News Roundup: Storms, Season's Greetings, and Open Carry

Reminder: Open carry law takes effect Jan. 1

In this week's News Roundup, a grand jury declines to indict APD officer Robert Pfaff; destructive storms claim nearly a dozen lives in Texas; gun lovers to soon rejoice as they'll be able to tote rifles and shotguns openly in public; CapMetro offers free rides on New Year’s; council members deliver holiday greetings; and more.

Mayor Steve Adler (flanked by daughters Sarah and Susan) dressed as Mother Ginger for Ballet Austin’s production of The Nutcracker. (Courtesy of Mayor Steve Adler)

• Winter Storms Arrive: At least 11 people were killed in Texas during massive storms that hit much of the state, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma over the weekend. The fatalities happened when an F-4 strength tornado touched down in Garland, while a second (measured as an F-3) wreaked havoc in nearby Rowlett. At the same time, heavy blizzards dumped five inches of snow in Lubbock, as Winter Storm Goliath pummeled the Panhandle and the Southern Plains. An estimated 1,450 homes were destroyed around the state. – Richard Whittaker

• Officer No-Billed: The Travis County District Attorney’s Office announced in a Dec. 22 press release that a grand jury has decided not to indict Austin Police Department Officer Robert Pfaff for the May 25 shooting of Cassandra Bolin. Bolin was shot and killed outside her apartment near North Lamar and Brentwood following a standoff with officers that lasted several hours – APD officers had been summoned to the location after a 911 “check welfare” call from Bolin’s boyfriend, who had received several “alarming text messages” from Bolin. According to the DA’s statement, Bolin threatened to shoot officers, asked them to shoot her, and emerged several times brandishing a handgun. A shot with a beanbag projectile was ineffective, and when Bolin pointed her gun at herself and then at officers, SWAT team member Pfaff shot Bolin three times with a rifle, killing her. The grand jury heard testimony from seven witnesses and after deliberations, decided not to bring any charges against the officer. – Michael King

• Open Carry Imminent: Jan. 1, 2016 will be a landmark day for gun lovers in Texas: Not only will they be able to carry rifles and shotguns openly in public, but they'll also be able to sport a handgun on their hip. Because, apparently, being able to carry rifles and shotguns on the street, and a concealed handgun, isn't security enough for them. Many law enforcement officials have been critical of the new open carry law passed by the Texas Legislature last Spring, and the difficulty it presents for officers in working out who is and isn't carrying a gun legally. However, businesses are already using a get-out clause in the new law. Three supermarket chains – HEB, Safeway, and Whole Foods – have already said they will not allow open carry in their stores. HEB, which allows concealed carry, has clarified that they are taking this position to comply with state regulation of guns in liquor stores. – R.W.

• Season's Greetings: City Council is on holiday hiatus until January, but Mayor Steve Adler and a few Council members took the time to deliver video holiday greetings. Adler previewed holiday events like the New Year’s Eve celebration on Auditorium Shores and the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim at Barton Springs Pool (the mayor won’t be taking part: “Do I look crazy or what?”), while District 1 Council Member Ora Houston and District 8 CM Ellen Troxclair delivered simpler, traditional greetings. The musical prize goes to District 3 CM Sabino “Pio” Renteria: he and his staff delivered a brief but enthusiastic rendition of “Feliz Navidad,” with a delighted Renteria clapping cheerfully and steadily, off the beat.

That wasn’t all from the mayor: Adler’s holiday email newsletter features a photo of him with his daughters Sarah and Susan, with the mayor in his full drag regalia as Mother Ginger in Ballet Austin’s production of The Nutcracker. The Mother Ginger role is traditionally offered to a series of local celebrities; the mayor says his family assured him that “I carried myself with the decorum befitting the occasion.” - M.K.

• New Year’s Transit: Capital Metro’s New Year’s schedule will offer free rides on MetroBus, MetroRapid, MetroRail, and MetroAccess after 6 pm Thursday, Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve, with extended service: the last Downtown train will depart at 2:30am. MetroRapid will also run later hours: final departures from Downtown along Guadalupe and Lavaca at 2:30am. And from midnight to 3am, five Night Owl routes will run to and from Sixth and Congress every 30 minutes. Friday’s local MetroBus service will operate a regular weekday schedule New Year’s Eve, while E-Buses and UT Shuttles will not be in service.

On New Year’s Day, Friday, Jan. 1, Capital Metro will operate MetroBus and MetroRapid service on a Sunday schedule. (MetroRail, UT Shuttles, Night Owls and E-Buses will not be in service.) Service will resume its regular weekday schedules Saturday, Jan. 2, with the exception of UT Shuttle and E-Bus service.

