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Commission scolds solid waste director Rhodes

Tuesday, January 18, 2005 by

Members of the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission raised issues of credibility and cooperation last week regarding the actions of Solid Waste Services Department Director Willie Rhodes. Several commission members, as well as some city contractors present, expressed concerns that Rhodes was not routinely providing appropriate information on the department’s programs before implementing them.

Commission members had requested that Rhodes review the status of plans to turn over operation of the city landfill on FM 812 to a private contractor. Rhodes reported that the city staff had reviewed submissions under a request for proposal (RFP) to operate the landfill, and was recommending the city name ISEI Corporation as the contractor.

However, commission Chair Gerald Acuna said there were some potential problems with ISEI. “We have been told that the potential contractor (ISEI) may not have been in compliance with paying its hauling fees to the city at the time it bid on the contract,” Acuna said. “We have also heard from the other vendor in the process that it appears the bidding process was skewed so only ISEI could get the job.” (See In Fact Daily, November 15, 2004; November 19, 2004.)

Rhodes strongly disagreed with both assertions, saying ISEI was not late on its fees, and that commission members were always welcome to help the department develop criteria for its RFP’s.

Acuna pointed out that Rhodes had not given him or anyone else on the commission information about the bid process until after the fact.

Dennis Hobbs with Texas Disposal Systems, the losing bidder in the process, said it appeared to him that the point system used by the city to decide the contract was “not up to snuff. The decision matrix used by the Solid Waste Department assigned points in a way that only ISEI could have won,” he said. “There was no input from any environmental interests. There was no input from legal. The process seems to be tailored to favor one company, ISEI.”

Hobbs produced several pages of information he said TDS obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. One chart, he pointed out, noted that for three years, ISEI had paid fees for operating only one truck, while also paying container fees. “That shows that they were definitely in arrears to the city when they submitted a bid under the RFP, which makes them ineligible to do business,” he said.

Credibility problems also surfaced during a discussion of the department’s plans for the Downtown District. Despite a letter to stakeholders from Rhodes appearing to state that the city was planning to take over collections in the downtown area, Rhodes denied that such plans were underway. The area is currently served a several private haulers, who stand to lose millions of dollars in business of the city steps in.

“We are not planning to take over that service,” Rhodes said. “We are simply examining options because of some complaints that we have received.” However, when pressed, Rhodes could not produce any paperwork regarding what kinds of complaints were made and who made them. “We don’t keep track of that,” he said. “We just take care of the problem, and that’s that.”

Another exchange during the meeting seemed to sum up the problems between Rhodes and the commission. Asked why he had not informed the board ahead of time when he was issuing an RFP for a program, he replied: “Moving forward on this or any other item is at the discretion of the Solid Waste Services Department,” he said. “The information was there if anyone wanted it, but I didn’t put it up in neon lights for you.”

Commission Member Rosemary Wyman said that bothered her a great deal. “We are an advisory commission, and for us to do our due diligence, you are going to have to share this stuff,” she said. Rhodes replied that he was sharing material with them, but Wyman disagreed. “I get the impression that the Solid Waste Services director does something, and then tells us what we are going to agree to.”

Wyman proposed a motion, approved by the entire commission, to request a city audit of several program’s under Rhodes administration, and to appoint a subcommittee to look into compliance issues regarding waste haulers and make an assessment of how the city is enforcing compliance with its own regulations.

Acuna, clearly upset with Rhodes’ lack of cooperation, encouraged members of the board to take other action. “You were all appointed by someone,” he said. “You need to contact them and let them know about these problems. You need to communicate with your Council member about how this process is going—good, bad or otherwise.”

Community Development manager stepping down

Greg Smith proud of 11th-12th Street redevelopment

Housing programs at the City of Austin have undergone a radical change over the past 20 years, and Greg Smith, who’s current job is manager of community development, has been a big part of it during his career. Smith, who is retiring at the end of the month, has watched the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) grow from one that merely administered small block grants to one of the most innovative agencies of its kind in the state.

Smith began working for the city back in 1975, and transferred to HCD in 1987. “Over the years, we’ve evolved into a process of leveraging our dollars and recycling our dollars so that we can continue providing more services to the community,” he said. “At first, it was more grant dollars going out and no money coming in. The programs that I’m working with now did not exist when I started with the department.”

He said over the years, the city has developed a variety of different programs to assist in developing affordable housing in Austin. “The programs I’ve been involved with are the 11th and 12 Street revitalizations, the inner city area redevelopment program, and the commercial management loan program, which I designed and implemented,” Smith said.

One of the most innovate steps the city has taken, Smith said, was to bypass the middleman and become its own developer, something unheard of when he was first hired. “That trend started back in1989 and under the leadership of Gene Watkins, who was the director at that time,” he said. “That was when we rewrote all of our program guidelines, came up with all new programs and started leveraging our dollars, working with the banks, and going after other grant dollars beyond just the CDBG (community development block grants) money we were getting at the time.”

“We got a lot more aggressive back in 1989,” he said, “but that theme of entrepreneurship continues on to this day.”

Those programs have allowed the department to significantly expand the number of people they are able to help each year. “In 1987, we served maybe about 500 units a year for some type of assistance.” Smith said. “That has grown to thousands now. We set a goal at one point to finance or assist 1,000 units a years, but now we handle nearly 4,000 units on an annual basis.”

Smith has been the point man in the city’s efforts to use federal Section 109 funds to leverage its block grant money. “I have negotiated more than $25 million in Section 108 loans for the city,” he said. “Section 108 loans are a program administered by HUD (federal Department of Housing and Urban Development). They will loan you up to five times your CDBG allocation to be used for community development projects that need a large infusion of cash. It allows you to leverage those CDBG funds.”

