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Fighting Eviction: Will term limits force a vanishing act for three Austin council members?


About 8,000 words

Photography by Barton Wilder Custom Images


The three most experienced members of the Austin City Council want another term, but voters will not get the chance to reelect them—or toss them out in favor of other candidates—unless the trio can gather enough signatures to win a place on the ballot. Their predicament stems from the imposition of term limits by voters in 1994, in the form of an amendment to the Austin City Charter.

Term limits got on the ballot almost without discussion. The Austin American-Statesman reported March 4, 1994, that three speakers at a council meeting opposed amending the charter to include term limits. One was Frances McIntyre, president of the League of Women Voters, who said, “Term limits interfere with my right and yours to choose who we want in office.”

Save for that minimal opposition, consideration of the implications of limiting how long a council member could serve was lost among twenty-one other propositions on the ballot, some of which were seen as vastly more important at the time. Proposition 1, if approved, would have established single-member districts for the future election of council members. Proposition 22 was the highly charged campaign over whether to repeal insurance benefits for the unmarried domestic partners of city employees, a measure put on the ballot through the petition drive of conservative Christians who banded together under the name Concerned Texans. The so-called “shack-up insurance” was a hot-button issue that lit up the phone lines on talk radio and triggered the formation of a more liberal Mainstream Austin Coalition of churches to try to defeat the amendment. Noting the significance of Proposition 22, on election day the Statesman reported, “It has taken on national importance as a test of support for gay rights and the power of religious groups to influence political decisions.”

The election of a mayor and three council members was on the same cluttered ballot, and Daryl Slusher, who had built a following as politics editor of The Austin Chronicle, managed to make it into a runoff for mayor with incumbent Bruce Todd. Slusher lost that race by just 1,339 votes.

The fervor for term limits was sweeping the country, and Austin was not immune. Fifty-nine percent of the voters approved Proposition 2, with 46,222 voting yes, 31,489 voting no. Ronney Reynolds, who was on the city council at the time and supported term limits, told the Statesman after the election that the vote was a criticism of the council: “There’s a natural distrust of politicians, and people feel like with term limits there will be turnover without the incumbent having the advantage in every election.”

Passage of Proposition 2 meant that, beginning with elections after 1994, anyone elected for two terms can get on the ballot again only by submitting a petition signed by at least five percent of the city’s registered voters.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman was first elected in 1993; her first three-year term on the council did not count for the purposes of term limits. Her reelection in 1996 and 1999 did count. So it’s two strikes and she’s out unless she can raise the signatures.

Council Members Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher were first elected in 1996 and then reelected in 1999. They, too, must petition or step down.

A mountain to climb

The number of signatures needed to equal five percent varies from time to time, as people are added to or deleted from the voter registration rolls, but the latest estimate is that 21,109 valid signatures will be needed to get on the ballot for the May 4 election. The number is a moving target, however, and it could go up if significant numbers of people decide to register before the petitions are submitted, which is likely given the upcoming March 12 party primary elections that include numerous statewide races.

To put this figure into perspective, it should be noted that only one of these incumbents garnered that many votes when they were reelected the last time in 1999. All three were reelected without a runoff. Goodman got 21,747 votes to thump her only challenger. Slusher got 18,721 votes to defeat five opponents. And Griffith garnered 17,085 to beat eight challengers (earning a footnote in history, as it marked the first time since council seats were designated by places in 1953 that an incumbent who faced so many challengers did not need a runoff to secure reelection).

Getting the number of signatures they need is not impossible—but it is difficult. The fact that these three council members are willing to even try to corral so many signatures says something in itself. Why do they want so badly to hang onto a council seat that pays $45,000 a year (raised from $30,000 effective July 2, 2000) and comes with a built-in supply of people to criticize anything they do, or fail to do? Each of the incumbents answered that question differently:

Goodman: “Why am I doing this? To be perfectly honest it’s because I’m competitive. But the larger picture is that an awful lot of good, caring people wanted me to run again…It’s hard to tell those folks that someone else will do what I do, because I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not sure someone else will have the focus and understanding and commitment that I have and will always have.”

Griffith: “It’s in the public interest that folks who have the experience and corporate memory are there to serve.” Noting that Austin has a new mayor and new general manager for the electric utility, and soon will have a new city manager, Griffith says, “What citizens are telling me is that we absolutely cannot afford the loss of the three senior, most experienced, most knowledgeable council members at the same time. It could be very high risk…We must have people with business experience, neighborhood credentials, and a strong environmental record at the helm or there’s a lot of uncertainty, which people are telling me they don’t want right now.”

Slusher: “I have real mixed feelings about going for another term. I feel like there’s more work to do. It’s a critical time for the city. Finances are a particularly serious challenge. We need stability at City Hall. This is what I got from many people, leading up to deciding whether to run again.”

Scrambling for signatures

So far, the petition drives that will determine whether the three council members make it onto the ballot again are getting mixed results. Griffith said January 16 she had “north of 13,000” signatures. Weekly meetings and pep rallies with petitioners are keeping the process on track, she says.

Griffith’s petition drive was shot out of a cannon the first day, as paid petitioners were at the polls during the November 6 presidential election and netted some 2,000 signatures, she says. Griffith’s petition drive is headed up by Linda Curtis, who has completed numerous successful petition drives, including the effort by Austinites for a Little Less Corruption that got campaign-finance reform on the ballot and approved by Austin voters in 1997. She also was a driving force in the petition of Clean Campaigns for Austin last year, which was responsible for getting the Austin Fair Elections Act on the ballot this May to repeal and replace the Little Less Corruption reforms.

Slusher declines to say how many signatures he has gathered but concedes he is worried. “I’m working hard on it and I think it’s possible, but it’s a very difficult task and not certain. I’m more confident of getting reelected if I get on the ballot than I am of getting the signatures.”

Goodman says she has not had time to count the signatures gathered so far, as many petitions are being circulated by volunteers. She indicated that even Slusher’s petition drive was organized well before hers. Asked if she’d get enough signatures, Goodman said, “I don’t know.”

Goodman and Slusher at first relied mainly on volunteers. In December they jointly hired veteran political campaigner Pat Crow to lash together a renewed effort to collect signatures. But they said that except for the booth at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, where petitions for all three candidates were available to sign December 13 through December 24, not much got done during the holidays.

The cold weather hasn’t helped. Because of frigid temperatures, howling winds, and no protected space where she could pitch an appeal to people coming and going, Linda Curtis said she wouldn’t even try to get signatures from the crowds flocking to a weekend automobile show at Palmer Auditorium.

Slusher said he and Goodman were hoping to fire up more enthusiasm with a “good old-fashioned Musical Sign-Along” January 27 at Antone’s, featuring Joe Ely, Toni Price and a long list of other musicians providing the attraction of star power to build political power. The admission of ten bucks was to be waived for anyone bringing in petitions with ten valid signatures for each of the council member hosts.

While Slusher and Goodman try to boost their petition drives through traditional grass-roots methods, complete with rally-round-the-flag gatherings, Griffith pushes ahead with a team of seasoned signature snaggers.

Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions is a political consultant to the Griffith campaign and has helped to formulate strategy for the petition drive. “My prediction is that Beverly’s will succeed,” he says. “If she keeps up the rate she’s going she will turn in 26,000 signatures.” The last big push will be made at the March 12 party primary election, where every signature gathered is certain to be a valid, registered city voter.

The absolute deadline for submitting petitions is March 20—the last day of the filing period for a candidate to apply for a place on the May 4 ballot.

Pushing the petitioners to produce results includes paying bonuses for anyone on Griffith’s team who gathers 2,000 signatures, Blizzard says. “The key is sustained effort. You have to have people doing it on a daily basis or you will not succeed,” he says. To make the deadline, he said, the team of petitioners must consistently average 1,500 signatures a week.

While Griffith seems to be the only sure bet to finish her petition drive successfully, some people criticize her tactics.

Ginny Agnew, chair of the city’s Ethics Review Commission, says, “Beverly Griffith may be the poster child on the issue, because the thing you’re trying to do is limit the power of the incumbency and the power of the pocketbook, and there she is buying signatures to overcome the rule of term limits. She makes herself impervious to attack because she has money to put into her campaign and the power of the incumbency.”

But, given term limits, and given the restriction that only incumbents who can demonstrate broad public support through a petition drive can get on the ballot, Griffith appears to be following the rules.

Blizzard says that Griffith has put only $5,000 of her own money into the campaign and has demonstrated phenomenal community support in gathering another $30,000, in spite of the $100 contribution limits. “Raising money that way, you have to be tenacious and organized,” he said.

Slusher says he had intended to launch his petition drive at the annual Diez y Seis celebration where, traditionally, thousands of people gather to celebrate Mexico’s independence from Spain.

But that event, scheduled for September 15, was canceled out of respect for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Slusher delayed his petitioning for a month and started in October, he says, mostly with volunteers gathering signatures. “I announced I would do it October 11. But it was hard to get geared up because I couldn’t raise money till November 6,” he says, alluding to City Charter restrictions that prohibit raising money more than 180 days before an election. “I had to go make copies and pay out of personal funds, and I don’t have all that much personal funds. It got started in earnest on November 6.”

Goodman says she started her petition drive November 9. “For me, it was a one-person campaign for some time. When I had a minute, I’d run make copies.”

While the three council members are all facing the same formidable challenge, they are not exactly the Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all. It’s not that they don’t wish each other well, and want all the petitions to succeed, but ultimately each incumbent is responsible for gaining a place on the ballot.

Will they exploit loophole?

The one way the three incumbents could help each other—in the event one or more petitions fail to pass muster—is to swap council seats. That’s a loophole in the charter. Term limits only apply to a given place seat. While political backlash is possible from voters angered by an end-run around term limits, the strategy is technically possible.

Slusher says he doesn’t plan to slip through that loophole.

“A lot of people are trying to get me to switch seats and not go through this ordeal of getting the signatures, but I don’t like that option,” Slusher says. “I just can’t get past the fact I don’t think that was the intent of the voters. I call on people to follow the intent of the voters, like the SOS Ordinance, where I call on developers to follow the will of the voters.”

Goodman is more ambivalent, saying, “It’s an option. I don’t know if it’s one I would take. I’d have to think about that. This (petition drive) is logistically almost an overwhelming task. It takes your total energy and commitment, so knowing there’s another option is not something I’m spending any time thinking about right now.”

Griffith, who at this point seems the least likely to need to think about switching seats, says she is reviewing the situation.

While the three incumbents are galloping toward the wire in the petition drives—and facing a moral dilemma about changing seats if the signatures fall short—the circumstances are conspiring to create a scenario for the May 4, 2002, election that is eerily reminiscent of 1994.

In early 1994 the Austin City Council was reeling from problems at Brackenridge Hospital, including a $21 million deficit. Today, Brackenridge Hospital is once again a serious problem, as Catholic doctrine imposed on Seton, operator of the city-owned Brackenridge Hospital, threatens to interfere with women’s reproductive healthcare at the facility.

In early 1994 City Manager Camille Barnett was forced to resign because of the Brackenridge situation and Jesus Garza was hired as city manager to fix the mess. Today, Garza has submitted his resignation to take a job with the Lower Colorado River Authority, and the council is mulling the promotion of Deputy City Manager Toby Futrell to succeed Garza.

In 1994 voters were called on—for the fifth time—to decide whether to elect future City Council members from geographic districts instead of at-large. Today, the Charter Revision Committee has recommended that the City Council put single-member districts back on the ballot again.

One major difference in this year’s election is that nothing on the ballot is likely to draw the massive numbers of conservative voters that flocked to the polls in 1994, when Concerned Texans successfully petitioned to get Proposition 22 on the ballot to repeal insurance benefits for domestic partners of unmarried city employees. But, since this year’s ballot items won’t be set until around mid-March, this could change.

In 1994 voters approved the term limits that are plaguing the three incumbents. Today, if the Charter Revision Committee’s recommendations are followed by the council, voters will get a chance to repeal term limits.

But that won’t save the council careers of three officeholders whose terms are up. They’re going to have to do that for themselves.

The good news for Goodman, Griffith, and Slusher is that if they do succeed in gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot, they’re not going to be evicted—not by term limits and not by a challenger.

In the first place, all three clobbered opponents to win reelection in 1997 without even a runoff. And this time each of them will have in hand the petitions that identify some 25,000 supporters who can be targeted and herded to the polls. No challenger can ever hope to have that kind of information. They will be untouchable.

Ken Martin is editor of The Good Life. He agrees with the title of a book written by Henry B. Fox of Circleville: Dirty Politics is Fun. For the journalist, anyway.

Historical footnote: All three council members succeeded in getting on the ballot through successful petition drives. But our prediction about being untouchable proved wrong, in one case. A summary of the election results, obtained from the City of Austin’s Election History page for the May 4, 2002, election, is as follows:

Daryl Slusher: Reelected to the Place 1 council seat with 54.79% of the vote.

Jackie Goodman: Reelected to the Place 3 counci seat with 59.89% of the vote.

Beverly Griffith: Placed second to Betty Dunkerley, with 29.03% of the votes compared to Dunkerley’s 41.75%. Griffith then opted not to continue to campaign for the seat in a runoff election to which she was entitled.

Round 2 for Campaign Finance Reform

Will voters decide to pony up?

“Politics is a place of humble hopes and strangely modest requirements, where all are good who are not criminal and all are wise who are not ridiculously otherwise.”

—Frank Moore Colby (1865-1925)

Somebody’s got to pay for election campaigns and the theory of a group of local reformers, Clean Campaigns for Austin, is that’s it better to help with public money than to have politicians obligated to private interests. To understand why, one only has to think of the national scandal currently unfolding, as politicians richly endowed with contributions from bankrupt energy trader Enron Corporation must now be expected to lead the investigation into how investors and employees were bilked.

The most vivid local example of how political contributions taint the public’s interest was reported by the Austin American-Statesman January 24: Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, has recused himself from the investigation of the Enron matter that cost Texas state agencies $68.5 million. The reason? He collected $193,000 in campaign contributions from Enron interests between September 1997 and June 2001.

When Austin voters go to the polls May 4 to elect three council members, they will also get to decide whether to approve the Austin Fair Elections Act. The Act would provide an initial grant for qualifying candidates who agree to abide by voluntary restrictions and it would subsequently match amounts the candidates raise, up to the maximum allowed.

To qualify for public funding, a City Council candidate would have to get signatures from 500 registered city voters (or an eighth of one percent of the registered voters, whichever is greater) and a five-dollar contribution from each signer. Mayoral candidates must get 1,000 signatures (or a fourth of one percent of registered voters, whichever is greater) and contributions of five dollars each.

Some fear these thresholds are too low and would allow marginal candidates—such as Austin perennials Leslie Cochran and Jennifer Gale, who offer little more than comic relief—to qualify. Clean Campaigns proponents say experience in other jurisdictions with public campaign financing indicates fringe candidates rarely qualify for public funding. Think of it this way: It’s one thing to sign a petition that costs you nothing; it’s another to fork over five bucks when you sign; and it’s harder still if you realize that a candidate who qualifies is going to receive public funding. That’s enough to sober up any taxpaying citizen.

Candidates are allowed to raise seed money in contributions of up to $200 per donor to pay the expense of qualifying for public funding. Council candidates may spend up to $10,000 in seed money, mayoral candidates $20,000.

Qualifying candidates for City Council would receive initial grants of $16,666. Qualifying mayoral candidates would receive initial grants of $33,333. Thereafter, candidates could accept contributions of up to $200 per donor; these would be matched by public funds, with two dollars provided from public funds for each one dollar raised privately. Council campaigns could spend no more than $100,000 in the general election and $100,000 in the runoff. Mayoral candidates could spend $200,000 in the general election and $200,000 in the runoff.

A participating candidate’s spending limits would be adjusted upward to match the amount spent by any opponent who exceeds the voluntary spending limit, whether from personal funds or contributions. This provision addresses situations like the 1997 council campaign, in which millionaire Manuel Zuniga poured more than $92,000 of his own money into the general election and runoff he lost to Bill Spelman.

A participating candidate’s spending limits would be adjusted upward to match any independent expenditures opposing the candidate or supporting an opponent if the independent expenditures exceed $25,000 in a council race or $50,000 in a mayoral race. This provision addresses situations like the 2000 council elections, in which lottery winner Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and the Austin Police Association made independent expenditures that boosted the candidacy of Austin Police Officer Danny Thomas, who defeated incumbent Willie Lewis.

Reform by citizen initiative

The Austin Fair Elections Act will be on the ballot as a result of a petition drive by Clean Campaigns for Austin to amend the Austin City Charter. If voters approve it, the Austin Fair Elections Act would repeal and replace the campaign finance reforms approved by more than seventy-two percent of voters on November 4, 1997. That reform reduced the amount of money candidates could accept from political action committees. It also limited individual contributions to $100. That limit has been viewed in hindsight as too low, even by members of Austinites for a Little Less Corruption, who got the initiative on the ballot through a petition drive.

The Austin Fair Elections Act was written by attorney Fred Lewis. He is founder and president of Campaigns for People, whose mission is to promote workable reforms that restrain the influence of money on state government and create an ethical climate that builds public confidence in the state’s democratic institutions. Lewis says his initial draft of the Austin Fair Elections Act ran thirty pages. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, an organization involved in litigation and reforms for campaign financing, edited the draft down to nine pages, he says.

Lewis also wrote a twenty-one page fiscal analysis of the cost of implementing the Austin Fair Elections Act. Based on the experience of publicly funded campaigns in Arizona, Maine, New York City, and Los Angeles, Lewis estimated the cost of Austin’s partial public funding at $806,000 for 2003, when the mayor and three council positions will be up for election; nothing in 2004, when there are no elections scheduled; $716,000 in 2005, when three council positions will be up for election; and $1.3 million in 2006, when the mayor and three council positions will again be on the ballot. The analysis assumes that with each election the candidates will grow more familiar with how the Austin Fair Elections Act works, and over time more candidates will choose to participate in the voluntary system that provides matching funds.

The money to pay for the partial system of public funding would come mainly from the city’s general fund. The Austin Fair Elections Act limits funding to a maximum of one-quarter percent of the city’s annual budget. The city calculates that’s about $4 million. But, the Act requires the Ethics Review Commission to make a written estimate of the amount needed for an election cycle and submit it to the City Council for appropriation. At least five percent of the amount appropriated must be used to administer the Act.

The Act requires a voluntary check-off system be made part of the city’s utility billing system; ratepayers would be able to contribute to the Fair Elections Fund, just as they do now for the Plus 1 Program, which helps poor people pay utility bills, and the Tree Planting Program. Qualifying candidates would be required to deposit into the Fair Elections Fund all qualifying contributions and any surplus seed money collected.

Fiscal conservatives may be philosophically opposed to using public funds to pay for campaigns. Others figure it’s cheaper for citizens to buy candidates than let private money taint the public interest.

Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions, a strategy consultant for Clean Campaigns for Austin, says it’s a matter of cost and benefits. “The issue here is whether people will accept paying for better democracy,” he says.

Blizzard notes the estimated cost of the Austin Fair Elections Act is in the general range of the annual funding given to the Austin Music Network, $775,000. “If it’s a priority to have better democracy in our local elections, more candidates, better competition, and more access to voters, that seems a small price to pay,” he says.

Some critics of the Austin Fair Elections Act say that it represents an ineffective way of bringing about reforms, and contend an ordinance would be preferable to amending the City Charter.

Craig McDonald is executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group organized in 1997 to take on political corruption and corporate abuses in Texas. Texans for Public Justice is one of the groups that endorses the Austin Fair Elections Act. McDonald says, “I’ve done a lot of petitions and I agree it’s not always the prettiest approach to making legislation, but sometimes it’s the only approach you have.”

Blizzard is unapologetic. “We believe a petition is exactly the right way to bring about reform, because people elected under a system are loathe to change it,” he says.

An ordinance could have been initiated through petitioning, but that would require the signatures of ten percent of the qualified voters of the city. A charter amendment requires the signatures of five percent or 20,000, whichever is smaller. In late January, there were 422,194 voters registered in the City of Austin, within Travis and Williamson counties. An ordinance petition would require 42,219 valid signatures; a petition would probably need 50,000 to 60,000 signatures to survive the verification process.

Lewis says the petition drive to get the Austin Fair Elections Act on the ballot was initiated only after representatives of Clean Campaigns for Austin had met with council members and concluded that there was no interest in setting up a public process to initiate campaign finance reforms.

Petition drives are invariably difficult and this one was no exception. Petitioners were barred from soliciting signatures in the federal post office. HEB Grocery tried to bar petitioners from property in front of the store at Hancock Center. To maintain access, Clean Campaigns filed a lawsuit last June against H.E. Butt Grocery Company, the state’s largest private company and the top food retailer in South and Central Texas. Ultimately Clean Campaigns succeeded in persuading the court not to issue the temporary restraining order sought by the company, and continued to solicit signatures at HEB.

Regarding the HEB lawsuit, Lewis, attorney for Clean Campaigns, told The Austin Chronicle, “How do you reach people in a society like we have where people congregate in malls and shopping centers, where you don’t have community events where people congregate?”

