Off the Desk:
Local politics junkies have a new daily fix. In Fact, the four-year-old weekly newsletter written, reported, and edited by the tireless Ken Martin, went daily this week. "Delivered" via the Web for subscribers, In Fact Daily will be published Mon-Fri at http://www.infactdaily.com. The weekly, formerly e-mailed and faxed to subscribers, will still be available online and by snail mail. Martin -- who will be aided by reporter Jo Clifton and the Web savvy of his wife and publisher Rebecca Melançon -- says the new venture is actually "easier" than the weekly. Despite the late deadlines, and some stress about getting subscribers used to going to the Web site, Martin, 60, is gushing like a kid with a new toy: "This is the most exciting thing I've everdone. ... It's mind -boggling that I can do this." ...
Capital Metro will hold a public workshop on transportation solutions from 8:30am-noon on Saturday, July 17 at the Thompson ConferenceCenter, 26th and Red River. For more info, call 637-4AIM or see http://www.aim99.org. --L.T.
Last Friday, attorneys representing former Texas Funeral Service Commission (TFSC) executive director Eliza May subpoenaed Gov. George W. Bush in an effort to get his testimony for a whistleblower lawsuit brought by May against the state (see last week's cover story). However, it's unclear if and when Bush will be deposed.
Though the deposition has been scheduled for Aug. 26, Linda Edwards, Bush's spokesperson, says the governor will fight the subpoena. "Our lawyers will object to the deposition because Governor Bush was not involved in the case and has no personal knowledge of the facts in the case," Edwards said. Bush is being represented by the Texas Office of the Attorney General. The AG has until a week before the scheduled deposition to file a motion to quash the subpoena. Once that happens, attorneys for May and Bush will argue their positions before a judge.
The suit, filed in March, alleges that state officials, funeral home giant Service Corporation International, and Robert Waltrip, the company's chairman and CEO, worked to thwart an investigation by the TFSC into SCI's embalming practices.
While the questions about Bush's involvement in the influence-buying scandal continue, the governor's office has suddenly become very interested in the TFSC. Last Friday, three members of Bush's staff, including chief of staff Clay Johnson, attended the meeting of the TFSC's commissioners. Johnson reportedly told the commissioners that they had done a good job during their stint at the agency. Edwards said Johnson and other members of Bush's staff often attend agency meetings. She said the staffers were also there to offer the TFSC "assistance on fiscal matters" and to remind them that the agency has to produce a financial report and budget for the coming fiscal year. Asked why Bush's staffers were so interested in helping the agency, Edwards replied that the TFSC has "had turnover in key positions." That's an understatement. On Friday,Ed Matsis, an investigator who has been at the agency less than seven months, was named acting executive director. He's the TFSC's sixth director in the past five years.
On another Bush-SCI matter, the ties betweenthe Bush family and the funeral company appear to be long and deep. In April, former president George Bush appeared at a meeting of the International Cemetery and Funeral Association in Houston. According to sources in the funeral industry and articles in the Death Care Business Advisor, a trade newsletter, Bush's appearance at the confab was paid for by SCI. In addition, industry sources say that Waltrip is longtime friends with the elder Bush. Stay tuned. --R.B.
Making Up Is Hard to Do
Austin Independent School District board members, apparently disconcerted by the findings of County Attorney Ken Oden's investigation into the district's dropout reporting, have agreed to meet with Oden to discuss resolving the county attorney's criminal charges against the district for altering TAAS tests. That meeting could come as early as next week, though no date has been set. Oden -- whose offer last month to drop penalties against the district in exchange for a guilty plea and improved accountability measures was rebuffed by the board's officers -- says the board's willingness to talk about options is a positive turnabout. Board members, however, say they've been open to cooperation all along.
"My perception is that we're not in an adversarial role with Ken Oden," says board president Kathy Rider, adding that the board had offeredto meet with Oden as early as last fall before the county attorney filed indictments against the district for record-tampering. But the question of whether the Board of Trustees will allow the district, and by association, themselves, to be tainted by a formal admission of guilt promises to be a sticking point in the discussions.
Oden says that at this point, "they haven't conceded anything, and neither have I," though when asked whether gaining a guilty plea from the district would be a non-negotiable item, he admitted, "I don't see a scenario in which we'd press prosecution of all charges."
Board member Patricia Whiteside, who serves on the accountability subcommittee that will meet with Oden, wouldn't comment on the board's current feelings about pleading guilty. Rider, however, insists the district isn't culpable, having taken important steps within the past year, she says, to correct district reporting. "With all due respect to Mr. Oden," says Rider, "I don't think he understands the accountability system in the state of Texas, and I'm not sure he's been briefed about the changes we've made internally since the infractions took place."
Before the case can proceed, the county attorney's office will have to prove in court that it has the authority to try the case, which is the first in the state's history to bring criminal charges against a school district. AISD attorney Chris Gunter intends to file a brief arguing that the county attorney's office, as a constitutionally appointed representative of state entities that include school districts, is prohibited by law from trying its own legal client. Gunter says, however, that pursuing this separate litigation doesn't mean that the school board fails to recognize problems that need fixing.
