Naked City

President Bush stinks at this game. Can you do better? 
Two Austinites have created <i>Where on Earth Is Osama bin Laden?</i>, a board game to help track down the terrorist that Bush can’t seem to find. 
For more, see p.30. 
(Hint: Invite over your neocon friends to play. You’ll beat them every time, but they might insist on never-ending repeat games, because “victory is just around the corner.”)
President Bush stinks at this game. Can you do better? Two Austinites have created Where on Earth Is Osama bin Laden?, a board game to help track down the terrorist that Bush can’t seem to find. For more, see p.30. (Hint: Invite over your neocon friends to play. You’ll beat them every time, but they might insist on never-ending repeat games, because “victory is just around the corner.”)


Quote of the Week

"Jesus didn't tell us to heal the sick unless politics gets in the way. When Jesus healed the lepers and gave the blind their sight, he didn't stop to worry about slippery slopes and potential implications."

Naked City
Photo By Jana Birchum

– Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, speaking at Southwestern University in Georgetown on Tuesday


Headlines

Last week's city council meeting was notable for the number of contentious items from past agendas to which the council returned: design standards, McMansions, taco vendors, and consolidating the city's auxiliary police forces. See p.20 for more.

• On Sept. 1, thousands of last year's hurricane survivors found themselves on their own for rent and utilities, as FEMA's emergency sheltering program came to an end. About 2,700 evacuee families in Texas lost their rent and utility assistance, about 330 of them in Austin.

• The judges of Mexico's highest electoral court unanimously ruled on Tuesday that conservative National Action Party candidate Felipe Calderon was the winner of Mexico's close, contested July 2 presidential election. According to Reuters, populist Democratic Revolution Party candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador "rejected the decision and said he would never accept Calderon as president." For an assortment of news about Mexico's contested presidential election, see news.yahoo.com/fc/world/mexico.


Naked City

• County commissioners asked the Travis Co. Healthcare District to trim another $1 million from its budget, stopping the district from coming close to bumping its rollback tax rate while still continuing to maintain its current services. It's somewhat of a setback for the district, which has ambitious plans for a number of projects: a regional nonprofit health insurance plan, a takeover of the city-run county health clinics, and revamping the soon-to-be vacated space at Brackenridge Hospital when the Dell Children's Hospital opens at Mueller next year. Still, raising the tax rate to the brink of rollback was more than County Judge Sam Biscoe could handle, especially given that the district is sitting on a one-time windfall of $30 million in unexpected federal funding. Hospital district officials want to bankroll that funding; and while they warned that the budget cuts could reduce enrollees in the county's assistance programs, the majority of the court agreed with Biscoe's assessment. "This is not going to kill any of your goals," said Commissioner Margaret Gomez, one of the most vocal supporters of the health care district. "It may slow it down a bit, but we will get there eventually." Karen Sonleitner proposed a more moderate cut of $500,000 to the proposed budget, blaming some of the district's rising costs on the city's charges to the county. She also hinted that the county may be taking back some public health services to have more control over cost. Sonleitner found an ally, surprisingly, in Gerald Daugherty, who initially opposed the health care district. At the final vote, however, Daugherty agreed with the majority to the $1 million cut. Given the rise in local property value, that would push the health care district's tax rate down from 7.79 cents to 7.34 cents per hundred-dollar valuation. – Kimberly Reeves

• Driven by increased reports of robbery and aggravated assault, the amount of violent crime in Austin rose 12.9% in the first half of 2006, as compared to last year, according to the mid-year crime report released Aug. 25 by APD. In order to address the uptick in robberies, APD says its analysts are identifying robbery hot spots for police to watch and patrol – including apartment complexes where Mexican immigrants have been victimized in the past. Police say recent immigrants – especially undocumented immigrants – have been targets in the past because they often carry cash and are afraid to call police; APD has been aggressively targeting the community to encourage the reporting of crime (which could, in part, be one factor behind this year's higher numbers). On a positive note, homicides are down for the first six months of the year, with only 13 reported cases, down six from last year. And while aggravated assaults have increased – driven by intoxication-related incidents, police say – the number of family-violence-related assaults has declined 9.5%. Police attribute that to officer efforts to stay in contact with individuals who have filed Emergency Protective Orders. You can download the full report here. – Jordan Smith