Linda Curtis, the main sparkplug in gathering signatures for Clean Campaigns, as well as for the successful petition drive by Austinites for a Little Less Corruption, told The Austin Chronicle, “If we don’t have public access, I don’t see how they can require signatures. The problem is not getting people to sign, it’s getting to them.”

Late last August, Clean Campaigns submitted to City Clerk Shirley Brown petitions containing a reported 28,341 signatures. By mid-September, after verification of a random sample of a fourth of the signatures, Brown says she had concluded that the number of valid signatures was 20,186. That met the threshold of five percent of the city’s registered voters.

Thus the Austin City Council had no choice but to call an election. It had one option: put the Austin Fair Elections Act on the ballot in the November 2001 general election, which was also a presidential election, or wait until the May 4, 2002. The council chose the latter.

Obstacles to passage

The Austin Fair Elections Act is not going to have an unimpeded shot at getting the attention of voters. In addition to the election to fill three council seats in the May 4 election, the ballot is also likely to have on it the consideration of single-member districts and, in all likelihood, a number of other items. (See accompanying story, below, “Austin’s future riding on City Charter amendments.”)

It’s also possible the City Council will put on the ballot an alternative proposal that would directly compete against the Austin Fair Elections Act. Council Member Daryl Slusher says he publicly announced the idea. “I had said at one meeting that I’d consider that, but I decided to wait and see what the Charter Revision Committee recommends, and not get out in front of them. I think it’s possible. Or we might just let it go (to the voters) up or down,” he says. “There has not been a lot of discussion.”

The idea that a council member—especially one elected in part because of strong support from environmentalists—would even consider putting an alternative to the Austin Fair Elections Act on the ballot is rich in irony. In 1992, the Austin City Council put on the ballot an alternative to the Save Our Springs Ordinance, which was brought by initiative petition. This enraged environmentalists. After a bitterly fought campaign, the SOS Ordinance passed by a margin of nearly two to one and the council’s alternative was soundly defeated.

Ultimately, after lengthy discussion at its meeting January 23, the Charter Revision Committee voted 5-1 to recommend that the City Council not place an alternative campaign finance proposal on the ballot. The dissenting vote was cast by Ricky Bird, who criticized the Austin Fair Elections Act at length. The motion was made by Martha Cotera, who noted the complexity of the matter. “We don’t have the time or the expertise to work out the details,” she said. “If we put an alternative on the ballot, it would only muck up the waters more.”

The city’s Ethics Review Commission also has studied the Austin Fair Elections Act. Chair Ginny Agnew says, “We have decided it’s inappropriate for us to take a position on it. But we have spent a good deal of time studying it and meeting with the drafters, hoping to get them to make some changes in it, because there will be problems of enforcement.”

Agnew says despite early conversations with Lewis, when the Austin Fair Elections Act was being drafted, no attempt was made to reconcile the language of the Act with existing city ordinances. As a result, she says, the Act “makes no effort to say one way or the other if it will preempt the Fair Campaign Fund.”

The Fair Campaign Fund was created by ordinance in 1994. The fund is the financial account into which lobbyist registration fees are deposited, and from which qualifying candidates who sign and comply with voluntary restrictions may receive funds in a runoff election. Daryl Slusher was the first candidate to qualify to receive funds and was entitled to get $21,662 for his 1996 runoff against Jeff Hart. Slusher declined to take it, amid a heated council debate over whether to appropriate the funds. His reluctance stemmed from the fear of political backlash if he accepted public funds while running a “basics, not boondoggles” campaign. Bill Spelman and Willie Lewis each got $18,402 in the 1997 runoffs and won election to the council. In the 2000 runoff election, Raul Alvarez and Rafael Quintanilla were competing for the Place 5 seat vacated by Gus Garcia. Each got $29,124 from the Fair Campaign Fund.

Fred Lewis concedes the Austin Fair Elections Act does not address what would become of the Fair Campaign Fund, but predicts the City Council will repeal it once the new Act is in place.

If approved by voters, the Austin Fair Elections Act would radically transform the Ethics Review Commission from a body that has played virtually no role in the outcome of past elections, despite numerous formal complaints lodged with the commission during the campaigns, and make it—on paper at least—a strong watchdog agency that would draft rules and regulations to carry out the Act, and enforce them.

Ethics Review Commission Chair Agnew, an attorney but not one familiar with criminal law, says the Austin Fair Elections Act lacks enforcement powers needed for the Ethics Review Commission to mete out punishment for violations. The Act does specify penalties, however, including fines and—for knowing and willful violation of the Act by an incumbent officeholder or officeholder-elect—forfeiture of office.

Lewis says the Act does contain the necessary powers of enforcement. It states the Ethics Review Commission would be empowered to monitor election activity, conduct audits of campaign financial reports, subpoena witnesses, compel their attendance and testimony, administer oaths, take evidence, and require by subpoena the production of any books, records or other materials.

These powers are appropriate, Lewis says. “One rumor goes around the bowels of the bureaucracy that the Ethics Review Commission would be too powerful an entity, and the other rumor is it has no power. I think we got it just about right.

Strong support for passage

In a perfect world citizens would not have to take into their own hands the reforms needed to reduce the influence of private money on public policy, but things aren’t perfect. Round Two of Austin’s reforms promises to be a winner at the polls. The reason is simple: First, Clean Campaigns for Austin has the signatures of more than 28,000 people who signed the petition. The signers will be viewed as supporters who can be motivated to vote for the proposition.

Secondly, a broad base of support has been lined up behind the proposition. Clean Campaigns for Austin claims the endorsements of Austin Area Interreligious Ministries (formerly Austin Metropolitan Ministries), Austin Democracy Coalition, Austin Neighborhoods Council, Campaigns for People, Common Cause of Texas, Democracy Matters-UT Chapter, Gray Panthers, League of Women Voters-Austin, NAACP-Austin Chapter, National Organization for Women-Austin Chapter, People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, Public Citizen, Save Barton Creek Association, Save Our Springs Alliance, Sierra Club-Austin Chapter, Travis County Democratic Women, Travis County Green Party, and Texans for Public Justice.

Political consultant Blizzard says, “Clearly there is going to need to be an organized campaign, and that’s already moving forward.”

Lewis says the campaign to pass the Austin Fair Elections Act will be up and running in February and supporters will be reaching out, explaining the Act, and asking for support. “We’ll have the money for a grass-roots campaign,” he says. “Don’t expect to see us on TV.”

Lewis says the reforms approved by voters in 1997 were intended to stop corruption by ending the unrestricted contributions to mayoral and council campaigns, and that goal was achieved. But the reforms failed to provide the support needed for bona fide candidates to get their messages to voters. The Austin Fair Elections Act will fix that problem, Lewis says.

“This is recognition that Austin is a big city and it takes substantial amounts of money to get your message out.”

Editor Ken Martin believes Austin citizens deserve the best elected officials money can buy.

Historical footnote: Despite the broad coalition of organizations supporting theAustin Fair Elections Act (Proposition 1 on the May 4, 2002, ballot), the measure was soundly defeated. Proposition 1 garnered just 26% of the yes votes, while 74% voted no—a thumping margin of three to one.

Austin’s future rides on City Charter changes

We’re fast approaching the mid-March deadline for the Austin City Council to decide what will—and what won’t—be put on the ballot for voters to decide on Saturday, May 4.

All that’s known for certain is that three council seats will be up for grabs and we will be deciding the fate of at least one amendment to the Austin City Charter.

The Charter election was triggered by the successful petition drive led by Clean Campaigns For Austin, whose petitions were validated by the city clerk last September. The City Council had the option of putting the measure on the ballot in last November’s general election (which was also a presidential election) or waiting until May 4, and opted for the latter. The measure, known as the Austin Fair Elections Act, if approved by voters would establish a system of partial public financing for mayoral and city council elections (see separate story, above, “Round 2 for Campaign Finance Reform.”)

Because state law prohibits changing the City Charter sooner than two years after it was last amended, the Clean Campaigns initiative has generated a rush to consider other amendments as well. Many of the items that may be put before voters to amend the City Charter are of crucial importance. Since the City Council will soon be debating what to put on the ballot, citizens need to be aware of what’s bubbling up while there is still time to influence the ballot decisions.

Charter changes under consideration have been funneled to the Charter Revision Committee, which was appointed by the Austin City Council last August to provide advice on proposed amendments. The committee has already forwarded one major recommendation and is actively reviewing numerous other items, with the intention of making a final report to the City Council by Feb. 7.

While numerous housekeeping items have been proposed by city staff, others being debated could radically affect the future of the city. These are some of the major ones:

Redistribute political power—On Nov. 26, the Charter Revision Commission voted 4-1, with Ricky Bird opposed, to recommend to the council that voters be asked to consider approving the establishment of geographic districts for the election of council members. Under the plan recommended, the mayor would be elected at-large and ten council members would be elected from geographic districts in which they live. Further, when the population increases by 25,000 above the population determined in the 2000 federal census, the number of districts would be increased to twelve. The commission also recommended the mayor be elected to a term of four years, instead of the current three. All these recommendations are identical to the ones made by the previous Charter Revision Committee January 15, 2000, but were never put on the ballot. Voters have previously defeated on five separate occasions the various ballot measures that would have set up council districts. The City Council has scheduled three public hearings on this proposal. The first was Jan. 17, and only two people spoke. One of them was Bird, who said he opposes single-member districts because the minority population is increasingly scattered across the city, according to census data. As a result, there is no assurance that ethnic diversity on the council would be achieved, particularly with respect to African Americans and Asian Americans. (Two more public hearings were scheduled for Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, after press deadlines for this story.) Historical footnote: Proposition 3 on the May 4, 2002, election ballot netted 42% of the votes cast, while 58% voted no—the sixth defeat for single-member district representation on the Austin City Council.

Solidify political power—On Jan. 7, the Charter Revision Committee voted 7-0 to recommend that the City Council place on the May 4 ballot a proposition to repeal the provision in the charter approved by voters in 1994, which established term limits. Committee Chair Bobbie Barker said that through discussion of single-member districts and campaign finance, the group arrived at a consensus that the best way to limit someone’s term is to know who’s representing you and decide if you want them to represent you or not. “We believe single-member districts will increase participation (in the electoral process) and limits on the term will be defined by those who vote,” Barker said. She said the recommendation on term limits and any other recommendations would be taken to the council Feb. 7. “I’m hopeful the City Council will hold additional public hearings on any other issues we take to them, including term limits. Hopefully, they’ll put that on the ballot, also.” Historical footnote: Proposition 4 on the May 4, 2002, election ballot failed, with 45% voting yes to repealing term limits, while 55% voted no.

Close the loophole—The City Charter requires that council members be elected from the city at-large, with each council member elected to occupy a place on the council numbered and designated one through six and mayor. City Clerk Shirley Brown has recommended that the Charter Review Committee consider that the system of designating council seats by places be abolished. This would eliminate the loophole that currently exists, by which a council member could sidestep term limits by switching places and running for another council seat. (This recommendation would be moot if voters approved single-member districts.) No council member has yet taken advantage of this loophole to avoid term limits. In 1997, then-Council Member Gus Garcia switched from Place Five to Place Two to run for reelection, but he could have run for another term in Place Five without restriction. His goal was to step out of what had traditionally been the Hispanic council seat, to represent the whole city in another seat, and to get a second Hispanic elected to the council. Garcia was reelected but Bill Spelman defeated Manuel Zuniga, thwarting the election of a second Hispanic. Historical footnote: No measure was put on the May 4, 2002, ballot to address this loophole.

Get serious with electric utility—Austin Energy generates profits that are transferred into the general fund and keep property tax rates among the lowest of any major metropolitan area in Texas. While the city-owned utility is not required to enter competition unless the City Council opts to do so, the specter of competition has long been a major concern for the utility. Millions of dollars have been spent on studies and consultants to whip the utility into fighting trim and make rates competitive. In May 1996 the council-appointed Electric Utility Commission (EUC) hosted meetings of a high-profile focus group that met in public to debate the merits of establishing an independent board to govern the day-to-day operations of the city-owned electric utility. The group included Kirk Watson representing the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce (this was a year before he was elected mayor); former State Senator Charles F. Herring Sr., who is also a former general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority; former Council Members Charles Urdy and Robert Barnstone; Jim Marston of Environmental Defense; Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen; former Texas Public Utility Commissioner Al Erwin; Ed Adams, external affairs manager for IBM Austin, representing the Austin Federation of Industrial Ratepayers; Len Riley, Austin site manager for Texas Instruments; and former EUC member Manuel Zuniga. The group reached consensus that to prepare for competition the electric utility should be managed by an independent board. The EUC subsequently recommended that the City Council put the measure on the ballot, as did the director of the electric utility, John Moore. In December 1996, the council passed a resolution that promised bond-rating agencies that a charter election would likely be held to establish an independent board, but the matter was never put on the ballot. On September 14, 1999, the City Council passed a resolution to, in part, “initiate a public education and input process that may culminate in a City Charter amendment election to consider governance options for its electric utility, including establishing a…governing board using the San Antonio model.” Once again, however, the election was not called. If a proposition to create an independent board were put on the ballot for the May 4 election, and approved by voters, establishment of the board would still have to be approved by the utility’s bondholders, says Assistant City Attorney Bob Kahn. “Generally, bondholders look on boards favorably,” Kahn told The Good Life, “but they would look at how it was formed and what the powers are.” Under state law, the board would have five members, one of which must be the mayor. The City Council would retain the power to issue debt, set electric rates, and condemn property. The foremost model for this system of governance is the City Public Service Board of San Antonio, which manages both the electric and gas systems for the Alamo City. City Public Service has for years had the lowest electric rates in the state, setting the standard that Austin Energy uses as its benchmark. The Charter Revision Committee has heard a presentation by EUC members, who recommend the governing board, and was scheduled to discuss the matter at the January 28 meeting, after press deadlines.Historical footnote: No measure was put on the May 4, 2002, ballot to address governance of the electric utility.

Power to the people—The Save Our Springs Alliance has requested consideration of a proposal that would make it easier to use the power of citizen initiative to enact ordinances. At present, to get an ordinance on the ballot requires a petition signed by ten percent of the registered voters. The SOS Alliance has recommended that the bar for ordinances be lowered to ten percent of the voters who voted in the last municipal election. In the special election last November in which Gus Garcia was elected mayor, a total of 59,794 votes were cast. Thus, an initiative petition submitted per the SOS Alliance recommendation would need the signatures of 5,794 registered voters to force the council to either adopt the ordinance or put it on the ballot for voters to decide. (In the 2000 election in which Kirk Watson was reelected mayor, 38,166 votes were cast.) Council Member Beverly Griffith says a formula similar to what the SOS Alliance recommended should also be applied to petitions for a council member to get on the ballot when otherwise prevented from running for reelection by term limits. “Five percent of the voters registered in our jurisdiction is quite challenging. But five percent of those who went to the polls in the last mayoral election is more reasonable…You don’t want to be in a position to have more people sign a petition than voted in the last election,” Griffith says.Historical footnote: No measure was put on the May 4, 2002, ballot to address the number of signatures required to get an ordinance on the ballot.

Power to the bureaucrats—The City Charter provides, “Except for the refunding of bonds previously issued, any proposition to borrow money and to issue such bonds shall first be approved by a majority of the qualified voters voting at an election called for the purpose of authorizing the issuance of such indebtedness.” City Manager Jesus Garza has asked the Charter Review Committee to “delete obsolete language that is in conflict with state law prohibiting the issue of non-voter approved debt.” State law permits issuance of revenue bonds and does not require a local election. While the City Charter does require voter approval of debt, the council has on at least three occasions voted to issue bonds without voter approval: (1) Under an agreement with Houston Lighting and Power to build the South Texas Nuclear Project, the city was obligated to pay a share of the expense, including cost overruns. In the early nineteen-eighties, there were huge overruns and the council under leadership of Mayor Lee Cooke voted unanimously to issue bonds without voter approval to pay for those costs. (2) In April 1997, the city council led by Mayor Bruce Todd voted unanimously to use certificates of obligation without voter approval to buy One Texas Center at a cost of $18.4 million. (3) In October 1999, the council led by Mayor Kirk Watson voted unanimously to pay $72.7 million of the $100 million cost of a long-term water supply agreement with the Lower Colorado River Authority by issuing debt without voter approval.Historical footnote: No measure was put on the May 4, 2002, ballot to address the fact that state law permits what the City Charter prohibits with respect to borrowing money.

Power to the council—Council Member Danny Thomas requested the Charter Revision Committee consider recommending a City Charter amendment be put on the ballot that would allow the City Council to appoint the police monitor. Voters in the City of San Jose, California, passed a charter amendment in November 1996 that authorized the council to appoint the police auditor (a different title but the same job). Council appointment of Austin’s police monitor was recommended by the council-appointed Police Oversight Focus Group that met weekly for six months, brought in national experts, held public hearings, and made trips to Kansas City and the Bay Area of California to find out how police monitors were performing elsewhere. When the recommendations were put through the Meet and Confer process of negotiating with the Austin Police Association, however, the appointment power was given to the city manager. On January 15, City Manager Jesus Garza announced the appointment of former Austin City Attorney Iris Jones to the new position. Jones’ appointment was criticized for perceived conflicts of interest, because as Austin’s city attorney she had represented the Austin Police Department. The Charter Revision Committee had not debated this matter, and was scheduled to take it up at the January 28 meeting, after press deadlines.Historical footnote: No measure was put on the May 4, 2002, ballot to address how the police monitor is appointed.

These articles were originally published in The Good Life magazine in February 2002

Historical footnote: More detailed information about the results of these proposed charter amendments—and other charter amendments that were also put on the ballot—may be obtained from the City of Austin’s Election History page for the May 4, 2002, election.

Dogs & Cats on Death Row



About 9,800 words

This package of four articles was originally published in The Good Life magazine in August 2001. The result was, by far, the largest and most impassioned response garnered from the many hundreds of feature articles published during more than eleven years the magazine lasted (October 1997 through January 2009). Which is a strong indication of just how much people love animals.

Photography by Barton Wilder Custom Images

It’s mid-morning on Friday, July 13, at Austin’s Town Lake Animal Center and the facility is humming with activity. Dr. Kathy Jones, head veterinarian, is spaying and castrating adoptable dogs with practiced ease while the radio plays soothing classical music. On the operating table a sedated young male dog is splayed on its back, legs restrained. Jones deftly slices the skin, squeezes the scrotum till the tiny testicles squirt out, then snips them off, ties off the blood supply and spermatic cord, and seals the wound. A veterinary technician tattoos the dog’s belly to signify no more male.

Next up is a small female dog, which takes far longer to operate on. A long incision in the midsection, a parting of the flesh, the ovaries and uterus are fished out, snipped, the remaining parts are tied and sewn up. The exterior skin is glued and she’s tattooed to signify no more female. She is wrapped in a towel and toted into the next room.

Soon these newly altered pets will be in a cozy heated cage to stay warm until recovered and ready for the regular pens. Slice, snip, sew and tattoo is a routine that will go on for two or three hours on the average day, when some fifteen animals will go under the knife, sometimes with Jones operating alone, sometimes in a tag-team operation with the other full-time vet on staff. It’s a routine procedure, executed with precision. Voilà! In the flash of a scalpel another adoptable animal has been made ready to go home with some happy family to play but not propagate, one more brick in the wall that’s meant to slow down what goes on in an adjacent room.

A year-old female cocker spaniel mix lies on a stainless steel gurney. Much of her brown hair is missing due to a severe skin disease. Her nails are long and unkempt, indicating she hasn’t been walked or groomed. Shaggy with ticks, she was picked up by an animal control officer July 9 as a stray wearing a collar but no tags. She was snared about a block from Govalle Elementary School in East Austin. Nobody came to claim her. Her three days of grace are up. Her time has come. She is scanned to make sure that no one has overlooked an implanted microchip that would help find the owner. There is none. “This guy’s in pretty bad shape,” says Amber Rowland, community awareness coordinator for Town Lake Animal Shelter (TLAC). “She’s pretty friendly, actually, but she’s not healthy enough to qualify for adoption.”

DOGSCATS-mug-1A woman veterinary technician strokes her scraggly brown fur and leans over to cradle and hold the dog on the gurney, while a male technician finds the cephalic vein on the dog’s right forepaw. She makes not a whimper as the needle slides into the flesh. As the syringe pushes sodium pentobarbital into her body (the brand name is Fatal Plus; technicians call it “blue juice”) the dog’s head instantly falls limp and the light dies in her eyes. A “heart stick” is plunged into the side of her chest, piercing the heart. The stick throbs for a while as the heart ticks out its few last beats. When the stick stops pulsating, the technicians check to make sure there is no respiration, then slide the body into a plastic bag, close it, and carry it a few paces to the freezer, where it will stay until the truck comes to carry the body, along with scores of others, to Waste Management’s landfill, the mass burial ground for abandoned and stray animals that can’t be salvaged.

