City Council meets today (Thursday), with items on affordable housing, the usual brace of zoning hearings, and a 2pm command presentation on the desperate state of panhandling regulations. See "Beside the Point," and "@ Chronic."
In a decision that could slow the lethal assembly line of death row in Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal in a Kentucky capital punishment case addressing whether lethal injection is "cruel and unusual punishment" under the U.S. Constitution.
On Tuesday, a Salt Lake City jury convicted Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of two counts of being an accomplice to rape in the 2001 marriage of a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old husband, both FLDS members.
The Capital Metro board voted to put the brakes on a plan to double fares last Thursday after the proposal met with overwhelming opposition. At a Monday forum, riders expressed outrage over the increase, which they said hurts those who rely on mass transit the most: low-income Austinites. The board will take more time to re-evaluate the economic impact of the proposed increase and explore ways to raise revenue while shifting the burden away from low-income riders. Possible alternatives include charging for 'Dillo service and targeted increases on certain routes, such as the express routes. Glenn Gaven, former UT shuttle-bus union president and co-founder of the newly formed Bus Riders Union-ATX, said although the increase has been postponed, the fight's not over. It's possible Cap Metro may still attempt to pass a more modest increase while ignoring demands for improved service in return, Gaven said. – Justin Ward
Where's the animal shelter? City Council has wrested from staff the policy decision on where Austin should build its new animal shelter. Look for potential council action at the Oct. 11 session. Instead of approving an architect selection and contract, as originally scheduled, council will tackle the controversial location decision. Council Member Mike Martinez said he asked the city manager, "Why would we spend so much on design before first deciding definitely where it's going to go?" That dog can hunt! Site options include the current Lady Bird Lake location, the East Austin site selected by staff – or building the shelter atop Water Treatment Plant No. 4 in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. (Just kidding on that last one.) – Katherine Gregor
Responsible Growth for Northcross is heading into the homestretch of its fight to stop Lincoln Property Co. from building a Wal-Mart Supercenter at the former Northcross Mall – and getting to the finish line will require money, the group says. While RG4N says it has steadily been raising cash, the looming Nov. 13 trial date against Lincoln and the city of Austin has accelerated the need for funds. RG4N President Hope Morrison says her "ballpark estimate" is the entire fight will cost $100,000 – about 80% of which will go to legal fees, with the rest supporting public education and additional fundraising efforts. RG4N spokesman Jason Meeker worries the early success of the group in creating political pressure on the issue may have created "a perception that RG4N is taking care of it. ... We may be a victim of our own success to a degree." But the main battle – in court – is yet to be fought, he says. Upcoming fundraising events include a party at former City Council Member Brigid Shea's house Friday night and a Saturday morning bazaar, 8am-noon, at Encore Records, 1745 W. Anderson. For more, see www.rg4n.org. – Lee Nichols
The Crestview Neighborhood Association has called for residents to show up at tonight's (Thursday's) City Council meeting to "Stop the Swap." The council is scheduled to vote on a land swap with Crestview Station LP, the entity owned by Trammell Crow and Stratus Properties that is redeveloping the old Huntsman Chemical Corp. property into a transit-oriented mixed-use development. Crestview Station would get 5.5 acres on the south end of the neighborhood currently occupied by an Austin Energy pole yard, in exchange for 2 acres near the corner of Lamar and Morrow, where AE wants to build an electrical substation. Crestview residents, however, have long been miffed that the neighborhood has no parkland within its boundaries and want the city to convert the AE land to green space while buying the Lamar/Morrow property outright for the substation. City planners maintain the AE property should be part of the high-density development strategy that it desires around Capital Metro's planned commuter-rail stops, but the Crestview Neighborhood Association points out that a major goal of the Crestview/Wooten Neighborhood Plan approved in 2004 was to "Consider finding an appropriate location to develop a public park in Crestview using parkland acquisition funds or other appropriate funding." – L.N.
