Off the Desk:
Speaking of controversial proposals, the City Council last week indefinitely postponed a vote on a six-month moratorium on certain types of South Austin businesses, including auto repair and pawn shops. The measure was criticized by some as elitist and in need of further examination. No word when -- or if -- the measure will reappear before the council ...
Pedro Oregon Navarro was murdered in a botched drug raid in Houston. Esequiel Hernandez was killed by U.S. Marines patrolling the border for drug smugglers. Neither man was a drug dealer or user, but their stories are just two of the many tragedies of the so-called War on Drugs. A candelight vigil to remember Oregon Navarro, Hernandez, and other victims will be held Monday, Dec. 14 from 4-7pm at the Governor's Mansion. For more info, call 441-4099... -- L.T.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith didn't spare his criticism of President Bill Clinton when he visitedChisholm Trail Middle School in Round Rock last Thursday. Smith (R-San Antonio), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, was at the school to discuss the impeachment process with a group of about 100 sixth graders who had written him letters about the matter. Smith spent much of the time reading the students' letters and then adding his commentary. While the specter of impeachment still hangs over Clinton, one sixth grader offered a quicker, easier, and perhaps more memorable solution: "He needs self-discipline and especially a good spanking." -- R.B.
Texas vs. International Law
Barring a last-minute political miracle, Joseph Stanley Faulder, a Canadian citizen, will be executed by the state of Texas at 6pm tonight, Dec. 10. Faulder's imminent death by lethal injection has been the subject of an unusual amount of controversy in recent weeks due to what anti-death penalty advocates see as irregularities in his trial and violations of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, ratified in 1969. Under that international rule, when Faulder was arrested, the state was obliged to inform Canadian authorities and alert Faulder of his right to to seek help from his country's consulate. For 15 years, Texas authorities did neither.
Faulder's execution, scheduled to occur on International Human Rights Day, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has sparked outrage from international human rights activists, and drew a large delegation of Canadian activists, government officials, and media to town on Monday. Among the group was Sid Ryan, spokesman for the Canadian Labor Congress, who decried the state's failure to abide by the international convention's rules. "You cannot have one set of laws for the 140 countries who are signatories to the Vienna Convention and another set of laws for the state of Texas," Ryan said. "That's unacceptable."
The Canadian delegation, accompanied by a number of Texas activists, pointed to letters written by U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright to Gov. George W. Bush and Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles Chairman Victor Rodriguez -- requesting a 30-day stay of Faulder's execution and further consideration of his clemency petition -- as evidence that justice was not served in the Canadian national's sentencing and conviction. Faulder's attorney, Sandra Babcock, had hoped that last week's District Court ruling, which determined for the second time that the Board of Pardons and Paroles' secret clemency hearing process was unconstitutional, might "have a dramatic effect" on the request for a stay of execution for Faulder. But the plans for a public clemency hearing on Faulder's case were immediately scrapped on Tuesday when the Texas Supreme Court stayed the lower court's ruling.
Texas has executed several foreign citizens in the past, most recently Tristan Montoya, a Mexican native who was killed by lethal injection last year. Although American and Canadian activists hold out hope that Bush will agree to grant a 30-day reprieve to Faulder, members of the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty say they are prepared to launch a tourist boycott of Texas beginning Dec.11 if Faulder is executed. According to Dave Atwood, president of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a similar boycott is being considered by several European countries. Besides Faulder, three other men were scheduled to be executed this week: Daniel Corwin, Jeff Emery, and Danny Barber. Texas activists say the Dec. 15 execution of James Robert Means in Huntsville for the 1981 murder of a Houston security guard, will likely mark the 500th death-row execution since the United States reinstated the death-penalty in 1978. In Austin, the occasion will be observed with a 5:30pm demonstration and vigil at the Capitol steps, sponsored by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. -- E.C.B.
The Debate Goes On
Alternating with the public discussion of its proposed City Hall deal with Computer Sciences Corp. (see related story), the City Council held a public hearing Thursday on the long-proposed urban renewal initiative for Eastside's 11th and 12th Streets. The Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA), a nonprofit organization created by the city three years ago, has been working on amiable solutions to deal with the blight of the East 11th and 12th Street corridors. The community redevelopment plan proposes 140,000 square feet of shops, apartments, restaurants, and office space on E. 11th Street, plus 85,000 square feet of residential and commercial development on E.12th.
ARA representatives urged the council on Thursday to approve the 11th and 12th Street proposal -- as well as a long-term master plan which seeks to maintain the Inner Eastside as primarily residential, and calls for development in surrounding areas. The city Planning Commission and the ARA board, comprised of 29 Eastside "stakeholders," have already given their stamp of approval to both plans.
