Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"You may be asking why run against Mayor Wynn? I can tell you I am not running against the mayor; rather, I am running against maintaining the status quo." Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, throwing his hat into the ring for next spring's mayoral race against incumbent Will Wynn
Headlines Former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd remained in stable condition at press time Wednesday after suffering serious injuries in a bicycle accident Sunday. Todd suffered brain bruises among other injuries, but he was wearing a helmet and his family remains optimistic that he will recover. See "Bike Spill Leaves Former Mayor Todd in Stable Condition."
On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Perry set a Jan. 17 date for a special election to replace state House District 48 Rep. Todd Baxter, who resigned Nov. 1 to become a telecommunications lobbyist. Dellionaire Republican Ben Bentzin, who lost a challenge to state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos in 2002, has said he'll run for the seat, and will likely face at least three Democratic opponents: lawyer Andy Brown, former Eanes school board member Donna Howard, and former AISD board president Kathy Rider. See "Naked City below."
The citizens Bond Election Advisory Committee met again Tuesday night, straining mightily to get within shouting distance of a $600 million target total. Some members want more for affordable housing (currently at $67.5 million) or open space ($92.3 million) and less for facilities ($144 million), and the proposed central library has been whittled from an ambitious $124 million down to a utilitarian $90 million. Still in all, the current working total is at $614.8 million, with subcommittees meeting again before a Dec. 8 public hearing to try to pare or adjust some more. A bond election is tentatively set for May, but Mayor Wynn recently suggested a delay might be necessary.
The May City Council elections began to take firmer shape, as Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas formally announced his anticipated challenge for mayor, and firefighters union president Mike Martinez declared for the Place 2 seat now held by term-limited incumbent Raul Alvarez. See "Naked City" and "Thomas Declares for Mayor."
Naked City Mike Martinez made it official this week. The Austin Association of Professional Firefighters president, fresh from the hard-fought and headlined negotiations of the latest union contract, declared his candidacy for City Council Place 2, the seat now held by term-limited Raul Alvarez. Martinez told Naked City he wants to be "the advocate for the entire community that he's been for the firefighters," and pointed to his experience at dealing with the issues confronting the council and the city as particularly qualifying him to take this step. He's recruited a brace of political heavy hitters for his campaign team: consultants David Butts and Mark Nathan, former Jennifer Kim aide and campaign manager Amy Everhart, and former Lloyd Doggett aide Kristi Willis. Most prominently, former Council Member Jackie Goodman has agreed to be Martinez's treasurer. Martinez said he will miss his position with the firefighters, but that he wants to "continue his public service for the city of Austin, and to play a leadership role in how it grows and prospers in the future." As reported here earlier, other potential candidates mentioned for Place 2 include Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Eliza May and former state Sen. Hector Uribe. Michael King
Squeezed for space, county commissioners have agreed to take a second look at the proposed expansion of the Travis Co. Forensic Center. At this week's Commissioners Court meeting, Executive Manager Alicia Perez reported that the county already might have outgrown the proposed expansion of its facility on Sabine Street, which was only opened in 1997. County Judge Sam Biscoe says it's time to take a closer look at what outlying counties are paying for their autopsies. More than 40 counties pay to use the services of the Travis Co. medical examiner. If the demand is high enough to demand more space, it might be time for those counties to kick in more money for the services, Biscoe said. County commissioners agreed to put the plan on hold while they mull the issue and review the options with outlying counties. (For more on the medical examiner's office, see "Trouble at the ME's Office"). Kimberly Reeves
This Saturday, Dec. 3, the city's planning commission is hosting a "retreat," 9am-1pm on the third floor of One Texas Center. Instead of toasting s'mores, they'll be discussing changes to Austin's neighborhood planning process. With several neighborhood plans not yet completed we're looking at you, Downtown the retreat will be illuminating for those interested in the planning process, or with an axe to grind against the current process. It's open to the public, so don't feel like you're crashing the party. Wells Dunbar
Texas Disposal Systems Landfill Inc., operator of a facility just southeast of Austin, has petitioned the EPA to revoke the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's hazardous-waste regulation authority, claiming the commission's failure to act in an ongoing case has put people at risk. For more than eight years, TDS has battled with Zenith Electronics and Penske truck rental company over a load of damaged TV tubes (considered hazardous due to high lead content) dumped at TDS, which is not a hazardous-waste facility. The TCEQ first cited Zenith and Penske for improperly allowing the waste to go to TDS but then said since the waste was diluted with trash, it didn't have to be handled as hazardous. TDS has refused to release the lead-laced garbage, fearing liability, and has alleged improperly close relations between TCEQ, state officials, and Penske (see "Lead-Laced Garbage Case back in Court," Oct. 21). The federal hazardous-waste program, administered by the EPA, is delegated to states provided their program is as stringent as the EPA's. TDS says the TCEQ's is not. "If the EPA does not act to correct the problems in a reasonable time, TDS is prepared to file suit in federal court," said TDS attorney Rick Lowerre. More info at www.texasdisposal.com/tceq_filings.htm. Daniel Mottola
