Top 9 Local Stories
1) WET OR DRY? For it or agin' it, the 25-years-in-the-planning Water Treatment Plant No. 4 dominated city politics for several months, with City Council finally voting narrowly to move forward with the massive multiphase project. Come hell or high water – more likely both – something tells us we haven't heard the last of the local water wars.
2) TEA-BAGGED "Tea Party Patriots" opposing health care reform (etc.) disrupted town hall meetings around the nation, including Austin, where angry wingers shouted down Congressman Lloyd Doggett. YouTubing of the event and similar episodes elsewhere made national news; the tea-baggers' tactics left them looking like asses but provided Fox News the illusion of a grassroots uprising.
3) SEEKING NEW COUNCIL The biennial City Council changeover resulted in a new mix but no grand break with precedent: Mayor Lee Leffingwell joins veterans Mike Martinez, Sheryl Cole, Randi Shade, and Laura Morrison with newcomers Bill Spelman (a return trip) and Chris Riley. In a very tough budget year, Shade has emerged as a swing vote on a handful of vexing questions.
4) POLICE THE AREA The Austin Police Department garnered more than its share of headlines in 2009, centered on the clouded shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II, rumbling through the federal lawsuit over the termination of Ramon Perez, and sustained in December by the APD's response to a Department of Justice official review – Chief Art Acevedo moved to install DOJ reforms for the new year.
5) IS MUSSOLINI AVAILABLE? Hard to know where to begin summarizing the 2009 Capital Metro "story": financial desperation, labor tension, managerial chaos, board inanition, or just the perennial "rail will be here ... eventually." Now it's looking for a permanent fearless leader to make the trains run on time.
6) RACING THE RELAYS The city took a PR bruising in April when Highland Mall – already in a financial nosedive – announced it would close during the Texas Relays rather than welcome crowds of mostly African-American visitors. The NAACP and city leaders responded with a street demo and an education campaign – quickly obscured in the aftermath of the Nate Sanders shooting. The various groups insist they intend to pick up the baton for 2010.
7) BUILDING BREATHER The city's relentless growth slowed in response to what seems to be the only antidote: a nationwide recession. With a few less cranes on the skyline, City Council considered how to sustain affordable-housing initiatives amidst booming real estate prices. It's made a few baby steps, but there's much left to do.
8) TRAGIC FALL Speaking of building, in June three high-rise construction workers died when their scaffold collapsed under them. In December 2009, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruled neglect on the part of four contractors, and the APD continues a criminal investigation. The men's legacy may be increasing vigilance on worker safety and perhaps a renewed local union movement.
9) TEXAS MUSIC MATTERS NOT KUT 90.5FM radio management cut the hours of veteran deejays and local radio legends Paul Ray and Larry Monroe, sparking a "Save KUT" movement to which the business planners largely remain deaf, insisting they're focused on the long-term future of the station. A future that apparently doesn't include the folks who over many years made the station and its locally steeped sound. Ostensibly about music, money, and planning, it was also a story about lifelong loyal staffers thrown away like worn-out transmitters.
Honorable Mention: ARA BLUES REVIEW The Austin Revitalization Authority has come under steady criticism over the years for accomplishing too little Eastside redevelopment with city resources, and a city audit this year formalized that judgment, albeit without a resolution. The city manager's office said it is "not advisable to continue the relationship as currently structured nor to bring to close our partnership." Meanwhile, longtime President Byron Marshall debarked for Richmond, Va., and what the refigured "partnership" should look like is yet to be determined; City Council should decide on that sometime in the next few months.