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City investigating ACTV fund use

Thursday, January 6, 2005 by

Spurred by allegations of unethical behavior and possible illegal use of funds, the City Auditor’s Office has launched an investigation of Austin Community Television (ACTV). The city has also begun to pay ACTV on a monthly basis, rather than quarterly, as a result of concerns over the non-profit corporation's use of funds. ACTV has a contract with the city, which pays $617,500 a year to manage access channels 10, 11 and 16 and manages the Austin Music Network on Channel 15 under a separate agreement.

According to Stefan Wray, chair of the Producers Advisory Committee at ACTV, the group heard allegations "that there was money missing from (ACTV's) bank accounts" last September. Wray said the allegations came from a former member of the ACTV board, but he would not reveal that person’s name. The advisory committee reported those allegations to the City Auditor's Office on September 13 and auditors began an investigation shortly thereafter. Deputy City Auditor Colleen Waring explained that an audit "is an evaluation of the use of finances of the city department and an investigation is a response to an ethical violation or something illegal. An investigation involves individual people and claims about their behavior." This falls into the latter category, she said.

Brian Williams, who is chief of investigations for the auditor's office, acknowledged that he is working with the Travis County District Attorney's Office on the ACTV matter. He said that he could not give any specifics about the investigation nor guess how long it would take.

ACTV Executive Director John Villarreal resigned his position on December 20, and the board has appointed an acting executive director, but neither could be reached for comment Wednesday.

One of the problems cited by producers involved a charge of nepotism because the non-profit hired the daughter of a veteran member of the board as a part-time bookkeeper. That board member, Henry Calderon, said last night that he plans to step down at the next board meeting. “There’s been a series of things that the producers view a conflict of interest,” Calderon said. After eight years, he said, ACTV needs some new blood.

Asked about Villarreal's resignation, Calderon said Villarreal was temporarily suspended because “there were some issues for non performance of duties.” That matter will be discussed at the board meeting next week, said Calderon.

John Stephens, the city's Chief Financial Officer, said yesterday that the city had not made any changes in its relationship with ACTV except to make monthly rather than quarterly payments on a contract. However, he said that he was hoping to sit down with members of the board—which has dwindled to four since September—before the end of the week.

The producers believe that had they not spoken up about the allegations, the problems might have taken much longer to discover. In their press release, they said “If the allegations of missing funds are true, all who are directly responsible should be held accountable, and so should those who suspected something was wrong, yet did nothing. But a financial audit can only go so far. An operational audit is needed to understand and remedy the management practices and institutional culture that can permit financial mismanagement.”

ACTV’s funding comes not from tax dollars but from a cable franchise fee on each subscriber’s bill. The contract between the city and ACTV will expire at the end of September and the city may begin looking for another partner to run the stations before that.

According to the ACTV web site, “Thanks to the cable franchise negotiated between the City of Austin and Austin CableVision in 1981, ACTV was able to flourish with the dedication of channels, equipment, and funding for access . . . Community producers now produce more than 2,500 programs monthly (compared to 10 programs in the beginning years) for the three ACTV channels . . . ACTV not only leads the nation in original production (more than 5500 original programs a year), but also ranks second in total programming hours. Prime time programming is in demand on all three access channels and serves over 170,000 households in the Time Warner viewing area.”

On 5-4 vote, ZAP supports Bunny Run PUD changes

The high-powered presentations – and the passion on both sides – over the Gables West Lake site at Tuesday night’s Zoning and Platting Commission meeting would make most zoning cases appear shabby by comparison. Some five hours after the hearing started, a very divided commission voted 5-4 to recommend the zoning change with restrictions development representatives had proffered in return for approval of the project.

Both sides of the issue were well represented. St. Stephen’s Episcopal School had attorney Steve Drenner representing the Gables and a slew of presenters that included teachers, trustees, the student body president and supporters like trustee Perry Lorenz and attorney Michael Whellan. On the other side, consultant Sarah Crocker, attorney Terry Irion and land planner Paul Linehan represented equally passionate homeowner associations opposed to the plan. City Hall insiders privately refer to it as a fight between Godzilla and Mothra.

Drenner called the 11,000 acres of West Austin that included West Lake Hills and Rollingwood “a multi-family exclusionary zone.” Only five apartment projects, totaling 650 units, are located within the area he outlined on the map.

“There is simply not enough multi-family in this area until you get north of the river,” Drenner said. “There is no chance, if you are a person looking for that sort of housing prospect, that you can find a place like this, unless you’re lucky enough to get one of those 650 units. I do think it provides and satisfies a public need.”

Crocker countered that the Gables was hardly building an affordable housing project. The rents on the Gables Westlake are likely to be in the range of $900 to $2,200 per month, if those units are comparable to other Gables projects in the area. Crocker said that was more than she paid on the mortgage on her home.