At this week's Design Commission meeting, even Chris Riley – local activist and longtime proponent of central-city density – could agree that plans for a 250-foot residential tower at 800 West Ave. might be too much density for the outskirts of Downtown. Riley's comments were tempered by the fact he was representing his neighborhood's interests, as well as his own views, as the Design Commission reviewed rather impressive plans for yet another Downtown residential tower. Neighbor Ben Proctor, a bit less charitable than Riley, called the random proliferation of towers on parcels of land outside the Capitol View Corridors Downtown to be "a bad case of the measles." This particular tower, if the zoning change is approved and the plans move forward, would come from Fortis Development and be designed by Muñoz + Albin Architecture and Planning out of Houston, which has completed a number of residential towers in Spain. – Kimberly Reeves
As of Monday, Oct. 1, it's illegal to chain or tether unattended dogs in the city of Austin. In June, City Council passed an anti-chaining ordinance, introduced by the group Chain Free Austin. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says continuous confinement of dogs by tethering is inhumane, and a series of studies and tragic real-life examples have demonstrated that a restrained dog is more likely to attack. Violation of the ordinance will carry a class C misdemeanor, and a citation will be issued if individuals fail to heed a city-issued notice to comply. Offenses can be reported to 311. Exceptions include walking a dog with a leash, as well as vet treatment, grooming, and obedience training. Temporary tethering is allowed if the owner/handler remains outside with the dog. Chain Free recommends bringing dogs inside to live and doing regular leash walks. Securely fencing one's yard is an option; if outdoor confinement is necessary, the structure must be 150 square feet, per the ordinance, and should include a lock, shade, shelter, and access to food and water. A charitable fund has been established to help low-income families buy fencing materials. More info at www.chainfreeaustin.org. – Daniel Mottola
Southwest Key Programs' application for a college-preparatory charter school in East Austin did not move forward at last week's State Board of Education meeting, as expected. Members of the board, which approved 13 new charters for the state, cited concerns with a number of pending lawsuits against Southwest Key over pay disputes with current and former workers. Southwest Key, which holds multimillion-dollar contracts with the federal government to shelter unaccompanied immigrant minors, asked the city for an $800,000 loan to complete construction of its corporate campus and charter-school location in the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood. Former Mayor Gus Garcia, among others, sits on the board of the charter school, which was strongly supported by parents in East Austin, who see their children bused to Murchison Middle School. – K.R.
Local college-bound students will have a rare opportunity to meet with admissions counselors from across the country at the Austin National College Fair on Sunday. The fair caps the annual conference of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. The largest program of its kind to be held in Central Texas, with about 450 colleges represented, it runs from 1 to 4pm Sunday, Sept. 30, at the Austin Convention Center. For more info, go to www.nacacnet.org/fairs or call 800/822-6285. – Michael May
The Bag the Bags Coalition wants the all-too-common sight of plastic grocery bags strewn throughout trees in local creek beds to be a distant memory. The coalition also wants people to know that petroleum-based sacks cost taxpayers an estimated 17 cents each in waste-management costs. Coalition head Rick Cofer, who presided over a City Hall press conference Monday, is calling on City Council to ban the bags, as the city of San Francisco did in April. Bag the Bags has an online petition urging council to act, and members hope to raise private funds to distribute 500,000 reusable grocery bags for free. More than 100 billion bags are used nationally per year – an estimated 120 million in Austin. Cofer says that translates into wasting about 440,000 barrels of oil locally, 12 million nationwide. And worse, he said, the bags clog storm sewers and harm marine animals. Cofer says bans have yielded up to 95% reductions in bag-use in places such as Ireland, Taiwan, and Germany. Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Sheryl Cole are expected to draft a letter to council, detailing the results of months of meetings on bag reforms, but neither seems committed to a ban. More info at www.bagthebags.com. – D.M.
Opposition to a proposed discharge permit for the Belterra subdivision into Bear Creek in Dripping Springs has been swift and vocal. Every jurisdiction on record, plus the Save Our Springs Alliance, has lined up against the permit, which is the first proposed direct discharge permit into the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer. A Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hearing on the permit was held Tuesday night in Dripping Springs. The permit, which will go to a contested hearing this fall, would permit Belterra's water district to pump up to 500,000 gallons of treated effluent a day into the headwaters of the sensitive Bear Creek, which flows into the aquifer. The developer of the sprawling Belterra subdivision has promised that up to 80% of the water will be reused to irrigate local lands. Local citizens consider the permit the developer's effort to avoid setting aside precious Hill Country land for a massive retention pond. – K.R.
