Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Feb. 20, 2004
Quote of the Week: "Forty workers here, five workers there begin to add up to excitement and new jobs." President Bush, at a campaign "conversation" in Tampa, Fla. The U.S. economy has lost more than 2 million jobs since Bush took office.
On the other side although John Edwards begs to differ it's all over but the shouting for John Kerry, even though well over half the nation has yet to vote in a Democratic primary including Central Texans, most of whom on March 9 get to "choose" from a grim roster of GOP wannabe congressmen. Early voting begins Monday, Feb. 23. (See the Chronicle's endorsements).
The Austin Police Association has cooled off a bit, but remains unwilling to resume contract talks with City Hall. Meanwhile, APD has released long-sought information about the June 2002 shooting death of Sophia King, and announced Tuesday it would cooperate with a federal probe into the 2003 shooting death of Jessie Owens. See Battle Lines Drawn in City-Police Dispute and Austin@Large.
A coalition of nearly a dozen organizations has asked the City Council to authorize a thorough assessment of a crude-oil pipeline known as the Rancho Pipeline that Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP plans to convert to natural gas. The request follows the same recommendation made by the city Environmental Board, but the pipeline project appears to have already won the council's support. In May, council members agreed to buy natural gas from Kinder Morgan to operate the Sand Hill power plant in Southeast Austin. The pipeline has also obtained clearance from state and federal agencies, but leaders of several groups, including the Save Barton Creek Association, SOS Alliance, Public Citizen, SEED Coalition, and Far South Austin Community Association, are questioning how the project was able to get this far without any public participation. Coalition leaders have asked that this item be placed on the council's Feb. 26 agenda. Amy Smith
The apparent implosion of the Texas Academy of Excellence charter school (see "TAE Charter Faces Crisis of Dollars and Confidence," p.26) continued as we went to press Wednesday. The school's phone service had been at least temporarily interrupted, and teachers are reporting other services cut off as well. Sources close to the situation told Naked City that the Texas Education Agency had called Superintendent Dolores Hillyer and other personnel in for a meeting, especially focusing on the financial problems at the school (i.e., apparent failure to deposit funds withheld for Teacher Retirement System). Private creditors were also said to be demanding payment of large debts. More details next week. Michael King
A Travis Co. grand jury's indictment of APD Officer Jason Chiappardi on one count of assault a Class A misdemeanor was dismissed last week after county prosecutors agreed they did not have enough evidence to prosecute the case. Chiappardi was indicted in September on a charge that, while off-duty at an Austin bar, he hit a man in the face with a drinking glass. According to Chiappardi's attorney Travis Williamson, the state's witnesses were drunk at the time of the alleged incident and offered prosecutors inconsistent accounts of what occurred, prompting the state to agree to drop the indictment. Jordan Smith
The Save Our Springs Alliance won a temporary restraining order last week that brought work on a Bee Cave shopping center to a halt. SOS had sought the TRO in response to action taken by the Village of Bee Cave board, which approved a shopping center adjacent to Little Barton Creek. Developer Chris Milam, on the rebound from another failed mall project (the Hill Country Galleria), wants to build a retail project anchored by a Lowe's home improvement store. SOS leaders say the project would cover 62% of the 88-acre tract on Texas 71. District Judge Darlene Byrne granted the TRO with the requirement that SOS post a $100,000 bond to secure the developer against the cost of construction delays in the event SOS doesn't prevail in court. (SOS is currently fundraising for the bond.) A hearing has been set for today (Thursday, Feb. 19). In a curious turn of events prior to the board's vote, Bee Cave's consulting engineer abruptly resigned after pointing out a series of environmental problems with the proposed site plan. He was replaced by another engineer from the same firm of Freese and Nichols, who signed off on the plan. A.S.
Although former Austin Police Assistant Chief Jimmy Chapman has retired, his legacy lives, as the whistle-blower lawsuit filed by Officer Jeff White slogs on. White filed suit in 2002 claiming that Chapman had him transferred in retaliation for statements he made about Chapman's possible attempts to derail the mid-Nineties drug trafficking investigation code-named Mala Sangre. Chapman retired late last year in the wake of an outside investigation into whether he committed perjury while under oath; the findings of that investigation are still unknown. White's attorney Don Feare and city outside counsel Lowell Denton will depose at least two federal agents in March each of whom are suspected to know more details about Chapman's involvement in White's transfer. Feare said he'll seek a copy of the Chapman investigation report, among other items, and expects a trial date for White's case later this year. J.S.
Austin police are asking for help in identifying the person who stabbed a police horse on Feb. 7 on East Sixth Street. According to police spokesman Kevin Buchman, "Chase" was stabbed in the left flank while carrying a mounted patrol officer through a crowd. The officer recalls someone approaching the horse, but thought the person had merely slapped Chase's hindquarters, Buchman said. The officer did not realize the horse had been injured until after returning to police HQ later that evening. Chase is recovering from his injury but will be off-duty for at least a month. Injuring a police-service animal with a deadly weapon such as a knife is a third-degree felony, punishable by between two and 10 years in jail and up to a $10,000 fine. Buchman said police are asking anyone who might have seen anything, or may have any Feb. 7 videotape of mounted patrol officers, to call Crime Stoppers at 472-TIPS (8477). There's a $1,000 reward for information leading to arrest and conviction in the case. J.S.