AISD awarded on Monday night belated diplomas to 21 veterans who left high school to fight in foreign wars. The veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam received a flag from Congressman Lloyd Doggett and a certificate from Sen. John Cornyn, both of whom were represented at the ceremony by staff members. "It is our privilege to honor these men who sacrificed their education to serve their country," said AISD board President Doyle Valdez to an auditorium packed with veterans and their families. Rachel Proctor May
Travis Co. taxpayers will pay an estimated $375,000 for a Jan. 17 special election to replace former House District 48 Rep. Todd Baxter, who left office early to lobby for the cable industry. Gov. Rick Perry this week set the special election date to give the district representation when the Lege convenes next spring in a special session to address school finance. Democrats say the scheduling is designed to favor the GOP's favored candidate Ben Bentzin, a former Dell executive with a deep bank account. At least three Democratic candidates are expected to run for the seat attorney Andy Brown, former Eanes school board member Donna Howard, and former AISD board President Kathy Rider. Another Dem, Kelly White, is mulling the race as well, after nearly beating Baxter in 2004. Democrats will have to scramble because the narrow window forces them to scrounge for money over the holidays. Then the campaign goes full tilt after Jan. 2 for a two-week run before voters go to the polls the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. By contrast, Perry saw no need to call a special election to fill the vacancy created by the death of Houston Rep. Joe Moreno, a Democrat, who was killed in a traffic accident in May. Despite two special sessions in the summer, Perry declined to call for an emergency election to replace one Democrat with another, leaving the district without a voice on crucial school-finance votes. Amy Smith
Beyond City Limits Round Rock has made it onto at least one list of national bests, coming in as the eighth safest city in the country, according to the annual Safest City Awards, ranked by number-crunching firm Morgan Quitno. Round Rock is the only Texas city to make the overall top 25, while Dallas was the lone Texas city among the country's 25 most dangerous places, sliding in at number 22. Austin placed as the fifth safest city in the country for cities with more than 500,000 people, behind second-ranked El Paso and ahead of 10th-ranked Fort Worth. Dallas and Houston both placed among the most dangerous of the larger cities, ranking No. 5 and No. 9, respectively. For more info, see www.morganquitno.com/cit06pop.htm#25. Jordan Smith
The Texas Civil Rights Project last week filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Waco on behalf of three anti-war activists, arguing that two ordinances passed this fall on the heels of the monthlong anti-war protest led by Cindy Sheehan violate their constitutional right to free speech. Veterans Richard Underhill and Benjamin Hart Viges, along with Sherry Glover, whose son is serving in Iraq, argue that the ordinances passed by McLennan Co. commissioners in September "dramatically" limit the use of public roads near the Bush ranchette, and are overly broad, says Jim Harrington, TCRP director. Indeed, he said, the plain language would prohibit eating on the roadway, even while driving. At a preliminary hearing Nov. 23, a federal judge declined to grant a temporary injunction forbidding county officials from enforcing the provisions while the case is pending. But Harrington said that in his court testimony, McLennan Co. Sheriff Larry Lynch "narrowed" the application of the ordinances, saying the intent is to prohibit a combination of "sleeping, eating and residing" on the affected roadways. So it appears that at least for the time being the freedom to stand on the roadside, protest sign in one hand, a sandwich in the other, will remain intact. J.S.
If you thought manufacturers had quit making toys capable of maiming and debilitating the little ones, you're wrong at least according to the Texas Public Interest Research Group's 20th annual "Trouble in Toyland" report, released last week. According to the report, 16 children died from toy-related injuries last year. Researchers found toxic chemicals such as phthalates, linked to a range of health effects, in several plastic toys, including some labeled "phthalate-free." TEXPirg also found that choking on small parts, small balls, and balloons remains a leading cause of toy-related deaths and that many toys are improperly labeled. Loudness was also cited as a hazard in the report, which noted several toys that exceed the 90-decibel safety standard. Read the full document at www.toysafety.net. D.M.
A report released Thursday by the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, an affordable-housing advocacy and research organization based in Austin, warns of an impending housing and social service crisis involving the more than 400,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina now living in the state. "Meeting the Long-Term Housing Needs of Hurricane Evacuees in Texas," which lays out the findings and recommendations of a TLIHIS co-sponsored forum held Oct. 11 at the Capitol, notes that "Hurricane evacuees living in shelters were vulnerable long before the hurricanes struck. Most of them are very low or extremely low-income people we refer to as 'the working poor.'