The protest against the project, Crocker said, was not a protest of “wonderful terrific elitist NIMBYs.” Instead, it was a group of homeowners who all had the understanding when the Davenport PUD was signed that no multi-family would be added on the piece of property owned by St. Stephen’s Episcopal School.

It’s been many months, possibly years, since a ZAP meeting has produced the kind of overflow crowd that the Gables project brought out on Tuesday night. The crowd on both sides of the issue filled the chairs, overflowed into the halls and sat out in seats near the vending machines to watch the back-and-forth from the televised hearing.

At issue was the Davenport PUD that was negotiated on the land owned by St. Stephen’s, a complicated series of transactions that included a land swap, a donation to Wild Basin and specific conditions for various parcels of land in the area. Homeowners said the preliminary plan documents filed with the city clearly showed that multi-family was excluded from the uses on the St. Stephen’s property. Drenner said that the legal documents regarding the PUD gave Gables the “out” to amend the PUD for apartments.

As Drenner pointed out, and Lorenz echoed, the plans for the 32-acre St. Stephen’s parcel was a far less intense use of the land, putting 323 apartments on a piece of land that was expected to hold a 250,000 square-foot high-density office complex with 40,000-square-foot first-floor retail. The parcel next to it, owned by Hill Partners, is slated for another 740,000 square feet of office space on Loop 360. Lorenz said the board of trustees at St. Stephen’s specifically chose the apartment project over two other office projects.

The neighbors argued, “A promise is a promise.” Linehan, who worked on the agreement, was clearly nervous and upset as he addressed the board, saying that it was always his recollection that the St. Stephen’s property would be commercial and that multi-family zoning was specifically excluded on the tract in various planning documents.

None of the advantages Drenner offered the neighborhoods – a new entrance to St. Stephen’s that would take traffic out of the neighborhood, a percentage for affordable housing, a lower traffic count and traffic calming devices – impressed the neighbors.

A subcommittee appointed by ZAP in November failed to broker any compromise between the two sides. Commissioner John Philip Donisi said his regret was that it was the one case where there appeared to be no room to mediate a resolution. Chair Betty Baker said, also with some regret, that this was one of those rare cases that got more difficult, not easier, as it moved through the zoning process.

The case is also complicated by logistics. If ZAP voted the recommendation down, then the City Council would have to have a super-majority—six votes—to approve the change. If ZAP approved it or gave no recommendation, it would require only a majority at Council.

When it came time to vote, Joseph Martinez offered a motion against the zoning change. Janis Pinnelli seconded the motion. Then Keith Jackson stepped in with a substitute motion, which was seconded by Teresa Rabago. Jackson’s motion was to zone the property SF-6, to be developed under SF-6 development regulations. A maximum of 323 units would be allowed on the 31-acre site with a 45-foot height limitation.

Under his motion, the Gables would be allowed one site development permit with a maximum building coverage of 20 percent, 35 percent impervious cover and no parking within the front yard setback. Jackson also held the company to its road improvement and affordable housing concessions in his motion. Jackson said it wasn’t like splitting the baby; it was like cutting the baby in half in the motion he made. His motion differed from what Drenner had requested by reducing impervious cover by five percent. The Environmental Board has already voted unanimously to support the PUD changes.

“It’s hard to look at all that and hard to take all of that into consideration,” said Jackson, referring to the myriad documents each side presented. “There’s a lot of history here tonight, and I don’t know each and every one of you, but I have to say if someone asked me what I agreed to 17 years ago, I don’t know that I would remember it. This is a very complex deal.”

Those voting in the favor of the motion were Jackson, Rabago, Jay Gohil, Melissa Whaley Hawthorne, and Donisi. Those voting against it were Baker, Clarke Hammond, Martinez and Pinnelli. Commissioners took the vote and adjourned at 12:30am Wednesday.

Recall petitioners set Feb. 1 deadline to gather signatures

The Austin Toll Party has set a tentative goal of Feb. 1 to complete the collection of signatures for its recall petitions of Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas.

The petition is the group’s response to the trio’s “yes” vote on the $2.2 billion Central Texas toll road plan at the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board meeting last July. At a meeting of about 70 people at Old Quarry Library in Northwest Austin last night, Toll Party organizer Sal Costello and petition organizer Linda Curtis rallied the troops for one last strategic push.

Toll road opponents have 180 days to collect signatures and must sign 42,000 registered voters to trigger the recall election. So far, the toll opponents claim to have collected 30,000 signatures and last night, members of the group shared tips on just where each member might be able to pick up those last signatures.

No firm date has been set, but Curtis said petitions should be gathered by Feb. 1, giving the group another two weeks to verify signatures before turning the petitions over to City Clerk Shirley Brown for certification.

The Austin Toll Party has found success in the Circle C Ranch area. Now members intend to fan out to other locations throughout the city, targeting those areas around the more controversial toll road projects and those local areas where people congregate. Curtis said the group also would make a concerted effort to reach out to voters in East Austin.

