confrontational rhetoric between Mitchell and Place 1 incumbent Daryl Slusher escalated when Mitchell used his opportunity to criticize Slusher’s record. “Why is it that in a ‘boom,’ you did not pay attention to the basics? Why did we pour $100 million in the past three years into subsidies for private businesses, which now would look very attractive in our city coffers,” Mitchell asked. “By the time the new Council sits there, we’ll have to deal with the mess they’ve left behind.”

Slusher defended his efforts to keep the city’s basic services intact. “I’m very proud to have the endorsement of the Austin Police Association, and that’s because this Council took care of the basic services,” Slusher said. “Mr. Mitchell likes to talk about subsidies . . . his group, SOS, which he chaired, was one of the first ones to propose those subsidies.” The two also squared off over the result of a lawsuit filed by Mitchell against Slusher about signatures gathered to allow him to run for re-election. Slusher, noting that the case had been thrown out of court, said the judge had ruled it was “bogus.” Mitchell countered that the case had not been heard, which is different from a legal verdict in Slusher’s favor.

In contrast, candidates in the Place 3 race were surprisingly courteous towards each other. Candidate Linda Curtis was absent from the meeting, which left only incumbent Jackie Goodman and challenger Billy Sifuentes . With the comment, “these forums are so orchestrated, we rarely get to talk about our most important issues,” Goodman asked Sifuentes to discuss any issue he wanted. “I am not for light rail,” Sifuentes responded. “We are not ready for it. We are ready for SH 130.”

Transportation was McCracken’s theme. He repeated on at least three occasions, “Austin has the worst traffic congestion of any mid-sized American city.” In response to a question from Griffith, McCracken said he would be interested in serving on CAMPO and the City Council’s Audit Committee if he were elected. Neither of the two posed their question to candidate Betty Dunkerley, who used her opportunity to query Griffith about affordable housing. “They’re building affordable housing in this area . . . they’re building it in Buda, they’re building it in Pflugerville, in Leander, but we’re not building it here,” Dunkerley said. Griffith called for “streamlining” the process for those developers putting in affordable housing. Meeting the needs of lower-income families, Griffith said, “is certainly a goal and a value that you and I have shared for a long time.”

What's the real story on Curtis, her suit and HEB?

McCracken, who had already scored a lot of points with the crowd, blindsided Griffith when given the opportunity to ask her a question. Holding five pages of petition collector Linda Curtis’ deposition, McCracken said he wanted to know whether Curtis was telling the truth when she said that Griffith had authorized Independent Texans, Curtis’ political group, to sue HEB in order to gain access for her signature-gathering effort. He blamed Griffith for the grocery chain’s decision not to allow Early Voting at most of its stores.

Griffith said she had not read the deposition and noted that she was not a party to the lawsuit. “I’m a management person, and when you have a really tough assignment you get the people who are the best at it . . . and the people I chose to help me with my petition drive were and are very professional. That decision that HEB made . . . was made before Linda Curtis ever took on my petition drive, so that decision was already there. I had no role in that lawsuit and no role in any other lawsuit” involving Curtis, she said.

HEB spokeswoman Kate Brown told In Fact Daily her company had been considering not participating in Early Voting before Curtis filed her suit against the store. Because of their success, Brown said, HEB stores are becoming more and more crowded and there is less space for non-HEB activities. Curtis had earlier filed a suit against HEB because the store refused to allow her to gather signatures for the Clean Campaigns petitions. That drive too was successful without HEB’s participation, Brown said, and the suit was dropped. However, Curtis’ second lawsuit was the proverbial last straw, Brown said, noting that even though this suit has also been dismissed, Curtis could sue the company again.

The Curtis deposition, taken on Dec. 12, 2001, reveals the self-styled petition queen struggling to answer whether she had had authorization from the Griffith campaign. The first time she was asked the question her response was a flat, “No.”

Attorney Jim Cousar of Thompson & Knight, representing the other defendant, Simon Property Group, owner of Barton Creek Square Mall, said he did not find Curtis to be a convincing witness. The deposition, he said, is the kind a lawyer loves to read to a jury.

Cousar asked Curtis: “Has Independent Texans been authorized in any way by the campaign to bring the lawsuit?”

Curtis: “No.”

Cousar: “So, if it’s acting as a representative (of the campaign), if Independent Texans is acting as a representative without authorization . . ?”

Curtis: “I don’t know the answer to that. Can I not know that?”

Cousar: “It’s important that we know this . . . it’s important in the lawsuit for the defendants to know are they dealing with Independent Texans, a political committee gathering signatures because that’s what it does, or are they dealing with Independent Texans acting with the authorization of a Council candidate’s campaign . . ?”

Curtis: “I really don’t know how to answer that. I’m leaning towards a “Yes” answer, in the sense that—and I’m not trying to be difficult here. Beverly is not a party to this lawsuit. She doesn’t want to go around suing people for anything. She also understands that public access is a problem. I met with her, I discussed this with her; you know . . . she said, ‘Whatever. Do whatever you have to do to get this done that’s proper, legal, and all those things.’ So I don’t know what the answer is. I guess, Yes. Why don’t I say yes.”

