Naked City

Austin ISD administrators and board members introduce newly appointed master principal Marcus Nelson, who will assume supervision of the new Secondary School Blueprint Initiative covering Reagan and LBJ high schools and Dobie and Pearce middle schools. Seated (l-r) Superintendent Pat Forgione, board President Doyle Valdez, trustee Cheryl Bradley, elementary master principal Claudia Tousek, and Associate Superintendent Darlene Westbrook. See p.20.
Austin ISD administrators and board members introduce newly appointed "master principal" Marcus Nelson, who will assume supervision of the new Secondary School Blueprint Initiative covering Reagan and LBJ high schools and Dobie and Pearce middle schools. Seated (l-r) Superintendent Pat Forgione, board President Doyle Valdez, trustee Cheryl Bradley, elementary master principal Claudia Tousek, and Associate Superintendent Darlene Westbrook. See p.20. (Photo By David Hunter)


Headlines

Quote of the Week: "I don't have a problem with cross-dressing. People think J. Edgar Hoover was one of the greatest Americans that ever lived. He was a cross-dresser." – Johnson Co. GOP leader Roy Giddens Jr. defending Texas House candidate Sam Walls to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Walls had been the favorite in Tuesday's run-off (for the seat being vacated by Arlene Wohlgemuth) until pictures of him in women's clothing started making the rounds, to the shock and dismay of party faithful.

Yes, indeed, there's a run-off election Tuesday – in Travis Co., mostly for Republican races. See our election coverage.

Is Wal-Mart back for more? The MoPac-and-Slaughter big-box battle isn't over; see Wal-Mart Ready for Round 2?.

Commuter rail is back in the spotlight, with Union Pacific's freight relocation plan (see "Austin@Large," at right), reuse proposals for Seaholm Power Plant (see The Downtown Dominoes), and pleas for federal funding by local leaders visiting D.C. (see Locals Talk Cash in D.C.).

Yes, we have no consensus – still – on public school finance, and, if anything, a deal before an expected April special session looks farther away than before; see AISD Casts a Wider Blueprint


Austin Stories

Council Member Brewster McCracken's campaign to relax the city's noise ordinance got support this week from the city-appointed Music Commission, which endorsed the plan to waive the long-belabored and controversial rules during SXSW and the Austin City Limits Festival. The commission also called for the city to develop a procedure for seeking variances to the ordinance throughout the year for special events, and heard from APD Downtown Area Cmdr. Cathy Ellison about the most notorious recent effort to enforce the rules – against Los Angeles band Ozomatli, still set to perform for the City Council later this month, at McCracken's invitation and to the great displeasure of certain APD officers and supporters. – M.C.M.

Speaking of clubs and ordinances, the Music Commission also heard what many members and scenesters long suspected – the program of "Smoke-Free Mondays" shows called for in the city's new smoking ordinance isn't packing in the crowds. Betty Dunkerley, the smoke-free initiative's chief champion, blames a lack of promotion, and the city public-information shop has duly swung into action. The ordinance – which will require clubs to buy a permit to allow smoking at any time – actually goes into effect May 1. – M.C.M.

The latest historic zoning controversy ended as many have before – the City Council last week voted unanimously (with Jackie Goodman absent) to deny H-zoning for three houses in the 800 block of West Lynn in Old West Austin. The city Historic Landmark Commission froze a demolition permit for the homes (one of which had already been condemned by the city) in response to neighbors' concerns, even though little about the structures' history is documented, and city Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky recommended against H-zoning. Such cases helped motivate the council to appoint the Historic Task Force to rewrite the city's preservation ordinance; its report may be taken up by the City Council next week. – M.C.M.

Members of the city Environmental Board aren't happy about a new city plan to allow developers to get administrative approval – without public review – of environmental variance requests in a large swath of Northeast Travis Co. The area – known as the "Weston study area" after the consultants working on the project – includes the Harris Branch, Gilleland Creek, and Decker Creek watersheds, mostly lying in Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction and all within its Desired Development Zone. Even though growth pressure in the region (particularly induced by SH 130) is expected to be quick and intense, wastewater infrastructure in this area is sorely lacking, and the city expects to make a huge investment in a new treatment plant. To encourage developers to do their part, the city has proposed allowing them to skip the trips to boards and commissions prescribed by the usual variance process. The Zoning and Platting Commission considered the proposed code amendments Tuesday night; they head to the City Council – which was generally positive when briefed on the plan in February – later this month. – M.C.M.

