Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Dec. 26, 2003
Quote of the Week: "I was the only one with the 'things' big enough to do it. ... You want to see them?" -- The eternally suave state Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, using his turn as the state's star (and only) black witness in the redistricting trial to talk about his genitals. See p.14.
Final arguments in the redistricting trial are slated for Tuesday morning; on Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice gave its preclearance to the new Texas map. See p.22.
APD Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman announced his retirement from the department this week -- and thus likely avoided any punishment for his alleged misconduct. See p.16.
The state attorney general's office confirmed that the city cannot release the report of the independent investigation into the 2002 shooting death of Sophia King. See p.17.
The exodus continues: City parks director Jesus Olivares is getting ready to leave town -- he's been offered the post of city manager in his hometown of Eagle Pass. Olivares indicated to reporters last week that nothing is definite yet, since he's in salary negotiations with city officials in the border community, but that he welcomes the opportunity. Olivares' departure would make him the fifth top city department head to leave in the last six months, and City Hall observers expect further retirements in 2004 of top officials on City Manager Toby Futrell's management team. -- M.C.M.
Eli Garza, the litigious Southwest Austin landowner who recently settled one case with the city of Austin involving a Lowe's home improvement store, last week won a court victory over the city on another case. The 3rd Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that allows Garza to develop his 25-acre property without having to comply with the Save Our Springs Ordinance. The tract, located at MoPac and William Cannon, can now be developed at over 60% impervious cover. The SOS Ordinance, if it applied in this case, would hold Garza to no more than 15% impervious cover. -- Amy Smith
It's a big glass pineapple! It's the Fortress of Solitude! No, it's Frost Bank Tower, the former Congress at Fourth, Austin's new tallest building. The official grand opening of the $137 million, 33-story building has been set for Jan. 21; Frost Bank will move its Downtown operations to 401 Congress in February. Cousins Properties, developer of the tower, say the 520,000-square-foot building is already about 60% leased. -- M.C.M.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, plans are apparently changing for the MetLife block -- opposite the Austin Children's Museum at Cesar Chavez and Colorado. The insurance giant -- which also owns 100 Congress next door -- had gotten approvals from the city in 2001 for a matching office tower on the adjacent block, but is now exploring the feasibility of building a residential tower instead. The Austin Business Journal reports that MetLife is contemplating a 20-story building with 175 apartments -- and ample views of Town Lake. -- M.C.M.
As expected, Education Austin has easily won re-election as the "consultation agent" representing AISD employees in negotiations with the administration. EA had been challenged by the Texas Classroom Teachers Association for agency status, as provided in AISD board policy, and the district supervised a December mail ballot to all district employees. Teachers and professional employees voted for EA 1,177 to 359 (83%); among classified staff, EA won 815 to 120 (87%). Education Austin is a local alliance of members of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. -- Michael King
Austin has become a new battleground in the fight against Microsoft hegemony; city officials have confirmed that they're running a pilot to implement Linux and other open-source software on its computers. The city owns and operates nearly 6,000 computers running Microsoft systems and is in the last year of a three-year "enterprise support" deal with the software giant that has cost Austin $3 million. This deal was controversial when it was first signed, and city technology officer Pete Collins says he's unlikely to recommend that it be renewed. However, the switch to Linux (on at least some machines) is being considered, not as a grand political statement against the evils of Gatesian tyranny, but as a cost-saving strategy, the city says. -- M.C.M.
Austin U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett announced last week that American YouthWorks will receive $700,000 in federal funding. The Youthbuild grant trains disadvantaged young people ages 16-24 in the construction trade through building low-income housing, while helping them obtain their general equivalency high school diploma. -- Lee Nichols
Beyond City Limits
McAllen remains the hot spot of the Austin political landscape this week: U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, running in the new District 25, has received the endorsement of McAllen Mayor Leo Montalvo and three other Hidalgo Co. mayors. But other border Democratic leaders -- aiming to ensure Latino representation in the new district -- are trying to rally support behind District Judge Leticia Hinojosa, and to that end invited state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos -- who has made noises about running for the seat himself -- down to the valley to talk about the race. (Quorum Report indicated that Barrientos was accompanied by longtime allies Andy Ramirez and Richard Moya on his fact-finding mission.) Hinojosa is not yet officially a candidate -- she'd have to resign her current seat to run -- but she's all but declared her intention to run if the new congressional district map is upheld. Meanwhile, Barrientos has declined to indicate that he's either endorsing her or opposing Doggett, preferring to focus for now on opposing the map that created District 25. Doggett has spent much of December in Hidalgo Co. building support and says he has about $2 million in the bank to fund a campaign; an early challenger, state Rep. Kino Flores, D-Mission, dropped out of the race, citing fundraising challenges. -- M.C.M.
More trash-talk from Ron Wilson: As the Houston rep delivered a boorish performance in his redistricting-trial testimony last week, his colleague Garnet Coleman issued a press release saying Wilson "does not speak for African-Americans" and noting that Wilson is the only African-American legislator to support the GOP map, despite "near-unanimity" of African-American opposition statewide. Wilson responded with an allusion to Coleman's (publicly acknowledged) past medical treatment for depression and bipolar disorder: "I was representing black people while Garnet Coleman was in rehab. He has already publicly admitted to being mentally unstable. Therefore, any comments he makes regarding me don't deserve a response." Coleman dismissed Wilson's attack as "childish," but a group of Democratic legislators demanded an apology, calling Wilson's comments "an affront to the many Texans who are challenged by some form of mental illness." Wilson told the Houston Chronicle that those waiting for his apology "can hold their collective breaths. My statements stand as I made them." -- M.K.