Cousar said the reason he was trying to pin Curtis down on the authorization issue was that Curtis was trying to get an injunction against HEB. If no person would be harmed, Curtis could not get her injunction. Since Curtis and Independent Texans were working for Griffith at that point, the campaign’s authorization was important to Curtis’ argument. He told In Fact Daily yesterday, “I think Linda Curtis got the sense in that deposition that she needed (to say yes) . . . I don’t know what went through her mind, but she definitely changed her mind during the deposition.”

Barton Creek Square Mall is still offering Early Voting, which begins today. Brown said three HEB stores, two in East Austin and one in South Austin, may offer early voting again in November. However, she said the City of Austin had not requested those early voting locations.

Problem is getting worse, says City biologist

By Doug McLeod

A number of the endangered Barton Springs Salamanders have been found dead and bloated and no one yet knows why. Last Friday, a City biologist who is monitoring the situation told In Fact Daily the problem seems to be getting worse.

“It seems like the severity has gotten worse,” said Lisa O’Donnell, an endangered species biologist with Watershed Protection and Development Review (WPDR). “We tend to find about one a week” with the bloating problem, she said. “It’s puzzling.”

As of last week, O’Donnell and fellow WPDR biologist Dee Ann Chamberlain, had discovered 13 salamanders with the bloating condition. Nine of those have died. The team first noted the problem in late January and has been closely monitoring the situation and doing extensive testing ever since.

“Our first priority right now is to get equipment out to monitor it better,” O’Donnell said last week.

The biologists recently gave the Environmental Board a detailed video presentation on the mysterious problem that has been killing off the fragile, endangered species. The salamander is a prime indicator of changes in water quality flowing from the springs and serves as an early warning of possible trends that could damage the unique ecosystem.

The condition is typically referred to as gas-bubble disease or gas-bubble trauma, O’Donnell said, and it has only affected salamanders found in the upper spring, one of four that feeds Barton Springs Pool. She said five different species have been discovered with the condition, including, fish, tadpoles, crawfish, and the tiny, translucent salamander. All affected animals have come from the upper spring, she noted, about 100 yards upstream from the pool, perched above the creek on the south side.

The adult salamanders, which grow to a length of two to three inches, have not only been found bloated, with obvious gas bubbles in their torsos and appendages, but also bruised, with red, irritated skin and apparent skin lesions. “There are five species that we’ve found so far with this problem,” Chamberlain told the Board.

The composition of the gas is mostly air, she noted, with a small amount (one percent) of methane (carbon dioxide), according to a lab analysis. She said the problem has been observed in other species, namely fish, in areas with high amounts of air in the water, such as near a hydroelectric dam. When water has excess gas content, it is “supersaturated.” The water from all four springs has been tested and found to be supersaturated. The biologists have determined the water in the upper spring contains more gas than the other springs, but they don’t see this as a definitive explanation for the dying salamanders.

The upper spring is the smallest of the four that feed Barton Springs Pool. “It bubbles constantly,” O’Donnell said, “it’s always been degassing.” She has sent samples to an aquatic research lab run by the U.S. Geological Survey, and is waiting for more detailed results. Thus far, “nothing seems abnormal,” she said. “It could very well be that these levels are normal.”

Could pollution be part of problem?

So, the team is still searching. “Maybe there’s something else in concert with the supersaturated water,” she suggested. “We’re definitely looking to see if pollutants are playing a role, but I think it’s a synergistic effect and there are multiple things going on at once.”

Based on results from four surveys done since January 28, O’Donnell said anywhere from 15 to 60 percent of the salamanders have been affected.

Board Chair Lee Leffingwell asked if algae blooms in Barton Creek could be contributing to the problem. David Johns, a hydrogeologist with WPDR, said, “I don’t think so.” It’s a mystery why this is happening now, he noted, citing the fact that none of the other springs have had a similar effect on resident species, and that this is the first time anyone has observed the problem. Johns has also ruled out high water flow from last fall’s flooding, since that’s happened many times over the years. He suggested it may be something inside the spring, not something coming from the creek.

Some of the ailing salamanders the biologists have taken into captivity have been nurtured back to health. Meanwhile, the wait continues for more test results that may unravel the mystery.

State demand for money by June carries price-tag

Travis County commissioners will bite the bullet and issue more than $100 million in bonds to acquire right-of-way on road projects by mid-June to help the Texas Department of Transportation get move forward with State Highway 130 and MoPac North.

Executive Manager Joe Gieselman presented the figures at a briefing to Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning. Travis County voters approved a combined $136.9 million for road projects in the 1997, 2000 and 2001 elections. Only $11.4 million of those bonds have been issued to date. The bonds are intended to cover a portion of the county’s share on right-of-way for State Highway 130 and both the southern and northern legs of State Highway 45, as well as MoPac North, Highway 290 West and FM 1826.

