Naked City

Austin Stories

Since last week, staff members at Ecology Action have been picketing the nonprofit's recycling facility at Ninth Street and I-35 because of what they call the unfair dismissal of customer service coordinator Aaron Ulmer. The employees -- who Ecology Action Executive Director Dawn Smyth has said will be replaced -- say the organization is no longer responsive to its employees' concerns, including questions about the role of the executive director, the mission of the organization, and employee representation on Ecology Action's board of directors.
Since last week, staff members at Ecology Action have been picketing the nonprofit's recycling facility at Ninth Street and I-35 because of what they call the "unfair dismissal" of customer service coordinator Aaron Ulmer. The employees -- who Ecology Action Executive Director Dawn Smyth has said will be replaced -- say the organization is no longer responsive to its employees' concerns, including questions about the role of the executive director, the mission of the organization, and employee representation on Ecology Action's board of directors. (Photo By John Anderson)

Former Save Our Springs chair Robin Rather and husband/guitarist David Murray are adopting an infant son. The new arrival, born June 14, is named Daniel Andrew Murray -- Daniel from the Rather side of the family tree and Andrew from the Murray side. But to family and friends, he's simply "Andy." David Murray already is predicting that his son's big hands will lead him to blues guitar fame. Rather, many of you may recall, had spent the first six months of this year considering whether to jump into the mayor's race -- assuming, as many did, that Kirk Watson would take an early leave to run for statewide office. But with Watson's 2002 plans still uncertain, Rather has turned her attention to matters closer to home. Apart from domestic concerns, Rather says it's business as usual. "I intend to continue in the role that I've been in for the past five years, as an environmentalist and an activist," she says. "Beyond that, it's hard to justify spending time on a race that may or may not happen. And before I make any decision, I'd have to check in with Andy first."…

We're No. 10! We're No. 10! Which is actually good news when you consider that, this time last year, Austin ranked No. 8 among the cities with the highest bike-theft rates in the nation, according to a nationwide survey performed by (who else?) bike lock company Kryptonite. (That downturn didn't, however, prevent this writer's bike -- ostensibly protected by a $40 Kryptonite lock -- from being snatched from a pole in front of her Central Austin apartment complex just last week.) The company bases the list on police reports and claims from customers who want to cash in on Kryptonite's lock guarantees. The highest concentration of bike thefts occur in highly urbanized areas and around colleges and universities, as Kryptonite's list makes clear: The other "top 10" cities (actually 11, since Austin tied for 10th) are New York, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area, San Francisco, Boston, Portland, and Denver…

The Texas Dept. of Transportation's controversial MoPac improvement project charted a new course Tuesday, when a 17-member committee was officially deputized to coordinate a platoon of traffic engineers, environmental consultants, and civic planners who will explore alternatives for increasing mobility through the Loop 1 corridor without adding any more car lanes. Before you succumb to the yawns, consider that the very idea of forming a citizens committee to recommend alternatives to state transportation agency designs is a bold new step in freeway planning. The new committee represents a compromise that the board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Transportation Organization (CAMPO) arrived at June 11 when it said neither yea nor nay to TxDOT's current design proposals for expanding MoPac -- which include, at the most extreme, adding four new lanes, or at the least, overhauling interchanges. Both could potentially demolish scores of homes.

CAMPO's own staff recommended that TxDOT's designs go forward, but behind-the-scenes maneuvering by city officials, who occupy four seats on the 21-member board, helped put the brakes on the project. Apparently inspired by neighborhoods' success at getting TxDOT to the table in Fort Worth -- where city-appointed neighborhood groups are participating in designs for SH 121 through downtown -- and backed by 900-plus protesters who turned out to oppose a widened MoPac at a hearing earlier this year, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson reportedly laid a major dose of home rule on TxDOT officials before the June 11 CAMPO vote. The mayor reportedly told Sharon Barta, interim project manager for the MoPac/183 Improvement Project, that the city intended to have MoPac built to its liking -- and that means more lanes and more noise through Central Austin are not acceptable. On June 14, the Austin City Council delayed approving $29 million for acquiring right-of-way to extend MoPac north past Parmer Lane, which likely means the city intends to hold up the new segment to make sure nothing silly like an eight-laner gets designed that would increase the pressure to widen MoPac downstream…

Stop the presses! The Austin Chronicle building at 40th and I-35 is in the way of a new freeway and could be demolished in a few years. No need to check your calendar, this isn't April 1. According to TxDOT preliminary designs, the southbound I-35 frontage road that runs next to the Chronicle building will have to be moved as far as 80 feet west as part of TxDOT's I-35 improvement project, which will remove the interstate's upper deck and widen the lower one.