UT students will embark on a 70-day, 4,500 mile cycling trip from Austin to Alaska this summer to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Texas 4000 For Cancer, representing UT students from all over the country, will ride an average of 75 miles a day from June 1-Aug. 11 on two routes leading from Texas to Alaska (one through the Rockies, the other up the West Coast). The mission is to educate communities about prevention and early cancer detection, and to raise money for research. Most of the riders have a personal history with the disease. Each is responsible for raising a minimum of $3,000 to go toward the group's target of $250,000, which will be presented to the ACS at the end of the ride. For more info, go to www.texas4000.org. – Lucius Lomax


Beyond City Limits

As the April 13 primary run-offs loom across the state, the 2004 Texas election season does not lack for comedy. There's the abruptly notorious (former?) cross-dresser, Sam Walls, running for state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth's District 58 seat – perhaps Arlene, locked in her own nasty battle with former Waco ISD board President Dot Snyder for the right to take on incumbent U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards in the new District 17, can offer Walls a few butch-chic suits as hand-me-downs. Then there's obscure reformed drunkard Robert Butler of Palestine, on the strength of his Anglo name threatening GOP favorite Victor Carrillo – as in the GOP run-off for CD 15, where mysterious Dallas "businessman" Alexander Hamilton (né Barberena, who may or may not have moved to Alice), threatens to upset former Cuero Mayor Michael Thamm for the right to take on incumbent U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa. The Dems, as usual, have their own problems – especially in CD 28, where a very curious, prolonged recount vaulted former Secretary of State Henry Cuellar past incumbent U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, on the strength of previously "missing" Webb and Zapata Co. votes that went overwhelmingly (and in Webb, unanimously) for Cuellar. Rodriguez is expected to sue; can anybody say Box 13? – Michael King

While the multitudes await Gov. Perry's school finance reform plan – scheduled for release today (Thursday) – Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has been on the attack, blasting Perry last week to the Texas Association of Counties for "failed leadership" not only on public schools but health and human services. Strayhorn, sounding increasingly like a candidate for governor in 2006, opposes Perry's proposal to split the property tax rolls (to allow business property to be taxed statewide), and denounced his reluctance to allocate $1.6 billion in federal dollars for the Children's Health Insurance Program. "I'm calling on him to use his powers of persuasion and his bully pulpit to get the Legislative leadership together and free these funds before one more child is hurt," Strayhorn said, "before one more emergency room doctor has to tell a patient to get on down the road." She followed that salvo Tuesday with the release of a blistering report on her agency's audit of the state's foster care programs, saying they are evidence of a "legacy of failed leadership." Strayhorn promised regular reports on the progress of foster care reform – no doubt necessitating even more frequent press conferences. – M.K.

Seaholm isn't the only old power plant ready for a new lease on life; the Comal Power Plant in New Braunfels – even older and cooler-looking than Austin's waterfront landmark – has been bought from the LCRA by developer Larry Peel, who plans to spend over $20 million to convert the 78-year-old structure into nearly 300 lofts and garden apartments. According to the Austin Business Journal, Peel aims to defray the cost of the project by seeking a listing for Comal on the National Register of Historic Places, which would make him eligible for substantial tax credits. – M.C.M.

The state's plans to build a new Central Texas regional airport hit yet another snag this week, when the city council in Taylor – one of three sites under consideration – voted unanimously not to endorse the project. The Lege in 2001 directed state officials to find a site near Austin for a new state-run airport to serve small craft, the latest chapter in the enduring struggle kicked off when Austin relocated its airport to what general aviators (including those in the Lege and state government) feel are unsatisfactory digs at Bergstrom. Taylor balked because federal funding – which had been expected to cover most of the $60 million price tag – turns out to be far less than a sure thing. The 2001 bill requires local jurisdictions to endorse the project before it can move forward. Neighbors and local leaders near the other two sites under consideration – near Manor and near the Williamson Co. hamlet of Norman's Crossing – are likewise unhappy about airport plans, but the state says it's still confident the project can move forward. – M.C.M.

