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Change in law could mean significantly more money for campaigns

Wednesday, March 5, 2003 by

Austin’s much-maligned $100 campaign contribution limit, approved by voters in 1997, could be history within a week. After filing suit against the city on behalf of mayoral candidate Marc Katz, attorney Mike McKetta said Tuesday that he and Assistant City Attorney David Smith would ask Federal Judge Harry Hudspeth to hear a motion for preliminary injunction next week. If he prevails in that hearing, McKetta said, the city would not be able to enforce the charter provision until after the May election. A full-scale trial would be held later.

McKetta, a partner in the firm of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody, successfully challenged the portion of the law limiting contributions for bond propositions in 1998. (See In Fact, September 22, 1998.) Speaking of the contribution limit for Council candidates, McKetta said yesterday, “I’ve wanted to file this for a long time.” The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Texas Association of Society Executives sued to overturn the provision relating to corporate contributions and the $100 limit only as related to bonds. Since then, no candidate has been willing to challenge the other provision, fearing a backlash from the electorate. Last year, a ballot proposition to repeal the limit failed by a margin of 49 to 51 percent. Fewer than nine percent of the city’s registered voters turned out for that election.

As for Katz, he told reporters gathered in front of the federal courthouse yesterday, “I gotta tell you,” about the lawsuit. “The current contribution limits have the unintended result of giving an unfair advantage to incumbents and wealthy individuals. I find this result immoral and wrong and it has hurt our city,” he said. Katz released election turnout figures showing that before passage of the charter amendment, between 17 and 26 per cent of registered voters participated in mayoral elections. After passage of the ordinance, participation plummeted to below 10 per cent.

Katz noted that opponents Will Wynn and Max Nofziger had also expressed dissatisfaction with the charter provision. Katz added, “While others merely talk about the problem, I have chosen to act and to challenge the status quo. You can expect the same from me as Mayor.”

Fellow restaurateur and mayoral candidate Brad Meltzer said, “I never thought about challenging the law this way.” He said he had tried to work within the system by asking Council Members Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman to make sure the item was on the May 2002 ballot. Noting that voters rejected that proposition, Meltzer said he believes that voters “don’t understand how unfair this is for candidates . . . I came in (to the campaign) knowing that the candidate I wanted to support, Jackie Goodman, would not run because of the $100 limit.”

Goodman herself said, “It’s an ordinance that I don’t think ever did what it was intended to do and I’m glad to see it challenged. Thanks, Marc.”

Wynn is quoted in the most recent issue of The Good Life Magazine as saying, “Two classes of people benefit from the $100 limits, incumbents and the people who have access to money, and I happen to be both.” Yesterday, Wynn released a statement saying, “I do believe that Austin’s contribution rules restrict our democratic process, but we should remember that they are themselves a result of our democratic process. These rules have been before the voters twice, and—like it or not—they have been supported by the voters twice. I've said all along that these rules short-change candidates and voters, and serve mostly to protect incumbents and the wealthy.”

Attorney Fred Lewis, who represented the group which sought to put the measure on the ballot, Austinites for a Little Less Corruption, said he believes the law is constitutional and should withstand the challenge. “But I’m very suspicious of the city’s ability or willingness to defend it.” He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld candidate contribution limits in 2000 even though limits on fundraising for ballot measures were overturned. He said, “The City Council and its lawyers were hostile to the limits last year” and challenged the city’s legal staff to vigorously defend the charter.

Staff given two weeks to come up with plan to address odors

County commissioners are moving to address the odor issue at the Northeast Travis County landfills, although it’s neither fast enough nor far enough to please the landfills’ neighbors.

After more than a year of discussion, debate and disputes, commissioners have neither signed a contract with any of the three existing landfills nor passed an ordinance to regulate future landfills. Local residents continue to press the county to deal with the ongoing problems of the existing landfills. A handful of those residents showed up at yesterday’s Commissioners Court meeting, waving signs that asked commissioners to address the “Toxic Time Bomb.”

Joyce Thoreson of the Walnut Place Neighborhood Association read an email urging the court to pass an ordinance, as soon as possible, to protect residents of the county. They also urged the county to stop the expansion of the existing landfills. The county’s position has been to negotiate contracts with landfills to give itself some measure of enforcement authority—a kind of carrot-and-stick approach to force landfill operators to meet recommended guidelines.

“We are asking that there be no county contract that allows, or constructively sponsors, expansion of the northeast area landfills, either laterally or vertically,” Thoreson read to the commissioners. “If the City of Austin can pass a resolution, expressing care and concern for the citizens of the world, resulting from indefinite impact of war in Iraq, then Travis County and the City should do no less for its citizens and pass a resolution against further expansion of the Northeast landfills. This will allow time for regional alternative sites to be explored by CAPCO.”

County commissioners are not ready to go that far yet. Instead, County Judge Sam Biscoe floated a compromise last month to allow the county to monitor the odor problem and then come up with a permanent solution for it.

“We have other issues regarding landfills,” Biscoe said. “Today the question is, ‘What do we do about bad odors that we cannot get to go away?’ . . . We ought to know whether something additional can be done. If so, who should do it, (and) at what cost?”

Initially, Commissioner Ron Davis opposed Biscoe’s proposal, pointing out that the odor did not come from the county landfill. He also questioned what powers the county has regarding enforcement. Davis has a requested a report from the County Attorney’s office, due next week, that will outline the county’s enforcement abilities to regulate local landfills.