Civil rights advocates say Army intelligence officers attempted this month to quash free speech at the UT School of Law. According to Jim Harrington, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, three undercover Army agents attended a Feb. 4 conference on women's issues in Muslim countries but neglected to trade in their Army-issue notepads for generic yellow legal pads, a detail noticed by a former soldier and conference attendee who asked the three why they were there. The following Monday, Harrington said, two of the agents returned to campus and went door to door seeking (unsuccessfully) to get a list of conference participants and organizers. "It's so much Keystone Kops; it was done for intimidation," Harrington said. "They can't be that stupid if they are, they probably shouldn't be in Army intelligence." The U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command is reportedly investigating the incident. J.S.
On Feb. 16, Keep Austin Beautiful handed out its annual service awards, and for the first time honored the Austin Police Department, giving its Community Involvement award to the APD North Central Area Command for its efforts to clean up urban-core neighborhoods through Operation Restore Hope. For other winners and more info, go to www.keepaustinbeautiful.org. J.S.
Beyond City Limits
Special elections for state Senate districts 1 and 31 concluded Tuesday, with former state Rep. Paul Sadler, D-Henderson, narrowly losing to former Tyler Mayor Kevin Eltife (who succeeds retiring Sen. Bill Ratliff in District 1) and former Amarillo Mayor Kel Seliger besting Odessa businessman Kirk Edwards, temporarily replacing Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, who stepped down to become ambassador to Sweden. (Eltife serves out Ratliff's remaining term, until 2006; Seliger will still have to run in a March 9 Republican primary and face a Democratic contender in November.) The West Texas race pitted the south (oil & gas) end of the region against the north (agriculture), and was disfigured by Edwards' attempt to push poll Seliger as a closet supporter of Planned Parenthood (horrors!) and Seliger's response that Edwards' company has been embroiled in frivolous lawsuits. In the Northeast, the Texans for Lawsuit Reform worried about losing an automatic GOP vote for asbestos "tort reform" spent big bucks to paint Sadler as a sinister "trial lawyer" of insufficient patriotism. Eltife, firmly wired into Austin GOP politics, claimed he knew nothing of the TLR ads. Sadler won the initial round, but with only about 40% of the vote, and Eltife won the run-off by a little more than 3,000 votes (51.8% to 48.1%). For the mutual privilege of immediately resuming campaigning for March 9, Seliger won 56.2% and Edwards 43.8%. M.K.
After a final day in court, the Crawford Five protesters stopped by police near President George W. Bush's ranchette in Crawford and ticketed for violating the city's parade ordinance were found guilty and fined from $200 to $500 each. The Five, and their lawyer Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project, argue that the Crawford ordinance is a clear violation of constitutionally protected free speech. (Indeed, in court Harrington offered a video showing Crawford police providing an escort for Confederate flag-toting Bush supporters who likewise had no permit on the same day the Five were busted.) Harrington said the Five will take their case to McLennan Co. District Court in Waco, where they will raise their constitutional claims and ask a judge to toss out their convictions. J.S.
After the recent dust-up over voter registration in Waller Co., where District Attorney Oliver Kitzman asserted that Prairie View A&M University students the majority of whom are black may not meet residency requirements for voting in local elections, state Sen. Rodney Ellis has asked Texas Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor to send election inspectors to monitor the March 9 primary election. "The continuing voter registration and voter intimidation controversy ... has necessitated that the state of Texas provide sufficient oversight to ensure that elections in Waller County are fair and open," Ellis wrote in a Feb. 17 letter. Kitzman's position, which was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1978, was again rejected Feb. 4 by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. J.S.
The voucher vampires rose again this week, as the House Select Committee on Public School Finance meeting discussed a "pilot school choice program" that would enable students in "failing" public schools to use public school dollars to enroll in private schools. "We will lay out a pretty aggressive agenda," committee Chair Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, told The Dallas Morning News prior to the meeting. "We hope to move forward on some fundamental changes in the direction of our public schools." The committee will also address issues such as "accountability" and "financial incentives" for districts and teachers. School voucher programs have been repeatedly rejected by the Legislature, even in last spring's GOP-driven session, since they would cost most Texas school districts funding, without an appreciable cut in fixed costs. "Chairman Grusendorf continues to ignore the recommendations of the entire Texas education community," said Brock Gregg, director of governmental relations for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, "including the voices of administrators, school boards, teachers, and counselors the people on the front line educating our kids who say private school vouchers are a bad idea. Instead he takes the side of ideologues and conservative think-tank researchers from California and Massachusetts who are more interested in financial profit for private industry than in educating our kids." M.K.
Weed Watch: Less than a week after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Drug Enforcement Administration has no authority to ban the sale of food products containing hemp seeds or oil, the Hemp Industries Association struck back at the federal drug narcs, demanding an apology for the futile and draconian attack on the burgeoning industry. According to a Feb. 12 press release, the HIA spent nearly $200,000 fighting the DEA's efforts to ban hemp-seed and hemp-oil foods even though the DEA was well aware that their efforts would not pass legal muster, according to the HIA, citing an opinion by DEA counsel from back in 2000. "The DEA owes over 200 companies and every American an apology for wasting taxpayer money pursuing a ban on hemp foods," said Eric Steenstra, president of the hemp advocacy group Vote Hemp. J.S.
The life and work of the late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan will be celebrated in Mardi Gras fashion at a benefit for the ministries of the Trinity Center and Austin Area Interreligious Ministries on Friday, Feb. 20, 6-9pm, at the Driskill. The speaker is Texas Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor; music by the Bells of Joy, a silent auction, and dinner included. $75. For more info or to purchase tickets, call 469-9447 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ralph Nader, said to be considering another presidential run despite much restiveness among former supporters and a couple of widely circulated prog "open letters" requesting he leave the field to the eventual Democratic nominee, is whooshing through Texas next week on an exploratory field trip. He will speak on Wednesday, Feb. 25, at UT's Geology Building, Room 2.324. For more info: 389-0215.