While the cocker spaniel is being dispatched, a six-month-old black Labrador retriever crawls into the narrow space between a cabinet and the wall, not out of any knowledge of his fate, but so shy and fearful that he would never be seen by potential adopters as a candidate for fetching a Frisbee. As the technician gently pulls him into the open, the dog’s tail is tucked between his legs. Compounding his lack of appeal is a golfball-sized abscess under his left eye, which the Center had already drained, irrigated and treated with an antibiotic. In time, the abscess would heal, but this stray, brought to the Center July 8 by a citizen, will not live that long. “He’s most likely here (to be killed) because he has the abscess and because he is somewhat fearful; he’s not an ideal candidate (for adoption), so we have to do it,” Rowland says. “We try to do it as well as we can when we have to.” The attendants are indeed gentle, loving and kind. They do their distasteful duty professionally and soon his lifeless body is bagged and added to the silent freezer.

“We play with them one last time before we send them to god,” Dorinda Pulliam, director of Town Lake Animal Shelter since last October, says of the procedure used to kill animals. “Prior management would never go near the place and would try to run it without dealing with what’s happening in that room.”

Despite the efforts of the Center’s staff and scores of rescue groups, this killing will go on for the foreseeable future-nevermind the fact that both the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court adopted No-Kill Millennium resolutions in December 1997-because supply far exceeds demand.

About 150,000 animals have been killed at TLAC since late 1992, which is when the City of Austin took over the operation. The first year of city control was the year of the big slaughter, when more than 23,000 animals were killed, an average of ninety per weekday for the entire year. Things have improved over time but for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2000, the average death toll was still about fifty animals per weekday. Since October 1, the average has dipped to forty-four.

DOGSCATS-mug-2Stray animals arriving at TLAC that are registered with the city are given a ten-day reprieve. Animals with other forms of identification are kept at least five days. Unregistered animals without identification have but three working days before they may be put up for adoption, placed with a rescue group, or killed, Dorinda Pulliam says.

Rowland says the fate of an animal given up by its owner can be decided immediately. This is no small problem. A gut-wrenching twenty-two percent of the animals taken in by TLAC from October 1, 2000, through June 30, 2001—a total of 3,679 animals-were surrendered by owners. This fact is especially deplored by people active in animal rescue groups.

Humans err, pets die

Patricia “Pat” Valls-Trelles has been a member of the City Council-appointed Animal Advisory Commission since it was created in 1992. People in the rescue community call her the “TLAC cop,” although she prefers “watchdog.” She visits TLAC daily and calls its receiving section “the most depressing place in the shelter.” “When they pick up strays, there’s always the hope they will be reclaimed. When someone brings in their companion they no longer want, I think that’s very sad.”

DOGSCATS-mug-3Kathy Pardue of Austin Feral Cats says of receiving, “I can stand it for about thirty minutes and I’m in tears. People drop off their animals for idiotic reasons, like, ‘My new boy friend doesn’t like cats,’ or ‘We’re moving and our new place doesn’t allow us to take our ten-year-old cocker spaniel, and we didn’t look for another place that would let us.'”

Amber Rowland says a big problem with people giving up animals to the shelter is they never should have gotten that particular breed to begin with. “People get frustrated with traits they’re not aware off,” she says. For example, Bassett Hounds are not easily trained for a leash because they are bred to be independent thinkers.

“People think all small dogs are lap dogs,” says Kim Barry, a PhD animal behaviorist on the TLAC staff. She tells a story about a colleague who works in New York who fielded a complaint from a man whose Rat Terrier had eaten through a wall. The response? “You’ve got a great Rat Terrier! He’s going after rats.”

Jack Russell Terriers are one of many other problematic breeds. Depicted as little angels in television and film roles, they are anything but. One web site for this breed has about three pages of traits that should sober up anyone fooled by the breed’s tiny size and film portrayals.

Rowland advises prospective animal owners to consult reputable publications, such as the ASPCA’s Complete Guide to Dogs: Everything You Need to Know About Choosing and Caring For Your Pet.

Austin Pets Alive, the organization most responsible for passage of a No-Kill Millennium resolution, is trying to change the way people think about animals, advocating the phrase “animal guardian” instead of “animal owner.”

“Legally, animals are the same as a bicycle or a chair,” Kathy Pardue says. “They’re just property. Ethically, people who care about animals don’t see them in that manner.”

Until a new millennium of universal understanding, however, animals are nothing more than property to many owners and, as with any other kind of property, some people take good care of their possessions, some don’t. When animals are not taken care of, they become the responsibility of TLAC. Animal control officers, who by law are required to pick up dogs that not restrained from running at large, bring in sixty-nine percent of the dogs, cats, and other animals that arrive at the facility. (See accompanying story, below, “Fleet Footed Canine Catchers.”)

TLAC had been operated since 1954 by the Humane Society of Austin and Travis County, under a contract that leased the city’s land for a dollar a year. According to stories published at the time in the Austin American-Statesman, an audit in late 1992 revealed, “Wrong animals were being euthanized, feeding regimens were improper and sanitation was abysmal” at the facility that could house about five hundred animals. (Karen Medicus, the current executive director of the Humane Society/SPCA of Austin and Travis County, says it was not an audit, per se, but an evaluation report done by a team from the American Humane Association.) In January 1994, the Austin City Council voted unanimously to pay the Humane Society $1.6 million for the replacement cost of the buildings it owned at the site. The Humane Society opened a new facility at 124 W. Anderson Lane and renovated it in 1994. (See “Humane Society Does It Right.”)

As deplorable as it is to have to kill thousands upon thousands of animals every year at TLAC, over the last five years the number of animals killed has been steadily declining, as has the number of animals taken into the facility each year. Also encouraging is that the number of adoptions has steadily increased each year. For the year ending September 30, 1995, more than ten times as many animals were killed as were adopted. For the year ending September 30, 2000, fewer than four animals were killed for each one adopted.

Rescue groups play a huge role and are saving far more animals than TLAC is able to place in direct adoptions. From October 1, 2000, through June 30, 2001, rescue groups took 3,085 animals out of the facility, while 2,453 animals were adopted.

‘No-Kill’ doesn’t mean no killing

How to make more progress toward achieving the No-Kill Millennium is a problem that has both TLAC officials and rescue groups vexed. While they are still talking and not barking at each other, relations are not altogether cozy.

But let’s clear up something right now: the No-Kill moniker is a complete misnomer. The name implies that no animals will be put to death when the goals are achieved. Nothing could be further from the truth. The actual goal is to stop killing animals that are adoptable.

An adoptable animal is a healthy animal that has passed a temperament test for sociability and is deemed ready to become a lifetime companion. The protocol that Barry developed for TLAC’s test is still being field-tested and may be revised. Upon testing, animals are classified in one of three categories: (A) adoptable, (T) treatable, or (N) nonrehabilitatable. The latter category, Barry says, applies to an animal that displays overt aggression. “It’s pretty hard to get an N rating,” says Amber Rowland, although feral cats are usually considered poor candidates for adoption. “Animals can revert quickly to being unrecoverable, socially,” she says. Barry adds, “TLAC is not set up in any way to be a rehabilitation shelter.”

The overarching problem for TLAC and for animal advocacy groups is that there are too many animals not being taken care of properly in the larger community. Exactly how many animals there are hereabouts, nobody actually knows. It’s not something the U.S. Census Bureau tallies. There are some clues, however. The American Veterinary Medical Association has established formulas to estimate the number of pets, based on the number of households-which is something the census does count. The City of Austin, according to the city’s chief demographer, Ryan Robinson, had 265,649 households identified in the 2000 census. Running the formulas yields an estimate of about 142,000 dogs and 159,000 cats. But these are pets, animals that people own. These numbers do not include stray, feral, or “loosely owned” animals, the latter being pets that neighborhood residents may feed but nobody claims. According to a survey in Santa Clara County, California, published by the National Pet Alliance, forty-one percent of the cat population was unowned. Assuming similar results in Austin, increasing the cat population by forty-one percent would bring the total number of cats to about 224,000.

For Travis County (including Austin), which has 320,766 households, the formulas yield a dog population of about 171,000 and a cat population of 192,000. Applying the forty-one percent for unowned cats would boost the number of felines to more than 270,000.

While these numbers are somewhat speculative, they give a sense of what the TLAC and rescue groups are up against in trying to reduce the number of animals being killed. There are hundreds of thousands of animals in our abodes and on our streets.

Through the first nine months of the fiscal year that started October 1, 2000, TLAC killed 8,558 animals, or forty-nine percent of the 17,382 animals that left the shelter during that period. TLAC Director Dorinda Pulliam says, “The No-Kill resolution says we’ll save every adoptable animal, not every animal. We save fifty percent of the animals that come into the shelter. We euthanized forty percent of adoptable animals last month. If we were saving the right fifty percent, we would already be achieving the No-Kill Millennium, as it’s stated.

“The rescue groups don’t believe in the No-Kill Millennium as it’s stated,” Pulliam adds. “Even though they worked as a group to send it to the City Council, they don’t believe in it. If I made a policy that the only animals that could leave the shelter were adoptable animals, we would have already achieved No-Kill—and they would crucify me.”

DOGSCATS-mug-3One animal advocacy group that does agree with the stated policy of putting the priority on saving adoptable animals is the organization that wrote it, Austin Pets Alive. Co-president Melody Putnam says her group focuses on animals that have been put up for adoption and whose twenty-one days of waiting for a new owner have expired. “Those are the animals that we target first to rescue,” she says.

Most other rescue groups are less concerned with adoptable animals and more concerned with other factors. This is particularly true of breed-specific rescue groups, of which there are many. They are focused on saving the breed they are interested in, regardless of its classification. Pulliam tells a story about a woman who was determined to rescue a Bull Terrier (think Spuds McKenzie, the Bud Light spokesdog) despite the danger this particular bred-for-fighting animal presented. “A lady from Dallas wanted to take an animal that was vicious and I told her no and she was mad at me,” Pulliam says. “It was her breed and she was a rescue person and she would save her breed at all costs.”

Kathy Pardue of Austin Feral Cats says that in meetings with rescue groups, Pulliam has stated that the No-Kill goals could be achieved if the groups would take adoptable animals instead of the ones they are taking, although Pulliam says she has no personal preference.

“I think I’m going to have to reach consensus on what the mission is to be,” Pulliam says. “If the mission the community wants is to lower the euthanasia rate in general, that’s fine. I believe in that and I think that’s what these folks believe in. But that’s not what the resolution says…Let’s look at the plan and see what we want the mission of the shelter to be and then reconcile that with the City Council and get everybody on the same sheet of music.”

Meanwhile, TLAC continues by necessity to be a place of refuge and a place of death. It’s a combination adoption agency and prison complete with death row. Realizing that forty-nine percent of all animals that entered TLAC in the first nine months of the current fiscal year went out in a plastic bag, the ones selected to be presented for possible adoption are the picks of a mighty big litter. Dogs considered good candidates for adoption are placed in individual pens, where they will stay until adopted or for twenty-one days, at which time they will in many cases be killed. For every dog in a cage waiting for fate to smile, others will be killed and bagged. An animal’s chances of making it out of TLAC alive are just barely better than fifty-fifty.

Animal rescue groups contend the odds of surviving are practically nil for kittens and puppies that enter the shelter at less than eight weeks of age. If not euthanized they have difficulty surviving the stress, noise, and high propensity for respiratory disease in a facility that lacks the sophisticated ventilating systems of modern shelters. Kittens without their mother must be fed every two hours around the clock, something TLAC is not equipped to do, though cat rescue group volunteers can and often do take on that responsibility.

“People bring in a litter of kittens and think they will be adopted. They won’t. They will be killed,” says Pat Valls-Trelles, the self-professed TLAC watchdog. “It’s a dirty little secret how many animals will be killed down there.”

There are disclaimers on the door to warn people who bring in animals that they may be killed. Pulliam says the warning is also part of the paperwork people will complete to release an animal. Pulliam does concede that death awaits kittens and puppies not rescued. “If we can’t get them out of the shelter we euthanize them because their immune systems won’t tolerate the shelter,” she says. “We look for foster groups, but the percentage euthanized will be higher because older animals can stay in the shelter and not become ill.”

It’s a numbers game

While TLAC officials and rescue groups may not agree on much, they all agree that the long-term solution is to do more of what Dr. Kathy Jones does just about every weekday morning: castrate male animals and spay females. The only animals that are supposed to leave TLAC intact are those too young or too sick to have surgery. People who take intact animals are required to sign an agreement to have the surgery done later.

To understand how crucial it is to make sure that pets can’t reproduce helter-skelter, consider the birth rates. According to the American Humane Society, by the age of five years, a female dog and her female offspring can produce 192 puppies, assuming two females per litter and two litters per year—and that doesn’t include all the offspring produced by her male puppies. Because there’s not enough humans to go around, this adds up to a great deal of unwanted puppies and dogs.

But dogs are pikers in the reproduction department compared to felines, says the American Humane Society. Allow two cats and their surviving offspring to breed for ten years and you will have produced more than eighty million cats, assuming two litters per year and 2.8 surviving kittens per litter.

These frighteningly high numbers are what causes so many resources to be devoted to stopping unwanted breeding. Spaying and castrating is the first and foremost mission of Animal Trustees of Austin. President Missy McCollough says, “We have spayed and neutered 25,000 animals in four years.”

Amber Rowland says a cat can go into heat and get pregnant as young as three months of age. “Unfortunately most people think they are supposed to wait until the cat is six months old,” she says. “A cat could already have had first litter by then. Not all vets have the tools and materials to do spay-neuter at an early age, so some don’t do it.”

Animal Trustees operates a low-cost Spay-Neuter Clinic at 5129 Cameron Road. They castrate male dogs for $25 ($10 extra if the dog weighs more than fifty pounds), spay female dogs for $30, castrate male cats for $15 and spay female cats for $20. They also provide low-cost vaccinations. The Clinic’s veterinarian, Amy Kastrisin, estimates that she alone has done 20,000 surgeries in the last four years.

Animal Trustees also spays and neuters sixteen to eighteen feral cats a week, a service provided free through a $5,000 grant that’s fast running out. These are wild animals. “They are never handled with human hands while conscious,” McCollough says. “We do most of the surgery for Austin Feral Cats.”

“We started Austin Feral Cats because we believe the only effective way of cutting down the unowned cat population is to trap, neuter and return (TNR),” says Kathy Pardue. “You neuter them, vaccinate them, and return them to their colony.” A feral colony is usually made up of an extended family of cats who will defend their territory and keep out other cats, Pardue says. “Eventually this will reduce the population because the colony will quit reproducing and quit growing and eventually will die out. If everyone was doing this all over the area, the unowned cat population would decrease.”

The U.T. Campus Cat Coalition operates on the same principle. Its sole purpose is to humanely control the population of feral cats (defined as undomesticated and unapproachable strays) that live on the main campus. Students abandon unneutered cats, which must then fend for themselves. The cats form colonies around abundant food sources and reproduce at incredible rates. At one time the University’s policy was to round up cats for killing at TLAC. In 1995, the Coalition convinced officials to allow them to take over and do TNR, plus M for manage. Volunteers feed and monitor the colony daily.

Missy McCollough says the same techniques have been used to manage colonies of feral cats in Austin neighborhoods overpopulated with reproducing cats.

The city not only castrates or spays nearly all animals before they are released but also contracts with the EmanciPet Mobile Spay and Neuter Clinic, operated by Ellen Jefferson, doctor of veterinary medicine, to provide free pet neutering and vaccinations for rabies. Additional services are available at nominal cost. For the past year, free clinics have been held four Fridays each month at posted locations in East Austin. Jefferson estimates she has spayed or neutered some 1,200 animals in this program at no cost to owners. She says the city pays $10,800 a year for forty-eight surgery days. Jefferson can perform up to forty surgeries a day on a first-come, first-served basis.

“I’ve been doing this for three years and I’ve gotten pretty fast at it,” she says. Most days she can take crank out the full day’s load in about six hours. The van has two surgery tables and forty-four cages and she operates on alternating tables.

In addition to EmanciPet, the city offers a voucher program for people on public assistance. For eight dollars (or pay what you can), someone on public assistance can have a pet spayed or neutered by local veterinarians, who get the small amount from the client plus an additional amount from the city. Vouchers are available at TLAC and city neighborhood centers.

Jefferson says one challenge faced in spaying and neutering, especially in low-income areas, is dispelling myths. Some people think they will make a lot of money breeding their pet. Some believe it’s best to let a female have a litter before spaying. Some think that castrating or spaying will change an animal’s personality. Some will refuse and purposefully breed and not care what happens to the offspring, she says. “It’s best to focus on people who want to get it done or who are uneducated, which is the majority of the problem,” Jefferson says.

A wild card in the pet population is the phenomenon of “puppy mills.” These are not quality dog breeders but operations that breed dogs in mass numbers for wholesale to the pet industry. (Reputable stores catering to pets, such as PetsMart, do not sell dogs or cats but do open their facilities to rescue groups that interview customers for adoptions.) Many puppy mills are characterized by overcrowding, filth, inadequate shelter, and insufficient food, water, and veterinary care. Last year, Animal Trustees of Austin was called to do an emergency rescue of fifty-two dogs found in an Austin area puppy mill. Missy McCollough wrote in the group’s newsletter that the dogs were found crammed into cages stacked on top of each other in a dingy little room, and published photos to prove it. A small Yorkshire Terrier named Scout was found with her muzzle taped shut to keep her from barking.

Another problem is backyard breeders who resort to selling the offspring on the side of the road, a practice that is being addressed by the Animal Advisory Commission. Commissioner Pat Valls-Trelles makes a distinction between quality purebred breeders, who will breed a female only a few times in her lifetime and carefully place the offspring, and the quick-buck operators who set up on roadsides and hope to get motorists to stop and buy on impulse. People who buy these roadside animals are part of the problem, Valls-Trelles says, because they encourage backyard breeders to stay in operation. Usually these animals are not vaccinated. The ones not sold often wind up at TLAC, she says.

A draft city ordinance will, if adopted by the City Council, add a new section to City Code 3-1-18 to make it an offense to sell, trade, barter, lease, rent, give away or display for commercial purposes a live animal on a roadside, public right of way, commercial parking lot, or at an outdoor sale, swap meet, flea market, parking lot sale or similar event. Such actions at flea markets or parking lots where the owner’s permission has been granted would be exempt.

Yet another problem is what’s known as the “collector,” referring to someone who starts out with good intentions and takes in a stray or two and winds up creating a labyrinth of filth and disease by letting the situation get completely out of hand. The Austin American-Statesman has reported at least two incidents in which more than a hundred animals were confiscated from a single residence, all of which wound up at TLAC’s doorstep.

Fees and philosophy

The city’s fee structure approved each year by the City Council during the budget process is up for fine-tuning in ways that are causing the hairs to stand up on the back of animal rescuers’ necks.

Becky Rohne of Puppy Love Rescue is a member of the city’s Animal Advisory Commission and a member of the No-Kill Partners group that’s grappling with how to proceed on the No-Kill Millennium plan. “Right now, I would say the relationship with rescue (groups) and TLAC is close to an all-time low,” she says.

Rohne says that rescue groups fear that proposed fee changes coming as part of the next fiscal year’s budget will bring unintended consequences. One proposal would change what rescue groups must pay to take an animal out of TLAC. She says it’s an à la carte arrangement now. The groups pay $9 for an implanted microchip that will allow pet identification to be picked up with a scanning instrument, $6 for a rabies vaccination, and $5 for city registration tags for a spayed or castrated animal. The proposal would change the fee to a flat $20 for all animals, “and we may or may not get any workup on the dog at all,” she says. “The relationship is such that nobody is willing to go on good faith that they will do that. There have been real improvements and overtures made to open communication, but there’s a lot of distrust.”

Pulliam says setting the rescue fee at a flat $20 will save a lot of unnecessary bookkeeping and won’t affect the services rendered, which include a lot more than the microchip, rabies shot, and tags. “We provide wellness vaccine, a heartworm test for dogs, feline lukeumia and FIV tests for cats, Frontline treatment (flea and tick control), rabies vaccine, microchip, pet registration tag, boosters on wellness vaccines, and we deworm them or provide parasite treatment,” Pulliam says. She says these services are provided for all animals that can be treated. Kittens four weeks old can’t be treated and rescue groups aren’t charged, she says, nor are groups charged for severely injured animals or other animals with special needs. Pulliam says she’s meeting quarterly with rescue groups and hopes to reach consensus for written policies on rescue fees that can be applied evenhandedly.

Valls-Trelles complains that the daily boarding fee, now $5, would be hiked to $10, a fact that Pulliam confirms. They differ on the effect. Valls-Trelles says doubling the boarding fees works a hardship on poor people. She says the fee was lowered from $8 a day to $5 by the City Council in 1999. “My fear is latest proposal in new budget will make it even less affordable because low-income people can’t afford to get them out. It goes contradictory to the No-Kill plan,” she says.

Pulliam says TLAC will work with anyone who can’t afford the fees. TLAC will set up payment plans for working people and community service plans for homeless people whose pets have been confiscated. “There are lots of ways we can work with low-income individuals to make sure animals can go home alive regardless of what our fee structure is,” she says.

Another bone of contention over fees is that currently the annual registration fee—$5 for a castrated or spayed animal, $15 for an unaltered animal—would be changed to a flat $10 per animal, fixed or not. Rohne thinks that sends a signal that fixing an animal isn’t important. She says the current differential motivates people to get their animals fixed.