But concern over ARA's request to redefine the area's zoning resurfaced Thursday night from supporters of Bennett Consolidated Inc.'s plan to build a regional mall on a tract of land southwest of East 11th Street. The East Side Mall project, opposed by Guadalupe neighborhood residents, is supported by many members of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which with its allied East Austin Economic Development Corp., cut a deal with Bennett in 1991.Last Thursday, church members reaffirmed their opposition to the master plan, which would redefine the zoning of the Bennett tract. While the Bennett property wouldn't be impacted by the 11th and 12th street projects, the ARA has proposed townhouse and apartments along the corridors. Church officials fear that if the zoning is changed to accommodate more residential properties, rather than business development, it will interfere with the vision of the Eastside as a contender in the Austin marketplace. "We want downtown to leap over the freeway," said the Rev. Marvin Griffin, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist. "That's prosperity and empowerment."
Bernice Butler, ARA executive director, said the zoning change will reduce the permitted height of buildings from 22 stories to 14, but the ARA is recommending expanding Downtown Mixed Use (DMU) zoning to allow for both commercial and residential development along 11th and 12th Streets. Despite the confusion, Butler said, the church and the ARA are trying to reach an accord. "We both agree that the issues are resolvable, and we are working toward that," said Butler. "It's a logical proposal and the right thing to do." Butler hopes the council will vote on the two plans by Jan. 7. -- B.M.
A long-awaited appearance by University of Texas president Larry Faulkner at last Thursday's University Staff Association meeting yielded few concrete assurances that the association's wage and equity demands would be met, but it did provide staff with an opportunity to confront Faulkner face to face on an issue that they believe has been effectively ignored by the university for the past two years.
While he repeatedly acknowledged the value of staff to UT's operations, Faulkner stopped short of agreeing to most of the staff association requests, including an $8.93-an-hour minimum wage, a $200-a-month cost-of-living increase for all UT employees, and a freeze on wages above $65,000 a year until the wages of lower-paid staff members are more in line with the Austin market average -- which would require an increase, according to a 1996 study commissioned by the university, of about 17%.
Faulkner told the staff association members that implementing an across-the-board pay raise or freezing the wages of higher paid employees is not possible without jeopardizing some existing university operations. On some fronts, however, Faulkner seemed more willing to accede to staff demands. Faulkner said he is committed to implementing pay raises "if at all possible" in 1999 for the remaining 60% of staff employees for whom raises were recommended by a campus advisory committee earlier this year; so far, the pay hikes have cost the university $9.5 million. In addition, Faulkner announced the creation of two new committees charged with studying -- though not implementing -- issues USA members say the university has long dragged its heels on: a Presidential Committee on Staff Compensation, which will include four members of UT staff, to review staff concerns about pay, benefits, job classifications, and recruitment; and a committee to study staff grievance procedures, to be appointed next year.
Many staffers, including several members of UT's janitorial team, were less than impressed by Faulkner's performance. Maria Callacia, a custodial worker who came to the meeting still wearing her blue janitorial uniform, told Faulkner that although custodial workers "got some kind of a raise in September," she and her co-workers had yet to see the increase reflected in their paychecks. "The only thing we see that has increased is the work," she said. Faulkner responded by suggesting that Callacia "e-mail me" with her pay information, a suggestion that was met by titters and catcalls from the crowd, who felt the comment was indicative of how out-of-touch the administration is with its staff.
Peg Kramer, USA president, said several days after the meeting that she was "disappointed" that despite being given a very detailed list of concerns, Faulkner failed to commit to any of USA's requests, instead offering little more than vague reassurances that staff wages, benefits, and retirement plans will soon improve. "The burning question is, what day, what time, and year will we get fair wages?" Kramer said. "We don't want to know why or how you're going to come up with the money, just tell us when." -- E.C.B.
Swords Into Plowshares
As part of community leaders' efforts to improve race relations in Austin, the city sponsored a two-day "Peace Between Communities Conference" at the Austin Convention Center, Dec. 3 and 4. The conference capped off a weekin which religious and civic leaders tried to focus attention on race relations by releasing a letter urging residents -- particularly white residents -- to acknowledge the existence of pervasive bigotry in Austin. Run by the Plowshares Institute, a nonprofit conflict mediation group that has worked in various U.S. cities and in post-apartheid South Africa, the conference was a blend of discussion groups and short skits aimed at fostering a closer alliance between members of Austin's diverse community.
Attendees said the Plowshares conference was another way to teach residents to effectively counter prejudice. Mayor Kirk Watson said another conference may be scheduled next year so others may take advantage of the skills Plowshares teaches. "We must have leaders that have the skills to address certain issues," Watson said. "You use the skills that have been learned here, evaluate them, and take them into the community." -- E.K.