All three names are on the same petition. Costello told the group that the Austin Toll Party intended to continue to gather signatures on the petition, despite the fact that McCracken was no longer in favor of the toll road project.

Costello said the Austin Toll Party had reached an agreement with McCracken. McCracken would be the champion of the repeal of the toll road plan and the Austin Toll Party would agree to endorse him in the recall election. In other words, the group would agree not to support his recall from office. Each race will be a separate ballot item.

“It’s been an inspiration for him to work hard, and it’s worked out for us as well,” Costello said. “If he’s working for us, I like him.”

Costello said either McCracken or Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin) would carry a motion at the next CAMPO meeting to repeal the entire toll plan.

Members also are interested in filing a lawsuit over the toll road plan. Costello said the Austin Toll Party was still searching for the right lawyer who might be willing to take on a long and contentious case, possibly as long as 18 months. The group also has donations targeted at legal representation but only if the lawyer agrees to reduced rates.

Costello said the Austin Toll Party would likely schedule a music fund-raiser in February intended to defray more of the group’s legal costs.

The group wants the entire system of toll roads repealed. Costello said doing that is a slow process, one that would require continued action from the Austin Toll Party. He pointed to the removal of the William Cannon overpass as a sign that the concerns of opponents were being heard.

“In other words, it takes time,” Costello said.

Bonds for the US 183A toll road project will go to market in February. That makes fighting that particular road tougher, Costello said. But other toll road projects are not fully financed, and that means the Austin Toll Party can continue to fight those projects until the day they put tollbooths up on the roadways.

“It’s a tough fight, but we can win this fight,” Costello said.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Stick drops challenge. . . Outgoing State Rep. Jack Stick (R-Austin) is dropping his challenge to the results of the November 2 election, which he lost by more than 500 votes to Democratic challenger Mark Strama. In a letter to the Speaker of the House and the House Parliamentarian, Stick and attorney Michael Crowley complain that the timetable for the House's investigation into the case does not allow them enough time to obtain the information they need to look into possible voting irregularities. "The current statutory scheme for election contests places no affirmative duty on local election officials to provide timely information to election participants to allow those participants to make informed decisions concerning the filing of the contest," wrote Crowley. "Contestant urges the Texas Legislature to enact legislation requiring local officials promptly to provide election return data, voters registration data, polling information, and voting procedure information to all participants in an election" . . . More good news for Strama . . . In addition to being seated without having to await the results of an election contest, Rep. Mark Strama has more good news. He’s engaged to Fox News 7 City Hall reporter Crystal Cottie . . . No Council meeting today . . . Next week will mark the first time the Austin City Council will meet in the new chambers. Clergy members of various faiths have been invited to take part in a procession next week for a blessing on the new Council chambers. Council Member Danny Thomas wonders why only the chambers are being blessed and not the entire building. Today, however, the Mayor is having a party on his balcony. That’s what the Evite says, anyway. Given the weather, it seems rather unlikely that many members of Austin Young Professionals will want to spend much time on the Mayor's balcony today, but that's the promised venue for the group’s reception. The party runs from 5:30 to 7:30pm. Council Member Brewster McCracken is co-hosting the event . . . Tsunami relief . . . Mayor Will Wynn is organizing an all-day fundraising effort for the American Red Cross International Relief Fund on Friday. Wynn is also calling for a flashlight vigil walk to begin Friday at 6pm that will follow the Town Lake trail on the loop from the south side of South 1st Street bridge at Auditorium Shores to the Pfluger Bridge and back. “Austin is Number One in many things, I know we can be Number One in fundraising for tsunami relief,” said the Mayor. . . Passing the torch … Precinct Two Commissioner Greg Boatright has indicated that he would like someone else on the Williamson County Commissioner’s Court to sit as its representative on the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Commission. At this week’s Commission meeting, Boatright said he had held the job for eight years, and that was long enough, according to Public Information Officer Connie Watson. In recent years, Boatright has served as vice chair of CAMPO’s sometimes rancorous meetings. Watson says Commissioners will add an agenda item to a future meeting to discuss who will serve in the position, since none of the other commissioners immediately volunteered to fill the post. Maybe they’ll have to draw straws . . . A new member … Rodney Ahart, who is the government relations director for the American Cancer Society, attended his first meeting as a member of the city’s Environmental Board last night. Ahart has worked in the Texas Legislature for Senator Rodney Ellis and Reps. Helen Giddings and Dawnna Dukes. He is an Austin native, a graduate of Austin schools and has a Political Science degree from Texas A&M…. Oops…. In yesterday’s Whispers, we quoted Zoning and Platting Commission Member John Donisi as saying that he anticipated the meeting would go on for a long time. He writes: “As much as I would like to take credit for the comment about taking breakfast orders, it was Joseph Martinez who made it. I wish I did have the concession, though, and I can understand the confusion — it was a long night.”

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