Edited By Lauri Apple, Fri., July 5, 2002
This Week in Austin
Noah denies rumors of Forty Days and Forty Nights...
Hundreds crowded Thursday's City Council meeting to oppose the Stratus deal; the public hearing will be continued July 11 (see p.18).
A Travis Co. Grand jury no-billed police officer John Coffey in the fatal shooting of Sophia King (p.21).
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. released a proposed Land and Water Conservation Plan (p.20).
Judge Julie Kocurek ruled that accused police officer Eric Snyder can proceed with a defense claiming selective prosecution by APD (p.22).
New community org LiveableCity announced its plan to focus Austin priorities (p.16).
The Pledge of Allegiance will survive -- but Texas schools are another story (below right).
The Hole in the Wall, alas, is no more (p.53).
It's renewal-or-replacement time for five members of the Zoning and Platting Commission and four of the Planning Commission, the first round of appointments since the old PC was split into the two powerful panels. Every City Council member gets to play: Daryl Slusher, Raul Alvarez, Jackie Goodman, and Betty Dunkerley get to name ZAPpers, Danny Thomas a PC-er, Gus Garcia one of each, and everyone (including Will Wynn) gets to vote on two consensus slots on the PC. As of press time, PC-ers Ben Heimsath (the chair) and Silver Garza are not reapplying; ZAPpers Betty Baker (the chair) and Diana Castañeda are; and ZAPpers Jean Mather and Niyanta Spelman (whose term isn't even up yet) may move to the PC. -- Mike Clark-Madison
In response to increasing criticism from Eastside community activists, the City Council last week imposed a 90-day moratorium on new historic zoning cases in East Austin and created a task force to look at whether H-zoning contributes to the area's gentrification. The Zoning and Platting, Historic Landmark, Community Development, and Planning Commissions will each contribute two members to the task force, which should make a report before the 90 days are up. Three Eastside H-zoning cases already in the pipeline will be allowed to go forward; another property, owned by the city, got H-zoning that same night. -- M.C.M.
This Week's All-American Haiku:
I pledge allegiance
To money all powerful.
God bless the dollar.
Déjà vu? Jim Bob Moffett's old football coach and friend, the legendary Darrell Royal, stopped in at City Hall not long ago. This time, he was accompanied not by Moffett but by Moffett's protégé Beau Armstrong, CEO of Stratus Properties. Back in the old days, Moffett's Freeport-McMoRan owned Stratus, then named FM Properties. The recent Royal visit at City Hall was just a casual thing, really, explains Armstrong. "We were going to lunch together and we thought we'd go by City Hall and meet some people. Darrell had never met Council Member [Danny Thomas]. It turns out they have mutual friends." Did the pending Stratus deal come up in the conversation? "Well, yeah, we talked about it some." Then, he went on, "we poked our heads in and saw Daryl." It was a chance encounter, he said -- Slusher was on his way out the door. "But Darrell and Daryl have been acquaintances for a while," said Armstrong, chuckling over Slusher's former life as a journalist, when he wielded a merciless pen against Moffett and his circle of friends. -- Amy Smith
Officials at UT are ready to release their 25-year vision for future development of Northwest Austin's J.J. Pickle Research Campus. The idea, one of several strategies for dealing with UT growth, is to turn the graduate lab complex into a second "full-service" UT. The Pickle property, at 450 acres, is actually larger than the 369-acre UT main campus. Other big state schools -- for instance, the U. of Michigan -- have dual campuses, but they're typically closer together than the eight-mile trek (45 minutes in MoPac traffic) from the Tower to Pickle. UT planners considered a tunnel linking the two, but ruled it out for cost reasons; a light-rail shuttle is more likely. -- M.C.M.
Next stop, Budapest: The U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report last week that ranked Metro Austin No. 48 among the nation's urban economies, with an annual "gross metropolitan product" of $49.8 billion. Boom or no boom, the Austin-San Marcos MSA is underperforming for its size (No. 39 in population, according to the Census Bureau). But if we were a country, we'd be the 99th-largest economy in the world, just ahead of New Zealand and behind Hungary. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Fort Worth-Arlington all outpace Austin in GMP; Houston's $190 billion economy is larger than Saudi Arabia's. -- M.C.M.