Pulliam says the differential doesn’t work in Austin, in part because the city has not made it mandatory that vets register the animals they vaccinate. “In other communities, it’s mandatory that every vet sell registration tags when they do an annual rabies vaccination,” she says. In San Antonio, Pulliam says, an animal owner doesn’t get to choose not to follow the law. Further, the annual cost savings on lower fees for fixed animals is not enough to warrant laying out what a private vet usually charges to spay or neuter, Pulliam says, as it might take ten years to recover the outlay.

“My focus on leveling (the registration fee) is to get pets registered,” Pulliam says. “I will work on programs to spay-neuter other ways, like the EmaniciPet van. I’m getting a heck of a lot more done through EmaniciPet than through registration.”

The most important point to remember about registration is that a registered pet is far more likely to be reunited with its owner after it’s picked up by animal control officers or brought to TLAC by another citizen. One consultant, Bob Christiansen of Atlanta, estimates that only twenty-seven percent of Austin’s dogs are registered. TLAC’s statistics for the first nine months of the current fiscal year show that only thirteen percent of animals were returned to their owners.

Christiansen is the author of numerous books, including Save Our Strays: How We Can End Pet Overpopulation and Stop Killing Healthy Cats and Dogs and Choosing and Caring for a Shelter Dog: A Complete Guide to Help You Rescue and Rehome a Dog. He advocates vigorous pet registration combined with implantation of microchips and visible tags. “A microchip program would return lost pets home, would reduce the stress on shelters, foster responsible pet ownership, provide a means to track congenital diseases and track owners of vicious dogs who allow their dogs to roam and cause bodily harm to humans,” he wrote on his web site. Nationally, such a program could save millions of pets’ lives, he states. Christiansen presented a proposal to TLAC last November that he claims would increase license compliance and generate revenue for programs that will save animals’ lives.

Pulliam says the proposal looks interesting but since Christiansen is not the sole vendor of such programs, she is putting out a Request For Proposals to solicit offers. “I’m putting out an RFP to take one up on it,” she says.

Working for a better future

The bottom line is that Pulliam is on the hot seat. Animal rescue groups haven’t invested their trust in her yet. For about ten months she has headed an organization with a long and sordid history, one that is still far from achieving what is needed. TLAC’s facilities are nearly a half-century old. They are poorly designed, a place where disease may spread rapidly among the up to 700 live animals that may be on the premises at any one time. The buildings also sit in a 100-year floodplain with storm drains on each end connected to the city’s wastewater system. In 1998 employees and volunteers had to don galoshes and wade through high water tainted with raw sewage to carry animals to dry ground. “If we had a major storm we would have to turn them loose so they would not drown,” Pulliam says of the animal population.

Consultants Gates Hafen and Cochrane Architects of Boulder, Colorado, are working on a master plan due October 1 for a new facility, Pulliam says, and Assistant City Manager Betty Dunkerley is looking for suitable land. “It could be an animal destination in a parklike environment,” Pulliam says. “We hope to build it in three to five years.”

Meanwhile the mission is to make do with the antiquated facilities and tweak programs for best results. Part of that tweaking has been adjusting the number of employees working with rescue groups. Becky Rohne says that “sends a message to rescue they’re not important or the goal of the shelter is not to work with rescue.” This despite the fact that rescue is saving far more animals than TLAC is placing through adoption. Pulliam says one of the three positions she had for rescue coordinators was initially frozen when sales tax revenue slowed. “I can rescue the same number with two people as with three people,” she says. She says the extra person didn’t produce more rescues, although it may have made TLAC a friendlier place for rescue groups.

Pulliam operates TLAC on a $3 million budget with ninety positions authorized, and she will not lose any in the coming budget, she says.

For the director caught in the crossfire, the job is to try to look beyond the needs of rescue groups alone and keep an eye on the bigger goal. “We won’t stop euthanasia unless we get out there an do education,” she says.

The pet-owning public could do much to stem the slaughter by taking the health and welfare of our animals more seriously, and by recommending that friends looking for dogs or cats always adopt from TLAC and other shelters and rescue groups instead of patronizing roadside peddlers or flea market fly-by-nighters.

Most importantly of all, we should castrate and spay our pets, and encourage our friends and neighbors to do likewise. Pat Valls-Trelles says the highly successful campaign that changed our nation’s attitudes about drinking and driving is the perfect model for dealing with pet overpopulation. “Friends don’t let friends breed and create an unwanted litter,” she says.

Ken Martin, editor of The Good Life and Gusto magazines, is co-guardian of a black Labrador retriever adopted from TLAC and two cats adopted from rescue groups. We made up the names of the animals shown in the accompanying photographs. These particular animals may or may not be available for adoption by the time you read this.

Fleet Footed Canine Catcher

“Every owner of a dog and any person having charge, care, custody or control of any dog shall restrain such dog from running at large.” Further, “Employees of the city…are hereby authorized and empowered to enter upon any land, premises or public place and to take up and impound any dog which is observed by such employees to be running at large.”

—City Ordinance 3-3-2

Call them dog catchers or animal control officers (their official titles) Austin’s crew of fourteen canine catchers stay busy-especially in hot spots like East Austin, which accounts for a disproportionately large percentage of the dogs picked up. Austin has a huge problem with stray animals and animal control officers beat the streets daily to hunt them down. The officers brought in a total of nearly 12,000 dogs from October 1, 2000, through June 30, 2001, about seven of every ten animals taken into Town lake Animal Center (TLAC). There is no law on the books about stray cats and these officers rarely get involved with felines unless they bite someone.

DOGSCATS-catcherOn July 17, it’s not even eight in the morning when Victor Busby and Lissa Doggett steer their Ford XL 250 trucks out of the TLAC facility and head east on Cesar Chavez. They will patrol the entire area of Austin north of Town Lake and east of I-35. It’s another hot summer day. Busby and Doggett are wearing the city uniform: shorts, short-sleeved shirts and shiny silver badges. At three minutes after the hour they spot two loose dogs and pull up to a frame house at 1802 New York Street. They park the trucks, slip on gloves, grab nets affixed to poles, and move up the driveway. A brindled pit bull-chow mix sprints around Busby and heads toward the street but Doggett nets the animal. Busby nabs the playmate, a brown pit-chow mix, and within four minutes both are loaded. The trucks are ready to move, as soon as Busby, already sweating, picks a tick off his leg. At twenty minutes after the hour they’ve bracketed two more strays in the 1900 block of Riverview Street. They trap one against a backyard fence. As Busby lifts his catch into the truck the dog lets loose its bowels, but misses. “Most of the time they’ll poop on me when I carry them like I did,” Busby says.

They answer a complaint call at 1703 Riverview, where a small dog has been hiding under the elevated house. “I’ve been feeding this dog three days and I don’t want a relationship with this dog,” the woman says. Busby tries to net the pooch but it sprints under the house. He promises a trap will be delivered to capture the dog. “If there’s no food outside the trap, she’ll go in,” Busby tells the woman.

Soon, dispatchers direct Busby and Doggett to 301 Navasota to speak to a complainant. The area proves inaccessible by truck due to utility construction. While circling for access, they spot a large Rottweiler and another stray on East Fourth Street. They bracket the dogs, parking on either side. Suddenly the Rottweiler is airborne, sailing over a chain-link gate more than six feet tall with the ease of a gazelle. The gate is locked. The rest of the fence is made of eight-foot-tall sheets of plywood. No one answers the bell. The Rottweiler stands inside the fence, barking incessantly. They post a notice on the gate, spelling out in both English and Spanish that impoundment of the animals can result in citations and fines or both. The notice doesn’t indicate how much the fines are, but they are hefty. Busby says they cost $155 each and you can rack up three in one whack: one for an animal running at large, one for failure to vaccinate the animal, and one for the animal not wearing city pet registration tags. On top of that, there’s a $55 impoundment fee and up to $31 in other fees. If the dog is kept overnight, that will add another $5 a day for boarding.

Busby says a first-offender’s program will allow the owner to pay $25 and go to a class if registration and vaccination are proven within seventy-two hours. It’s a program that works much like going to defensive driving school to erase a speeding ticket. A dog owner can do this once a year. “We don’t like to cite people who can’t afford it,” Busby says. “We give them one chance if they’re amenable and put it into the computer. We’ll even warn them twice. Three times and you’re out-the dog’s going to get a citation.”

Busby and Doggett move to the 301 Navasota complaint and the offending dog, a gray-and-white Australian Shepherd mix squirts by Busby’s extended net. Busby drives several blocks trying to head off the dog but it is too fast. At Fifth and Waller he gives up the chase. Meanwhile, Doggett radios that she has spotted two dogs at 1405 E. Fourth Street. Busby joins her, wheeling into the alley at the end of a long chain-link fence that borders the side of the yard. Doggett moves in from the other end. The two dogs quickly wriggle under the fence to join others inside. Busby posts a notice to warn the owner to fix the fence so the dogs can’t get out again.

It’s still not nine yet when the radio crackles with a call sending them far north in East Austin. On the long cruise Busby says he’s been in this job ten years now and has been bitten three times, all three times when the owner said the dog would not bite. “Every dog with teeth will bite. That’s my motto,” he says. To emphasize the point, he says that a couple of days earlier he went into a yard with two dogs that a woman said would not bite. “They tried to eat me up, like Cujo,” he says, referring to the Stephen King novel and horror movie in which a New England family is terrorized by the family dog, a rabid St. Bernard.

Doggett knows all too well that dogs will bite. In April, a white pit bull she was trying to woo away from the trash he was sniffing clamped down on her left arm, just above her watch band, and bit halfway through her arm. Doggett told the Austin American-Statesman that neighbors said the dog had been trained to attack anyone in uniform, although the dog’s owner denied it. “She fed him her arm to protect her neck,” Busby says. “I hit him with the net. He was so cool. He let go of her and walked off. She was bleeding. Our first objective when there’s a bite is to get the animal. I netted him. Another unit took her to the emergency room.” Doggett says the wound took thirty days to heal, during which time she had to do physical therapy. “I could not bend back my fingers till I got therapy,” she says.

The city filed dangerous dog charges against the owner of Cain, the pit bull that bit Doggett. Busby says the owner could be fined up to $4,000 and once a dog is declared dangerous the owner must get a liability insurance policy of $100,000. The animal must wear a large tag identifying it as a dangerous dog and it must be kept in an enclosure inspected by the city. The Statesman reported that twenty-three dogs in Austin are registered as dangerous.

An animal that bites or breaks the skin must be quarantined for ten days if it can’t be shown to have a current rabies vaccination, says Amber Rowland, community awareness coordinator at TLAC. If the animal shows no symptoms during quarantine, it is presumed not to be rabid. While Austin has no problem with rabies among dogs and cats (bats are another story), the entire state is under a rabies alert because of a high incidence, she says. That’s why Austin requires an animal to be vaccinated annually, even though vaccines might be good for three years.

Back on the beat, Busby and Doggett pull up to the complainant’s apartment at 7419 Vintage Hills, where three red chows had been reported. A woman tells them, “Y’all too late. The dogs done run off.”

Just then the dispatcher reports a call at 2901 Goodwin, where an aggressive dog had attacked a woman and her dog the day before. That’s back down south, but Busby says if they can get there within an hour the dog will probably still be there, as dogs tend to stay in the neighborhood they live in. As they are headed in that direction they spot two small dogs with tags in a driveway. As Bubsy and Doggett stop, the pooches trot around the end of the fence and back inside the yard at 2301 E. Ninth at San Saba. Doggett nets one of the dogs, a brown Chihuahua mix, and traps it against the side of the fence and holds it. Busby runs the tags through dispatch. It’s been recently vaccinated by EmanciPet, a mobile veterinary service that the city pays to stop at selected East Austin locations four Fridays a month, providing free spay and neuter service and free rabies vaccinations. Residents are summoned from the house, but they don’t speak English. Doggett and Busby try to communicate in their limited Spanish. They warn the woman to keep the dog tied, since it can get out of the fence. “If the dog has city tags, we give them one free pass,” Busby says. “It’s like a Get Out of Jail Free card.”

Shortly before ten, the dispatcher directs them to 2506 Lehigh Drive to assist a constable. They arrive to find a front yard filled with furniture from a court-ordered eviction. The constable leads them through the trashed-out house to the back yard where there are two ducks and two guinea hens. They nab the ducks but the hens take flight. Busby returns with a net and as he wiggles between the house and an air-conditioning unit, a hen takes flight and gets caught in his net. “I didn’t even see her,” he says.

On the way to a pit stop for gasoline, Bubsy says, “We’ve come a long way. We used to drive pickups with a dog cage on the back.” The trucks he and Doggett are driving now have air-conditioned pens. “We see dogs now, but nothing like it used to be. It’s amazing we have gotten the city under control.”

The next call is at 1104 Saucedo Street, where a female pit bull is reportedly foaming at the mouth. A man denies knowing anything about the dog, but another man says that’s his brother and he’s done this before. “He gets a dog and doesn’t feed it.” The man says the dog is sick but there’s no money to take it to a vet. One side of her stomach is hanging down, apparently filled with fluid. “We don’t want to do this but it’s a last resort,” he says, reluctantly signing the release proffered by Doggett so that Busby can take the dog.

Finally arriving at 2901 Goodwin, they find two dogs chained inside the back yard. A sleepy boy of thirteen answers the door. No adults are home. Busby gives him a notice that the dogs need registration tags.

Shortly after eleven they arrive to answer a complaint at 5608 Ledesma Road. The two dogs in the yard take off. Around the corner, Busby snares one of them. The other escapes into a forest a block away. Busby goes back to tell the complainant, who replies, “Thank you, man.”

After a brief lunch stop, Busby answers a call at 1204-C Salina Street. A woman who lives in an upstairs garage apartment can’t care for her dog in the yard downstairs due to her surgery. She’s in tears but asks him to take the dog. He goes in the gate and closes it but the dog escapes through another opening.

Busby, now thirty-one, started the job five days before he turned twenty-one. He worked inside the pound first, and got the animal control job when it opened up. What kind of training did he get? “You really don’t get any, except on the job,” he says. He says he started the job at $7.45 an hour in 1991 and after six years was making $10 an hour, the maximum at the time. After a survey of what other cities paid animal control officers, the top tier was hiked to $14 an hour, which is about what he makes now.

We arrive at Town Lake Animal Center at half past noon. Doggett’s already there and has unloaded. Busby takes animals out one at a time, carries them inside and scans to see if they have a microchip and weighs them, then puts them in a cage. He brought in three dogs this morning. Doggett brought in three more, plus the two ducks and a guinea. Inside they sit at a computer to enter the data for each animal into the Chameleon database, which assigns an animal identification number for each. Doggett and Busby say they bring in about 250 dogs apiece each month. They beat the streets, snaring loose animals to bring order because owners are not holding up their responsibilities in many cases. It’s not the animal’s fault.

“Pound dogs are good,” says Busby. He believes that animals adopted from TLAC know how close they came to being killed and make excellent pets. “They were on death row and they know,” he says. “Give them a little love and they’ll die for you.”

—Ken Martin


Humane Society Does It Right

The Humane Society/SPCA of Austin and Travis County opened its current facility at 124 W. Anderson Lane in 1994. The City of Austin had forced the Humane Society to give up operation of the Town Lake Animal Center (TLAC) in late 1992. This was a period of bad blood between the city and the Humane Society, but it turned out to be a blessing for the Humane Society, whose mission was at odds with the fact that it was running a gas chamber at TLAC, which killed animals by confining them in a compartment and then pumping in carbon monoxide. The $1.6 million the city paid to the Humane Society for the buildings it owned on city land at TLAC gave the organization a new lease on life.

Today the Society’s 15,000-square-foot facility has the luxury of picking and choosing the dogs and cats it accepts. There’s a two-week waiting list just to bring an animal in, says Dineen Heard, public relations director. TLAC, by contrast, must accept anything that’s brought in, twenty-four hours a day, every day. Alligators. Ferrets. Pythons. Rats. There’s no telling what will turn up at TLAC. Of course, people don’t always play by the Humane Society’s rules. Staff often finds boxes on the front porch or out back.

Dogs are given a pre-adoption temperament test and if they don’t pass the owner must reclaim them or take them to TLAC. The test was devised by staff behaviorist Amy Boyd. Animals are screened for sociability, friendliness, aggression, and other traits that might prove undesirable in an adopted pet. “We pull their ears and tails because a toddler will,” she says.

People relinquish their companions for all sorts of reasons, Heard says. They’re moving. They have a new baby. They just got divorced. They are elderly and can no longer care for the animal. Because the bulk of animals taken were relinquished by owners who fill out a fifty-two-question background form, the Society has a detailed behavioral history on most of its animals.

Dogs and cats accepted are prepared for adoption with spaying or castration, vaccinations and a complete workup. Adoption counselors attempt to steer prospective families to dogs that fit the adopter’s lifestyle. “We strive to make a match for life,” Heard says. “We can turn people down for a specific animal.”

The Society functions in some respects like a rescue group, taking selected animals out of TLAC that might otherwise die. For the year that ended September 30, 2000, the Society took in a total of 2,359 animals, of which 443 were transferred from TLAC, Heard says. The rest were accepted from the public. Only fifteen animals were euthanized that year.

Dogs have kennel cards that are generally more detailed than the ones at TLAC, complete with color codes to indicate what level of training a volunteer must have to work with the animal and a list of its behavioral traits. The volunteer dog handlers make up the Behavior Rehoming Adoption Training Team.

Volunteer coordinator Dan Morris says he has a crew of about 150 volunteers who work at least two hours a week, a number he keeps building on with volunteer orientation classes offered monthly.

The front of the facility includes a “real life room” with couch and appliances to give adopters a chance to interact with an animal in a homelike environment. People who already have a dog and want to adopt another must bring in the dog to make sure the two will get along okay.

“We keep dogs as long as it takes to find a home if they remain physically and mentally healthy,” Heard says. “Some go kennel crazy, spinning in circles, chewing on their paws, pacing repetitively. If we feel an animal is suffering or becoming dangerous, we will euthanize it or transfer it to a rescue group.”

One outstanding rescue facility is the nonprofit Southern Animal Rescue Association in rural Seguin. This is a 580-acre, no-kill facility where only terminally ill animals suffering with no chance of recovery are killed. No animal is killed for convenience. Adoptive homes are sought but failing that, the animals have homes for life. It currently houses 400 dogs and 100 cats, plus a couple of hogs weighing about 800 pounds apiece.

Outside the Humane Society facility sits a large truck and trailer that provides a mobile adoption unit. Like the van owned by EmanciPet, this big rig was donated by Michael McCarthy, a former Humane Society board member. The mobile unit has sixteen dog cages and six cat cages. Recently parked at a Tinseltown Theater that was showing Cats & Dogs, the unit netted two adoptions on-site. Plans call for rolling up to Round Rock for a baseball game played by the Express. Fill out the adoption forms, pass the interview, pay the $75 (the same adoption fee as TLAC) and you can go home with a pet.

—Ken Martin


Animal Resource Organizations

There are scores if not hundreds of volunteer organizations working to assist animals in this area. Each has its own mission. Some rescue groups take animals relinquished by their owners while other groups may refuse on the theory that it only encourages irresponsible behavior. Virtually all of these organizations need help in terms of cash, volunteers or other resources, and most have animals ready for adoption.

The organizations listed either responded to an invitation to have the information published or were located on the web. Because some organizations don’t have sufficient resources, a few of those listed declined to publish a phone number. There are many other organizations that work in a similar fashion in this area.