Davis’ clear preference was to get an ordinance in place as quickly as possible to address landfills, but Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said she would not feel comfortable moving on a landfill ordinance until she saw some results from the county’s landfill odor study.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a clear favorite of the neighborhood activists in recent meetings, said the reason behind the landfills’ problems is no mystery: thousands of pounds of trash are located on these landfill sites. He noted that landfill operators themselves have no idea how to stop the odor, despite their best efforts. But Daugherty agreed to go along with the vote.

“I don’t understand why we need to go do an extensive study,” Daugherty said. “To me it is a very simple deal here. We are trying to stop odors. And if we can’t stop odors, then we have an obligation as an elected body to minimize and to slow down whatever lifespan these landfills have.”

Neal Carman, who directs the Sierra Club’ s state program on clean air, also spoke to commissioners. He described the carcinogenic nature of hydrogen sulfide gas and supported the county’s goal to pinpoint the source of odors. Carman, a former inspector for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said it was a well-known fact that all landfills eventually leak.

Landfills are lined with plastic, and that plastic eventually decays, Carman said. Most odors either come from those leaks or from poor monitoring systems. The interior of a landfill is really no more than an oven filled with garbage, heated to 135 degrees year-round.

The TCEQ hierarchy is much more interested in issuing permits than enforcing codes, Carman said. Carman said counties do have enforcement powers against landfills and could fine them as a nuisance, but most—with the exception of Harris County—have failed to do so.

Commissioners finally voted unanimously to give Executive Director Joe Gieselman two weeks to prepare a plan and a price tag to address the odor issue. Gieselman clearly preferred to hire an outside consultant, noting that while he had confidence in his staff the county had been out of the landfill business for over 10 years. Gieselman promised Davis and neighbors he would find an impartial consultant.

Design Commission asks architects for definite plan

The Design Commission has asked the architects of 626 Lamar to narrow their options and come back next month with a firmer redevelopment plan.

The location, the current site of the G&M Steakhouse, will be a mixed-use project. Owner Steve Scott intends to pull down the restaurant and garage apartment behind it and replace them with a 3-story development of retail, office and possibly residential space.

Monday night, the concern of the architects, Ryan Street and Mark Lind of Ryan Street and Associates, was a possible variance for parking. They were still struggling with the concept of parking on a lot that is only 50 feet wide and 128 feet deep. The architects presented plans with both parallel and angled parking. Parking is difficult on the narrow site because it sits along an alley.

Street presented two redevelopment plans to the Design Commission, both with a residential appearance. Each has first-floor retail development. One site plan has office space; the other has office with potential for residential space. The narrowness of the property would limit the number of parking spaces to 9, or 1 parking space to every 500 square feet of developed space.

The lot is under the Old West Austin Neighborhood Plan, given a zoning designation of CS-MU-CO-NP. The CS would allow shared parking. Chair Perry Lorenz said the property could easily qualify for a CURE zoning designation, adding that the Design Commission is likely to support small lot redevelopment in the area. Commissioner Juan Cotera agreed with Lorenz.

“What we have here could be a model for urban development of small lots, which we really need right now,” Cotera said. “There are a lot of those downtown and along Congress Avenue. It’s important to develop those lots and still keep the character of the street.”

Commissioner Joan Hyde said her initial inclination was to support a parking variance. Commissioners agreed that the property is in one of the most walkable and mass transit-oriented places in the city, an area that could easily qualify for a parking variance.

Commissioner Eleanor McKinney, however, asked that the developers return with a decisive plan for the property next month, settling on the final use for the building. When the architects have firmer plans, the commissioners will decide whether they can sign a letter of support for a parking variance.

Wednesday, Thursday,

Friday.

Katz admits non-voting record . . . Marc Katz is busy running for Mayor now, and registered to vote last month. But up until this year, he hasn’t had time for politics. Records at the Travis County courthouse reveal that Katz hasn’t voted in a primary or General Election since 1990 and he admits that he has not voted in a City Council election either. His campaign manager, James Cardona, says his boss was concentrating on his business, but feels it’s time to serve the community . . . Meltzer campaign begins fund raising . . . The other restaurant owner seeking the mayoral office, Brad Meltzer, will host his campaign kickoff party at the Broken Spoke on Thurs at 6:30pm . . . Tonight’s Brown McCarroll party . . . The party animals at this real estate and business-oriented firm are honoring Council Member Raul Alvarez from 5:30 to 7:30pm this evening . . . Today at the work session . . . This morning, the City Council will hear a report on HB 1445, the 2001 legislation to consolidate city and county subdivision regulations, as well as SB 544, the bill that Senator Jeff Wentworth has filed, apparently to punish the city for failing to comply with the previous legislation by last year’s deadline. The Solid Waste Advisory Commission is also scheduled to report on activities and recommendations. On Thursday, the Council is scheduled to discuss moving funds and employees from the Parks Department to the Redevelopment Services Office . . . Fertilizer press conference . . . The city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department is holding a press conference at 9am today at the Town Lake Gazebo to announce new findings about use of organic fertilizers. They will announce new guidelines that prescribe using only 25 percent of the previously recommended amount . . . Instant runoff voting still illegal . . . Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has ruled that instant runoff voting is not allowed in Texas. “We conclude that state law conflicts irreconcilably with, and thereby preempts, instant runoff voting,” Abbot writes in an opinion issued on Tuesday. A coalition of civic groups had pushed for the instant-runoff system in Austin in 2001 and early 2002 (see In Fact Daily, Feb. 7, 2002). State Representative Elliott Naishtat had requested an opinion from the Attorney General about the legality of the practice, in which voters rank candidates according to their preference, thus eliminating the need for a subsequent runoff election if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. Senator Gonzalo Barrientos has introduced a bill in the Legislature this session that would allow preferential voting. It has been referred to the State Affairs Committee.

©

2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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