More information about Capital Metro schedules and services can be found at capmetro.org, on the free CapMetro App , or by calling the Go Line at (512) 474-1200. – M.K.

• Holiday Mulching: Austin Resource Recovery is reminding city residents that de-decorated real Christmas trees can be recycled for free at the Zilker Park Polo Fields, beginning Jan. 2 – ARR staff will turn discarded trees into mulch or the beginnings of compost. Annually, reports ARR, Christmas tree recycling keeps nearly 20,000 trees out of area landfills, contributing to the city’s goal of reaching Zero Waste by 2040. Curbside customers can also recycle trees directly by setting them on the curb – beginning Dec. 26, ARR will pick up all real trees, and yard trimmings, on regularly scheduled collection days. (Trees six feet or taller must be cut in half.) The collected trees and yard trimmings are composted into Dillo Dirt™.

All residents, including those without City of Austin curbside service, can drop off real trees (not artificials) at the Polo Fields between 10am and 2pm on the following days: Saturday, Jan. 2; Sunday, Jan. 3; Saturday, Jan. 9; Sunday, Jan. 10. Remove all ornaments, decorations, lights and the tree stand, and do not place tree in a “tree bag.” Mulch from trees collected at the drop-off location will be available on a first-come, first-served basis to Austin residents on Wednesday, Jan. 20. – M.K.

• What's in a Name?: So it seems that Ruben Hinojosa will not be replacing Ruben Hinojosa as the Democratic congressional candidate for South Texas' 15th Congressional district. Confused? Well, that's what the Texas Democratic Party is hoping to avoid by changing a name on the March 1 primary ballot.

It comes down to two men. Congressman Rubén E. Hinojosa has represented the seat since 1997, but announced that he will not run for re-election. Ruben Ramirez is a University of Houston law graduate, and one of seven Democrats filed to replace the retiring incumbent. However, when he completed his paperwork, he added his mother's maiden name, Hinojosa. Explaining his filing, he claimed that "using both names of my parents was a way to illustration pride in my culture and solidarity with the community."

Cue concern from the local and state Democrats that Ramirez's new name would confuse the electorate, and he would pick up votes from people who thought the 75 year old incumbent was seeking another term. To complicate matters, and arguably add strength to the party's argument, when Ramirez ran in the 2012 primary against Hinojosa, he did so as Ruben Ramon Ramirez (and came fourth out of five candidates, bringing in only 4.87% of votes cast). Initially, party leaders thought they had no authority to challenge or change how a candidate filed. However, after he refused to provide evidence that he had ever gone by Hinojosa before, they went back to the name he used in 2012. Ramirez has accepted the change, saying that he was not attempting to deceive voters, or that there would have been no significant bump from the confusion. – R.W.

• HB 2 Gets A SCOTUS Hearing Date: The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for Whole Woman’s Health v Cole on March 2 at 9am. The case challenges two parts of the Texas anti-abortion law, House Bill 2 – a requirement that facilities must transform into costly mini-hospitals (which has yet to be enacted) and a rule that forces doctors to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinic, an often difficult task. Reproductive health advocates warn that if the the final section of the law goes into effect, less than 10 clinics will survive. The law’s impact has already led to increased wait times for an appointment and the closure of half the state’s abortion clinics. – Mary Tuma

• Texas Targets HIV Funding: Right before the holiday break, the state announced it would discontinue a grant for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast’s HIV Prevention Program in the new year. After 18 years of funding a program that includes HIV testing and counseling, condom distribution, and linking HIV patients in the Houston area (Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, Fort Bend, and Montgomery Counties) to ongoing care, the state has decided to cut the provider off. The move is the just the latest in the state’s ongoing attack on Planned Parenthood – in the past three years, it has banned PP patients from two life-saving health programs and recently threatened to kick the provider from Medicaid. “It is a truly sad moment for health care in Texas,” said Melaney Linton, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, in a statement. “For nearly two decades, the state provided funding for our excellent community outreach, prevention, and education that included providing thousands with free testing. We didn’t wait for people to get tested – we reached out and immersed ourselves in the communities we serve and made sure we were accessible and available for people… All these years, our HIV team has done amazing and admirable work and it is devastating that PPGC will no longer be able to do this work in the community.” – M.T.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

City Council, Open Carry, Robert Pfaff Ruben Hinojosa, Austin Resource Recovery, CapMetro, House Bill 2, Planned Parenthood

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