The mess created by Gov. Rick Perry's line-item veto of $154 million in community-college funding for employee health insurance has yet to be resolved by either Perry or the Lege leadership, so on Tuesday, three Democratic lawmakers made a suggestion on where to find the money: In a letter sent to Perry, Reps. Garnet Coleman (Houston), Jim Dunnam (Waco), and Pete Gallego (Alpine) wrote that, rather than borrowing money that was previously appropriated to pay down debt on tuition revenue bonds (as was suggested by the governor's office at a recent Senate subcommittee hearing), "[A] more appropriate pool of money from which you can 'borrow' the $154 million to make our community and junior colleges whole is your [the governor's office's] budget and the budget of the Legislature." The borrowed money could then be replaced through an emergency appropriation by the 2009 Legislature. "Rather than make college students and homeowners worry about whether or not they will bear the brunt of paying for your veto, you should shift that responsibility to your office and the Legislature." – L.N.
Progressive Texas bloggers have formed a new political action committee, the TexBlog PAC, "to effectively harness the power, energy, talent, and financial resources of the online, progressive community to make Texas a better place by electing Democratic candidates at all levels of state and local government." A fundraiser Monday night at the home of public-policy activist Kurt Meachum and attorney Amy Clark Meachum raised more than $3,500, and in only two months of existence, the PAC has raised more than $10,000 total. Partygoers mixed with the likes of Reps. Eddie Rodriguez, Valinda Bolton, Mark Strama, Lon Burnam, Pete Gallego, former Rep. Glen Maxey (who is running for Travis Co. tax assessor-collector), and Travis Co. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt. Gallego addressed the partygoers with real optimism at what just two elections ago would have been mere fantasy: a Democratic majority in the Lege. After reaching a low of 62 Dems in the House in 2003, the donkeys have now climbed back up to 70, the latest due to Grand Prairie's Kirk England switching parties. That leaves them only six away from a majority, a prospect that clearly had partygoers giddy. For more, look at any number of prog blogs, such as www.capitolannex.com, www.offthekuff.com/mt, and www.burntorangereport.com. – L.N.
Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, has been named by Speaker Tom Craddick as one of four House appointees to the new joint House/Senate Medicaid Reform Legislative Oversight Committee. Founded last session under Senate Bill 10, the Medicaid budget bill, the committee is meant to develop solutions to uncompensated health-care provisions in the Texas medical system and find "market-driven programs" for the uninsured – shorthand for curbing the Medicaid budget. Dukes, the only Democrat confirmed so far, will join Republicans John Zerwas from Katy, John Davis from Houston, and the outgoing Dianne White Delisi from Temple. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's office says he's still mulling over his four Senate appointees, but the committee must hand its full cost-cutting report to the Lege by Nov. 15, 2008. – Richard Whittaker
The Texas League of Conservation Voters has released its scorecard for how environmentally sound state legislators were in their votes last session. The group applauded Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, not just for his flawlessly green voting record but also his authorship of two ecological bills that passed through the Senate but failed in the House: SB 529, which proposed releasing surplus funds from existing clean-air programs to reduce school-bus emissions, and SB 1687, which would have mandated the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to develop a carbon-dioxide-reduction strategy. In the House, the Austin caucus scored an 85% TLCV-approved voting record on 27 key pieces of environmental legislation, well above the state average of 56%. Local Dems Donna Howard, Eddie Rodriguez, and Elliott Naishtat got an "A+" rating for a perfect record. But the environmental group singled out three Austin-area legislators – Democrat Robby Cook (48%) and Republicans Dan Gattis (43%) and Mark Krusee (35%) – for their opposition to an amendment to HB 3732, which would have enforced strict nitrogen-oxide-emission levels for new coal plants seeking public incentive cash. – R.W.
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