• In other local crime news, Texas Longhorn football cornerback Tarell Brown, reserve safety Tyrell Gatewood, and former player Aaron Harris were arrested Sept. 4 by Travis Co. Sheriff's Office deputies and charged with misdemeanor pot possession; Brown was also charged with the unlawful carrying of a handgun. Each was released later Monday. According to an arrest affidavit, a TCSO deputy reported that the car the three were riding in was swerving from lane to lane on North I-35; the driver, Harris, stumbled when getting out of the car, and admitted to the deputy that he'd smoked pot. Back at the car, TCSO Deputy A. Howard noticed Brown asleep in the back seat, holding a 9mm pistol in his lap. He and another deputy woke Brown, and were told the gun was, indeed, loaded. Police found a large joint – a 1.1-gram "blunt" – under the front seat, and later, at the Travis Co. Jail, they found about two-thirds of a gram of marijuana in Harris' pocket. The pot possession charge is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail; the gun charge is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail. Attorney Jamie Balagia, who is representing Brown and Gatewood, told reporters he was sure the two would be cleared of the charges. Gatewood owns the gun, he said, for which he has a permit; the gun was in the car because Gatewood had recently taken it to a shooting range and then forgot he'd stashed it under the seat. Reportedly, he asked Brown to hold it so that he wouldn't forget to put it away. Additionally, Harris told deputies the marijuana was his; Gatewood and Brown took drug tests Monday to prove they hadn't smoked any pot. – J.S.

• Is there a "Generation 9-11"? That's one of the questions Patricia Somers, a college/university student behavior specialist in the UT College of Education, set out to answer when she began a few years ago researching the impact Sept. 11, 2001 had on about 120 students in different parts of the country. Five years after that traumatic day, Somers concludes that yes, there is a "Generation 9-11," as that day had a significant lasting impact on students who were in college when the attacks occurred. Among other things, her project's interviewees became more patriotic post-9-11, made an effort to be better-informed citizens, voted in larger numbers, and became more civically engaged, she told Naked City. "They began to see their own mortality, so they wanted to give back something to society," Somers said. "Other than the death of a grandparent, they may not have faced people dying before. … That was part of a national experience in mourning." To learn more about Somers' project, see www.edb.utexas.edu/faculty/somers. – Cheryl Smith

• The AISD learned this week there is a dark side to success. The district has been encouraging more students to take the SAT and ACT college entrance exams, and they've followed the call. This year, the number of students taking the ACT increased 28% over last year, and the number taking the SAT went up 11%. However, the increase in participation has diluted the average scores. The SAT scores on reading and math were lower this year for all ethnic groups (African-American, Hispanic, and white). ACT scores remained more or less constant. Average Austin SAT scores were higher than the state average, while local ACT scores trailed behind the state as a whole. Both local and state scores were lower than the national average. – Michael May

• Think of your favorite outdoor activities around Austin, and chances are they somehow involve one of our creeks, lakes, or springs. With the goal of preserving the quality of Austin's waterways and drinking water, the city has come up with the Green Neighbor program, which provides useful suggestions such as earth-wise landscaping, water conservation, and pollution-fighting tips on car and pet care, as well as tips on safely handling toxic chemicals. Program Director Kathy Shay said that during the program's four-month, 7,000-person pilot, many people changed their behavior when it came to fertilizer use after learning its effect on creeks, and used Green Neighbor's tips on water conservation, trash reduction, and car care. Green Neighbor pamphlets are available at every Austin Library or at the city Watershed Protection and Development Review office at 505 Barton Springs Rd., 11th floor. The program Web site, which also has tons of info, is www.cityofaustin.org/watershed/greenneighbor. – Daniel Mottola

Western Travis Co. residents interested in serving on a negotiating team before the city of Austin follows through with its planned annexation of their communities can contact their county point man – Travis Co. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty – and he'll take it from there. Daugherty will choose five applicants for the team to help lay some ground rules before the city takes action in December 2008. Contact him at 854-9333 or at gerald.daugherty@co.travis.tx.us. Areas affected by the annexation cover about 432 acres west of Lake Austin, north of Bee Creek, and south of the Westlake Drive and Trailview Mesa intersection. – Amy Smith

• Also, Travis County isn't exactly a hotbed for livestock activity, but it's listed among more than 200 counties where livestock producers may be eligible for a share of $14.5 million in federal assistance. The grant is part of a new national disaster relief assistance program announced this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs will oversee the disbursement of funds. Payments are limited to $10,000 and only livestock producers are eligible. See more details at www.agr.state.tx.us. – A.S.


