News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere.
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Dec. 12, 2003
Quotes of the Week: "You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force -- force, pride, and saving face."
-- Capt. Todd Brown, Fourth Infantry Division.
"With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them."
-- Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman. Both U.S. army officers, on an assault against Abu Hishma, Iraq, were quoted by The New York Times on Dec. 7.
Envision Central Texas released the results of its regional planning survey, and the outcome is even more striking than organizers expected: We really, really don't like sprawl. See Austin at Large at right.
Texas death row inmate Delma Banks Jr. got his day in the Supreme Court Monday, as his attorneys argued that prosecutors had lied, coerced witnesses, and concealed evidence for years; attorneys for the state of Texas acknowledged the dishonesty but insisted it made no difference. See Supremes to Banks' Prosecutors: 'Tell the Truth'.
In a change of heart, Williamson Co. Sheriff John Maspero decided to resign rather than face a civil trial on a slew of public drunkenness and personal misbehavior charges; county commissioners moved quickly to appoint Constable Jim Wilson as his replacement pending next year's election. The decision overrode criticism that commissioners had delivered an unfair advantage to Wilson's candidacy. See "Beyond City Limits," below.
Travis Co. Sheriff Margo Frasier announced that she will not run for re-election when her term expires next year. Frasier, who has held the office since 1996, said she wants to spend more time with her family. Frasier named former Deputy Greg Hamilton, currently the chief of enforcement for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, as her choice for a successor; if elected, Hamilton would become the county's first black sheriff.
Millionaire businessman and former state Democratic Party Chair Bill White won the Houston mayoral race easily on Dec. 6, defeating Orlando Sanchez 62% to 38%. The two were in a run-off after eliminating Houston state Rep. Sylvester Turner, speaker pro tem of the Texas House.
The Democratic presidential race took a dramatic turn as Al Gore announced his endorsement of Howard Dean, whom he credited for igniting new grassroots enthusiasm in the Democratic Party and described as the "only major candidate ... to make the right choice" against the war in Iraq.
A major Central Texas political figure passed away Sunday, Dec. 8: Azie Taylor Morton, 67, former U.S. treasurer in the Carter administration and the only African-American to hold that post. According to the office of state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, Morton was born in 1936 in St. John Colony, a small community in Caldwell Co. between Lockhart and Austin. She attended Huston-Tillotson College at age 16 and was denied admission to UT because she was black. From there, she became active in the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party, and served on President Kennedy's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and on election observation missions in Haiti, Senegal, and the Dominican Republic. Her family plans to establish the Azie Taylor Morton Huston-Tillotson College Scholarship fund in her memory. A memorial is scheduled for 5:30pm Friday, Dec. 12, at Huston-Tillotson's J.J. Seabrook Chapel, and the funeral will be at noon Saturday at St. John's Tabernacle. -- Lee Nichols
On Tuesday, Travis Co. Medical Examiner Roberto Bayardo told reporters he doesn't know how his office mistakenly released the wrong body to a funeral home for cremation. His office released the body of car wreck victim Rayford Floyd to a Round Rock funeral home for cremation on Friday, but the mistake wasn't noted until mortuary workers from Burnet Co. came calling for Floyd on Saturday. "We became aware of our mistake the next day when the funeral home came to pick up the body of Mr. Floyd and we didn't have the body of Mr. Floyd," Bayardo told reporters. It's not the first time; in May 1996 the ME's office mistakenly released another body that was also cremated before the mistake was uncovered. Bayardo said an investigation into the incident is ongoing. -- Jordan Smith
After 10 years with the city of Austin's Public Information Office (nine as its director), Michele Middlebrook-Gonzalez will be leaving Jan. 5 to take basically the same job with the Seton Healthcare Network as head of public relations, where she'll report to Seton VP Mark Hazelwood. Prior to her city career, the UT journalism grad worked for KVUE-TV as a producer, reporter, editor, and assistant news manager. She will be reunited with her old boss, former City Manager Jesus Garza, who now oversees Brackenridge Hospital for Seton. David Matustik will become the city's acting PIO. -- L.N.
