Quote of the week
"We've been left out of the process," "The process is broken," and "City Hall has lost its way." – Members of Better Austin Today, a new political action committee formed to influence May's City Council elections
A new political action committee, Better Austin Today, or BATPAC, announced formation this week and its determination to be a player in spring City Council elections. See "BATPAC Begins."
Hillary Clinton upset Barack Obama and the media prognosticators in New Hampshire Tuesday, despite polls predicting a double-digit Obama victory; John Edwards was a distant third. On the GOP side, Sen. John McCain defeated Mitt Romney, with Mike Huckabee bringing up the rear.
Former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia struck and killed a pedestrian crossing North Lamar Boulevard on Jan. 6. The traffic fatality was the first of 2008. Police say a Latino man in his mid-20s was crossing Lamar near Braker Lane in "midblock" shortly before 7pm on Sunday evening when he was struck by Garcia's Toyota traveling northbound on Lamar. The man died at the scene. Garcia, 73, said he was driving with his son to dinner when the accident happened. He told the Austin American-Statesman he didn't see the man who, he said, "came out of nowhere." Garcia called 911 for help and provided police with a blood sample, although police say there is no indication that speeding, drugs, or alcohol played a role in the accident. At press time, police hadn't released the name of the man killed, pending a positive ID and family notification. – Jordan Smith
In recent attacks on Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Spears, Democratic primary challenger Glen Maxey asserted Spears hasn't done enough for Eastsiders, citing a University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs study showing what he said was a disproportionate number of foreclosures on Eastside properties in 2006. For emphasis, Maxey pointed to a quote from City Manager Toby Futrell, saying the foreclosure stats caused her "shame." Spears' campaign responded that the foreclosures were almost entirely of abandoned or neglected properties that resulted in no Eastside residents being displaced from their homes. The Maxey campaign got a kick in the shins Dec. 28, when Futrell herself sent a letter saying that Spears is right. "When asked to respond on the spot that night to a foreclosure statistic I was seeing for the first time," Futrell wrote, "I said that I wanted to understand the numbers better, but if correct, it was shameful." But, "[u]ltimately in a May 11th letter to the Chief Operating Officer of the Travis County Tax Office and copied to me, [LBJ School] Professor [Robert H.] Wilson concluded that all of the East Austin foreclosed properties were vacant lots or had structures deemed uninhabitable by the City of Austin." To read the full letter, see "Futrell Refutes Maxey." The Democratic primary is March 4; in November, the winner will face Republican Don Zimmerman. – Lee Nichols
The Austin Independent School District has announced two public forums to discuss the proposed interim bond issue, including funding for new schools, proposals for a citywide performing-arts center, and investment in technology. Citizens will be invited to give input on proposals from the Citizens' 2008 Bond Advisory Committee at 6pm on Tuesday, Jan. 15, at Covington Middle School theatre, and 6pm Wednesday, Jan. 16, at LBJ High School cafeteria. The committee will make its final recommendations to the board of trustees on Jan. 28. AISD hopes to include the bond in the May 10 elections. – Richard Whittaker
After repeated allegations from its retail tenants of overbilling and unresponsiveness to complaints, property management firm West Village Management Co. will no longer be running the 2nd Street District. On Jan. 1, the Dallas-based firm transferred day-to-day operations to AMLI Management Co., and tenants were cheerily informed they are now part of the "AMLI Famli." Local staff members hired to run the area have been transferred across to the new management, part of the group that owns the AMLI building on Second Street and which, through AMLI Downtown Austin LP, has always been the payee on tenants' checks. "This is uncomplicating things for tenants," said property manager Christine Miller. West Village will still be involved, as its sister company Urban Partners continues to oversee retail leasing in the district. Fred Evins, redevelopment project manager for the city's Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, said the city is aware of the change: "We're interested in anything that better addresses the needs of the tenants." – R.W.