American Curl Rescue Project, (512) 336-8474, www.sarcenet.com.
Animal Trustees of Austin, (512) 302-0388, www.animaltrustees.org.
Animal Trustees of Austin Spay-Neuter and Vaccination Clinic, (512) 450-0111, www.animaltrustees.org.
Austin360.com Pets of the Week (listings for numerous shelters and rescue groups), www.austin360.com/services/pets/pets_ofthe_week.html.
Austin Animal Advisory Commission, (512) 708-6080, www.ci.austin.tx.us.
Austin Boston Terrier Rescue Inc., http://home.houston.rr.com/rector.
Austin Feral Cats, www.austinferalcats.org.
Austin-Houston Hound Rescue, (Beagles, Bassetts, other hounds), www.houndrescue.com/austindog.htm.
Austin Aussie Rescue, (512) 303-1987, www.petfinder.org/shelters/TX182.html.
Austin Lost Pets, www.austinlostpets.com.
Austin Parks and Recreation Department’s Leash-Free Areas, (512) 974-6700, www.ci.austin.tx.us/parks/dogparks.htm.
Austin Rescue, home of shelter-friendly rescue groups
Austin Pets Alive, (512) 452-5790
Austin German Shepherd Rescue, (512) 413-0589, www.austingermanshepherdrescue.org.
Austin Siamese Rescue, (512) 288-1617, www.siameserescue.org.
Bastrop Humane Society, (512) 303-3924.
Blue Dog Rescue, www.bluedogrescue.com.
Border Collie Rescue Texas Inc., (800) 683-8703, www.bcrescuetexas.org.
Bow Wow Rescue Save Pets Society, (512) 272-8015
Capitol of Texas Siberian Husky Club
Cedar Park Animal Control, (512) 258-3149, www.petfinder.org/shelters/TX200.html.
Charlyne’s Pound Puppies, Thorndale (512) 898-5237, or in Austin (512) 335-1417.
Central Texas SPCA, Leander, (512) 260-7722
Central Texas Dachshund Rescue, www.ctdr.org.
Central Texas Welsh Corgi and Great Dane Rescue, (512) 442-4689.
Cocker Rescue of Austin, (512) 282-3009, www.cockerrescue.homestead.com.
Collie Rescue Austin, (512) 515-5494 or www.austincollies.org.
Dreamtime Sanctuary, Elgin, (512) 281-4572, www.dreamtimesanctuary.com.
Emancipet Mobile Spay-Neuter Clinic, (512) 587-7729 or www.emancipet.com.
Friends of San Marcos Animal Shelter, (512) 396-6180.
Georgetown Animal Shelter, (512) 930-3592, www.petfinder.org/shelters/TX34.html.
German Shepherd Rescue Central Texas, (512) 264-2478, [email protected].
Gold Ribbon Rescue (Golden Retrievers), (512) 659-4653, www.grr-tx.com.
Greyhound Rescue Austin, (512) 288-0068
Hays County Animal Control, San Marcos, (512) 393-7896, www.co.hays.tx.us.
Heart of Texas Lab Rescue, (512) 259-5810, www.hotlabrescue.org.
Helping Hands Bassett Rescue, http://www.hhbassetrescue.org.
House Rabbit Resource Network, (512) 444-EARS, www.rabbitresource.net.
Humane Society of Williamson County, Leander, (512) 260-3602, http://hswc.net.
Humane Society-SPCA of Austin and Travis County, (512) 837-7895, www.austinspca.com.
Jack Russell Rescue, (512) 273-2412, www.terrier.com.
Lago Vista PAWS, (512) 267-6876 or www.lvpaws.org.
Mastiff Club of America Rescue Services (512) 419-0944 or www.conceptsdesign.com/mastiff.
Mixed Breed Rescue, (512) 260-0462, www.geocities.com/mixbreedrescue. (This link is no longer functional.)
PAWS Animal Shelter, Kyle, (512) 268-1611, http://paws.home.texas.net/morepaws.html.
Pet Helpers, (512) 444-PETS, www.pethelpers.com.
Pet Protection Network, 444-8380.
Puppy Love Rescue, (512) 447-1785, www.puppyloverescue.org.
San Marcos Animal Shelter, (512) 393-8340
Shelter Rescue, (512) 288-4480.
Shiba Inu Rescue of Texas, (512) 505-5349, www.geocities.com/iluvshibas/rescue.html.
Southern Animal Rescue Association, Seguin, (512) 460-5083 days, (512) 288-1879 evenings, www.sarasanctuary.org.
Southern States Rottweiler Rescue Inc., (512) 912-8294, http://ssrottweilerrescue.org.
Spindletop American Pit Bull and Staffordshire Terrier Refuge, (512) 918-9570, http://austinpitbullrescue.homestead.com/home.html.
Texas Great Pyrenees Rescue
Theo’s Home, (512) 292-7386.
Town Lake Animal Center, (512) 708-6000, www.ci.austin.tx.us/animals.
Travis County Environmental Health Services-Animal Control, (512) 469-2015, www.co.travis.tx.us.
Underdog Rescue, (512) 931-2771, www.underdogrescue.com.
UT Campus Cat Coalition, (512) (5121) 471-3006, www.ae.utexas.edu/cats.
Wee Rescue (Lhasa Apso and Shih Tzu), (512) 292-1700 
Highland White Terrier Club of Greater Austin, (512) 388-0645, www.austinwesties.org.

—Ken Martin

‘Austin American-Statesman’ no friend of the environment


About 6,200 words

Fighting for the environment is truly a dirty job and someone truly needs to do it, but aside from the circle of activists who occasionally give one another a pat on the back—and except for the support of the Austin Chronicle—it has been a thankless task. A decade ago, most Austin environmentalists were thought of by the business community, developers, and the Austin American-Statesman as hell-bent radicals and an obstacle to economic development. The accepted dogma was that environmentalists must be contained at all cost.

How come the business community and developers have mostly embraced the green flag (many have chipped in to sponsor the Save Our Springs Alliance’s Soul of the City bash, for gawd’s sake, and the Chamber of Commerce, Real Estate Council of Austin, and the SOS Alliance have smoked the peace pipe and launched the Hill Country Conservancy together) and yet the Statesman is still fighting a rear-guard action? It reminds me of the book I once read about a deluded lone Japanese soldier who waged a one-man war for years and years after WW II ended because he never got the word. Here we are in a town that’s wired for instant communications through phones, the Internet, pagers, in a town that’s small enough so we occasionally even—gasp—bump into each other and talk face to face—and the Statesman is still out in the boonies taking pot shots at passing civilians. Read my lips: The war is over. Lay down your arms.

To refresh memories, in the last couple of decades, literally millions of dollars were poured into the electoral process in hopes of keeping green candidates out of political power. Although a friend of the environment did occasionally get elected over the years, it wasn’t until after the landmark passage of the Save Our Springs Ordinance in 1992 that the tide truly began turning.

By 1997 seven out of seven council members were endorsed by environmental groups, a historic achievement and a reflection that the community—the people that bother to go to the polls anyway—supports protection of natural resources. Okay, I’ll admit that the reality of it is reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron singing about Ronald Reagan’s first presidential victory: “Mandate, my ass.” But while the margins of victory have often been slim and the voter participation has been abysmal, for now at least, green rules.

We know from the constant bombardment of its own advertising that the Statesman aspires to be the newspaper of Central Texas. But does the Statesman believe it needs to trash environmentalists to win readers among out-of-town suburban residents? Does the Statesman think that people in the hinterlands don’t care about the quality of their land, air, water, and wildlife?

Although some candidates endorsed by environmental groups lost in this year’s council elections, everyone who got elected voiced support for environmental protection. Dozens of environmentalists say this hardly constitutes a rejection of environmental values, despite what you may have read in the Austin American-Statesman.

Until lately, the Statesman rarely endorsed a green candidate. To this day the newspaper often vilifies those who speak for the land, air, water, and creatures. As late as mid-June 1999—a full two years after voters had put in place a unanimous green City Council—Statesman Editor Richard Oppel launched a personal crusade, tearing into two environmentalists who served as unpaid, appointed volunteers on the city’s Water and Wastewater Commission. Oppel’s impressions were formed by reading transcripts, watching video tapes, and listening to people with an ax to grind. Neither he nor his reporters had ever set foot in a Water and Wastewater Commission meeting. Yet he had the temerity to call the commission “a modern version of the old, citizen-hassling Soviet spy agency, the KGB.”

The factual atrocities committed by the daily’s top dog, if committed by any subordinate on his staff, would have been grounds for immediate firing. But Oppel blithely carried on, portraying dedicated public servants of good character as if they were a bunch of no-growth control freaks who wanted everybody to use a porta-potty instead of a flush toilet. His chief complaints were aimed at just two members of a commission which ranged in size from seven to nine members at the time—as if this duet of Lanetta Cooper and Harriet Harris was somehow controlling things.

As I repeatedly reported in the newsletter we owned, rebutting each dumb-and-dumber column, Oppel’s facts were flat wrong. Eventually the Austin Chronicle weighed in to balance the scales of public opinion. In August 1999, Lee Nichols wrote, “Just when Rich Oppel seemed to have made great strides toward reforming the paper from the days when it was not-so-jokingly called the ‘Austin American-Real-Estatesman,’ he personally has plunged the paper back into its past patterns of half-truths, distortions, and anti-environmentalist propaganda.” (Read the story, “War of Words,” at http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/vol18/issue51/pols.media.html.)

Oppel’s misinformation campaign is just one blatant example of the Statesman’s continuing attempts to marginalize those who speak for environmental protection, to sensationalize conflicts among environmentalists, and to minimize coverage of the contributions that environmental groups have made to the quality of life.

On environmental coverage, as in so many other areas of concern for the community, the Statesman’s news machine produces a generic, Anywhere-USA, publication. For journalists with ambition for bigger things and the freedom to move on, the newspaper is but a brief stopover on a career flight that ends elsewhere. The Statesman’s front-line city beat reporters are so transient you’d think the editors were hiring them from Manpower.

For most of the nearly twenty years I have been writing for magazines and newspapers in Travis, Hays and Williamson counties, the Statesman has produced a newspaper that occasionally pays attention to the environmental conditions of its own back yard. Coverage of the local environment seems to have dropped off under Oppel’s regime. Rich Oppel came to town, via Washington, DC, from the Charlotte Observer, which won two Pulitzer Prizes on his watch. In his five years of duty in Austin, the paper has moved light-years ahead in design and presentation. It’s high-tech coverage is terrific in many respects. General business coverage grinds along with a lot of out-of-town wire copy and lags the Austin Business Journal on aggressive local coverage. I generally just glance at the sports pages but they look fantastic, especially the sports extra sections, and the Tour de France coverage was superb. Coverage of the Austin school district seems good. But when it comes to local environmental coverage, the Statesman’s still pulling a Ray Benson—asleep at the wheel.

The Statesman had a succession of good environmental reporters in Bill McCann, Max Woodfin, and Bill Collier. Now people have to scratch their heads to think of who—if anyone—is covering the beat locally. Ralph Haurwitz is generally judged by environmentalists to be competent, particularly in the scientific aspects. He’s written a lot about statewide water quantity issues and the Longhorn Pipeline that hits home in Austin. Day-to-day issues like the LCRA water deal, the Bradley Settlement, the Forum Planned Unit Development and such are usually parceled out to the City Hall reporter of the day. Of late, Statesman humor columnist John Kelso may have written more about what’s happening at Barton Springs Pool than anybody else—but only in fun, of course.

Jim Marston has been director of the Texas office of Environmental Defense (formerly the Environmental Defense Fund) since it opened here in 1990. Of the Statesman, Marston says, “The Statesman likes to overstate differences or conflicts, both within the environmental movement and the environmental movement vs. special interests. I think coverage tends to overstate the times when the environmental movement has been in opposition to specific activities, and understates when it’s in a cooperative mode. I frankly think the paper devotes considerably less resources to covering environmental issues than the Houston or Dallas papers.

“It’s a real irony that the number of folks who are members of environmental organizations in Travis County is very large compared to other parts of the state,” Marston adds, “but the amount of resources that the Austin paper devotes to environmental issues—compared to Houston Chronicle or The Dallas Morning News—is very slight.”

If this is beginning to sound like the ranting of a lunatic, it’s only over the exasperation that develops when you care about your community and have to watch the only daily newspaper with a regional reach steer the thing with all the skill of the Titanic’s crew—seemingly oblivious of the environmental iceberg that threatens to sink our quality of life.

The Statesman itself is certainly in no danger of floundering financially. With a rip-roaring economy boosting advertising by everybody from dot-coms to real estate sellers to automobile dealers, I’m getting a hernia lifting the Statesman off the front stoop every morning. Wednesday’s paper this week was as fat as Sunday papers of not long ago.

The LCRA water deal

The deal of the century was approved unanimously on Oct. 7, 1999, when the City Council authorized paying the Lower Colorado River Authority $100 million in cash to secure a fifty-year water supply, with options for another fifty years. As the City Council members were making final statements and getting ready to approve the deal, rumors were circulating in council chambers that someone might be seeking a court order to stop the city from handing over the money. As a result, just sixteen minutes after the council voted to authorize the deal, LCRA General Manager Mark Rose signed the contract, posed for a snapshot, and slipped two checks that totaled $100 million into his suit-coat pocket.

In the process of approving the contract, the council sidestepped the City Charter, which requires revenue bonds be put before voters, on grounds that state law permits it, courts have upheld it, and the city has avoided going to the voters for many things, such as in buying One Texas Center.

Months earlier, Bill Bunch, chief legal counsel for the SOS Alliance, and consumer advocate Birny Birnbaum, an economist, had each independently researched the proposal in depth at no cost to the city. They raised serious questions about the deal and sought improvements. Environmental groups, along with the city’s Environmental Board and Resource Management Commission, supported closer examination, and the LCRA’s board granted a delay. As a result, the final deal was improved considerably from the proposal that had been scheduled to close six weeks earlier, on August 26.

In the end, the deal was rammed home with the help of the Statesman’s distorted editorials and near-blackout on coverage of the issues. A week before the deal was approved, I reported that Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “I think you’re going to see, with the changes in the contract, that the council was wise to scrutinize the deal because it’s now a more favorable deal to the city. Those who told the City Council to rubber-stamp it, including the Austin American-Statesman, were clearly wrong.”

Max Woodfin, executive director of Earth Share of Texas and a former environmental reporter for the Statesman, says, “The Statesman seemed to be willing to accept the (water) deal just because it was offered by the LCRA. Even my friends who work at the LCRA knew the deal needed to be scrutinized and they expected it. They didn’t want to make compromises, but they knew that was part of the ball game.”

At the time the LCRA water deal was coming down the pike, Woodfin had been on the Council-appointed Resource Management Commission for more than twelve years. “The Statesman made it sound like a Bill Bunch crusade,” Woodfin says. “The Resource Management Commission, with Bill’s help, had some very strong questions. We were just ordinary citizens and if we were willing to ask those tough questions, why wasn’t the Statesman able to admit it was not just a crusade on Bill Bunch’s part? He was certainly the moving force, but once he began to pick up allies who are perhaps not known to be as vocal and sometimes abrasive, why not give the issue more credibility?”

At the City Council meeting of September 30, 1999, Slusher said, “There were allegations at one time that the council was endangering the future of the city by scrutinizing this deal. Now we can see how ridiculous that was.”

Council Member Bill Spelman went Slusher one better. At the same council meeting, Spelman whipped out a calculator to announce that the city had saved $17.4 million by slowing the deal down for a public education process. “That’s $2.9 million a week,” he said. Perhaps “we could save $2.9 million a week for a few more weeks.”

“I think you ought to repeat that a few more times because I don’t think citizens will see that in the daily paper,” Slusher quipped. He was right, as the Statesman did not report Spelman’s statement that the increased scrutiny had saved the city $17.4 million. Instead, the Statesman on Oct. 10, three days after the pact was inked, published an editorial castigating Bunch and saying, “Approving the contract was a plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face decision.”

The editorial said, “The vote was a sign that SOS chose the wrong issue to oppose.” Which gets at the heart of darkness that feeds the Statesman’s bias, and precisely shows what’s wrong with the newspaper’s approach. The monopoly daily permits no room for loyal opposition and tolerates no probing and questioning—not by its own reporters and not by dedicated citizens—even when the stakes are a whopping $100 million. The Statesman seemingly doesn’t care about democratic debate to air the issues and make the best decision. Instead, the newspaper leaps on the bandwagon and rides roughshod over anyone who raises questions.

The Statesman wrote just seven stories over the entire four months leading up to the council’s decision on Oct. 7. The newspaper editorialized four times, becoming increasingly shrill when it was obvious to anyone paying attention that the legitimate questions surrounding the proposed deal warranted further examination.

Brigid Shea, former council member and founding director of the Save Our Springs Coalition, says of the water deal, “It didn’t receive anywhere near the coverage it deserved because we’re in a dry area and growing. We need water for the future. I said from beginning within SOS, ‘This will be a hard sell, if we don’t want to secure water for our future.’”

Of course neither Bunch nor Birnbaum opposed securing water for the city’s future. Bunch’s legal analysis, assisted by outside counsel, concluded that the city had certain rights it might exert to get the water far cheaper. Birnbaum thought a pay-as-you-go approach to getting the water would be far cheaper and more equitable to ratepayers over time.

City hides negotiations, ‘Statesman’ doesn’t report it

The fact that the LCRA water deal had been negotiated in total secrecy for almost a year before the city announced the proposal on June 8, 1999, was never reported by the Statesman. Bill Bunch, through an open-records request, obtained documents that showed the law firm hired by the city to negotiate the water deal with the LCRA had not billed the city for nearly a year—in effect keeping the negotiations under wraps.

The city attorney’s office hired the law firm in the summer of 1998 for an amount not to exceed $39,000, which was the limit of the city manager’s spending authority. There’s nothing unusual about this, as legal services are routinely procured in this matter. But when the fees begin to exceed the authorized amount, the routine and proper procedure is for the city attorney’s office to obtain an estimate of the additional amount needed, and then get the matter on the City Council’s agenda for authorization in a timely matter. That did not happen in this case.

As a result, the hiring of the firm was never put on the council agenda and negotiations were kept secret. Documents Bunch obtained showed that the city attorney’s office received a single bill for $38,611 on Nov. 12, 1998. The outside law firm worked steadily on researching and negotiating the LCRA water deal for nearly an entire year—and yet somehow never bothered to bill the city. Speculation about how this could happen range from implausibly poor billing practices by a major law firm to an outright cover-up. Ask yourself: Would you let a client’s services run up a tab of nearly a quarter-million dollars and not bother to seek payment?

The mysteriously delayed billing finally appeared on the City Council agenda three weeks after the council voted to approve the water deal. On October 28, 1999, the council authorized payment of $227,065 to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld for legal services in connection with the LCRA water supply agreement. The city manager’s spending authority clearly had been exceeded by that amount without council authorization—and that in itself may be a violation of the City Charter, which establishes the manager’s limitations.

City Attorney Andy Martin said at the time I exposed these facts in the press that there was nothing nefarious about the delayed billing. “I’m not real pleased to tell you it’s because we goofed up, but it was not to keep the fact they city was talking to the LCRA a secret,” he said. “Never accept a simple explanation if a conspiracy could be alleged,” he quipped.

Bunch and Birnbaum spent countless hours researching the proposed LCRA water deal, which was extremely complex from both an economic and legal standpoint. The city benefited greatly from their input. The deal approved by the City Council was better for it. And taxpayers were saved a boodle of money.

A cynic would say the Statesman is so wrapped up in its headlong pro-growth agenda that it would have knocked off Mother Teresa if she stood in the way of the LCRA water deal. I can almost hear the Statesman’s retort: “I know Mother Teresa, and Bill Bunch is no Mother Teresa.”

SOS Action—not SOS Alliance

Statesman reporter Laylan Copelin is a seasoned journalist who has done good work for a long time, no matter where editors might send him on a given day. The April 19, 2000, story published under his byline was headlined, “Shea resigns SOS post over snub of Watson.” Reporters don’t write headlines, but the immediate impression is the SOS Alliance was involved. As reported in the story, Shea resigned from the SOS Action Political Action Committee. Copelin’s story did not report what I had previously published elsewhere, that Shea had resigned from the Alliance seven months earlier.

Mary Arnold, who is thought of as “Queen Mary” in environmental circles for her tenacious dedication to mastering the mind-numbing details of arcane city regulations, is an SOS Alliance board ember. Of the Statesman’s article, she says, “What upset people was the headline about Brigid resigning from SOS. It was the PAC and not the Alliance, and it was misleading—and seemed deliberately designed to be misleading.”

What is SOS Action, anyway? When people see the term “SOS” in print, they probably think about a landmark ordinance passed by citizen initiative. And they probably think about the prominent organization that bears its name, the SOS Alliance, which has some 2,000 members and a full-time staff of four employees, two of which are attorneys, plus outside counsel on retainer. SOS Action is an obscure group of insider political junkies who have no staff and just do a little fund-raising to run ads in the Chronicle around election time. SOS Action was formed in April 1999 by a bunch of Young Turks who wanted to put the good-as-gold SOS brand name to political use. Old-timers in the SOS Alliance camp weren’t even invited to be in SOS Action, and some are still miffed about it.

The Statesman article went into detail about which SOS Action PAC members were political consultants for which candidates, and then explored the web of relationships among PAC members, who’s married to whom, who’s paired as significant others. Fair game. But, as Max Woodfin notes, “It’s interesting that the Statesman went to great pains to point out the interrelationships in the environmental community, but they don’t pay that kind of attention to the Chamber of Commerce or business endorsements.”

Copelin’s article reported that SOS Action did not endorse Mayor Kirk Watson for reelection because “his door has been shut to them.” The article failed to report that SOS Action also gave Watson credit: “The board chose not to endorse in the mayor’s race. The mayor was characterized as probably the most effective and visionary mayor in recent history, but his clear lack of credible opposition and the continued inaccessibility of the mayor’s office and the decision-making process to large sections of the environmental community and the general public were deciding factors in the ‘no endorsement’ recommendation.”

The Statesman article noted that Robin Rather’s earlier departure as chair of the Alliance “underscores the fractures among a tight-knit group forged in street protest, polished in legal and political battle, but cracked from the strain of defining success.”

While accurate in a sense, the sin here is one of omission: The boards of the SOS Action PAC and the SOS Alliance have not one person who sits on both. Certainly, the two organizations share a general philosophy of environmental protection, but their boards are autonomous and independent. They are not as “tight-knit” as the Statesman’s one-size-fits-all pigeon-holing would have readers believe, as anyone who has probed the inner workings of this organization knows. Shea leaving SOS Action and Rather leaving SOS Alliance are two unrelated events, two individuals leaving two organizations that have more in common than three initials but are, in fact, separate.

Rather’s departure from the SOS Alliance resulted from two main factors. First was her desire to work in other arenas (see accompanying story, “Green Power”) to achieve environmental protection in a different way. Second she was invited to leave. Though circumspect in their choice of words, some in the Alliance view Rather as nothing less than a traitor for publicly endorsing the Bradley Settlement soon after casting her vote with the rest of the board to unanimously oppose the settlement. If she hadn’t left under her own steam, Rather probably would have been tossed out on her ear. General Robert E. Lee can’t just wake up one morning and declare he’s going to join the Union Army and not expect repercussions.