Beyond City Limits

• Martin Hubert, former deputy commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, has been appointed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality by Gov. Rick Perry, filling a slot left vacant for more than a full calendar year since Commissioner Ralph Marquez vacated his seat. The appointment was seen as a crucial tiebreaker, in light of the slew of 17 coal-fired power plants seeking permits, and given recent gridlock between TCEQ Chair Kathleen Hartnett White, who has not favored more stringent air pollution regulations, and Commissioner Larry Soward, who has. Some are more excited about Hubert's appointment than others, however. Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos released a brief, but scathing, statement that said "In twenty years in the Senate I have never had a governor – of either party – proceed with an appointment from my senate district without consultation and approval. … Why would Gov. Perry risk offending the entire senate by ignoring a tradition … which ensures the bipartisanship all politicians profess to hold dear?" Sierra Club State Director Ken Kramer was more optimistic, saying that while Hubert is an environmental moderate who may be challenged in addressing prominent urban pollution issues, he's "someone who has a track record of working with environmental groups, working with our issues, and giving us a fair hearing to plead our case. He's not a dogmatist that's glued to any certain philosophical lines and won't budge." – D.M.

• Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has appointed Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, to chair the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee, replacing San Antonio Sen. Frank Madla, who resigned after losing his re-election bid in the Democratic primary. The committee reviews a hodgepodge of issues, ranging from the regulatory authority of counties to the home ownership rate for low-income Texans. In other committee changes, Dewhurst also named Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, to replace West as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education, which is charged with studying tuition costs and making recommendations prior to the 2007 legislative session. – A.S.

• Immigration is good, as long as the immigrants are highly skilled engineers and scientists, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn told audiences in North Texas last week. Even as members of the House – including U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul – held hearings around the country warning against the evils of immigration, such as drug smuggling and gang violence along the border, Cornyn was hitting high tech forums in the Dallas area to talk about expanding H-1B visas to keep high tech graduates, and highly coveted foreign scientists, in this country. Cornyn's bill, Securing Knowledge Innovation and Leadership, would exempt foreign master's or Ph.D. candidates from the annual caps on green cards and H-IB visas, float the number of H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 a year, allow workers to begin work who are waiting for a green card, and streamline the process for employers who are securing visas. "My argument is that we need an immigration policy that reflects our national interests, and our national interests are clearly higher caps and greater access to foreign students," Cornyn said. – K.R.

Kirk Watsonchev
Kirk Watsonchev

• After nearly setting off an international incident by saying nyet to vodka, former Mayor Kirk Watson could have found himself writing something akin to Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground instead of his cheerful "From Russia, With Kirk" blog that ran on the Statesman's Web site during his time there. The Democratic nominee for state Senate, and former Chamber chair, returned to Austin this week in one piece. Watson was part of a lecture tour addressing 21st century economic development issues in the old country. The U.S. State Department organized the trip. In one of his blog updates, Watson reported that his dinner host from the previous evening "had a confused and pained look on his face" when he declined a drink of vodka. "I don't think he'd ever heard the words no, or nyet, and vodka in the same sentence," the ex-mayor explained. "Our state department host looked at me like I'd belched." The next day over lunch with a city official, Watson wrote, "We barely had our bottoms in the chairs when he offered vodka. Folks, this is at noon." This time, Watson said dah. – A.S.

• On MySpace, her profile is listed as Sharon Killer, a play on the name of Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, whose reputation as a hanging judge has earned her a satirical spot on the cyber meet-and-greet circuit. A couple of anti-death penalty activists – Scott Cobb and Hooman Hedayati – crafted the cleverly penned Keller profile and blog to draw attention to the justice's "ideologically driven" record on crime and punishment. And what a record it is. One of Keller's greatest embarrassments to Texas involved her firm stance against giving prison inmate Roy Criner a new trial, even after a DNA test proved he didn't commit the rape and murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to 99 years. It took Gov. George Bush, then a candidate for president, to step in and grant Criner clemency. Keller, a Republican, is running for re-election against Democrat J.R. Molina, a trial lawyer from Tarrant County. The Keller spoof is actually making its second appearance on the site after MySpace operators deleted the first effort last week. By the time you read this, it may have been killed off a second time, but go to profile.myspace.com/sharonkiller just for kicks and see what happens. – A.S.

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