Houston attorney Marc Murr -- Dan Morales' partner in a scheme to help the former attorney general defraud the state out of tobacco settlement money -- was sentenced to six months in federal prison and fined $40,000 Friday. After prison, Murr will serve five years of supervised release. Morales' downfall began when the lawyers who helped Texas win the tobacco suit noticed a portion of their attorneys fees being funneled to Murr, whom they said did no work on the case. Morales himself is currently serving a four-year federal prison stint and owes $301,148 in fines. -- L.N.
Here a toll, there a toll, everywhere a toll road: Calling the state gas tax an "inefficient" means of financing road construction, the Texas Transportation Commission announced Thursday that it has directed state road planners to investigate tolling for freeways "in every state of development or construction." This could mean, as many citizens had feared, that existing highways -- such as MoPac and U.S. 183 -- could be tolled to finance their expansion projects. TTC Chair John Johnson scoffed at concerns that Texas Department of Transportation staff could unilaterally decide to start levying tolls, without approval from the commission or the Lege, but said that a toll-road strategy would allow the state's scarce road funds to be redirected toward local roads or mass transit. -- M.C.M.
In confirming his intent to call a special session in the spring to tackle school finance, Gov. Rick Perry did not rule out new taxes -- as long as local property taxes are reduced accordingly. The latest Texas poll, however, indicates that the school funding "crisis" may only exist in the minds of the GOP's fevered faithful; 53% of respondents support the share-the-wealth system ("Robin Hood") currently in place, and 59% indicated they don't think the Lege could come up with a better system. Nearly half of those polled indicated they'd support the dreaded state income tax if it really did translate into lower school property taxes. -- M.C.M.
And speaking of the ever-so-articulate Gov. Rick Perry, here's an almost-quote-of-the-week: "I say that when people want to be active in their congressional districts then they'll be active and they'll have influence. Where lines are by and large I don't think is what motivates people to be active or not active. I think it's issues that make people active or not active. I think that if people want to be heard in government, they will be, and if they don't they won't." So, Rick, you're saying that there really wasn't any need to redistrict? -- L.N.
At press time, five candidates had filed to run in each of the two Texas Senate special elections to be held Jan. 20. In District 1 in Northeast Texas, current state Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, and former state Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, lead the pack to succeed retiring Sen. Bill Ratliff. At the other end of the state, former Amarillo Mayor Kel Seliger is being tapped as the favorite in the race to succeed Sen. Teel Bivins, named by President Bush to be the new U.S. ambassador to Sweden. The filing period for both specials ended Monday; Sadler is the only Democrat to file in either race. -- M.C.M.
When Starr Co. is liberated, we'll let you know: U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times this weekend that the scene on the ground in and around Baghdad makes him think of his own impoverished boyhood in Rio Grande City. "I sometimes see myself in the kids that are out there," he told the paper. Sanchez grew up without running water or electricity in the Valley county, the poorest in the U.S. according to the 2000 census. -- M.C.M.
Environmental victories and losses at the White House: The Bush administration backed down last week on a plan to weaken the Clean Water Act, canceling a scheme that would have exempted millions of acres of streams and wetlands from federal protection and shifted that burden to already underfunded state governments. However, Bush's ironically named Environmental Protection Agency is pushing ahead with a plan to weaken regulations on mercury emissions from power plants and similar facilities. The previous Clinton administration plan would have reduced nationwide mercury emissions by 90% over the next three to four years. But the Bush administration will decrease the emissions cap by 20% and push back the deadline another 10 years; it will also allow "emissions trading" between plants, meaning that if facilities in some areas can reduce their emissions, other plants can increase theirs -- and if you happen to be living near one of the latter, well, you're SOL. -- L.N.
Want to party with Austin "GenDeaners"? Supporters of presidential candidate Gov. Howard Dean will meet up on Tuesday, Dec. 30, at 3406 Robinson (two blocks east of I-35) at 7:30pm. A conference call with Gov. Dean is scheduled for 8:30pm, as well as "a surprise celebrity GenDean guest." Suggested contribution is either $10, or 20 e-mail addresses on a petition. For more info, call 443-2019 or 771-6266. (Ooh. Same time as the Longhorns in the Holiday Bowl. Bad planning, guys -- better have a spare TV available.)
The Nokoa African-American community newspaper is coordinating a free Kwanzaa celebration at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Center Friday, Dec. 26, 6-9pm, and requests volunteers. To participate, call 499-8713 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Dennis Kucinich for President campaign steamrolls into Austin Jan. 2-3, with a reception and dinner at the Barr Mansion Friday evening, Jan. 2, and a benefit concert for the candidate Saturday night, Jan. 3, 8pm, at the Austin Music Hall. Friday's featured guests include actors Mimi Kennedy and James Cromwell, with music by Tish Hinojosa and Libby Kirkpatrick; Saturday night's concert headliner is Willie Nelson, accompanied by Bonnie Raitt, Tim Reynolds, Michelle Shocked, Michael McDonald, Tish Hinojosa, and others, and of course Kucinich and other speakers including Jim Hightower. Concert tickets are $45, available online from Star Tickets or by phone at 469-7469; tickets for the various receptions, dinners, and related diversions run from $75 on up to the campaign finance stratosphere. For more info: www.kucinich.us.