In the eyes of the Bill Bunch, by then executive director of the SOS Alliance, Rather was a deal-cutter who was helping Gary Bradley to destroy the aquifer. Of her departure, Bunch says, “It was mutually agreeable. Her last-minute switch on the Bradley deal was not appreciated and that definitely caused some difficult feelings.”

Who you going to call?

Regarding the Statesman’s coverage of SOS Action’s non-endorsement of Watson, Bunch says, “It was just another example of how crazy we were. Robin Rather and Brigid Shea were the voices of reason and everyone else was off the map.”

Bunch’s statement helps get at the root of the problem for journalists trying (if they were to try) to cover the local environmental movement. Rather and Shea are both super human beings. Shea earned her spurs in the SOS Coalition and in fighting for the cause for three years on the City Council. Rather is a superstar, a high-tech company owner, a woman whose deep commitment to protecting the environment is as unequivocal as Shea’s.

Where they differ mainly is in scar tissue; Shea has been hacked and stabbed often enough in the political arena, figuratively speaking, to deserve a chest covered with Purple Hearts and a full-coverage pension to nurse her wounds. Rather needs maybe a Band-Aid. Rather’s  battles have been more diplomatic, involving mostly private arm-twisting and behind-closed-door yelling—not the in-your-face debates with Gary Bradley on the air with Bob Cole and Sammy Allred that Shea endured. Rather also didn’t have to go toe-to-toe on the City Council with Eric Mitchell for two years and Ronney Reynolds for three years. Rather rarely ever spoke in public at City Council meetings.

Both Rather and Shea give great interviews. They stay on point, don’t ramble, and are easily accessible to journalists. When I was publishing a daily newsletter for insiders and something was going down, it wasn’t unusual for my phone would ring and Rather would be on the horn, calling from the Big Apple to get in her licks. For a reporter, what’s not to like?

Mike Clark-Madison of the Austin Chronicle sums up the Statesman’s coverage of the environment, saying, “They cover the environmental movement like southern papers covered civil rights in the nineteen-sixties. Robin and Brigid are ‘acceptable’ environmentalists.” By extension, many of the others are viewed more like bomb-throwers than Freedom Riders.

A footnote on the non-endorsement of Mayor Watson for reelection: The Austin Regional Group of the Sierra Club had the same kind of discussion that SOS Action did, and also considered not endorsing the mayor. Karin Ascot sits on the Sierra Club’s executive committee and political committee. She says that, ultimately, the committee decided to endorse Watson, but with qualifications. “We endorsed Watson when he ran three years ago on a Smart Growth platform. He has made some real attempts to redirect growth away from the aquifer…and he has been successful in encouraging businesses to locate downtown,” Ascot wrote in the Sierra Club’s monthly newsletter. “However, we do feel that he has not aggressively embraced the most important aspects of Smart Growth—requiring more traditional neighborhood developments, better public transportation (particularly light rail) and higher-density, mixed-use development. We are particularly disappointed in his support for (State Highway) 130, which we feel will simply redirect sprawl to the east.”

Bottom line: SOS Action PAC, which has no members save the people on its board, talked about endorsing Kirk Watson for reelection and ultimately decided not to, but added in its press release favorable remarks about Watson’s performance along with his perceived shortcomings. The result: a splashy story in the Statesman that makes SOS Action PAC members look like idiots for not backing a surefire winner. Meaning they will be banished from ever calling on Watson for anything. Though he professes religious faith, Watson is highly unlikely to turn the other cheek, for as one former aide to Watson told me, “The mayor likes to punish his enemies, and he’s good at it.” SOS Action PAC members knew that. They spoke their minds anyway and abided by their rules: disclose your interests and vote your conscience. But the mayor’s enemies are the Statesman’s enemies, and SOS Action got nailed in the press.

Contrast that treatment to what the Statesman had to say about the unkind remarks made about Hizzoner by the Sierra Club, which has about 6,000 members in the area. The Sierra Club endorsed Watson but pointed out what it thought were severe shortcomings. What did the Statesman report? Nada.

‘Statesman’ gets a report card

What do people working year in, year out in the environmental arena think of the Statesman’s environmental coverage? In a word, it sucks. Listen to what they have to say.

Max Woodfin says, “The Statesman has this irritating habit of embracing global environmental issues, yet engaging at the same time in personal attacks on the environmental movement in Austin, which is bringing those global issues to our doorsteps.”

Political consultant David Butts has run many a campaign, sometimes with the Statesman’s endorsement of his cause, like the two bond elections of 1998, and sometimes with the newspaper posing a major obstacle to his success. “They (the Statesman) are hostile to the environmental movement, probably due to the perception these people aren’t mainstream, they are disruptive, and not willing to cooperate. I’m sure they get an earful of it from the business community, who would just as soon we go away. If you believe Oppel, most of the problems of Austin are due to environmentalists—which is absolutely ludicrous.”

Former SOS Alliance Chair Kirk Mitchell says, “The Statesman has done a very dishonest job for a very long time, but it’s a monopoly and serves the hand that feeds it. What’s obvious is when there are periods of détente, it’s like a Prague spring—and then here come the tanks again. When you see those shifts you know it’s a Machiavellian thing. You know they can tell the truth, but then they don’t.

“My attitude is I don’t see an honest appraisal of our efforts in the Statesman,” Mitchell adds, “but we can survive and do our work when they vilify us every day. We did it anyway and did it in spite of them.” Alluding to the upholding of the Save Our Springs Ordinance, Mitchell says, “When the Texas Supreme Court agrees with us and the Statesman doesn’t, I’m satisfied. I don’t want a glamour shot of me in the paper or puff pieces. I want them to write that we won. I just want the accurate facts to be portrayed.”

Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment and chair of SOS Action, says, “A lot of us don’t care what the Statesman does. They’ve lost a lot. They heavily promoted (City Council candidate Rafael) Quintanilla in their coverage in the runoff. They really pigeonholed Raul (Alvarez) and didn’t give him a fair shake. But as long as the voters are backing candidates and the people elected do things good for the aquifer and watershed, that’s what matters.”

George Cofer, who recently resigned his staff position with the Save Barton Creek Association for a new gig, says, “I don’t pay much attention to the Statesman. I disagree with the Statesman editorial board on so many positions. They just take a different point of view than the environmental community. We look at that and say, ‘We’re right.’ The Chamber’s studies—showing that a clean environment keeps the economy healthy—proved we’re right, and we’re going to keep doing it regardless of what the Statesman says.”

Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen Texas, says of the Statesman, “They have continued to restrict their environmental reporters and activities in coverage of local issues, causing many of us to call them the ‘Austin Real-Estatesman.’ However, it’s worked to their disadvantage, because it’s caused us to rely on alternative papers like In Fact Daily and the Austin Chronicle for coverage of environmental matters.”

Shudde Fath, treasurer of the Save Barton Creek Association and for more than twenty-three years an appointed member of the city’s Electric Utility Commission, says of the local daily, “Remember when they supported the Nuke (South Texas Nuclear Project, which generates power from near Bay City), to get us into the Nuke and to stay in the Nuke? Now they support our issues but they gloss over and don’t give enough detail. I don’t think it’s the reporters. I think they have reporters who would do more if it would get printed. Again it’s ‘follow the money.’ They make more off advertisers than readers. What we need are some nonprofit newspapers.”

Susana Almanza, director of PODER (People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources), brings a different perspective to the discussion. “In a lot of the stories that (the Statesman does) they haven’t been friendly to those mainstream environmental groups. On the flip side, the Statesman has done quite a bit of coverage on our issues of environmental justice and East Austin.”

Mark Yznaga, who for many years has been a key political guru for the environmental movement, though less active lately in council elections, says, “I have a long memory. I remember a Statesman that was much more negative toward environmental protection. I’d say coverage comes and goes. I don’t think the Statesman has weakened the environmental community. I think people have to take responsibility for their actions.”

Political consultant Dean Rindy says of the Statesman, “People have a love-hate relationship with the paper. You love it when they are reporting facts you agree with, and hate it when they editorialize against you, but I don’t think the Statesman has weakened or impeded the environmental movement at all.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman’s take on the Statesman encompasses the long haul. “There were sometimes big special articles on the creeks and the aquifer, a series of five or six at a time, and that helped to generate awareness. That was helpful. I think it’s different now. It seems they’re in search of a sound bite that will convey to people the lowest common denominator for what issue they’re working on. That’s not a good way to reach people, because so little is conveyed in a sound bite. Their priorities have changed. I think the reporters are good, but the paper doesn’t have room for that sort of thing.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher, the former politics editor for the Austin Chronicle, sees it this way: “The Oppel articles helped because he’s so far out of the mainstream that it damages the Statesman’s credibility when Oppel gets out there and takes these stands against the City of Austin…So I think he’s actually helped the environmental movement. To Oppel’s credit, when he first got here he did some things that were pro environment, like taking on Freeport-McMoRan.”

Can the ‘Statesman’ be saved from itself?

Statesman Editor Rich Oppel has publicly professed big-league aspirations. In January 1998 he addressed the chamber of commerce in the city where he lives, West Lake Hills. According to Westlake Picayune Editor Ed Allen’s reportage, Oppel said, “In a couple of years the Austin American-Statesman should be the best newspaper of its size in the nation. If it isn’t, I will have failed.”

While the newspaper is leaps and bounds better in so many respects, the basic brain food of democracy—coverage of ground-zero issues like City Hall, local politics, and the environmental movement—is often brain-dead. The big-league aspirations have not materialized in these arenas, and in reality the Statesman is a bush-leaguer.

One can only wonder if the paper is being led by a hands-on coach calling the plays—and fixing the game to please moneyed interests, as some suspect—or is in reality, aw-shucks, just the journalistic equivalent of Charlie Brown’s team on the field. But you can’t but help see all the money poured into other areas of coverage and not realize that somebody up there just doesn’t care about the stuff of local democracy. Or notice a history of Statesman publishers leaping into bed with major Austin business organizations.

I have worked side-by-side with enough reporters who came through the City Hall beat in the six years I covered it myself—a year in the early nineties for the Austin Business Journal and the last five years (until mid-July) for the newsletter we owned—to know that the Statesman hires savvy journalists. These are people who can dig and hit hard when they have a mind to and are given a green light. Diana Dworin and Ben Wear had, as Tom Wolfe would say, The Right Stuff, not to mention The Write Stuff.

But I also know that the Statesman’s ham-handed management style over the years has demonstrated a tendency to drive away good people, whether they leave for a job at another paper, as Dylan Rivera recently did in heading to Portland, Oregon, or simply paddle out on an inner tube like Cuban escapees fleeing for Florida.

What the heck, all businesses suffer turnover, especially in this overheated economy. So where does the local monopoly daily go from here?

Well, from time to time the Statesman has published an article about how it has reached out to the community, has gone to a meeting with interested readers and gathered feedback on what kind of a job it’s doing and how it could improve. On the topic of environmental coverage, this article saves them the trouble. The Statesman now has a report card—totally unsolicited—from the people it covers on a topic of vast importance to the community. If the Statesman doesn’t want to take my word for it, and I’d be shocked if they did, then I’d suggest they round up the usual suspects and get an earful first-hand. I’ll even supply the Nerf balls for a friendly bombardment.

I am of the opinion that the Statesman easily has the resources to reform itself and provide local environmental coverage of which we could all be proud. I also believe that if it were to do so the environmental movement would roll out a red carpet and embrace the newspaper—not for glorifying what environmentalists are working on but for simply doing a balanced job of covering a topic that is inseparable from nearly every issue that confronts us.

If the Statesman wants to make a positive journalistic contribution to help clean up our air quality, rescue our wildlife from the brink of extinction, improve the quality of our natural waters, and in countless other ways help to make Austin a sustainable city, it must wake up from its Rip Van Winkle slumber and realize that hampering environmentalists—through direct, misguided attacks; through shoddy, unfocused reporting; or even through benign neglect—is akin to shooting the guy who’s trying to keep you from drowning. In this case, from drowning in your own waste.

This article was originally published in The Good Life magazine in September, 2000

Green Power: The War to Win Hearts and Minds

 About 6,200 words

Photography by Barton Wilder Custom Images


From the beginning there were land, air, water, creatures. Eventually people arrived in what is now called Central Texas. At first they mostly lived off the land and didn’t have the means to do great damage. Now we do, and have. Our air quality borders on unhealthy and is getting worse. Our wildlife is being forced to the brink of extinction. Our natural waters are deteriorating. Little of this degradation comes from factories and power plants that spew garbage into the air. We have no tanneries and slaughterhouses dumping waste in our waterways. The polluters are you, me, and everyone else who lives and works here. The burden of our presence creates stress for land, air, water, creatures.

Each new visitor falls in love with the natural beauty of the hills, the lakes, the soul of the city that is Barton Springs. Each new resident brings the need for shelter and—because we have not wanted to live cheek by jowl—for transportation. In a pattern as old as urban civilization, tens of thousands of acres of rural land are gobbled up each year for roads and rooftops that stretch farther out toward the horizon, a sprawling tide of population growth that will not be stopped, short of an economic bust or the outlawing of air-conditioning.

The economic engine roars ahead, creating jobs and, for some, wealth beyond imagination. It’s a powerful magnet that pulls people here. Council Member Daryl Slusher says, “The biggest problem we have is 20,000-plus people a year moving here. We welcome them to town, but it puts an incredible amount of stress on the environment.”

Not only has the population increased but the rate of its increase just keeps skyrocketing: From 1960 to 1970, Austin grew from 186,545 to 251,808, an average of 6,526 per year. From 1970 to 1980, the city grew to 345,890, an average of 9,408 per year. By 1990 the city had hit 465,622, an average of 11,973 per year for the decade. Our current population estimate for 2000 is 642,994, meaning the average influx of newcomers during the nineties was 17,737 per year.

The sleepy old-economy enterprises of government and education are still here for our daily bread, but the caviar and champagne are delivered mainly by high technology. The number of millionaires in Central Texas has more than doubled in the last five years to 30,700, many of them thanks to the high-tech boom, according to a July 22 article in the Austin American-Statesman.

New arrivals look to the future. Through no fault of their own they are ignorant of local history and unaware of how our mere presence and our choices of lifestyle contribute to degrading the natural environment. The impact is akin to water dripping on stone, each drop gently eroding a tiny bit of a seemingly impenetrable surface. Though one cannot measure the impact of a single drop of water on stone, or of a single person on the environment, the long-term effects of our increasing population have been charted. More cars burning fossil fuels spray out the air pollution we have no choice but to breathe. Runoff from more parking lots, rooftops, and roads erodes the soil and sluices sediment and toxic residues into streams that deliver this deadly mixture into the groundwater.

South of Austin, the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for some 45,000 people who have no access to treated surface water. Ron Fieseler, field operations program manager for the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, says on average the aquifer discharges thirty-four million gallons of water daily at Barton Springs, which is the only known habitat for an endangered salamander protected by federal law.

The salamander is protected only because of multiple lawsuits brought by the Save Our Springs Alliance and its predecessor, the Save Our Springs Legal Defense Fund, to force the U.S. Department of the Interior to list the salamander as an endangered species.

The Texas Legislature and state regulatory agencies that should be working to protect our land, air, water and creatures are all too often part of the problem, not part of the solution. In the main they have worked to restrict Austin’s ability to exercise the will of the people for the environment’s sake, and they have thwarted local government at the behest of powerful economic interests.

“All we’ve been trying to do for the last fifteen years is get some local control,” says George Cofer, this year’s winner of the Beth Brown Boettner Award, presented by the City of Austin’s Environmental Board for his dedicated efforts to save the natural character and resources of this community. “That’s where we’ve been crosswise with the Legislature. And the courts have said, ‘You’re right-you have the right to make laws and enforce your laws.'”

Many have watched with alarm as the impact of each new suburban housing subdivision, shopping center, office building, and major roadway reduces the odds our natural resources can be preserved in the face of an onslaught. Others have not only watched but mounted a defense against these assaults on sustainability. Neighborhood residents often struggle to limit development projects that directly impact their well-being. Environmentalists have weighed in on some of those projects, but they also strive on a broader scale to protect our land, air, water, and creatures. They have strategized and struggled to preserve our quality of life. They fear that uninformed citizens may not notice the demise of our quality of life until it’s dead and buried—may our souls burn in hell.

The struggle has been going on for at least a quarter century. The seminal event was the Austin Tomorrow Goals Program, which spanned two years in the mid-seventies. It involved 3,500 people who participated in producing the Austin Tomorrow Goals Report, a thoughtful but tedious and often contradictory wish list. The city’s planning department translated the goals into a series of policy statements that became the Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, better known as the master plan. Adopted by the City Council in 1979, the master plan remained basically a conceptual document, despite the amount of work that went into it.

Because the master plan is merely policy, not law, it needed a web of supporting ordinances to be fully implemented. Over time, the council took steps in that direction: It passed watershed ordinances to regulate development in sensitive creek areas; it invoked capital recovery (tap) fees to help make growth pay for itself; and it adopted a water district ordinance that set limits on what costs a developer could finance with privately issued bonds, allowing financial incentives for projects within preferred growth areas.

But there were notable failures in trying to implement the master plan—I know, because I was here and wrote about it in a cover story for Third Coast magazine in May 1983. In a number of cases, the council acted to facilitate development in areas, particularly to the west, where the master plan says growth is less desirable. Motorola, for instance, convinced the council in the early eighties to not only approve its plans to locate a new plant in Oak Hill but also to give the company a high-priority status for obtaining a crucial necessity—water—from the city. The project greatly accelerated development in an environmentally sensitive area. The trade-off was that Austin got the jobs and the new citizens that Motorola brought.

One of the most important contributions of the master plan was that it identified the environmental characteristics of the land in and around Austin. Land to the west was deemed poorly suited for future growth because of its steep slopes and the danger of polluting the Lake Austin watershed and the Edwards Aquifer. The area to the east was identified as unsuitable because of its large flood plains, agricultural production, clay soils, and the noise of Bergstrom Air Force Base. The land between these two extremes, an elongated slice on either side of I-35, became the growth corridor—the most suitable location for Austin’s growth. But utility service in areas targeted for growth lagged behind. Major water and wastewater projects languished because voters failed to approve the necessary bonds.

SOS Ordinance rallies public support

The Austin Regional Group of the Sierra Club had formed in 1969 and the Save Barton Creek Association in 1979, but it was not until 1991 when the Save Our Springs Coalition kick-started a broader public campaign that the tide began to turn in favor of environmental protection.

The SOS Coalition was started in reaction to the City Council’s enactment of weakened ordinances for protecting sensitive watersheds. The Coalition drafted the Save Our Springs Ordinance, launched a successful petition drive to get it on the ballot, and then waged a monumental political battle to win support at the ballot box. Voters approved the ordinance in 1992 by an overwhelming margin of sixty-four percent to thirty-six percent-despite opposition by the majority of the City Council, which delayed the SOS Ordinance election and then put its own alternative ordinance on the same ballot, and fierce campaigning against the initiative by business and real estate interests.

The thumping victory stemmed in part from a deep-seated vein of resentment to development over the aquifer. Strong emotions welled up during the infamous all-night hearing in which some 800 people signed up to oppose the massive Barton Creek Properties project. Longtime political consultant David Butts says, “When we had the June 7, 1990, meeting and kept the City Council to the wee hours of the morning, a watershed moment occurred, as unorganized as it might have been. Fortunately, people seized the moment and made it happen, and that changed Austin’s direction as much as anything I can think of.”

GREENPOWERbrigid-sheaThe wide margin of victory for the SOS Ordinance showed there was abundant public support to protect the environment. That sentiment was roused again in 1993 to sweep onto the City Council both Brigid Shea, founding director of the SOS Coalition, and Jackie Goodman, former president of the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA).

But 1994 elections were a major setback for environmental candidates. Incumbent Mayor Bruce Todd narrowly defeated Austin Chronicle Politics Editor Daryl Slusher, who was an ardent defender of the environment in his writings; Ronney Reynolds beat environmental stalwart Mary Arnold to keep his council seat; and businessman Eric Mitchell bested Ron Davis of the East Austin Strategy Team to succeed Charles Urdy on the dais.

Environmental fortunes changed in 1996 when Slusher and Beverly Griffith won council seats, followed in 1997 by the election of Mayor Kirk Watson, along with Council Members Bill Spelman and Willie Lewis. Finally—for the first time in Austin’s history—all seven members of the City Council were brought to power with the strong support of Austin’s environmental groups.

A throwback to the divisive rhetoric of the eighties still occasionally surfaces in a City Council election, as in 1999 when Chad Crow promised to all but tar and feather environmentalists. “As a member of the council, I will do everything in my power not just to shut down the SOS empire but to run them out of town,” Crow said. Instead, Crow was soundly thrashed at the ballot box by incumbent Slusher. Crow was young and energetic, and he and his supporters knocked on thousands upon thousands of doors to spread his message. If ever there was a candidate who spoke harshly enough to rouse an anti-environmentalist sentiment—if there is one—it was him.