Austin Interfaith, a nonprofit community group focused on organizing parents to improve local schools, was recently featured in "Strong Neighborhoods, Strong Schools," a national study conducted by Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform and Research for Action. The study, which highlights successful efforts by parents and teachers to reform failing schools, says Austin Interfaith provides a model for how schools can be improved from the grassroots up. AI has helped push AISD to improve run-down schools in poor neighborhoods, and has instigated 28 after-school programs. "Our study doesn't focus on high-priced consultants or on privatizing public education," explains Chris Brown, of CCC. "It documents how ordinary people are transforming the schools." You can see the report at www.crosscity.org/programs/indicators/findings.htm . -- Michael May
The trial of four local nuclear waste protestors, originally scheduled to begin June 24, has been postponed until September. In May 2001, the four were arrested at the Capitol for "disrupting a public meeting" after shouting protestations during a Senate debate over the fate of SB 1541, which would have brought a low-level nuke waste facility to Andrews County in West Texas. The trial has been stalled because the state's "key" witnesses, Sens. Buster Brown, R-Lake Jackson, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, were unable to make the June date. The charge against the four is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $2,000 fine and/or 180 days in county jail. -- Jordan Smith
The Texas Civil Rights Project has filed a Title IX lawsuit against AISD alleging that softball fields AISD has promised to build in Northeast Austin will not be comparable to boys' baseball facilities, and that the fields fail to help students in South Austin. The suit is the fifth in a series of Title IX suits that TCRP has filed in the past year. June marked the 30th anniversary of Title IX, the federal statute that bans gender discrimination in any educational institution that receives federal funds. -- Lee Nichols
At its July 9 meeting, the Travis County Commissioners Court plans to discuss and finally take action on its proposed solid waste siting ordinance, a nine-month effort to regulate expansion of existing solid waste facilities and the siting of new ones. After many, many hours of dais-side discussion -- most recently, at Tuesday's meeting -- commissioners still haven't reached a draft amenable to all parties: themselves, landfill companies Browning-Ferris Industries and Waste Management Inc., and neighbors of northeast landfills run by those two companies, among others. Partly at issue is WMI and BFI's assertion that the county cannot regulate areas already permitted for landfill use. Further, the county is reticent to allow the two northeast landfills to expand, given that both have received numerous notices of enforcement or violation from the TNRCC for odors and other environmental and operational problems. In a memo distributed to interested parties last week, County Judge Sam Biscoe outlined three options available to the Court -- including the possibility of doing nothing at all. -- L.A.
Health officials in San Antonio and elsewhere in Central Texas (but not, as of last report, in Travis Co.) are testing dead birds for West Nile virus, which is slowly making its way west across the U.S. Seven birds in Harris Co. tested positive for West Nile, which can cause encephalitis and has been blamed for at least 18 deaths. The disease is carried from birds to humans by mosquitoes. By the way, the Rodent and Vector Control program at the city/county health department can be reached at 972-5692. -- M.C.M.
San Antonio residents have moved a step closer to forcing a referendum on a proposed golf resort over the Edwards Aquifer, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Austin's own Lumbermen's Investment Corp. has the City Council's backing on the proposed PGA golf course, which will sit on top of San Antonio's only source of drinking water. Last week, three groups leading the opposition submitted an additional 26,000 signatures -- well above the 63,000 required -- to put the issue on the November ballot. Council members could also opt to rescind their support of the negotiated agreement with Lumbermen's. In the meantime, the "no means no" battle cry is growing louder by the day. Express-News columnist Rick Casey summed up the situation this way: "A petition drive of this magnitude is not about the fine points of an agreement. It's about anger." Chronicle columnist Jim Hightower will discuss the PGA deal and other San Antonio topics on Thursday, July 11, at 7:30pm, at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of San Antonio (7150 I-10 West, at Loop 410). Call 477-5588 or visit www.jimhightower.com for more details. -- A.S.
The Texas Transportation Commission has approved the first plans for Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor project: a 4,000-mile network of new toll roads, high-speed freight and passenger rail lines, and utility easements from hither to yon. (See details at www.dot.state.tx.us.) The $183 billion project is envisioned as a public-private partnership, and investors (private-sector players or local governments) would recoup franchise and toll fees in return for building out segments. The TTC plan designates four "priority" corridors -- including one paralleling I-35 from Dallas through Austin to San Antonio. The 1,200-foot-wide corridors would not replace existing interstates. Perry proposed the plan in January, but so far nobody has offered to invest in corridor projects; his Democratic opponent Tony Sanchez calls the TTC "a massive, massive suggestion." -- M.C.M.
In its usual 5-4 split, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Minnesota law preventing judicial candidates from taking stands on "disputed legal and political issues." Every state that elects judges has such a rule (all now obsolete), designed to keep judicial candidates on the high road; in Texas, it's Canon 5 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. (It's still not-cool to promise to vote a certain way on a certain case, however.) Texas Supreme Court candidate Steven Wayne Smith, the lawyer who gave you Hopwood, had filed his own suit challenging Canon 5 but now plans to drop it. -- M.C.M.
From the "Whatever" Desk: Six Houston women and four out-of-towners took it all off for Playboy's "Women of Enron" issue, on the stands this week. Four still work for the disgraced energy giant; hundreds of current and ex-Enronians (Enroniettes?) applied for the honor. The lucky few say the "empowering" experience of being naked in a skin mag restored their "self-assuredness" and showed the Enron collapse had "meaning." -- M.C.M.
Attorney general candidates Kirk Watson and Greg Abbott each waded into the home insurance mess last week with predictably different proposals. Abbott, the GOP nominee (and insurance-defense lawyer) wants to target the bad companies that mishandle mold remediation claims, while Democrat Watson (our former mayor and a plaintiff's trial lawyer) is pushing a much broader program of legislation, regulation, and oversight, not all of which is within the AG's power. Each, of course, says the crisis -- which has led major insurers to bail out of Texas and others to double and triple homeowners' rates -- is the fault of people like the other guy (pro-bidness corporate lackeys like Abbott, or liberal ambulance chasers like Watson). -- M.C.M.
