News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere
Quote of the Week
"I don't like Karl Rove. Never have. He's different. I never understood where he was coming from. The Karl I knew was always focused on politics. Always. I thought of him as a hyper college Republican who never grew up." Republican consultant Royal Masset, in Quorum Report
City Council added another chapter to the decades-long saga of Water Treatment Plant No. 4, postponing for a year any further work at the Bull Creek site while staff re-evaluates the available locations and scale of the project. See "The $360 Million Question."
While the city is mired in "internal control" drama, Travis Co. auditor Susan Spataro is basking in the glory of winning an IC award of sorts. She was deemed a county "trailblazer" Wednesday by the Texas Association of Counties Leadership Foundation.
The deflowered "Turd Blossom" is going home to the Hill Country. Karl Rove, called "turd blossom" and "the architect" by President Bush and many other things by Democrats, announced his retirement to Kerr Co. to write his bestselling version of potted administration history. See "@ Chronic."
Don't bother watering: Tropical Storm Erin is hitting the Gulf Coast and is expected to soon dump more rain on Central Texas. Turn around, don't drown!
A Travis Co. grand jury on Aug. 9 declined to indict Austin Police Sgt. Michael Olsen on criminal charges in connection with the June 3 shooting death of Kevin Brown in East Austin. The grand jury returned the no-bill last week after hearing 10 days of testimony (beginning in late June) from 12 witnesses, including seven civilians. Brown, 25, scuffled with Olsen in the parking lot of Chester's Club (near 12th and Airport) just after 4am on June 3, after a security guard at the club reported seeing a patron with a gun. Brown fled on foot; Olsen and Officer Ivan Ramos followed, catching up with Brown in the courtyard of a neighboring apartment complex. After Brown allegedly ignored Olsen's commands to stop and raise his hands, Olsen fired his gun, killing Brown. (For more, see "Unsuspended Judgments," June 15.) The grand jury's no-bill clears Olsen of any criminal responsibility for Brown's death. A U.S. Department of Justice inquiry into the case, to determine whether Olsen violated Brown's civil rights, is ongoing, as is an Austin Police Department internal investigation to determine whether Olsen's actions violated any department policies. – Jordan Smith
On a related note, Chester's Club on East 12th closed after City Council passed an ordinance regulating "bring your own bottle" establishments. But an opinion out of Attorney General Greg Abbott's office on Wednesday noted that city ordinances and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission are unable to regulate pool halls with BYOB policies, because state law is silent on such venues. While the opinion was intended to apply to Corsicana, it could have implications in cities around the state, like Austin. – Kimberly Reeves
A trial date has been set for Responsible Growth for Northcross' lawsuit against the city of Austin and Lincoln Property Co., attempting to stop Lincoln from building a Wal-Mart on the site of the old Northcross Mall. Under an agreement signed last week, Nov. 13 is the date when the parties will square off. And in a separate agreement, RG4N's suit will be combined with a similar suit filed by the Allandale Neighborhood Association. The former agreement has RG4N crowing about an at least temporary victory: Lincoln promises not to begin any exterior demolition on the west side of the mall, where the Wal-Mart is planned (demolition has already begun on the east side), before Nov. 20 and not to remove any additional trees more than 8 inches in diameter prior to that date, except for three specifically identified (and possibly another two later). This is big news for RG4N, as one of the major thrusts of its suit is an allegation that the city failed to enforce Austin's tree ordinance when it approved Lincoln's site plan, thus endangering 29 large trees on the site. – Lee Nichols
Queen Lo-La says she has landed on her feet. As reported in our July 20 issue, the Eastside restaurateur and Katrina evacuee – real name Lozina Stephens – faced an Aug. 4 eviction date from Royal Palms Manufactured Home & RV Community for the high crime of painting the trim on her trailer purple. Lo-La did indeed get evicted, but a friendly couple found her a place to live at the Tejas Mobile Home Community near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, loaded up her belongings themselves, and helped her move. "It's wonderful," Lo-La said Monday. "The rent is cheaper, and the landlord is wonderful. He didn't have any openings, but he fixed up a spot." Lo-La says her business (Nubian Queen Lo-La's Cajun Soulfood Kitchen) is getting along, too: "It's still a struggle, but at least we're hanging on." – L.N.