Crow’s poor showing once again indicated there is no popular support for paving over the aquifer.

It’s been a long slow struggle for environmentalists to gain political power in Austin, to both influence elected officials and to hold public office. In addition to those previously named, environmental activists now holding public office include Council Member Raul Alvarez, who was environmental justice director for the state Sierra Club and a longtime volunteer for PODER (People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources); Ron Davis, now a Travis County commissioner; Craig Smith, board chair of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) and vice president of the SBCA; and BSEACD board member Jack Goodman, director of the Colorado River Watch Foundation and an SBCA board member. Another notable office holder who rose from the environmental ranks is Frank Cooksey, who served as SBCA president before being elected mayor in 1985.

Obviously, public opinion has changed drastically over the last decade. Today nearly everyone seems to think of themselves as an environmentalist, even if they do nothing more than silently agree with the hundreds of people who actively work to reduce the harm. Even the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce now concedes that a clean environment is good for the economy. Jim Marston has been director of the Texas office of Environmental Defense (formerly the Environmental Defense Fund) since it opened in 1990. He says, “The Chamber of Commerce has made some wise choices and recognized that being for the environment is good for business. It’s not an either-or choice.”

The Real Estate Council of Austin is so satisfied that it has withdrawn from the political process and embraced the City Council that RECA’s members once spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to oppose at the ballot box.

Political consultant Mike Blizzard says, “The greatest thing the environmental movement has done over the past five to eight years is to move the political center. That is an incredible accomplishment. When we talk about the environmental community becoming mainstream, that’s the wrong perspective. Those values the environmental community have held for a long time have become valued by a large percentage of the populace.”

Ken Manning, environmental policy manager for the Lower Colorado River Authority, agrees. “If the pendulum has swung, it’s that the Austin business community is far more environmental than it was five or ten years ago.”

For many businesses, going green has been made profitable. The City of Austin is now paying large companies to do the right thing and stay out of the Drinking Water Protection Zone. Environmentalists are reinforcing the incentives by trying to educate companies about the need to protect the land, air, water and creatures, and reminding businesses of the political and legal muscle that makes ignoring this advice unwise.

The combination of stick and carrot has reaped successes. Motorola—which in the early eighties was the first major Austin employer to build over the aquifer—announced in late 1997 that it intended to build more facilities in the Oak Hill area at Circle C Ranch. Instead, Motorola was convinced to build in the Desired Development Zone (DDZ) and got an incentive package worth $1.3 million from the City of Austin. Other major employers that have opted to build new facilities in the DDZ—in exchange for incentives far larger than Motorola’s—include Dell Computer Corp., Computer Sciences Corp., Tivoli, and Intel. Environmental leaders and especially Robin Rather, former chair of the SOS Alliance, initiated discussions with many of these firms to persuade them to stay off the aquifer.

Council decisions splinter environmental movement

The watershed year of 1998, in which the business community and environmental groups joined to gain passage of a total of $922.3 million in bonds in two separate elections, was a honeymoon for environmental groups and the City Council. Soon, however, these relations began to sour. Major issues pushed their way to the fore and disagreement surfaced over how to proceed. Differences among environmental groups played a part as well.

To illustrate the point, consider the abbreviated case histories for how two major issues played out: the Forum Planned Unit Development project and the Bradley Settlement.

The Forum PUD

The first big issue that distanced the SOS Alliance from the City Council was the Forum PUD, which the council approved on first reading November 19, 1998—just two weeks after passing a $712.3 million bond package backed by all environmental groups. A planned unit development (PUD) is an agreement between the city and a developer to assure certainty of regulations over the long-term buildout of the project. The Forum PUD proposed to develop 118 acres of land that straddles South MoPac Expressway at William Cannon Drive, with 1.6 million square feet of offices and commercial structures plus 420 living units.

To offset this massive concentration of impervious cover, property owner Catherine Brownlee proposed to set aside for perpetuity 312 acres of environmentally sensitive land off-site. Netting out the development with the preserve would yield about ten acres less impervious cover than strictly following the SOS Ordinance and developing each tract to the maximum allowed. The Forum site, however, is in an area subject to the SOS Ordinance, which strictly limits impervious cover tract by tract—and makes no provision for off-site mitigation.

Part of the preserve land offered up contained a hole in the ground big enough for Cave Management Society members to descend 254 feet below the earth’s surface to stand directly atop the aquifer. Nico Hauwert, until recently a hydrogeologist with the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, testified that water entering these caves discharges at Barton Springs within two days.

GREENPOWERrobin-ratherThe SOS Alliance was adamantly opposed to the proposal. Robin Rather warned the council it was “trading predictability for chaos” if it bypassed the SOS Ordinance. Hampering the SOS Alliance’s argument, however, was the defection of engineer Lauren Ross, who had helped draft the very SOS Ordinance that would be overridden if the Forum PUD was approved. In working for the Forum PUD developer, Ross proposed to use innovative engineering solutions she said would protect the aquifer.

Another crack in the opposition came when Save Barton Creek Association President Jon Beall announced that his board had “voted unanimously in favor of not opposing” the development. The matter came to a head at the April 8, 1999, City Council meeting.

Earlier the same day the City Council had approved on first reading an SOS Mitigation Policy. It was the Forum PUD that had triggered development of the policy, with its innovative proposal to set aside for perpetuity other land to offset the massive impervious cover over the aquifer that is expressly forbidden by the SOS Ordinance.

Still, the Forum PUD did not comply with the new policy. Council Member Daryl Slusher had voted for the mitigation policy itself but faulted the Forum PUD for not complying with it because the development would far exceed the limits on maximum square footage. “I have to stick with the SOS Ordinance and vote no,” he said. The rest of the council voted for the Forum PUD, however, giving it the necessary six votes to override the SOS Ordinance.

SOS Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch said at the time, “This is deal-making at its classic, which is what (the) SOS (Ordinance) was to stop.” He went on to say, “Every square foot of office space you approve out there is competing against what we want to go into the Desired Development Zone. You’re defeating…your own Smart Growth proposals, which is just a restatement of the Austin Tomorrow Plan unanimously adopted by two councils and two Planning Commissions. I thought we elected a council that understood this.”

GREENPOWERbill-bunchWhich gets at the heart of the growing dilemma for the environmental movement. Austin environmentalists were good at organizing and raising hell when the city was ruled by a council that was anything but green. So good, in fact, they got their own candidates elected. But electing candidates friendly to the cause has not cured all the problems they perceive with environmental protection. The problem is exacerbated when the environmentalists can’t present a unified front, leaving the council to pick and choose which environmental voices to heed, and which to ignore.

The Bradley Settlement

The final straw that splintered the SOS Alliance was Gary Bradley’s proposed deal that would settle multiple lawsuits with the city and establish development regulations for 3,000 acres of land over the aquifer. Bradley had been a brass-knuckles opponent of the SOS Ordinance, hiring private investigators to check for criminal records among proponents of the ordinance.

Bradley had a checkered personal history of his own. Taxpayers had been soaked for $80 million due to his defaults to a lender and a $53 million judgment had been upheld against Bradley by the US Supreme Court.

Bradley’s wars with the City of Austin are legendary. In 1995 he got the Texas Legislature to pass and Governor George W. Bush to sign a bill that in effect allowed him to renege on a contract with the City of Austin, a contract in which his Circle C Ranch had agreed to be annexed in return for being authorized some $40 million in bonds for water and wastewater service. The city sued, the courts overturned the legislation, and in late 1997 the city annexed Circle C Ranch.

The proposed Bradley Settlement surfaced in August 1999. The complex deal evolved radically over the months as Bradley negotiated with the city. Bradley personally escorted environmentalists on tours to show them what his development would look like on the ground. Fast forward more than seven months and the City Council voted unanimously on March 23, 2000, to approve the settlement.

Helping to seal the pact with Bradley was the defection of Robin Rather and SOS Alliance Board Member George Cofer to support the settlement. A letter signed by Rather and Cofer was delivered to the City Council on March 9, 2000—just ten days after the SOS Alliance board had voted unanimously to oppose the settlement. The letter urged the mayor and council to “seize the opportunity to do whatever it takes to finish the job and settle our differences with (Gary) Bradley…Please do not lose this chance to control 3,000 acres over the Recharge Zone while you still can.” The letter came as a jaw-dropping surprise to environmentalists in the audience that night, some of whom were visibly dismayed.

Once again the environmental camp was divided. Craig Smith, vice president of the Save Barton Creek Association, said his group supported the Bradley Settlement. Also supporting the settlement was Roy Dalton, board president of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. The Hays County Water Planning Partnership, which was primarily concerned that a water well for Bradley’s proposed golf course might deplete the wells of area residents, focused mainly on that issue. Rather’s crossover left Vice Chair Mary Arnold, Executive Director Bill Bunch and Staff Attorney Grant Godfrey to carry the torch for the SOS Alliance. All spoke against the deal, but in the end it was futile.

Daryl Slusher, who while politics editor at The Austin Chronicle had written scathing articles about Gary Bradley, agonized aloud, but in the end even he voted for the settlement. “What I can’t accept is that just because you’ve had a disagreement with someone that forever you have to have that disagreement and not heal it. Otherwise we would never end conflict except by total annihilation of the other side,” he said.

Looking back on Rather’s defection from the SOS Alliance to support the Bradley Settlement, Mary Arnold says, “Betrayal? I can’t use those terms, certainly not…I think she saw the council was going to approve a deal so she was trying to get as much as could be gotten. Part of the problem is that she had not had as many years of dealing with Gary Bradley as some others of us had, and she was a lot more trusting of his words, rather than being cognizant of his deeds.” As in the case of the Forum PUD, the inability of the environmental groups to reach broad consensus gave the City Council no clear direction as to what it should do. The city used its considerable resources to negotiate the deal and to scrutinize it for environmental protection, and then decided to heed John Lennon’s advice to give peace a chance.

What’s next for environmentalists?

It should come as no surprise that there will be differences of opinion among environmental groups as to the best course of action on a given issue. The leaders of the major environmental groups are intelligent, articulate, strong-willed people who are genuinely concerned, and their respective organizations have different objectives. Green comes in all shades.

Political consultant Dean Rindy goes way back in the environmental movement. He co-chaired the Austin Tomorrow Committee with Mary Arnold in the mid-seventies. As a professional he has worked to put many environmentally backed candidates in office. Assessing the current situation, Rindy says, “Regardless of any one faction, the environmental movement remains very strong because it remains the way most Austin voters think. Protecting the environment is one of the main goals now of the business and high-tech community because it’s such an important economic asset, and they talk about it that way.”

Jon Beall says that recognition has brought a positive impact. “All these developers who come to the city with their own little dream that their project is going to achieve the American Dream are now trying to fit their projects into what the rest of us think Central Texas should be,” Beall says. “Whereas before the City Council would be lobbied hard by skilled and sophisticated people and the end result was the rest of the community was left slightly dysfunctional, with development and the cost of infrastructure and services going places that were to the detriment of the rest of us.”

Brigid Shea says, “The debate’s over. Everybody’s in agreement. Now the environmental groups need to think about a new level of work.”

Jim Marston talks of the future this way: “It’s going to require the environmental movement to change from being cries in the wilderness about problems to solving problems. Our task is no longer to say what’s wrong. We’ve got to show folks how to deal with complex problems.”

Grant Godfrey of the SOS Alliance says part of the new mission should be educating people. “There is phenomenal and outrageous growth happening. People are coming to the city who don’t know much about issues, and certainly not the history of ten years or so in the environmental movement. The environmental community needs to go out and educate these newcomers on how Austin has become such a nice place to live, and how to keep it that way, and why we have to fight about it.”

The environmental movement is in a sense groaning under the weight of its own success, grappling with how to help govern effectively, and redefining itself to operate in a radically different future.

Daryl Slusher says, “We have won because we’re no longer in the opposition, but trying to get the job done as part of the governing coalition. That’s been one of the challenges, going from being in the opposition to actually implementing what you want to get done. The latter is much more difficult. It’s a challenge to adapt to that. I have had to adapt to that myself and think I’ve done well at it, but it’s for others to decide.”

The things needed to save the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs are moving beyond the City of Austin’s reach, and it will take regional planning and cooperation with folks in Hays County to finish the job started in Austin. The City of Austin has bought some 15,000 acres of land and development rights over the aquifer to preserve, but it’s a financial impossibility to buy all that’s needed. “The basic weakness is money,” says Shudde Fath of the Save Barton Creek Association. “If we had enough money, we could buy up that land and quit fighting about it.”

Erin Foster was the founding mayor of the Village of Bear Creek and now chairs the Hays County Water Planning Partnership. “It’s sad to realize that what goes on out here in Hays County could undo what’s been done for the last ten years in Austin—the water’s going to be polluted before it ever gets to Austin,” Foster says with alarm. “That’s why I quit being in an environmental group in Austin (the SOS Alliance) and started this one. It isn’t just to save Barton Springs Pool—it’s to save our drinking water.”

Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen Texas since 1985, says, “Most of the decisions that will protect the watershed will soon be made in forums other than the Austin City Council, and we have to refocus on both the (Hays) County Commissioners Court and the Texas Legislature in order to protect the watershed.”

Environmentalists must not only wrap their minds around a larger geographic area but also face a broader range of issues with environmental implications, such as Smart Growth, light rail, major roadway projects, affordable housing, and more.

“The next set of issues coming up will be transportation-related and will be related to long-term sustainability of our community,” Public Citizen’s Smith says. “We’ll be focusing on how we manage growth as a region and whether we need to be developing regional government structures like they have in Nashville or Indianapolis.”

Mike Blizzard says of the transportation issue, “A lot of communities are learning you can’t build your way out of crisis. You have to change land-use patterns. Those will be some of the battles of the future. And neighborhood protection. How will we grow in the central city and preserve the things we care about and not make it a dumping ground for development?”

Mark Yznaga until recently worked as a political consultant in most City Council races involving green candidates. “The way I look at it is we’re in a major transition time and there’s a lot of confusion and reassessment on issues and tactics and strategy. During this transition there’s going to be a lot of disagreement,” he says. “During the transition we have new players and new people in decision-making roles in environmental groups and otherwise. It’s like going back ten years in time to the beginning of the nineties again. People are looking for direction.”

David Butts says, “I think that the overriding sense of pessimism about Austin’s quality of life declining—and quality of life entails more than just the natural environment, but natural environment’s a big part of it—is going to spark a real grassroots environmental, protect-our-quality-of-life movement in this city and I think it’s coming sooner rather than later. It’s in the wind. The spark hasn’t been lit yet, but it’s coming. I don’t know what it is. I’m not trying to be coy, but I can smell the kindling. It’s in the air and waiting for the right moment, so we can say, ‘They ain’t seen nothing yet.'”

The SOS Alliance has gone through major upheaval with the departure of Brigid Shea, who has started a consulting practice to advise high-tech companies on the environmental lay of the land, and Robin Rather, who resigned as chair after the Bradley Settlement.

Rather is now active in the Austin Network, a group of top high-tech CEOs dedicated to helping Austin solve some of the problems that have happened because of our extreme growth. She’s also helping lead the Hill Country Conservancy, whose mission is to acquire land and development rights for preservation.

“It became very clear for me to continue doing the work for the community, I needed to jump-start these other groups,” Rather says. “I learned that buying land and preserving land is probably the last best chance we have to preserve water quality and preserve the Hill Country that defines us. SOS is a litigation group…Strategically I felt we needed a broad-based, high-intensity open-space group to do the job. As much as I hated to leave, I still feel I’m very much on the same mission, just approaching it a little differently.”

Kirk Mitchell preceded Rather as chair of the SOS Alliance and is widely credited with reviving its predecessor, the Save Our Springs Legal Defense Fund, and raising funds to keep it alive, mainly by recruiting board members who would pay for the privilege of serving. He sees the SOS Alliance continuing to take a hard stance in the future.

“The community has this brand-name image of SOS (Alliance) being uncompromising, so it’s doubly dangerous for SOS to endorse some compromise deal,” Mitchell says. “If we say it’s okay, then that’s the outer edge. They expect us to be more principled. We were dragged into that over a two-year history, to give cover to political compromises that must occur—but it’s not our job.”

Bill Bunch totally agrees. He said the proof the aquifer is not being saved by deal-making is as obvious as the green scum that floats to the surface of Barton Springs pool every afternoon nowadays. “The council does back flips to get Computer Sciences Corp. off the banks of Barton Creek and then does the Bradley deal to extend water and sewer to do a mega-development on the recharge zone. How do you square those two things?” Bunch adds, “Because the boom has been so intense, there is enormous public support for slowing things down and protecting the environment—and the council doesn’t get that.”

Environmental leaders who have moved into elective office and are in policymaking roles see things differently. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman says, “If your position is always there is no treaty with the enemy, you will never have peace. If you believe it’s best for the environment to fight everything and lose everything, that’s a position for some people. For me it’s not. For me the aquifer and creeks are the thing, not my standing with some people.”

As for the future of the environmental movement, Goodman says, “We’re all alive and evolving into the kind of groups that can meet the issues, that can strategize in different ways, to make a difference just as we always have. Nothing stays static—they change or expand or shift. I think everybody is ready to continue being an advocate for this region for the preservation it needs. It’s not the same, but that’s good. We’ve learned a lot and are probably better prepared for it.”

Many in the environmental camp are frustrated with policymakers they helped elect but who seem unresponsive. Karin Ascot, conservation chair for the Sierra Club, says, “We’re growing like wildfire. This is a boomtown for developers. Anyone who thinks environmentalists hinder development—where have they been for three years? We’re still building like crazy over the aquifer and every other area. We’ve got a bond issue for roads (coming up in November) a mere two years after we just approved a bond issue for roads. It’s ironic if people think this has happened because of a green council.”

Mark Tschurr, who in July was elected chair of the SOS Alliance, says perhaps the “biggest threat” to progress is a City Council that’s recognized as an “environmental council.” “The old saying is it’s not your enemies but your friends you have to worry about,” Tschurr says. “People tend to become complacent when they think their council members are on the same side of an issue, and they don’t pay attention. To some extent, you almost want to know the people on the council are opposed to your view, because it galvanizes people to participate.”

Susana Almanza, director of PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources) and a Planning Commission member who expects to be replaced any minute on that appointed body, says maybe environmental groups ought to spend more time talking to each other and less time worrying about the City Council. “In the future it’s going to be real important for the mainstream environmental groups and the environmental justice groups to sit down and have a dialog about these issues. There always seems to be disagreement, but we have a lot more in common with environmental groups than the rest of the city. It’s necessary that we work together because there’s always changes in the City Council. If we don’t work together, a lot of the work we try to do could easily be erased.”

At root, the environmental movement is not monolithic and will never speak with one voice, except on galvanizing issues on an order of magnitude equivalent to the SOS Ordinance election or another bond election for preservation of more land.

Week in, week out, the kind of advice that environmentalists are going to give to public policymakers will provide a smorgasbord of environmental opinions for consideration. On most issues, even those as controversial as the Forum PUD and the Bradley Settlement, there’s unlikely to be a unified environmental mandate that overwhelms and forces policymakers in a given direction. Individuals and groups will continue to do their good works and pray that somehow the collective effort will deliver Austin into the kingdom of environmental heaven.

This article was originally published in The Good Life magazine in September 2000

A con man gets his just reward

Loan packager finds easy targets in tough times

About 4600 words

This is a four-part series of articles about a man who was ripping off small businesses all over Central Texas. The first two articles exposed his misdeeds. The third article reported his indictments. The fourth article reported his sentencing more than two years after the first articles were published. © Copyright 1990 by Austin Business Journal Inc.

Small-business owners hired John B. Chenault with good intentions and good money in hopes he would help them get loans they needed to keep their businesses afloat.

But many of his clients say what they got was ripped off.

They say Chenault took their money and then took longer than necessary to prepare their loan applications, which often turned out to be worthless. In many cases, he produced nothing but excuses.

The Austin Business Journal located 28 small businesses in Central Texas that paid Chenault to assemble their financial package for a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Ten of those businesses got their packages. But some of them waited more than a year.

Not one of them got a loan.

Chenault never promised business owners a loan would be approved. Not in writing. But he may have misled clients. Many of those interviewed said that when Chenault was clinching a contract and getting a non-refundable deposit, he often said things like, “I see no problem with this,” and “You are just the kind of people banks are looking for.”

“I have made statements like that,” Chenault conceded in an interview with the Austin Business Journal.

Eighteen of Chenault’s clients, who paid fees ranging from $500 to $3,500 apiece, got little or nothing in return.

Stanley and Gilda Ginsel, a brother and sister who ran an Austin feed store, sued Chenault after he took their $3,400 and did not produce their loan application (see accompanying story, “Business dream lost in loan deal gone bad”). Alleging Chenault was guilty of deceptive trade practices, they won treble damages of more than $14,000 in a court-ordered judgment.

The Ginsels haven’t gotten a dime of it. They own one of Chenault’s 13 unpaid judgments, totaling $143,000 plus interest, that are recorded in the Travis County Courthouse.

None of his judgment. creditors are likely to collect. Their claims take a back seat to the Internal Revenue Service, which in February 1989 filed liens against Chenault for $127,000.