Legislators heard testimony last week that fewer than half of Texans who need treatment for serious mental illness are receiving it, a situation described as "a national shame" by lawmakers. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, more than 40,000 mentally ill inmates are "warehoused" in Texas jails and prisons. (Among them was Sophia King, the schizophrenia sufferer shot and killed by Austin police in June, who spent three months in state jail last winter; she was seen six times by staff psychiatrists.) A state Senate committee has already recommended that health insurers be required to pay for mental health care for the estimated 10% of Texas children who need it. -- M.C.M.
Tube trash: Rather than impose a fee on tubers on the Guadalupe and Comal rivers, or pass an open-container ban (yeah, right), the New Braunfels City Council agreed to spend $5,000 to hire scuba divers to pick up beer cans and other debris from the river bottoms. Since the banks are largely privately owned, city crews can't trespass to clean up there, though local police say they'll step up patrols to keep tuber trash from littering the riverside. -- M.C.M.
Low-performing schools will escape the spotlight next year as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test (the TAKS) makes its debut. Third-graders taking the tougher-than-TAAS test, to be offered first in spring 2003, will still have to pass the reading portion to be promoted to fourth grade. But campuses and districts will not be publicly ranked on first-year TAKS performance, though they will be informed of their scores. The state will reinstitute accountability rankings in 2004. -- M.C.M.
According to The Pledge of Allegiance: A Short History, by Dr. John W. Baer (copyright 1992 and found in abbreviated form at www.vineyard.net/vineyard/history/pledge.htm), Baptist minister Francis Bellamy's original, 1892 version of the Pledge of Allegiance made no mention of God or America: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." In 1954, Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge after a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, Baer says, making it both a patriotic oath and a public prayer. "Bellamy's granddaughter said he also would have resented this ... change," Baer wrote. "He had been pressured into leaving his church in 1891 because of his socialist sermons. In his retirement in Florida, he stopped attending church because he disliked the racial bigotry he found there." -- L.N.
Unsurprisingly, President Bush quickly assumed the position of moral righteousness in this Pledge of Allegiance silliness: "We need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. Those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench." In case you're wondering which liberal wacko appointed the godless judges of the 9th Circuit, Alfred T. Goodwin, the lead author of the pledge-striking decision, was appointed by Richard Nixon in 1971 and later promoted by Ronald Reagan to chief justice. -- L.N.
Anyone concerned about the War on Terrorism, including the threatened U.S. war with Iraq, the assault on democracy at home, and other aspects of the international crisis, is invited to a community meeting to brainstorm possible responses. Saturday, July 6, noon-2pm, at the Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe. To RSVP or for more info, call 452-8282 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Austin's first Adult Swimming Championships also will be held July 6 at Walnut Creek Pool, 12138 N. Lamar. Warm-up begins at 3pm, and the meet begins at 4pm. Austin Parks and Rec and several local businesses are sponsoring the meet, and swimmers of all ages will compete in age groups from 18 to 80 -- with music by the Studebakers. The competition is also a fundraiser for the Friends of Deep Eddy, supporters of Deep Eddy Pool, the oldest swimming pool in Texas. Funds will go toward remodeling and renovating the bathhouse area and extending the seasonal operation of the pool. For more info, see www.adultswimming.com or deepeddy.org.
And finally on Saturday, Travis Co. Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir will kick off her program to introduce voters to eSlate, an electronic voting system the county will begin using in this fall's early voting. DeBeauvoir wants to ensure that voters aren't surprised when they enter the booth (see last week's "Bad News for Luddites"), and promises something more than perfunctory, watching-paint-dry voter education -- including local comedians on the program. Saturday, July 6, 1:30-4:30pm, at Highland Mall on the ground floor between the two Dillard's locations. Also, the Mayor's Committee for People With Disabilities will demonstrate eSlate on Monday, July 8, at 505 Barton Springs Rd., third floor conference room. Call 238-VOTE for more info. -- L.N.
The city has a new plan to involve its departments and citizens in ridding public rights-of-way of illegal "bandit signs" -- placards and advertisements for garage sales, businesses, political campaigns, and the like. A 20-year-old ordinance in the Land Development Code prohibits such signs, normally found hanging from utility poles or stuck on trees, but many people aren't aware of the law -- or that posting bandit signs qualifies as a Class C misdemeanor. The city has begun filing charges against repeat violators; offenders face fines of up to $500 per violation. City code inspectors hope to remove at least 21,000 signs by the end of the year, partly through the Volunteer Sign Ranger Program, a partnership with APD's Community Liaison Office. To become a ranger (aside from serving the city, perks include the chance to wear a program uniform, earn a city I.D., and ride around in official city vehicles), call Sherry Mitchell of APD at 459-4309, or Gloria Quiñonez of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Dept. at 974-7673. -- L.A.