Several divisions of the Travis County Clerk's office have moved out of the county courthouse. Marriage licenses, property deeds, new business name filings, vehicle registration, and a sizable public research area are among the services that are now available at 5501 Airport (the former Builder's Square, just south of Koenig). The clerk's Elections Division will also be housed there, and election-night vote counting will be done on-site (stability that the media will welcome, after the past few elections bounced from Palmer Auditorium to the cramped Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex to the Crockett Center). A big bonus: ample free parking! Court records -- including civil, probate, misdemeanor, and County Commissioners Court records -- will remain at the clerk's office at the courthouse. -- L.N.
At press time, attorneys were presenting closing arguments in the case of the Baptist pastor and his twin brother who are charged with assault and injury to a child for the July beating of 12-year-old Louie Guerrero. Joshua Thompson, the 23-year-old pastor for the Spanish-speaking congregation at Capitol City Baptist Church, is accused of beating Guerrero with a stick as punishment for "goofing off" during Bible class. Allegedly, Joshua took Guerrero to the home of his twin brother Caleb, where Caleb held Guerrero down on a bed while Joshua beat him. Guerrero spent five days in intensive care after the beating, and has experienced kidney failure as a result of his injuries. On Tuesday, Joshua Thompson testified that Guerrero's parents had asked him to help discipline their son -- which the parents denied -- and that he used 60% to 70% of his strength when beating Guerrero; the beating lasted about 10 minutes, he said. Thompson reportedly testified that at the time of the beating he thought he was doing the right thing, but that since the July 3 incident he has realized that his actions were "totally, totally, totally, totally, totally wrong." -- J.S.
Dr. Chandra Bhat, a UT-Austin transportation engineering professor, is surveying Austin workers' travel patterns to help researchers design strategies to alleviate traffic congestion and improve air quality in the area, and he'd like your help. If you commute to work, have access to the Internet, and have about 20 minutes of free time between now and the end of January, go to www.ce.utexas.edu/commutersurvey/index.htm and fill out his online survey. -- L.N.
Austin is the first United States city to be designated as an "American Capital of Culture," as part of a program of the same name to encourage intercultural exchange throughout the Americas. Annually, the program designates different cities to serve as cultural capitals. The first two were Mérida, Mexico (2001), and Maceió, Brazil (2002). Beginning last year, the program began recognizing two capitals per year; last year's honorees were Panama City and Curitaba, Brazil, and in 2004 Austin will be a co-capital with Santiago, Chile. Expect a ceremony Jan. 30 featuring pomp and dignitaries. For more info, go to www.cac-acc.org. -- L.N.
If you have something you're looking to get rid of, or would like to get something for free, check out the Austin Freecycle Network at www.groups.yahoo.com/group/AustinFreecycle. The organization says, "Our goal is to reduce waste by connecting people who are throwing away unwanted items with others who are seeking the same items," and hopefully diverting said item from landfills. No item is too big or too small, as long as it is free. For more on the freecycle movement, go to www.freecycle.org. -- L.N.
Beyond City Limits
Williamson Co. commissioners voted unanimously on Monday to appoint county Constable Jim Wilson as the county's new sheriff. Wilson will replace John Maspero, who handed in his resignation last week. County Attorney Gene Taylor filed suit against Maspero last month seeking his ouster for a host of alleged improprieties, including public drunkenness. Maspero's resignation is effective Jan. 9; his trial was slated to begin Jan. 12. Wilson will also replace Chief Deputy Richard Elliott who was named interim sheriff two weeks ago by District Judge James Clawson. Elliott and Wilson were the only two candidates seeking to replace Maspero, and Elliott told commissioners that if appointed to finish out Maspero's term he would not run for election next year. Instead commissioners chose Wilson, who had already announced his intention to run -- a move that angered some who think this will give Wilson an unfair advantage in the race. Wilson will remain sheriff until January 2005 when the next elected sheriff is sworn in. And on Dec. 5, J. Brad Curlee was sworn in as Williamson Co.'s newest county commissioner, replacing Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Heiligenstein who resigned to become executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, the agency charged with building Central Texas toll roads. County Judge John Doerfler appointed Curlee, who has said he will not run for the seat in next year's election. -- J.S.
