Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Feb. 27, 2004
Quote of the Week: "For the first time some Republicans are facing the prospect that the president could lose." An anonymous GOP Senate staffer, quoted in The Boston Globe.
Perhaps also facing the prospect that he could lose, President Bush decided a little gay bashing was in order, calling for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Somewhere in heaven, James Madison weeps.
And while on the subject, sorta: Yes, we've heard The Rumor, too. Many, many times. Despite a complete absence of proof, the personal preferences of Gov. Rick Perry have become the talk of this and many other towns. See The Real Sins of Gov. Perry .
The Austin Police Association has decided to return to the bargaining table, as the APD crisis moves into an apparently calmer phase despite the march on City Hall last weekend by black ministers and nearly 300 supporters. Also this week, the family of Sophia King announced it was dropping at least for now its wrongful-death lawsuit against the city. See Signs of Calm in APD Crisis .
More bad news for the Texas Academy of Excellence, which filed for bankruptcy this week as a team from the Texas Education Agency moved in to take over the Eastside charter school's operations. See TEA Takes Over Eastside Charter School.
Early voting began this week for the March 9 Texas primaries; for the latest news on all the races, including our spotlight on the contest to be Travis Co.'s next sheriff, see Election 2004.
Endeavor Real Estate Group has returned to the aquifer; the development company that unsuccessfully tried to put a Wal-Mart at MoPac and Slaughter Lane has filed a site plan on another environmentally sensitive tract, at Brodie Lane and U.S. 290 in Sunset Valley. Endeavor is partnering with developer Bill Walters to build a retail center on Sunset Valley's last piece of "grandfathered" property, which means the land could be developed (as proposed) at 50% impervious cover, instead of Sunset Valley's current 18% limit. The land is the homestead portion of the old Weaver ranch, most of which has already been developed for retail and residential purposes. The Weaver farmhouse will go under the wrecking ball, while the historic barn will be preserved, possibly relocated to another site. Sunset Valley officials have asked environmental engineer Lauren Ross to assess the proposal's impact on the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer, which is the sole source of drinking water for most of the city's 400 residents. Amy Smith
In further big-box news: The City Council today (Thursday) will consider an item directing staff to "develop design standards for commercial and retail developments" and identifying commercial corridors that may require "design character focus and potential code amendments." The drive for stricter big-box design standards has been a pet project of Council Member Brewster McCracken throughout the last year of debate over chain retail sprawl, and he's found support for the idea not only from environmentalists and urban-core advocates but also from real estate interests. As McCracken's draft resolution notes, Austin "has lower design standards than other communities in the Central Texas region" despite the city's reputation for anti-business growth management. Advocates hope that a set of citywide design standards will address both the aesthetic and functional sins of big boxes from landscaping and signage to the need for "convertibility" of dead big boxes into properties with a productive use. M.C.M.
And, speaking of Endeavor: The firm's Domain urban-village mall project in North Austin will be home to Austin's first full-line Neiman Marcus store, it was announced this week. The Domain is now a partnership between Endeavor and its much larger competitor Simon Property Group, the nation's largest mall developer. "Many of the nation's most desirable retailers will make the Domain their exclusive Austin location," SPG announced in a press release touting the project's attractive location and amenities, while making no mention of the $37 million tax incentive package that the city awarded to Endeavor last May. Under the terms of that generous deal, a portion of the sales-tax revenue to be generated by Neiman Marcus' 80,000-square-foot store about $2.5 million annually will actually be rebated back to SPG and Endeavor. The firms expect the store to open for business in late 2006; before settling on the Domain, Neiman Marcus turned thumbs down (under pressure from environmental groups) to an anchor slot at the now-stalled Hill Country Galleria project in Bee Cave (see p.26). M.C.M.
A petition to place a proposed health care district on the May 15 election ballot has cleared the certification process; it contained many more than the required 100 signatures, which were verified by county officials late last week. County commissioners are expected to officially place the district on the May 15 ballot at their meeting March 2. (Two members of the Commissioners Court Karen Sonleitner and County Judge Sam Biscoe serve on a health care district steering committee.) Voters will be asked to approve a tax-financed health district that would equalize property taxes countywide; Austin residents currently pay about a nickel more per $100 of valuation in property taxes to cover indigent health care costs than do folks outside the city limits. The proposed district will appear on the same ballot as the candidates for the boards of Austin ISD and Austin Community College. A.S.
In related news, city officials cut the ribbon to open the new Austin Women's Hospital last month, but the real opening day is March 8. The 12-bed "hospital within a hospital" is on the fifth floor of the city-owned Brackenridge Hospital. The UT Medical Branch at Galveston will operate the new facility, which will deliver babies and provide sterilizations and other birth control services to low-income women. The need for the fifth-floor hospital was spawned by a Catholic Church edict that its hospitals, including the Seton-managed Brackenridge, can no longer provide those services. The delayed opening was due to a shortage of nurses needed to staff the new facility. UTMB is still looking for a few good nurses; applications are available online at www.utmb.edu. A.S.