County commissioners wanted to put off issuing the bonds, hoping an “as needed” approach would soften the tax hit on taxpayers. However, TxDOT has asked for a firm commitment on the bonds for MoPac North and State Highway 130 by June 1.

“I feel extremely comfortable that we are doing exactly what the voters authorized us to do: to be a partner in a huge regional collaboration that we call MoPac, as well as State Highway 45 and State Highway 130,” Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said after the meeting. “We are simply trying to execute those wishes in accordance with what the state says must be our timetables on these projects.”

The combined bonds issued this year will total almost $130 million—more than double the $58.7 million the county’s Planning and Budget Office anticipated when the county’s $185 million bond package went to voters last year. In the informational brochure sent to voters before the bond election, the typical homeowner would see an additional $20.07 in taxes next year. Taxes would slowly increase to a peak of $38.87 in 2006 and then dip back to $36.98 in 2008.

Under the new calculations completed by Jessica Rio, an analyst in the Planning and Budget Office, the average increase in property taxes next year would be $25.94, peaking at $42.77 in 2006 and then falling to $41.50 in 2008.

The pending segments of State Highway 130, North State Highway 45, South State Highway 45 and North MoPac will be toll road projects, administered by the Texas Turnpike Authority.

Travis County, Williamson County and the City of Austin have agreed to contribute a combined $150 million toward right-of-way acquisition, which includes $90 million from Travis County. The $90 million will be the largest contribution the county has ever made to a state project, Gieselman said.

To date, the county has issued only $1.3 million on the project. That means another $88.9 million—$20 million from 2000 and $66.2 million from 2001—remain to be issued.

Travis County has agreed to pick up half the cost of the right-of-way on the sliver of MoPac North between Parmer Lane and the Williamson County line. The good news is that the county has issued $6.5 million toward the land acquisition and that land acquisition is limited, for the most part, to one major landowner. The bad news is that new estimates from the state put the cost of right-of-way at $7 million.

Commissioners have agreed to add another $500,000 to the total in Certificates of Obligation issued by the county this fall in order to cover the gap between old and new estimates. Gieselman says the agreement falls in line with similar “50 percent agreements” between Austin and Williamson County. The state has also lifted its cap on a limit of $40 million on expenditures for the MoPac North project.

Only $3.5 million for State Highway 45 South remains to be issued since the bulk of the right-of-way has already been acquired. The link is a standard state-funded project. The cost of the northern segment of State Highway 45 North is pricier. The county has issued $34 million in bonds—$2 million in 2000 and $32 million in 2001—toward its right-of-way acquisition. Commissioners intend to issue an initial $11 million on the project. The balance will be deferred to the next fiscal year “to lighten the interest impact,” Gieselman said.

Highway 290 West and FM 1826 are both small mobility projects. The county plans to issue $2 million on Highway 290 West and $725,000 on FM 1826.

Revenue and traffic estimates support the issuance of toll revenue bonds to cover no more than 30 percent of the projects. The Texas Transportation Commission is expected to award an exclusive development agreement with Lone Star Infrastructure group at the end of this month. Gieselman says the Transportation Commission will be looking for another $45 million from local jurisdictions in 2007 for additional regional mobility projects.

Just the golf course inspector . . . Departing City Manager Jesus Garza was looking tan, trim and rested as he made the rounds in City Hall this week. Asked where he’d been hiding for the past few weeks, Garza said he’d been doing a thorough survey of all the city’s golf courses—just to make sure they’re in good shape—before he takes off for the LCRA at the end of the month . . . Aquifer district elections too . . . Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board President Craig Smith and Pct. 2 Member Don Turner are both running for re-election. Smith, an environmentalist who lives in Barton Hills, is facing newcomer Felix Manka, a civil engineer who lives at Circle C. David Carpenter, a consultant who lives in far South Austin in the Estates of Southland Oaks, is running against Turner. Turner lives in Manchaca and is a retired flight engineer. Early voting for these races starts today and Election Day coincides with that of the Austin City Council and other elections . . . BFI permit issued . . . Citizens’ protests could not stop the county from issuing a site development permit to BFI for property on Old Kimbro Road. Residents have protested vigorously against the permit at recent meetings. The county has cited BFI twice over the last few weeks for minor violations, but with everything in line, the company was entitled to pick up its site development permit yesterday. Chief Environmental Officer John Kuhl says BFI has assured him the facility will not be a landfill or a recycling site as local residents have suggested. Instead, company officials promise it will be an overflow location for the truck-washing facility the company already runs on FM 973 just south of Highway 71 . . . Water project put off . . . It will be another week before Travis County Commissioners take up the issue of the contractor on the Kennedy Ridge water project. The vote, delayed by County Commissioner Ron Davis, has been postponed and will be put back on the agenda on April 23.

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

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