Now, these families are even more vulnerable and are living in Texas' largest cities without existing social networks, jobs, and of course, stable housing." The federal government has yet to develop a long-term housing assistance plan for evacuees, the report notes, reading, "We don't yet know the long-term housing needs of the evacuees, let alone how we will provide for those needs." As Paul Hilgers, director of the city's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, commented in the document's pages, a big part of the problem is that "FEMA is a short term disaster relief program trying to respond to a long-term disaster." To read more, see www.texashousing.org/txlihis/
webnews/issues/news013.pdf. Cheryl Smith
Two months after Hurricane Rita, the actual cost of the damage to East Texas school districts is still undetermined. Tom Canby, the Texas Education Agency's liaison to FEMA, says FEMA teams are still out in the field, doing site surveys of the hurricane's damage. The process of repairs call the insurance company, assess the damage, file the claim is a lengthy one, Canby says. FEMA has agreed to provide stopgap coverage for storm damage, but the deductibles are high, as school districts noted at a recent Senate hearing in Beaumont. It took three years to close the books on damage due to Hurricane Alicia. Canby, a retired TEA division head, expects to be working in his role at least through the end of the school year. K.R.
Standard & Poor's School Matters a high-dollar collaborative backed by the Gates Foundation released a report last week saying there's no evidence that the 65% solution promoted by Gov. Rick Perry produces test-score gains. That echoes the claims of those in the education community who have said the governor's recent executive order was intended to woo conservatives rather than stir changes in education. The 65% solution, proposed in 10 states, including Texas, requires school districts to spend at least 65% of their operating budgets on classroom instruction, a proposal backed by conservative groups such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Americans for Prosperity. The S&P report noted, however, that how dollars are spent in the classroom is at least as important as the percentage of dollars spent in the classroom. "The fact of the matter is that 65% has never been about research," says consultant Lynn Moak of Moak Casey, which crunches the numbers for many school districts. "It's a good political line, an overly simplified answer to a complex issue and a standard that will be met through manipulation of information more than meaningful change." K.R.
When you think of cool-kid consumerism, Target springs to mind. The hipster big box joins its decidedly uncool competitor Wal-Mart, however, in getting thumbs down over its birth-control and contraceptive policy. Following an incident in Missouri, where a pharmacist refused to fill a legal prescription for morning-after contraception on moral grounds, Target Corporation has refused to codify policy ensuring its customers will have immediate access to prescription birth control, landing the chain in the crosshairs of Planned Parenthood. Target's response that prescriptions will be filled "either by another Target pharmacist or a different pharmacy," is unacceptable to PP, who wants Target to ensure prescriptions will be filled in-store and without delay, as many low-income women may have difficulty getting to another store across town. More info is available at www.fillmypillsnow.org, along with a list of responsible retailers. Curiously, Walgreens joins Target and Wal-Mart in the "thumbs down" category; the city of Austin, in selecting Walgreens as its primary pharmacy, drafted an agreement stating Walgreens would fill all prescriptions in-store, as a stipulation of the company's contract. W.D.
As temperatures fall, some Americans face the choice of "heat or eat," in the face of astronomically increased home heating costs. New research by the Union of Concerned Scientists offers explanations and solutions. "As demand for natural gas continues to grow, domestic production levels have struggled to keep pace and in 2000, rising demand ran into shrinking production," they report. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the 52% of American homes that use natural gas for heat will pay 41-70% more this winter than last, and up to 80% more than the previous five-year average. Fuel oil costs have gone up slightly less. Solutions, according to UCS, include cutting waste with programmable thermostats, weather-stripping and other efficiency techniques, and diversifying our national energy system with clean, homegrown, and more decentralized renewable energy supplies. They cite a recent EIA finding that a national renewable energy standard of 10% by 2020 (railed against by some Republican legislators) would increase competition, gradually bringing all energy prices down, and could save consumers $22.6 billion by 2025. UCS' analysis found a 20% by 2020 national standard (being pursued in Austin) could save consumers $49 billion. D.M.
The number of telecommuters has surpassed transit commuters in 27 of the 50 most populous metropolitan areas in the country, including Austin, according to a new study by Reason, a Libertarian think tank. The study, "The Quiet Success: Telecommuting's Impact on Transportation and Beyond," says telecommuting, a "zero-emissions transportation," may be the most cost-effective way to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. From 1990 to 2000 the number of those who usually worked at home grew by 23%, and roughly 4.5 million Americans now telecommute most work days, according to Census Bureau data. In what Reason called a decision that could hurt telecommuting, the Supreme Court recently refused to review New York's policy of taxing the income of out-of-state telecommuters, which the think tank says will leave many telecommuters vulnerable to double taxation. As a fix, Congress is considering the Telecommuter Tax Fairness Act to ensure that out-of-state telecommuters aren't taxed twice. Read the full study at www.reason.org/ps338.pdf. D.M.