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Reporter’s Notebook: Chokeholds and other chaos

Monday, August 1, 2016 by Austin Monitor

More here, more to come… On Friday, the Austin Monitor broke the story about a series of disturbing complaints at the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. As astute readers might have guessed, we weren’t able to include all of the details that we read and anticipate writing about in the future. Not every allegation against Steve Ritchie involved sexual harassment, and not every complainant was a woman. The city auditor’s office was investigating Ritchie in 2014 concerning allegations that he was favoring certain contractors he had worked with in San Antonio, prior to coming to Austin. There is no indication that those allegations were substantiated. However, an employee who worked for Ritchie at that time sent an email to Nathan Wiebe in the city auditor’s office on June 19, 2014, alleging that his boss was retaliating against him. The employee, whose name was redacted from the document received by the Monitor, said, “I am afraid he (Ritchie) is feeling that I am the reason that he is being questioned. I have been informed by multiple coworkers here that he has stated that he is planning on ‘letting me go,’ and is going to fill my position with another individual here. My former boss also informed me that he made negative statements to her about me when she saw him at a recent (U.S. Housing and Urban Development) conference.” In addition, the employee wrote that Ritchie was “acting out against” him and that he felt the situation “could escalate physically” at Ritchie’s instigation. “He has physically demonstrated aggressive acts (grabbing my neck in a chokehold) using me as his example,” the employee wrote. That employee later quit or was terminated. Ritchie’s attorney, Gary Bledsoe has denied that his client has done anything wrong.

Chaos in Austin’s parks… “People have lost their minds in our greenbelts,” according to Richard DePalma, a member of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Board. At the board’s meeting last week, he said that what has turned out to be a difficult summer globally has not left Austin’s parks unscathed. The problem began with June’s Full Moon Swim at Barton Springs, which turned into a chaotic scene, park staff said. “People were climbing over the fence. They were rushing the gates, so it was difficult for us to control the crowd,” said Kimberly McNeeley, assistant director for the Parks and Recreation Department. “There was smoking, there was drinking, there was a lack of listening to the lifeguards at all.” The parks department implemented some controls for the July Full Moon Swim, allowing only 750 people in after 8:30 p.m. and bringing in police to give the lifeguards’ commands “some teeth.” The controls worked, and the July event was attended by a largely law-abiding crowd. But the chaos continues in other parts of the greenbelts. Drinking and “disorderly conduct” are up in the Barton Creek and Bull Creek Greenbelts, as is bacteria from improperly disposed-of diapers. DePalma said he thinks the parks department should start charging for admission to the Bull Creek Greenbelt because it’s “being loved beyond death.” He added, “It’s the saddest thing I’ve seen so far in the 10 years I’ve been a parks advocate.”

Chugging along to the end… Nearly 13 years after it was formally created, the Lone Star Rail District’s days could be numbered. A week from Monday, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board could vote to pull the plug on the district’s effort to establish passenger rail service between Georgetown and San Antonio. Despite the palpable hostility from CAMPO’s chair, Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, LSTAR seems to be spending what could be its final days in a state of defiant optimism. On Thursday, the district announced through a press release that it had updated a graphic image depicting the timeline by which LSTAR predicts its ongoing preparatory process will unfold. Highlights include the conclusion of its federally mandated environmental impact statement to be delivered in August 2018, followed by three years of design work. According to the timeline, LSTAR expects to have its full service operational in the latter half of 2023. The press release announcing the timeline underscored LSTAR’s optimism by declaring, “The progress is just as planned and still on track to provide a long-term solution to the growing I-35 congestion problem.” Naturally, since the timeline itself seemed not to bear any notable signs of adjustment to what was already commonly understood, the Austin Monitor sent a note to the release’s source inquiring about specific alterations. The reply: “The metrics have not changed. We adjusted the timeline so it’s easier for stakeholders to understand” – something, no doubt, for Conley and the rest of the board to consider next Monday.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jo Clifton, Cate Malek and Caleb Pritchard. This story has been corrected to include the position of Steve Ritchie’s attorney.

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