A lot of people have taken a chance on Chenault, but he trusts no one. He habitually cashes the checks he gets before the ink dries. He drives straight from contract signings to his client’s bank, where he pockets cold cash.

“I’m not going to work on a non-sufficient funds check. I have no embarrassment whatsoever. I’ll do that to anyone,” he said.

Bad-mouth advertising

Chenault’s upset clients are legion. Business owners claiming Chenault ripped them off were found in Austin, Bastrop, Bertram, Burnet, Elgin, Marble Falls, Killeen, Manchaca, Round Rock, Smithville and Wimberley.

“I begged. I threatened him one time to whip his fat ass. I threatened him with the IRS. I tried every trick in the book to get what I paid for,” said Byron Benoit, who owns Associated Drilling of Manchaca.

Benoit was so steamed he tried to frighten Chenault, who stands six-foot-one and weighs around 275 pounds.

“I was screaming. I was so upset my old heart was pumping. I’m five-foot-six and 135 pounds. I’m not going to whip anybody,” Benoit said.

Chenault admits he had Benoit in a dither and did little to calm him.

“He was screaming, ‘You fat S.O.B., are you going to do this [package] for me?’ He was having a nervous breakdown,” Chenault said.

Did Benoit have a legitimate gripe?

“Yes, he has a complaint. I told him, ‘I’m not doing applications by hand anymore. I’m converting to computers and you have to wait,'” Chenault said.

This kind of treatment has not endeared Chenault to his clients. Nor has it earned him good word-of-mouth.

“I have never had anyone get a loan approved and then recommend me to someone else. They’re interested in what helps them the cheapest and the quickest, and then it’s, ‘Get out of my life,'” Chenault said.

He’s happy to oblige. Once a package is completed, Chenault disclaims any interest in whether it presents a creditworthy client, or whether it gets a thumbs up or a thumbs down from lenders.

“My responsibility ends when I turn the package over to a banker,” he said. “People don’t even tell me if a loan’s approved or disapproved. Banks don’t call me and neither do the clients. I do not have any curiosity because I’m working on other deals.”

Feds fed up with Chenault

The SBA has taken special note of Chennault’s actions.

A September 1988 certified letter from the SBA’s regional counsel in Dallas, obtained by the Austin Business Journal under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), warned Chenault to stop using a business card that said, “John B. Chenault, SBA LOAN PACKAGE PREPARATION.” The letter also directed him to quit using the SBA’s name in advertisements or other representations.

‘‘The failure to refrain from the use of our name or the term SBA in representations could lead to the initiation of debarment proceedings,” the letter warned. If debarred, Chenault could not prepare loan packages to be submitted, through lenders, to the SBA.

According to a second letter obtained under the FOIA, the SBA’s district office in San. Antonio recently rejected one of Chenault’s loan packages because of what officials said was its extremely poor quality.

The package requested a loan of $120,000 for Barney Novelties Inc. of Austin, doing business as The Party House, owned by Jorge Barney.

“We are returning the application because it is very incomplete, poorly prepared, and the packaging fees charged to applicant are very excessive,” J.E. Clement, assistant district director for finance and investment, wrote in a May 9 letter.

Chenault told the Austin Business Journal that another consultant reworked the package before it went to the SBA and it was “totally out of my hands.”

But only Chenault drew a fee.

“He charged this guy $2,000 and it’s so poorly prepared we sent it back,” Clement said. “What amazes me is how this guy continues to operate. It takes a ton of complaints before you can get the authorities to act.”

Barney, like nearly all of Chenault’s clients interviewed, said he called Chenault after receiving a solicitation letter.

“He made it sound like a for-sure deal,” said Barney, who hired Chenault last September. “He said he didn’t see any problems, that ‘everything looks real pretty.'”

That’s not the way the SBA saw it. The rejection letter for Barney’s loan cited 10 items missing from his package, including such basics as current financial statements, tax returns and inventories.

The letter went on to tell the lender, “If your bank is going to submit loan applications prepared by this packager, we suggest that you closely review the information provided in the loan package for accuracy prior to submission to the SBA.”

Clement got so fed up earlier this year he told Chenault he would not accept any loan package Chenault prepared. But because Chenault has not been formally debarred, the decision did not stick.

Drawing flak everywhere

Chenault has been investigated by the U.S. Postal Service, which found no violations of federal statutes concerning mail fraud or false representation.

Austin’s Better Business Bureau found the “nature and pattern of complaints” about Chenault significant enough to provide information to the Texas Attorney General for action deemed appropriate, said John Etchieson, president of the BBB.

The attorney general’s office has received numerous complaints of its own about Chenault. The complaints allege he took fees of from $600 to $2,000, produced nothing, and refused to return the money.

To date, however, the attorney general has neither initiated an investigation of Chenault nor filed a lawsuit against him.

“We have to pick the ones that indicate a pattern of deception that affects a large number of people,” said assistant Attorney General Clyde Farrell, chief of the Consumer Protection Division. He said the office gets 25,000 to 40,000 complaints a year.

Chenault also frequently got into hot water with another facet of his work, brokering the sale of businesses. One client got Chenault indicted on a felony, forcing him to pay $5,000 in restitution. Three others filed lawsuits that resulted in two financial judgments against Chenault and forced restitution of $10,000. The fifth filed a complaint with the attorney general.

Concerns about Chenault’s questionable conduct as a loan packager and business broker are heightened by the fact that he has a criminal record. Chenault once served 21 months in a Texas penitentiary for theft. His rap sheet stretches from 1967 to 1976 and then leapfrogs to 1986 and 1988.

Qualifications ‘weak’

Chenault’s credentials—or lack of them—give further cause for concern. While he has a high-school education and no formal training in his work, he conveys the impression to clients that he can pull a punch-drunk business off the ropes and send it back into the ring with arms pumping and legs dancing on the pure adrenaline of fresh money.

Yet he admits his limitations.

“To put together an SBA loan package takes knowledge and experience of what’s required by banks. Maybe I have weak qualifications,” he said. Chenault said he was shown how to prepare SBA packages by a local SBA official in the early 1980s.

Given that he has no professional education, he was asked to demonstrate his business acumen by naming the businesses he has owned. Chenault declined, saying, “I don’t choose to answer.”

But court documents and various contracts show Chenault has used at least eight different company names since 1985:

• Since September 1988, he has operated as Business Brokerage and Financing Service at 3508 Far West Boulevard.

• From April 1987 to September 1988, Chenault had an office in the Heritage Bank Tower at 7800 N. MoPac, doing business variously as Chenault and Co., J. Chenault Business Brokerage, and Business Brokerage and Service.

• Before that, he worked out of 13706 Research Boulevard and had companies called Rental Assurance Co. and National Business Listing Service.

• In September 1985, he was also doing business as Hornet Service Station, with offices at 7801 N. Lamar.

Chenault was successfully sued while he operated many of these companies.

“I’m not going to sit around and say I’m an angel,” he said.

Vows to continue

A number of Chenault’s clients interviewed by the Austin Business Journal agree Chenault’s no angel. They said he’s a smooth-talking slicker who often intimidated them.

“He’s a high roller, driving a big Cadillac Eldorado. He dresses real nice…expensive clothes, shoes, everything,” said George Gale, owner of The Marine Center, a Marble Falls marina. “I just contributed to it, I guess,” Gale said, referring to the $1,400 he claims to have paid Chenault.

“Smooth talker? True. High roller? True. Intimidator? True,” Chenault said. “I make them tell the truth and furnish all the facts about their businesses, good or bad. Some respected me for it, some hated me for it…Intimidation is a tactic used by all salesmen.”

But intimidation also conveys an element of danger.

Many people are scared of Chenault, and with reason. Both criminal and civil court documents indicate he’s prone to violence.

He battered two wives, now ex-wives, court documents and witnesses say.

He was charged with criminal mischief when, following a near traffic mishap, he tried to drag a man out of his car and, prevented from it by locked doors, stood screaming obscenities and kicking the car until he racked up damages totaling $379.

Chenault even intimidated General Motors Acceptance Corp., which filed for a court order to get back two CadilIacs leased to Chenault, for which he had failed to make payments. The petition stated the firm feared Chenault “may assault its agents if repossession of the vehicles is attempted by GMAC.”

Despite his voluminous shortcomings, Chenault would like to paper over his criminal record, ignore his financial irresponsibility and forget about his clients’ complaints. He furnished alibis about embittered ex-wives, incompetent employees and simple bad judgment. But he’s not quitting.

“Nobody’s going to put me out of business because I don’t do anything criminal. Only criminals get put out of business,” Chenault said. ‘‘They have a list of people who have been proven to defraud people and my name is not on the list.”

But will potential customers, made aware of Chenault’s irresponsible and sometimes violent past, still hire him?

“As long as I sold their businesses, I could be Jack the Ripper,” Chenault said. ‘‘They love me because I sold their rotten, [crappy], stinking businesses.”

This article was originally published in the May 28, 1990, edition of the Austin Business Journal.

Business dream lost in loan deal gone bad

© Copyright 1990 by Austin Business Journal Inc.

Mention John Bert Chenault to his clients and they get mad. They call him a con man, a crook and a lying bum, plus a lot of things you can’t print in a newspaper.

“The man has no conscience. He doesn’t care,” said Gilda Ginsel, who with brother Stanley Ginsel ran the now-defunct Ginsel Countryside Supply, a feed store on U.S. Highway 290 East.

When asked about complainers, Chenault explained each deal, sometimes admitting error, sometimes not.

“I don’t like to suck [up to] to clients,” Chenault explains. “If I worried about everything, I would not sleep at night.”

Does he sleep well?

“Sure,” Chenault said.

Gilda Ginsel has reason to be cranky. She and her brother lost $3,400 to Chenault and then spent $550 in legal fees chasing after it They got a court-ordered judgment of more than $14,000 that included treble damages for deceptive trade practices.

They did not collect a penny. But out of dozens of Chenault’s clients who feel ripped off, they are one of only a tiny fraction who had the resources to sue.

By 1987, the Ginsels could see that horse feed, the mainstay of their business, was a dying commodity. Horse owners were going bust and selling off their stock. And the fabled expansion of the Manor Downs race track was a fast-fading hope.

The Ginsels wanted to diversify Countryside Supply. They aimed to expand their minor line of pet supplies and western wear and become a mini-Callahan’s General Store to serve northeast Travis County customers the way their model for success dominated the southeast sector.

They figured that with a loan all things were possible. As if an omen, at that moment the Ginsels received one of Chenault’s short letters offering his services.

“They’re backed against the wall. It gets to the point of desperation. They respond to the letters I send out,” Chenault said, in describing the people who buy what he’s selling.

Chenault knows his prospects.

“Our business was on the rocks,” Gilda Ginsel said.

Bring on the hope

In July 1987, the Ginsels hired Chenault to package their application for a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Members of a successful farming family that owns a grain elevator in Manor, the Ginsels paid him a $900 fee up front. In October 1987 they paid him another $2,500.

For $3,400, the Ginsels got zilch. They fumed. They cried. They demanded a refund.

When Chenault refused to give back their money, the Ginsels went to the Austin Police Department, which, they say, pooh-poohed their allegations. Deprived of criminal prosecution, the Ginsels filed a lawsuit against Chenault in August 1988.

While the suit was still pending, Gilda Ginsel took on Chenault like a feisty flyweight boxer windmilling around the heavyweight champ. She made written complaints with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the Texas Attorney General. Both agencies said their hands were tied because of the lawsuit

She also ran a classified ad in the Sunday Austin American-Statesman. The ad was no bigger than a paper clip: “If you have done business with John Chenault call ….”

From Bertram and Killeen, from Garfield and Oak Hill, and from all over Austin, the responses poured in. Chenault’s customers claimed losses from as little as $500 to as much as $3,500 apiece.

“On Monday the phone was ringing off the hook. I took 25 calls. Sixteen gave useful information,” Ginsel said.

Filled full of fresh ammunition, Ginsel obtained complaint forms from the attorney general and mailed them to her callers, urging them to file.

“I thought the attorney general or the district attorney would say, ‘Aha!’ But nobody cared,” she said. “The little guy wins against the jerks. I’ve seen that old movie too many times.”

She also tried to interest federal postal authorities in investigating Chenault for furthering an allegedly criminal scheme through the mails. In a June 1989 reply to Ginsel, postal authorities wrote, “the activities of this subject have previously been investigated by this service. The circumstances and evidence disclosed did not establish use of the mails in violation of the mail fraud or false representation statutes.”

Finally, there was no remedy left but the lawsuit.

Won battle, lost war

Chenault adhered to his long-established pattern and did not show up to defend himself against the Ginsels’ lawsuit. Thus, in March 1989 the court awarded the Ginsels a default judgment that totaled $14,456.

The victory was hollow. Their lawyer never pursued collection.

“I should have gotten a hungrier attorney,” Ginsel said.

Not that it would have done them much good, considering the $270,000 in tax liens and judgments Chenault has filed against him in Travis County.

Countryside Supply, deprived of the capital to switch its line of merchandise, folded in June 1989. The Ginsels decided they could make more by leasing out their building than they could trying to run a feed store for a vanishing herd of horses.

In an interview with the Austin Business Journal, Chenault admitted he treated the Ginsels poorly.

“I did not complete their package in a prudent, quick manner. My mistake,” Chenault said.

Given the money she lost, Chenault’s admission rings hollow to Gilda Ginsel. It’s now almost three years since she hired Chenault and more than 14 months after winning a court-ordered judgment. Having talked to so many others who rolled the dice with Chenault and lost their wad, Ginsel wonders when justice will be done.

“This guy takes advantage of businesses he knows are on their last legs, and I find that reprehensible,” Ginsel said. “He never delivers anything but heartaches.”

This article was originally published in the May 28, 1990, edition of the Austin Business Journal.

Chenault indicted in two counties

by Ken Martin
Austin Business Journal Editor

© Copyright 1991 by Austin Business Journal Inc.

A man whose questionable business practices were exposed in articles published last year by the Austin Business Journal has been indicted in both Travis and Williamson counties.

John Bert Chenault, 52, was indicted in Travis County on a first-degree felony for alleged misapplication of fiduciary property of more than $10,000.

A Williamson County grand jury indicated Chenault for a third-degree felony theft charge.

Bonds were set at $15,000 in Williamson County and $7,500 in Travis County. Chenault has been released on bail in both counties pending disposition of the cases.

Articles published by the Austin Business Journal of May 28, 1990, stated that 28 small businesses in Central Texas had paid Chenault to assemble an application package for a loan guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Ten of those businesses got their packages, although some of them waited more than a year.

Not one of them got a loan.

At the time these articles were published, Chenault had 13 unpaid court judgments against him totaling $143,000 plus interest, recorded in the Travis County Courthouse. In February 1989, the Internal Revenue Service filed liens against Chenault totaling $127,000.

The Travis County charges now pending against Chenault stem from his alleged acceptance of some $20,000 from Sergio Tristan in connection with the purchase of a business in Austin. The indictment says Chenault withdrew funds from an escrow account and recklessly misapplied sums of more than $200 but less than $10,000 on eight separate occasions between January and March of 1990.

The pending Williamson County theft charges, court records say, stem from dealings with Bill Topiwala, who lost $5,000, and David Stone, who lost $600.

Chenault is represented by Austin attorney Terry Stork, who declined to comment on the indictments.

Civil lawsuit, too

In addition to these criminal charges, Texas Attorney General Dan Morales filed a civil suit against Chenault last March. The suit claims that Chenault “engaged in false, deceptive and misleading acts and practices in the court of trade and commerce as defined in the…Deceptive Trade Practices Act.”

The civil action, which is still pending, asked the court to assess civil penalties up to $10,000 against Chenault; order him to restore all money taken by means of unlawful acts or to award judgment for damages to compensate for such losses; and order him to pay the state for attorney fees and costs of court.

According to the lawsuit, Chenault typically solicits business by mailing letters to small-business owners. The letters state his company engages in the sale of businesses and prepares loan packages for small businesses. The solicitation letters state his company has been successful in locating funding for businesses although, according to the lawsuit, he made little effort to locate funds once he collected his advance fee.

Chenault does business as John B. Chenault and Associates Business Brokerage and Financing Service at 13706 Research Blvd., according to the lawsuit.

If convicted on the first-degree felony charge in Travis County, Chenault could be sentenced to five to 99 years or life in prison and fined up to $10,000, according to Assistant District Attorney Blake Williams, who is prosecuting the case.

Chenault is still under investigation in Travis County and other indictments are possible, said Williams, who works in the special prosecutions division that handles paper-type crimes within the public integrity unit.

Long history of problems

Chenault was previously convicted of theft in Bexar County. He served 21 months in a Texas penitentiary for that offense and was discharged in 1971. His rap sheet stretches from 1967 to 1976 and then leapfrogs to 1986 and 1988.

Chenault has used at least eight different company names since 1985 and was successfully sued while operating many of these companies.

Violence also mars Chenault’s record.

He battered two wives, now ex-wives, court documents and witnesses said.

In December 1986, he was charged with criminal mischief when, after a near traffic mishap in Austin, he tried to drag a man out of his car and, prevented from it by locked doors, stood screaming obscenities and kicking the door until he racked up damages totaling $379.

General Motors Acceptance Corp. filed a court order to get back two Cadillacs leased to Chenault, for which he had failed to make payments. The petition stated the firm feared Chenault “may assault its agents if repossession of the vehicles is attempted by GMAC.”

This article was originally published in the September 16, 1991, edition of the Austin Business Journal.

Chenault sentenced

by Ken Martin
Austin Business Journal Editor
© Copyright 1992 by Austin Business Journal Inc.

An Austin loan packager and business broker was sentenced in a Travis County state district court last week after pleading guilty to two charges of misapplication of fiduciary property of more than $10,000, both first-degree felonies.

John Bert Chenault was ordered by District Judge Jon Wisser to serve 14 days in the Travis County Jail, 10 years probation, 10 years deferred adjudication, pay a $1,000 fine and make restitution of $33,500. He has a long history of criminal conduct and served prison time, per records maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Chenault’s questionable business practices were exposed by the Austin Business Journal more than two years ago.

The lead paragraph in one of the stories about Chenault, published May 28, 1990, described the excesses of a man who ripped off clients all over Central Texas, both in his work as a business broker and as an assembler of financial packages to be submitted for loans.

“Mention John Bert Chenault to his clients and they get mad. They call him a con man, a crook and lying bum, plus a lot of things you can’t print in a newspaper,” the story said.

He battered two wives, now ex-wives, court documents and witnesses say. In other violent episodes, he was arrested for criminal mischief and had a court order filed against him by an automobile-leasing agency, which feared he would assault agents trying to repossess two Cadillacs. He once served 21 months in a Texas penitentiary for theft. His rap sheet goes back to 1967.

Chenault had shrugged off lawsuits for deceptive trade practices and flaunted unpaid judgments and tax liens that together totaled $270,000 at the time the first article was published. Yet he wore expensive suits, drove a late model Cadillac and maintained a spacious office. He attracted new clients with a direct-mail campaign that appealed particularly to struggling small firms.

In March 1991, after conducting an independent investigation, the Texas Attorney General sued Chenault under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

As an outgrowth of the attorney general’s investigation, Chenault was subsequently indicted in Williamson County on felony theft charges. The indictment stemmed from dealings with Bill Topiwala, who lost $5,000, and David Stone, who lost $600. The charges were dropped after Chenault made restitution.

Chenault also was indicted in Travis County on a first-degree felony charge of misapplication of fiduciary property of more than $10,000. The charge, stemming from acceptance of some $20,000 from Sergio and Guadalupe Tristan in connection with the purchase of a laundromat in Austin, said Chenault withdrew funds from an escrow account and recklessly misapplied sums of more than $200 but less than $10,000 on eight occasions.

Last week, Chenault pled guilty in the Tristan case and a similar one in which he accepted $26,000 from Greg Shaw in connection with the purchase of a restaurant.

Blake Williams, an assistant district attorney in the Public Integrity Unit that prosecutes white-collar crimes for the Travis County District Attorney, said in both the Tristan and Shaw cases, Chenault withdrew earnest money from the escrow account and used it for expenses unrelated to any business he had with the victims. When the deals fell through, he was unable to refund the money.

Since his indictment on the Tristan case, Chenault repaid $9,000 of the $42,500 he had accepted from Shaw and the Tristans, Williams said. The court-ordered restitution of $33,500 would repay the remainder.

Court documents from last week’s sentencing show Chenault is to repay the $26,000 at $125 a month and the $7,500 at $25 a month until the sums are paid in full. Assuming the repayment schedules are met, the 300-pound Chenault, now 52 years of age, would be nearly 78 years old when the debt is repaid.

Esther Chavez, the assistant attorney general who filed the civil lawsuit against Chenault, last week said the case had been put on hold during prosecution of the criminal charges.

The lawsuit had sought to assess civil penalties of up to $10,000 against Chenault, and to order him to restore all money taken from another set of victims by means of unlawful acts or to award judgment for damages.

“We have negotiated an agreed judgment that includes injunctive relief that is similar to what the criminal court has ordered,” Chavez said.

In sentencing last week, Chenault also was prohibited from engaging in either business brokering or the preparation of loan packages for the Small Business Administration.

This article was originally published in the July 20, 1992, edition of the Austin Business Journal.