"This is a joke, right?" said Association of Texas Professional Educators spokesman Mike Crouch when asked by the Houston Chronicle about former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm's latest bright idea: a "dead teachers" insurance program theoretically designed to help the state fund the Teacher Retirement System by buying life insurance policies on retired teachers. Like most of Gramm's public policy notions, the program would benefit him via his new employer, UBS Warburg, the investment firm that would put together the bond deal to underwrite the annuities. Gramm has been pitching the idea as a tax-free way to shore up tenuous TRS finances, rather than having the state adequately fund the system. Critics compared the program to the notorious "dead peasant" policies recently exposed at major corporations like Wal-Mart, which secretly insured lower-level employees in order to gain both a tax benefit and an insurance payoff should they die. No one has yet explained how anybody but UBS Warburg (and Gramm) will benefit. A Houston attorney who sued Wal-Mart over the dead-peasant policies commented, "I don't see where the financial benefit will come from unless the Teacher Retirement System thinks it can beat the insurance company on mortality." Richard Shaw of the Harris Co. AFL-CIO was more blunt about the principle of creating a state interest in the early demise of employees: "This means the teachers will get a new HMO run by Dr. Kevorkian." -- Michael King
This joke may be on Phil: San Antonio landowners, along with Phil and Wendy Gramm, may be seeing transmission lines strung across their property after all, despite efforts (and phone calls from high places) to steer those utility poles onto Government Canyon, a state natural preserve in western Bexar Co. Unconfirmed reports hold that all the political muckety-mucks who had tried to intervene on Gramm's behalf have since backed off. San Antonio's City Public Service, the department overseeing the placement of the lines, is expected to finalize the lines' route early next year. -- Amy Smith
Virtually relentless: The latest stealth candidate in the virtual charter school sweepstakes is Eagle Academies, which has proposed a new statewide virtual charter to the Texas Education Agency in an end run around the Legislature, which several times rejected home-based virtual charters -- essentially marketing programs for state-financed, software-based home schools. The Eagle group, originally founded by fundamentalist Christians, has a mediocre to poor accountability ranking -- but TEA interim Director Robert Scott is said to be receptive to their proposal for a statewide virtual charter, due for a recommendation to the State Board of Education by Dec. 24. Teacher and public school advocates are gearing for yet another virtual battle. -- M.K.
On Friday, Dec. 12, at 6pm, the Texas Civil Rights Project holds its annual fundraising banquet, the Bill of Rights Dinner, with keynote speaker Sen. Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy. Four Seasons Hotel, 98 San Jacinto. $125 per person. For more info, call 474-5073.
The Zilker Trail of Lights begins Sunday, Dec. 14, and runs through Dec. 23.
A youth rally and protest against the Bush administration's foreign policies will be held Sat., Dec. 13, 1pm, at the Capitol. The rally is sponsored by Huntington-Surrey for Peace & Justice, a group of students from Huntington-Surrey high school, a private, alternative school in Hyde Park.
On Saturday, Dec. 13, activist and author Rahul Mahajan will teach a two-session, one-day course, "Corporate Globalization Post-9/11," for anti-occupation and anti-corporate-globalization activists. The first session, noon-3pm, will analyze globalization and how it relates to Iraq; the second, 3:30-6:30pm, will concentrate on resistance to globalization and war. Ten dollars, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. UT's Geography 424, near 24th and Guadalupe. To sign up, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.