Capital Metro is soliciting public input on a proposed fare adjustment, slated to take effect at the start of next year. If approved, the city transit authority will raise its base fares from 50 cents to $1, effective January 2008. The proposal is an attempt to raise extra revenue to fund the agency's ambitious All Systems Go! plan, the centerpiece of which is commuter rail. Cap Met already ate up most of its accumulated surplus to build support for the plan. And last year, Cynthia Hernandez, the authority's chief financial officer, said the agency is anticipating a $5.3 million budget deficit by 2010, which, based on long-term projections, could increase to $26.5 million by 2015. Cap Metro will be holding a series of forums starting Aug. 23 and is also conducting an online survey – which is more than a little biased, say members of the bus union. One question asks: "Capital Metro has never adjusted its fares. Since 1985 the cost of virtually everything has risen dramatically. Do you agree that it is time for Capital Metro to consider adjusting fares?" The final vote on the fare hike will take place at a Sept. 17 public hearing. To take the survey, go to www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=r1kzJUyNvqtNrdSNJiYa0A_3d_3d. – Justin Ward
The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District met in a special session Tuesday night to adopt a letter that will withdraw their request to the Texas Department of Transportation for road access to the Wildflower Commons planned unit development. The plan was to build the district's headquarters on a donated piece of land in the PUD. Tuesday night's vote for adoption followed a meeting last Thursday, in which Travis County Attorney David Escamilla told the district's board that Travis Co. had bought most of the access rights along the unbuilt segment of Southwest State Highway 45. BS/EACD will now have to turn to other sites for future headquarters. – K.R.
According to an Austin Independent School District study, the percentage of Austin high school graduates going to college increased from 55% in 2002 to 62.6% in 2006. The study looked at who is going to college and what type of school they are attending. In 2006, 38% of the students moved right into a four-year college – up from 32% in 2002 – and 23% went to Austin Community College. The study also broke graduates down by ethnic group and found a troubling gap. Although 76% of white graduates went on to college, only 46% of Hispanics and 57% of African-Americans did the same, and economically disadvantaged grads fared the worst – only 43% went on to higher education. See the full report at www.austin.isd.tenet.edu/inside/accountability/evaluation/reports.phtml. – Michael May
It's hard to imagine the Travis County Courthouse without 98th District Judge Jeanne Meurer, but after nearly 20 years of handing down rulings in civil cases and delivering tough-love advice (emphasis on tough) to youthful offenders, the no-bull jurist has decided to hang up her black robe in 2008. Though Meurer hasn't formally announced her decision not to seek re-election, word of her pending retirement spread like flame through the courthouse and legal community – a sign that few people had expected her to leave office anytime soon. The unexpected vacancy creates a slightly uncomfortable circumstance, as two associate judges – Rhonda Hurley and Andy Hathcock – aim to replace Meurer, with the understanding that the sitting judge will be a tough act to follow. The two hopefuls are seeking support and campaign funds from various legal circles, particularly in the women-and-child-advocacy field, which is where the discomfort level comes into play. Both Hurley and Hathcock are steeped in family-law lore. Hurley's gender would typically give her a political advantage over Hathcock in these parts, but Hathcock's secret weapon may turn out to be his spouse – state Rep. Valinda Bolton, who cut her teeth in the nonprofit world of social services and other advocacy work. – Amy Smith
He already has Austin's central public library named after him, but any American who treasures free speech should be ready to honor the late John Henry Faulk again and again. On his birthday – Tuesday, Aug. 21 – the man who beat the McCarthyists will be honored with a free 8pm screening of John Henry Faulk: In His Own Words, a new documentary by local videographer Pam Thompson, at the Zilker Hillside Theater (across the parking lot from Barton Springs). If you're a latecomer to Austin lore, Faulk was a local boy who made good in the 1950s entertainment world, becoming quite the successful radio host in New York City – until he got blacklisted as an alleged communist. Faulk learned a group named AWARE had targeted him for his union activities, so he sued them and was awarded $3.5 million – at that time, the largest libel judgment ever awarded. He spent the rest of his life crusading for the First Amendment and even made it back into broadcasting in the 1970s with a stint on Hee Haw. For more on the documentary, see www.iconmedia.org. – L.N.