I-35 project manager Charles Davidson says the new I-35 will bob and weave east to west as it proceeds north out of downtown to minimize the damage to valuable or sacrosanct property -- such as the Mt. Calvary Cemetery on the east and St. David's Hospital and Concordia University on the west. It seems the Chronicle has the misfortune to be situated across I-35 from the Saint George Episcopal Church, which contains a mausoleum, which means that before it can be moved, all living ancestors of the deceased must be contacted. Put bluntly, TxDOT doesn't want to go there, Davidson says. That means I-35 between Airport and 381/2 has to be shoved over to the west, taking out the Chronicle, along with, presumably, a chunk of Hancock Center. The plans are still preliminary at this point, Davidson stresses, and any construction probably won't take place for another 10 years (although the I-35 design should be finalized by the end of this year). We just want to know one thing: Will TxDOT have to track down the ancestors of any bodies found next door at Public Storage?…

Last time we checked in on former Wimberley art teacher Grady Roper, he had just been fired from the Katherine Anne Porter charter school for his role in protesting the destruction of a controversial student mural that contained an image of two men kissing. Administrators took it upon themselves to whitewash the mural at the insistence of the conservative charter school board, which had problems with the gay imagery and other "violent" aspects of the painting. Roper was fired after he let a student paint the First Amendment on a piece of plywood to protest the administrators' decision to destroy their artwork. These days, Roper spends his time working as an illustrator, housepainter, and sometime coffee barista, taking care of his young child, and publishing Proper Gander, his bimonthly magazine. Recently, he added another title to his résumé: plaintiff. Last week, Roper sued the school district, alleging they'd violated his (and his students') First Amendment right to free expression by whitewashing the mural and by firing Roper after he told the school's administrator, Dr. Yana Bland, that he was taking his story to the media. "Grady's primary motivation in all of this was trying to protect the students' right to express themselves freely by painting the mural," says Andrea Gunn, the Texas Civil Rights Project attorney who has taken up Roper's case. Administrators "labeled him a troublemaker and then they fired him."

Roper, who's seeking actual and compensatory damages and reinstatement as an art teacher at the school, says he's not interested in reaping big financial rewards from the lawsuit. "I was hired to work a year for $12,000 and worked for three months [before being fired], so I think if the school was to finish our contract that would be more than compensation," Roper says. "But the main reason is that I'm hoping to set a precedent about school boards stealing entire walls full of people's art."…

First, let's get one thing clear: The vast majority of you reading this won't be receiving any "tax refund." Y'all can skip ahead to the next item. Okay, now that the rest of us are alone, let's talk. You don't want to give George W. Bush the satisfaction of thinking you "invested" your refund -- "up to $600!" -- into the faltering U.S. economy. So put down that credit card: An Austin group called Action for Children and the Environment has a better idea. Send that check to the Children's Defense Fund or Environmental Defense Fund on Bush's behalf. Benefits: You're doing something good for someone else, you're lodging your protest with the White House, and -- best of all -- the donations will prompt a flood of cards to President Bush himself, courtesy of whichever group gets the donations. Stan Meacham, an Austin resident who's driving the donation effort, says that although any donations will be "a drop in the bucket compared to what's being cut" from children's services and the environment in Bush's budget, the donations will send an effective message. "They're going to be aware that it's a protest," he says. To donate to either group, visit their Web sites: www.edf.org and www.childrensdefense.org.

-- Contributor: Kevin Fullerton

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Robin Rather, David Murray, Daniel Andrew Murray, Kirk Watson, Kryptonite, bike thefts, Texas Department of Transportation, MoPac, Capital Area Metropolitan Transportation Organization, Sharon Barta, Charles Davidson, Austin Chronicle, I-35, St. George Episcopal Churc

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