In fact, says Gunter, it's the school board's increased awareness of accountability flaws, which Oden's dropout investigation is bringing to light, that has convinced the board to remain at the table with Oden. "The more we have learned about problems in gathering dropout data," he says, "I think the district recognized that if we can use the county attorney to help address them, then we ought to take advantage of it." -- K.F.
The latest attempt by the KOOP Board of Trustees to quash a motion for contempt filed by station members Michael Zakes and Jerry Chamkis was rejected by Travis County District Judge Lora Livingston last Friday, clearing the way for the plaintiffs' motion to be taken up in district court within the next few weeks.
The judge's partial rejection of the motion for summary judgment, which would have dismissed all charges against the board and its individual members, ensures that the KOOP saga will have at least another sequel: a hearing on a motion for contempt against the KOOP Board of Trustees, who Zakes and Chamkis claim failed to comply with the station's bylaws during the station's second community board election last February. The two are also still seeking a hefty pile of documents related to that and the previous community board election, which their attorney, Russ Ham, believes may prove what many KOOP members have been saying all along: that the current board, which has outlasted a no-confidence vote and numerous court challengessince 1998, sits without authority and was never duly elected by the station's membership.
The contempt motion, Ham says, may be the last step before a trial against the board proceeds.
"At every turn, my clients and Friends of KOOP [the group of station members that formed in opposition to the board] have tried to find a negotiable solution," Ham says. "At every turn, the defendants have not been reasonable. I have no expectation that they will change their unreasonable nature short of a jury trial."
At the center of the ongoing lawsuit -- which began in 1998 after the November community board elections -- is the station members' claim that the board has breached its fiduciary duty by misappropriating funds, concealing records from the November election (which the board invalidated), and failing to comply with station bylaws in numerous committee and board elections. The lawsuit also claims that several board members are engaged in civil conspiracy.
Jim Ellinger, one of KOOP's founders, says he's afraid that if the conflict goes on too much longer, the board's scorched-earth policies may drive the station off the air. "Listenership is way off already," Ellinger says. "Many programmers have already run off and quit. ... If [the board members] drive all their programmers away, they know it will kill the station." --E.C.B.
Children at Risk
Do specific groups of children in Travis County run a higher risk of accidental death? If the last few years are any indication, the answer may be yes. The annual report on child fatalities for 1998 -- released last month by the Travis County Child Fatality Review Team -- shows an overall decrease in child deaths, and in accidental deaths, though the numbers were up for both murders and suicides.
Total Child Deaths
One of the most intriguing, if not disturbing, trends from this year is the apparent closure of the gender gap in some areas: For the first time, more girls than boys died in car accidents (10 girls compared with seven boys), and as many girls as boys were murder victims (four each). There seems to be no definitive answers to explain why girls have suddenly come more noticeably into harm's way. It will be interesting to see if these 1998 statistics represent a new trend or just a statistical blip. Preliminary data through June of this year indicate that the trend is, indeed, continuing.
As in previous years, the study revealed that African-American children are at far greater risk than children of other ethnicities -- and the disparity is widening. Despite comprising only 13% of Travis County's total population, African Americans accounted for 28% of all child deaths in 1998, up from about 19% in previous years.
Poverty in all its various collective manifestations is probably the reason for these disproportionate figures. Inadequate prenatal care, substandard housing, limited recreational options, high rates of violence -- these elements of poverty all add up in affecting the number of child deaths in the African-American community.
The 1998 report is the team's fourth annual compilation and is intended to inform and educate the community about the nature of child deaths in order to help in preventing future tragedies. Like past reports, this one brings us both encouraging and troubling news:
• More than half of the 1998 accidental fatalities, 17 of 30, were the result of motor vehicle accidents. Drownings accounted for six deaths and remained consistent with its upward trend of previous years. Other accidental deaths were the result of suffocations, overlays (when a parent, while asleep, accidentally rolls onto the child and suffocates him), and a drug overdose.
• Of the eight child homicides in the past year, five were the result of child abuse; no gang-related homicides were reported in 1998.
• Suicides increased dramatically, with four reported as opposed to only one in the three previous years combined.
Based on its findings, the Child Fatality Review Team has made recommendations to the community on the following subjects, in hopes of curtailing preventable child deaths:
• Motor Vehicles: Recognize the limitations of inexperienced teen drivers, and know the other young people with whom your child might ride. Consider limiting nighttime driving for young drivers.
• Drownings:Never leave infants or small children unattended in the bathtub, pools (even shallow wading pools), ponds, or other bodies of water. Eliminate drowning hazards such as mop buckets and toilets with open lids.
• Care Providers: Be certain that persons responsible for your child's care are qualified to respond appropriately to an emergency -- not just babysitters and day care providers, but also siblings, family members, and friends.
• Suicides: Educate yourself about the signs of depression in children and adolescents. Don't hesitate to seek professional help. Talk to and with your children frequently. Listen to what they are saying. --J.T.