A grassroots effort to deep-six a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage has gained 1,700 new allies, the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas reported last week. The ally roundup is part of LGRL's "Equality Knocks" Texas campaign to enlist the support of thousands of registered voters. The effort took place March 9, Election Day, and involved more than 150 volunteers. The attack on gay marriage is being led by one of Texas' own: In a press release last month, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who chairs a Constitution subcommittee, said the matter has reached a state of urgency because "as many as six justices are ready to abolish traditional marriage nationwide." Cornyn also cited "outright lawlessness" on the local level in justifying such drastic measures. LGRL will conduct its next voter ID action on April 17 in Austin, and more than 50 volunteers are needed to bring in new recruits. For more info, call Colin Cunliff at LGRL, 474-5475. – Amy Smith

Last week 19 members of the notorious prison gang the Texas Syndicate were handed sentences from seven years to life for crimes ranging from drug trafficking and racketeering to murder. Lighter sentences were given to TS members who helped federal prosecutors make cases against their brutal gang brethren. "I think these sentences today send a very important message to those that would deal cocaine and commit violence in the Austin area that there's gonna be a big hammer that's gonna come down on your head," U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton told News 8 on April 2. "The days when prison gangs could operate with impunity are over." Sutton's confidence notwithstanding, Naked City wonders if sentencing the prison gang members to long prison sentences will actually serve as a deterrent to future TS activities. – Jordan Smith

Then again, prison ain't what it used to be: The Texas Board of Criminal Justice this week approved new, tighter prison mail rules that forbid the receipt of sexually explicit material. "We're trying to change the culture in our institutions," says Texas prison Chief Gary Johnson. The new rules also allow TDCJ to, in certain circumstances, read prisoners' letters to the news media and to government officials before they're put in the mail. – M.C.M.

Voters in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood on Tuesday soundly rejected a referendum initiated by Wal-Mart to allow the retailer to build a Supercenter without complying with most of the city's development regulations. The largely minority community of 115,000 near the L.A. airport has been struggling economically since the Lakers and Kings abandoned Inglewood's Great Western Forum (next door to the proposed Wal-Mart complex); many citizens were unhappy with city leaders' attempt to ban big-box stores, but most fear Wal-Mart's impact on local businesses that already don't have enough customers. Southern California's powerful retail unions have thrown their weight behind the anti-big-box effort, and the Inglewood battle is seen as a preview of a much larger showdown between Wal-Mart and the city of Los Angeles itself, which is likewise weighing an ordinance to ban big boxes entirely within the city limits. – M.C.M.

Our weird is their Wal-Mart: Whole Foods Market held its annual shareholders' meeting this week in Seattle, where the natural foods retailer is expanding like gangbusters, bringing five new stores online in the next two years and causing the sort of grumbling in urban progressive circles that Austinites are used to hearing about certain ever-expanding Seattle-based companies. At the annual meeting – in a sign of Whole Foods' growth into a Real Big Company – a shareholder resolution was passed to limit the ability of CEO John Mackey and the board of directors to adopt anti-takeover "poison pill" provisions. Whole Foods is also going across the pond, finalizing a deal to buy a seven-store chain in England. – M.C.M.


Happenings

Is the library part of your future? The Austin Public Library is working on a long-term strategic plan for library services in Austin and is inviting public input at a series of focus groups this month. Meetings will be held Tuesday, April 13, at APL's Howson Branch, 2500 Exposition; Tuesday, April 20 at the Pleasant Hill Branch, 211 E. William Cannon; and Wednesday, April 28 at the Little Walnut Creek Branch, 835 W. Rundberg and (in Spanish) at the Daniel Ruiz Branch, 1600 Grove (at Riverside). All focus groups will be from 7-8:30pm. The library is also conducting surveys of citizens and patrons as part of this effort; take the survey online at www.cityofaustin.org.

Tibetan Buddhist monk and political leader Geshe Thupten will lead an interfaith meditation retreat at Seton Cove (the Seton Healthcare Network's spirituality center) on Monday, April 19, from 9am-3pm. Organizers say having a Tibetan leader and teacher of Thupten's stature is almost unprecedented in Central Texas. More details at www.setoncove.net.

The Austin action cell of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws will host a Medical Marijuana Potluck Picnic on Saturday, May 1, in Zilker Park. Med-marijuana advocates will be marching in cities around the world that weekend, but Austin NORML, instead of rallying at the Capitol, will ask supporters and picnicgoers to help with petition drives to support efforts to pass a Texas medical-marijuana bill in an upcoming Lege session. More details at www.austinnorml.org.

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