Off the Desk:
It's the best political rumor of recent weeks: Former Comptroller John Sharp has plans to run against U.S. Rep. Ron Paul. The idea makes sense on a lot of levels. Sharp is from Victoria and could likely beat Paul. Democratic loyalists like the idea, saying it would be a good move for Sharp, who is out of political office for the first time in many years after losing his bid for lieutenant governor to Rick Perry. But Sharp insists he's not a candidate. "I don't have any fire in my belly to run for Congress. Right now, that's just a whole bunch of other people saying that, it's not me," he said. --R.B.
The city Planning Commission on Tuesday passed its proposal to greatly expand the scope of the East Austin overlay zoning ordinance. The overlay requires a conditional-use permit, and thus a public hearing, on Eastside commercial and industrial projects -- even if the proposed use would be allowed, without a special permit, elsewhere in town. Currently, the overlay covers LI (light industrial) and CS (heavy commercial) property, and a set of 14 specific, mostly industrial, uses, and thus left loopholes that the neighbors would like closed. The new ordinance would also include GR (retail) property and a much longer list of uses, including service stations, rehab centers, and medical offices. The City Council is set to hold its public hearing on the overlay May 13. --M.C.M.
If the Shoe Doesn't Fit ...
Just two weeks after the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned 14-year-old Lacresha Murray's 1997 conviction in the beating death of two-year-old Jayla Belton, the district attorney's office has taken action, filing a motion with the Third Court asking it to review and recant its decision. Murray's attorney, Keith Hampton, says motions for rehearing are "kind of perfunctory. And they are very, very rarely accepted." But there are some intriguing and troubling aspects to the state's obstinance regarding Lacresha's case.
The motion for rehearing, prepared by Assistant DA Karyn Scott, addresses three areas. Two are pretty well-worn terrain, pertaining to whether Lacresha was actually in custody when she was interrogated by APD homicide detectives five days after Jayla's death. (The court ruled April 15 she was in state custody and therefore should have been brought before a magistrate before and after police questioning; the DA's office disagrees). But the other part of the DA's motion argues that the statement Murray made to the police should be allowed as evidence because it provided police with evidence detectives didn't already have as to the cause and manner of Jayla's death -- evidence later corroborated by medical testimony. This refers specifically to responses Murray made to police during her interrogation, when she told police she may have accidentally kicked Jayla after detectives suggested this scenario to her. Scott argues that this alleged kicking was later corroborated by Bexar County Medical Examiner Dr. Vincent DiMaio. During Murray's second trial, DiMaio testified that two parallel lines on Jayla's chest were a "perfect match" with the treads on the tennis shoes Lacresha wore during her interrogation. But other evidence, virtually ignored, contradicts the state's argument. It seems the shoes in question weren't Lacresha's at all, but were supplied to her by the Texas Baptist Children's Home -- where Lacresha and her siblings were placed by Child Protective Services while the police conducted their investigation of Jayla's death -- when she arrived at the Round Rock facility barefoot.
Moreover, the definition of a "perfect match" is quite imperfect, as DiMaio himself defined it in testimony never heard by the jury, in an example now known as the "White Man Theory." It goes like this: If two white men robbed a convenience store, says DiMaio, then any two white men would be a "perfect match" for the suspects. Also conveniently disregarded from the trial evidence was a letter from the state's own forensic experts at the Dept. of Public Safety which stated they were unable to confirm any match between the suspect tennis shoes and the marks on Jayla's body "due to insufficient general characteristics." As Hampton noted in his initial brief before the appeals court in January of 1998, "It is noteworthy that DiMaio made his conclusions about a match long before he actually examined the shoes, which was on the day he testified." He wrote, "It is also noteworthy that that while the [DPS] Crime Lab had conveyed its opinion about the absence of a 'match,' the prosecution only produced the letter after its case-in-chief, thereby precluding cross-examination of both DiMaio and Bayardo on this issue."