If you've ever wanted to be an Election Day worker but recoiled at the thought of putting in 14 hours, Travis Co. Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has a job for you. At the LBJ Library Tuesday, DeBeauvoir announced a new program called the Early Start Team: She's recruiting volunteers – especially young people and others who have never worked an election before – to take a shift of only two to four hours beginning at 6am to help set up one of the 200 Election Day polling stations. If you're registered to vote in Travis County, know your way around a computer, and can lift 35 pounds, you're probably qualified. Tuesday was Volunteer for Democracy Day, a creation of last year's Legislature, and DeBeauvoir had Austin state Reps. Dawnna Dukes and Donna Howard at her side for the announcement. DeBeauvoir said she hopes the initiative will convince young people they may eventually want to get even more involved in the election process and supplement the AARP-ers who tend to dominate the polling place workforce. The primary election will be held March 4; deadline to register is Feb. 4, and early voting runs Feb. 19-29. To get involved, call 854-4996 or go to www.traviscountyelections.org. – L.N.
Austin Police Department Officer Scott Lando is the subject of an ongoing investigation into his alleged love affair with a woman named Denise Pfeifer, who alleges Lando paid her $70 for sex (which apparently took place in Lando's patrol car, parked at a construction site – sexy, eh?) and then took her shopping – at Wal-Mart and Payless Shoes. To top it off – perhaps to sweeten an otherwise sad, sad romance – Pfeifer alleges Lando took her to his home, let her rummage through his wife's clothes, and take whatever she wanted – which reportedly included a pair of Harley-Davidson boots and a bedazzled pair of jeans. According to the Statesman, Lando met Pfeifer while investigating a report she'd been assaulted; the decidedly third-rate romance allegedly lasted for four months in 2006. Lando denies the allegations, said his attorney Travis Williamson. "If she has been in his house, it was without his knowledge or permission," Williamson told the daily. Lando's wife says she was with her husband at the time the items from her closet were stolen, Williamson said. According to a police affidavit, Lando's wife said she noticed several things were missing from her closet but assumed – inexplicably – that a "neighborhood kid" had lifted them. Lando, a five-year department veteran, is on paid leave while criminal and administrative investigations are ongoing. – J.S.
Beyond City Limits
Envision This: City officials from Elgin made an urgent pitch to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization on Monday to get their own commuter-rail line from Elgin, through Manor to Austin. Unused but sound tracks are in place; about half of Elgin residents commute daily to Austin. Elgin is within the five-county Envision Central Texas planning region and wants to join Leander in enjoying a booming tax base from transit-oriented development. Elgin recently purchased a large tract for a TOD, but neither CAMPO nor Capital Metro has the dough to finance another new commuter-rail line right now. Elgin City Manager Jeff Coffee said his city could help foot the $75 million to $80 million bill but can't swing it alone. One possible funding source, said Brewster McCracken and Travis Co. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, would be revenues from planned toll-road segments on 290 East to Elgin – a neat bit of transit eco-justice. – Katherine Gregor
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and his booster Willie Nelson are suing the Texas Democratic Party after they refused to put the presidential hopeful's name on the March 4 primary ballot. Kucinich sent in his paperwork on Jan. 2, before close of filing, but scratched out the party-mandated pledge to support the winning candidate. He offered to sign the oath if he could alter it so that he would only have to support a candidate if he or she promised not to use war as a tool of foreign relations. The party rejected his offer. "While we respect his convictions, it's our responsibility to enforce the rules," said TDP Communications Director Amber Moon, noting that Kucinich signed the oath in 2004. However, Kucinich press secretary Andy Juniewicz called it "a blind loyalty oath to a candidate whose positions regarding war and peace are unclear." U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel will hear the suit on Jan. 11. If the court rules the oath is illegal, the secretary of state will be instructed to add Kucinich to the ballot, along with the certified list of candidates submitted by TDP. – R.W.