Smith says projects such as the Millennium Entertainment Center, the 11th and 12th Street revitalization projects, the ARCH homeless shelter and others were funded through the Section 108 loans.

Since 1995, Smith’s work has been centered on the 11th and 12th Street revitalization project.. “I was born in Austin and I was raised in East Austin, and one of the most rewarding things for me has been to play an integral role in the revitalization of an area that I grew up in,” he said, adding that he hopes the work he has started in the area will continue after he moves on. “There are number of projects that are in the planning or near the implementation stages, and I just hope those efforts continue on.”

Smith says he plans to stay active in the community development business after he retires.

Redistricting briefs set stage for Friday hearing

A court challenge filed over the controversial 2003 Congressional redistricting plan is set for a rehearing this week by a three judge panel in Dallas. The plan, pushed through the Legislature by a Republican majority, spurred Democrats to flee to Oklahoma and New Mexico in a failed attempt to deny the GOP a quorum.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott released a series of briefs last week, including a response to an amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief filed by University of Texas law professors, Travis County, and LULAC, who wrote that mid-decade redistricting should take into account the “phenomenal growth” and population shifts in Texas between 2000 and 2003.

A three-judge panel heard the challenge to the Texas redistricting case last summer, ruling in favor of the state. Last October, the United States Supreme Court vacated that judgment and sent the case back to the three-judge panel, asking them to reconsider the case in light of the ruling on the Pennsylvania redistricting case of Vieth v. Jubelirer, which also took up the issue of political gerrymandering.

The court split 4-1-4 on the Vieth decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who staked out the middle alone, wrote that he could not support a case for partisan gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, if only because plaintiffs in the case had not provided what might be considered “judicially manageable” standards for what might be considered partisan gerrymandering. The Supreme Court is now awaiting a ruling in Texas case to establish those standards.

The UT professors, along with Travis County and LULAC, argued that the state’s 2003 redistricting plans violated the “one person-one vote” rule. As the minority population shifts and changes, those groups are no longer accurately represented by 2000 census data. The amicus brief argues the state did not make a “good faith effort” to take those population shifts into account when the map was redrawn.

In its response, the Attorney General argues that a “one person-one vote” argument is “an undisguised attempt at a backdoor judicial prohibition on ‘mid-decade’ redistricting” that the Court has already concluded was both legal and permissible. Decennial census data is considered “presumptively valid for redistricting,” absent a substantial showing to the contrary. Abbott goes on to say the plaintiffs failed to meet the burden of pointing out any equal-population violation the new map created.

The state’s brief cites a number of Supreme Court cases that support the use of decennial data as the “best population data available,” lacking any replacement data of equal validity. The fact that the census data is the “best available” is undisputed, according to the state’s brief. Neither Travis County nor the UT professors offer an alternative or provide a map that demonstrated how the lines could have been redrawn for a fairer balance.

“That the University Professors and Travis County have not offered legal authority is no slight on their research skills,” wrote the Attorney General in his brief. “Rather, it reflects that the rules they propose are both novel and contrary to law. Their arguments – by demanding a presumption of unconstitutionality – ask this Court to overrule binding Supreme Court precedent establishing that the burden of proof in an equal-population claim falls on the plaintiff and the requirement that the plaintiff offer a means of achieving a lower population inequality.”

The three-judge panel, led by Judge Patrick Higginbotham of the 5th Circuit Court, will take testimony the redistricting challenge in Dallas on Friday.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved Champions win one zoning case . . . The City Council last week approved final passage of a zoning change for one of three tracts owned by the Champion sisters. At previous meetings, the Council has refused to grant the zoning changes they requested on two other tracts, leading attorney Michael Whellan to file suit against the city. After last week’s action, Whellan said he would now begin to concentrate on moving that lawsuit forward. The city and the Champion sisters have been in litigation off and on for the past 10 years … Tonight’s meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 1001 of City Hall. Tonight’s agenda includes a return of the controversial Gales project at Bunny Run. The commission voted 5-4 two weeks ago to recommend an amendment to the PUD and restrictive covenant to allow for development of multi-family buildings. Neighbors objected strenuously, and at length. St. Stephen’s School, which owns the property, argued just as ardently in favor of the change. Attorney Steve Drenner called the area a “multi-family exclusionary zone.” The commission will discuss whether to rescind, amend or reconsider their previous action. (See In Fact Daily Jan. 6, 2005.) . . . The RMMA Plan Implementation Advisory Commission is scheduled to meet at 6pm at Waller Creek Plaza. The Codes and Ordinances Committee of the Planning Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 500 of One Texas Center . . . Campaigns take off tomorrow . . . Place 3 contenders Mandy Dealey and Jennifer Kim are both holding fundraisers tomorrow night. Kim’s party will be at the Work Shop, 1211 W. 6th Street, Suite 400 from 5:30 to 7:30pm. Dealey is holding her party at exactly the same time, 5:30-7:30pm at Doña Emilia’s, 101 San Jacinto . . . One more go ‘round . . . In case you don’t make it to D.C. for the Inaugural festivities, or even if you do, Austin will celebrate President Bush’s second term with a Black Tie and Boots Post-Inaugural Ball Saturday, Jan. 29, at the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum. Music will be by the Granger Smith Band with special guest Larry Gatlin. Food will be from Rudy’s Barbecue. The festivities run 7:30pm to 11pm, and tickets are $25 per person or $40 a couple. Dress is Western for women and Black Tie and Boot for men. For tickets, call 302- 1776 or email sager@tcrp.org. . . . Down, but not out . . . Since the last edition of In Fact Daily, editor Jo Clifton has undergone minor surgery to correct a problem with her arm. She reported yesterday that she is doing much better, especially now that the doctor has put her in a smaller cast. She reports that she will be delegating her duties liberally until such time as she and her arm are ready to resume them..

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