There is also the matter of whether Murray's police statement provided any "new evidence," as the state claims in their recent brief. Travis Co. Medical Examiner Dr. Roberto Bayardo conducted his autopsy of Jayla the morning of May 25 -- the morning after she died -- in the presence of APD Sgt. Paul Johnson. At that time, Bayardo concluded Jayla had died "as a result of massive blunt injury to abdomen with ruptured liver." APD homicide detectives knew this -- that's why so much of Murray's interrogation revolves around kicking scenarios. So the argument that her statement netted new information is quite flimsy. "Of all the things to hold onto," says Hampton of the shoe evidence and "perfect match" theory, "that ain't it." --J.S.
Dream in Green
City officials and design consultants met with about 100 residents Monday to discuss how best to bring out the "park" in the future Town Lake Park, now known as Auditorium Shores. In science lab-like sessions, held during the afternoon and evening, attendees dispersed into groups with designers and planning officials. Each group scrutinized portions of the proposed park to determine which activities would best fit in the 54 acres south of Town Lake. A sampling of suggestions ranged from space for riverside fishing to ample room for roller-blading enthusiasts; from natural, vegetative picnic areas to huge interactive fountains for children. Xeriscaping, which includes implementing vegetation native to Austin and Central Texas, would be a priority during the construction phases, said Laura Wiberg, a consultant with EDAW Inc., the Denver-based firm leading the design implementation of the park.
Also on the drawing board is a proposal to cut off Riverside Drive from South First Street to South Lamar. There had been some concern about the impact the street closure would have on neighboring streets, but those were alleviated somewhat by a recent WHM traffic consultants' report that showed that closing Riverside would not adversely affect traffic on Barton Springs and Cesar Chavez.
The park project is being funded through a voter-approved rental car tax, which will also cover the construction of a parking garage and a new civic center. Palmer Auditorium is being turned over to ARTS* Center Stage, which will use private funds to renovate the building into a performing arts center. Cales Givens, a landscape architect with EDAW, noted that average funding for an Austin park usually hovers around $1 per square foot. As a result of the infusion of voter-approved funds, Austinites will see a healthy $5 per square foot being spent on the massive downtown project, Givens said. --L.S.
The city says it does not plan to oppose legislation in the House that would redistribute bond finance money out of home buyers' assistance programs into rental housing development, but local housing officials say it's an unfortunate trade-off. The bill, written by Dallas Democrat Harryette Ehrhardt and now pending in the Calendars Committee, was originally intended to expand the pot of low-cost loans available for affordable housing projects at the expense of large petrochemical companies, who currently receive a large share of the state's allotment of tax-exempt bond financing. But the companies rallied to protect their kitty, and Ehrhardt took the money out of single-family home financing instead. The federal government permits the state to issue a finite number of tax-free bonds each year to raise low-interest loans for industrial, educational, and housing incentives, and the Legislature decides how much to allot for each use.
Ehrhardt's office says that shifting resources from mortgage assistance into multi-family development makes sense because low interest rates have deflated mortgage bankers' enthusiasm for subsidized housing loans anyway. But city and county housing finance corporations, already competing hard for limited money to sponsor home buying programs and down-payment assistance for middle-income residents, may not agree. The Austin Housing Finance Corporation, for example, hasn't been able to issue bonds for mortgage assistance since 1997, and won't come up in the queue again until 2001. Meanwhile, the median home price in Austin has shot up from $73,000 to nearly $120,000 since 1990, and about one-third of Austin-area residents qualify for housing assistance. Travis County has already parceled out 80% of the bond money it issued in February for home buying assistance and won't be eligible to issue again for a couple of years.
"There's always going to be families who get left behind by the market,"says Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs spokesman Brian Montgomery, who adds that offering mortgages even 1% below market rate -- the typical difference between bond-financed and conventional housing loans -- puts home ownership within reach of of hundreds of thousands of Texas families who now can't afford it.
Representatives from the petrochemical industry say they're proud to support Ehrhardt's bill as revised, because affordable rents help stabilize the communities their employees live in. They aren't quite willing to admit that their own front-line employees might be eligible for the low-income housing the bill promotes, but that's another story. --K.F.