Former First Assistant County Attorney Mack Martinez on Feb. 20 pleaded "no contest" to the misdemeanor DWI charge brought against him in connection with a November fender bender. Martinez was sentenced to five days in county jail and fined $500; the jail time will likely be reduced to two days for good behavior and time served. Martinez resigned his position with the county attorney's office the day after he was arrested, primarily over ethical concerns since he oversaw the office's prosecutions of DWI cases like his own. County Attorney David Escamilla has said Martinez would be welcome to apply for another job with the office as long as it didn't require oversight of similar misdemeanor cases. In fact, earlier this month Escamilla said that Martinez is a prime candidate for the job as division chief over a proposed new family violence division that Escamilla hopes to have up and running in the fall. Jordan Smith
AISD police officials announced Monday that an Akins High School student was not sexually assaulted at knifepoint on the Far South Austin campus, as was reported in local media last week. "All the security measures in place on campus worked properly," noted AISD police Senior Sgt. J.J. Schmidt in a press statement. "Assuring the citizens of Austin that their schools are safe sometimes requires that we correct misinformation." The district, citing state law guarantees of student privacy, declined to comment further or release more details of the case. M.C.M.
March 2 is Texas Independence Day, but there will apparently be no parade down Congress Avenue. Local leaders and supporters of Celebrate Texas, the nonprofit that puts on the annual parade and other festivities including state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, who serves on the group's board blasted city officials Monday for failing to provide financial sponsorship by waiving fees associated with the event. In 2002, the City Council instituted an automatic fee waiver for parades and festivities celebrating a number of state and federal holidays, but did not include Texas Independence Day on that list; since then, City Hall has grown increasingly concerned about the number of events requesting fee waivers and the resulting impact on the city's coffers. The City Council has hurriedly added an item to today's (Thursday) agenda to agree to sponsor Texas Independence Day events in the future, but Celebrate Texas, which says it can't afford the nearly $12,000 asked by the city, says it's too late to save this year's parade. M.C.M.
If Hays Co. officials have their way, Nutty Brown Road, southwest of Austin, will be transformed from a two-lane rural collector into a widened major thoroughfare connecting U.S. 290 with FM 1826. Residents along the roadway have organized to oppose the project, despite Hays Co. voters' approval of a $47 million road bond proposition in 2001, which included the Nutty Brown reconstruction. What voters didn't know at the time was how, exactly, the road would be redesigned. The project calls for two 12-foot lanes and two 10-foot paved shoulders, center turn lanes at intersections, and from 80 feet to 100 feet of right-of-way. "Our group is definitely in favor of a safe roadway," said neighborhood leader Karen Ford, "but we have not been given a reasoned basis for a design requirement of this magnitude, and our membership does not want the gold-plated road currently planned." It's uncertain at this point whether residents will be able to influence the proposed road design. The final public hearing on the project took place Monday, where Ford's group, along with other neighborhood organizations aired their concerns. A.S.
Beyond City Limits
In a sternly worded 7-2 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 24 overturned the death sentence of Texas inmate Delma Banks Jr., and cleared the way for Banks to continue appealing his conviction. Banks was sentenced to die for the 1980 murder of Richard Whitehead in Bowie Co., a murder that Banks maintains he did not commit. Last spring the high court stayed Banks' execution, just minutes before he was scheduled to die, and in April granted a full review of his case, which was argued before the court on Dec. 8. Banks' attorneys claim that prosecutors knowingly withheld and continued to withhold for more than a decade potentially exculpatory evidence that would have compromised the credibility of the state's two main witnesses, thus tainting the outcome of the trial. For more on the case, see "Supremes to Banks' Prosecutors: "Tell the Truth,'" News, Dec. 12, 2003. J.S.
The Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas is calling on supporters across the state to voice opposition to a proposed federal ban on gay marriage, an issue that President Bush effectively turned into a campaign debate in remarks made on Tuesday. Bush urged Congress to quickly enact a constitutional amendment defining "marriage" as a union between a man and a woman. LGRL executive director Randall Ellis predicted an equally volatile debate in the Texas Legislature and other state capitals, "where the ultimate battle will take place." In a statement released shortly after Bush's remarks, Ellis noted there are more than 1 million children in lesbian and gay homes in the nation and more than 43,000 same-sex households in Texas. "Writing discrimination into the U.S. Constitution is a needless attack on these families," he said. See www.lgrl.org for more details on efforts to combat the proposed amendment. The Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus is also urging gay rights supporters to attend their party precinct meetings (7:15pm on election Tuesday, March 9) to advocate for a resolution denouncing the proposed amendment A.S.
Despite being the World's Largest Everything, Wal-Mart isn't too proud to accept a little help from its friends in state government. The retail giant announced plans this week to build a mammoth distribution center outside Baytown and then sell the facility for $80 million to the state General Land Office, which will then lease it back to Wal-Mart. The lease will supposedly generate $187 million in revenue over 30 years to the state Permanent School Fund, but will also allow Wal-Mart to avoid paying property taxes on 200-plus acres of otherwise valuable land in not-very-wealthy Chambers Co. However, local leaders seem pleased enough with the deal, expected to create 450 permanent jobs. (Wal-Mart employs nearly 100,000 people in Texas.) M.C.M.
No parade (see left), but Texas Independence Day will be celebrated March 2 with a memorial ceremony at 8:30am at the Texas State Cemetery and a celebration at 11:30am on the south steps of the state Capitol, hosted by state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and Rep. Terry Keel.
The Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition's "Racial Profiling Tour" of Texas is coming to Austin for a town hall meeting at Huston-Tillotson College on March 4, 7-9pm. For more info, contact Iesha Haywood at 441-8123 x105.