While Republicans and Democrats may not know who will be on their slate come November, at least they know they'll have one. Texas Greens may have to wait until June to know whether they have official candidates. The Green Party of Texas registered with the secretary of state on Dec. 7 for a place on the ballot, and its state executive committee voted unanimously on Dec. 15 that the party would pursue ballot access. The Greens now have to wait until a week after the March 4 Democratic and Republican primaries and will then have 75 days to collect and submit 43,992 signatures, equal to 1% of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election, from registered voters who did not take part in either primary. The signatures then have to be verified. This means Greens still may not have a decision by their June 14 convention (expected to be held in Houston). "You can see why it's considered the third-worst state (after North Carolina and Pennsylvania) for ballot access," said party Chair Doug Reber. – R.W.
The Texas Civil Rights Project reports Doreen Anderson, daughter of executed inmate Michael Richard, who was put to death last fall, has intervened in a federal lawsuit charging Court of Criminal Appeals presiding Judge Sharon Keller with violating Richard's constitutional rights by refusing to accept his last-minute appeal only because it was filed shortly after 5pm, the court's arbitrary closing time set that day by Keller, without consultation with the other judges. Like her stepmother, Richard's widow, Marsha Richard, Anderson claims Keller violated her father's civil rights to due process and equal protection by refusing to let Richard's attorneys file an appeal that would stay his execution. The attorneys had computer problems and asked the CCA clerk's office to remain open for 20 minutes on Sept. 25, in order to give them a chance to file the appeal; Keller denied the request even though she was not the judge assigned to handle Richard's case. Richard was executed that night. For more on this, see "Closing Time?," Oct. 19, 2007. – J.S.
A U.S. district judge in Dallas upheld this week the Texas law that requires public school students to observe a moment of silence each morning. David and Shannon Croft, a couple from Carrollton, a suburb of Dallas, had sued Gov. Rick Perry and their local school district, arguing the law is the equivalent of school prayer and is therefore unconstitutional. The Crofts certainly had some evidence state lawmakers would like to encourage prayer. Legislators added the word "pray" to the law in 2003, but the wording also allows students to "reflect" or "meditate." U.S. District Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn disagreed that the wording is unconstitutional. "The Legislature amended the statute to provide a period of time for the full panoply of thoughtful contemplation," she said. However, Judge Lynn did leave the door open for another lawsuit if a local district is specifically encouraging students to pray during the moment of silence. – Michael May
U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey will proceed with a criminal investigation, to be conducted by the FBI, into the destruction of videotapes of detainee interrogations by CIA personnel, the Department of Justice announced Jan. 2. "Following a preliminary inquiry ... the department's National Security Division has recommended, and I have concluded, that there is a basis for initiating a criminal investigation of this matter," Mukasey stated in a DOJ press release. The NSD and the CIA Office of Inspector General opened the inquiry on Dec. 8, after CIA Director Michael Hayden admitted that videotapes had been destroyed. During the inquiry, the government argued that destruction of the tapes did not have to do with the treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees, while lawyers for 11 Yemeni Guantanamo prisoners sought to establish a link between the two. U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg of the Eastern District of Virginia, where CIA headquarters is located, has been removed from the investigation "in an abundance of caution" to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, according to DOJ announcements. John Durham, first assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Connecticut office, will supervise the FBI investigation. – Patricia J. Ruland
Indigenous communities along the U.S.-Mexico border are banding together to halt a U.S. Department of Homeland Security landgrab of private property. On Jan. 7, a coalition of property owners, legal representatives, and Native American and border community leaders from across the country conducted a national phone media conference announcing their intentions to build a wall of their own – a legal barrier to DHS' plan to seize private lands, through eminent domain powers, to build a border security wall. "Our lands are not for sale. The U.S. government must stop its illegal attempts to intimidate us. DHS cannot take away our homes for border militarization," said Eloisa Tamez, a member of the Lipan Apache people and Basque-Ibero of the Lower Rio Grande region, in a press release, which notes that the conference coincided with the expiration of 30-day notices to cooperate with the feds, or else. Property owners were informed that if they do not voluntarily allow federal agents access, the government will file suit. Native Americans have resided for centuries on lands succumbing to seizure – the wall has already led to the bulldozing of ceremonial grounds in Arizona. "We the people of the Texas border will not allow that to happen here," said Border Ambassadors' Jay J. Johnson-Castro Sr., in an e-mail. – P.J.R.