Beyond City Limits
Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick has fired back against the latest legal briefs his opponents submitted to Attorney General Greg Abbott in the battle over his powers. On Aug. 8, Craddick's attorneys sent a supplemental brief to Abbott, re-enforcing arguments made in their initial July 20 brief. It was intended as a point-by-point rebuttal to the Aug. 3 submission by several ranking anti-Craddick Republicans, led by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. In it, Craddick's lawyers argue that, once elected, the speaker has absolute rights to ignore any member or motion and can only be removed by a change in House rules. However, this second brief removes the earlier claim that the speaker is both a state and legislative officer and can only be removed by impeachment. House Parliamentarian Terry Keel sent Abbott his own supplemental brief, citing prior instances from the records of the speaker ignoring members. This includes transcripts from the time of former Speaker Pete Laney, who has already said he thought Craddick misinterpreted the rules. The issue will not be resolved soon. According to the Attorney General's Office, the deadline for him to issue an advisory opinion on the issue is Dec. 15. – Richard Whittaker
In the wake of the Minneapolis bridge disaster, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has asked the Texas Department of Transportation to review bridge safety around the state. On Aug. 7, he sent a letter to TxDOT Chair Ric Williamson requesting a report on the number, location, and condition of structurally deficient bridges and what they intend to do about them. TxDOT issued its most recent bridge report in 2006, but Dewhurst noted that while he "read with relief your statement that 'all the bridges on Texas public roads are safe' ... the Minnesota highway department, I assume, thought the same was true for their state too." Texas has more road bridges than any other state – a total of 49,829, with TxDOT responsible for 32,674 of them. Only 77% of these are classified as structurally sufficient, with the rest either deficient, obsolete, substandard, or unclassified. That's a failure to meet the target of 80% classified as good or better. Dewhurst has asked for the report to be delivered by Friday, Aug. 17. – R.W.
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings sent out a letter to universities and student lenders last week asking them to voluntarily comply with stricter student-lending standards prior to the Department of Education's negotiated rule-making. Those guidelines include university employees avoiding taking payments or benefits of any kind from lenders, full disclosure to students and parents on the criteria and process used to select suggested lenders, and lenders identifying themselves as lenders and not as agents or employees of the university, even if they have provided staffing in the institution's financial aid office. The University of Texas, stung by the conflict-of-interest allegations against Lawrence W. Burt, its director of financial aid, already has moved to implement many of the same safeguards under an agreement with the Attorney General's Office. Burt was dismissed on May 14, the same day the conflict-of-interest allegations were revealed. Chancellor Mark G. Yudof said in a memo that he expects all universities in the UT system to be in compliance by the end of September. – K.R.
Right-wing religious pressure group the Heritage Alliance has handed down its annual scorecard of the most and least conservative state legislators, based on their voting records. While both chambers of the Lege split pretty evenly along party lines, female Republicans come out with the biggest stamp of conservative approval. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Rockwall, comes out on top with 96%, edging out Betty Brown, R-Athens; Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving; and Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, all with 94%. Joe Crabb, R-Kingwood, is the only male in the House Top 5. Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton, and David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls, tie at 58% as the most conservative Democrats – more acceptable to Heritage Alliance tastes than Republicans Delwin Jones, Lubbock (55%); Joe Straus III, San Antonio (52%); and lowest-scoring GOPer Anna Mowery, Fort Worth, at 51%. Bringing up the bottom of the table is Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, who even with a couple of tax-cutting votes could only muster 3%. Meanwhile, the Senate lives up to its reputation as the chamber that avoids extremes. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, has the most conservative voting record of all his colleagues but still gets only a 79% rating. Similarly, table tail-ender Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, comes in with a 40% rating. As for the Austin caucus, Kirk Watson places well in the lower half of the Senate at 45% but still comes in above the House contingent of Mark Strama (34%), Dawnna Dukes (31%), and Elliott Naishtat (24%). – R.W.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the August 24, 2007 issue:
Clarification: In last week's "Naked City," our photo cutline on p.15 may have been incorrectly interpreted to mean the Block 21 oak tree was being moved by the city of Austin. Actually, the tree was relocated by Block 21 developer Stratus Properties, on its own dime (about $100,000, according to a company spokesman).