Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., April 16, 2004
Quote of the Week: "You're an FBI agent, and you're following me!" Disgraced former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, picked up by cops this weekend in New York after reportedly tearing at the clothes of strangers in bars and accusing them of working for The Man. Skilling was taken to a hospital for psychological evaluation; police suggest alcohol was involved. Skilling's lawyer told reporters his client had actually been mugged, a story police dispute.
Tuesday's run-off election spelled doom for state Reps. Gabi Canales and Roberto Gutierrez (and cross-dressing candidate Sam Walls), but brought good news for Precinct 4 Constable Maria Canchola, GOP sheriff candidate Duane McNeill, all-but-official new U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, and state representative and congressional hopeful Arlene Wohlgemuth. See "Which Austin Congressman?" or "Canchola, McNeill Triumph" for more results.
The Lege That Won't Stop Meeting will meet again Gov. Rick Perry has called the fourth special session of the biennium, to tackle school finance and tax relief, starting this Tuesday. See "Perry Makes the Call."
Ozomatli won't be bringing the noise to the Austin City Council next week after all; the band announced Tuesday that, since felony charges are still pending against band members from the controversial SXSW bust, it would decline Council Member Brewster McCracken's invitation. (The band will still be playing that night at La Zona Rosa.) For more on the story, see "The Return of 'The Ozo 3'."
Note to William Safire: While Naked City likes attention as much as the next journalist, we must clarify our turn in your New York Times Magazine Sunday spotlight. The first use of "wing nut" in these pages was actually to describe local politicos Mike Hanson and Gerald Daugherty, not state Reps. Arlene Wohlgemuth and Wayne Christian, and it appeared months before the reference you so laboriously cited for your readers. (Have one of the interns explain Google to you.) And no, it does not mean the persons in question are "strongly conservative." You are strongly conservative. They are ... wing nuts.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority this week announced, and quickly approved, plans for the next phase of Austin-area toll road projects. The $2.2 billion plan would add toll lanes to expand many highway links throughout the region including U.S. 183 and Texas 71 from I-35 to Bergstrom, Loop 360 along its entire length, U.S. 290 east to its junction with (under construction) SH 130, both sides of the Y in Oak Hill, and a small segment of MoPac South as well as finish out the completely new U.S. 183-A bypass road and much of SH 45 South. Perhaps the most controversial projects were left on the drawing board widening MoPac through Central Austin and completing the SH 45 South loop from MoPac to I-35 so that the plan can move forward as soon as possible, according to CTRMA and TxDOT officials. The improvements to Loop 360 are being conceived as a possible franchise, to be built and operated by a private concern. The RMA's quick action allows the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to likewise move forward; CAMPO will hold its public hearing on the turnpike proposal May 10. M.C.M.
Meanwhile, RMA general counsel Brian Cassidy scored a win while wearing his other hat representing litigious property owner Jim Monaghan of SR Ridge LP, currently suing the city of Austin and Stratus Properties over their alleged role last fall in killing the deal to sell Monaghan's land at MoPac and Slaughter to Endeavor Real Estate Group for a Wal-Mart Supercenter. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks last week rejected the city's motion for summary judgment in the case. SR Ridge has already secured administrative approval of a new site plan pursuant to the terms of the 1996 agreement with the city that Monaghan is now alleging was broken that would allow big-box retail on the aquifer site. M.C.M.
New designs were unveiled this week for the scaled-back Long Center for the Performing Arts; the conversion of Palmer Auditorium, which ballooned from a one-venue, $50 million retrofit in 1998 to a four-venue, $125 million temple at the height of the boom, is now a two-venue, $77 million project that's still $24 million away from being built. "I don't want another Intel on my hands," center backer Joe Long, whose $20 million initial gift is still the largest received for the project, told supporters at Monday's unveiling. The new designs, by local architects TeamHaas, dispense with most of the existing exterior of the Great Turtle (including the unaccountably popular, in some quarters, mottled green roof), but preserve Palmer's structural ring as the perimeter of a colonnade-defined plaza overlooking Town Lake. Despite the existing funding shortfall, Long Center officials look forward to an actual groundbreaking in six months. M.C.M.
Unidentified members of the Austin Police Association last week began circulating a yellow flier enumerating the ways in which APA President Mike Sheffield has allegedly let them down and seeking a recall of the three-term leader. According to the pamphlet, Sheffield has failed to support union members notably by supposedly failing to defend the rank-and-file and prepare an alternate response to the Statesman's questionable four-part series on police use of force published earlier this year. Jordan Smith
On April 7 the Austin Police Department held an opening ceremony for its new Robert Martinez, Sr. Forensics Science Center. The building, located on Springdale Road and built with bond monies approved in 1998, also houses the new APD Central East substation and includes 50,000 square feet of space for DNA and crime scene investigation labs, a crime scene reconstruction room, a ballistics testing firing range, drug and breath analysis labs, and evidence storage facilities. J.S.
Resource conservation, landscape education, and compost gained some state recognition for Freescale Semiconductor, the city's Grow Green program, and JV Dirt and Loam. The three were named winners in the Texas Environmental Excellence Awards, to be presented by Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality at a May 4 awards banquet. Freescale, the former Motorola chip division, won in the large business-technical category for conservation efforts at its Austin plant and office complex. The city program, a partnership with the Texas Cooperative Extension Service, was recognized in the education category for helping to steer gardeners away from the use of toxic chemicals a major source of water pollution. JV Dirt and Loam was the small-business award winner for having developed a method of controlling erosion on Texas roads by applying compost to soil to encourage vegetation along the roadways. More info on this year's winners is available at www.teea.org. Amy Smith
On April 12, eight immigrant workers began collecting $10,000 in unpaid wages for work they performed at the new Austin Convention Center Hilton. The crew was hired by International Hotel Renovations to install furniture, pictures, and entertainment centers at the new hotel over a three-month period. In late January, when the crew demanded nearly a month of back pay, IHR fired them. The Immigrant Worker Rights Center took up their cause and after three months of demand letters, lien notices, and the threat of a lawsuit, IHR has agreed to pay the back wages. J.S.
Though the Austin Energy Web site tells customers the utility's long-anticipated solar rebate program will get under way June 1, AE says they'll actually be ready to go by the end of this month. The utility plans to offer rebates to customers with their own photovoltaic solar installations of $5 per watt of electricity those systems generate, up to a cap of $15,000 for residential customers and $100,000 for commercial customers. Austin Energy estimates the current installation costs for PV systems to be $7 to $8 a watt; the program has been funded at just under $1 million for the current fiscal year, so the utility expects to be able to offer its first round of rebates to a couple of commercial customers and about 50 residential customers, and expects to get at least that many applications in short order. The utility is hiring a contractor to inspect applicants' installations to make sure they make optimal use of the solar resource before granting the rebate. Funding for future years' rebate programs has yet to be determined; though AE notes that the $5/watt rebate is the most generous in the country, solar advocates would like to see the total funding greatly increased, perhaps to as much as 2% of the utility's annual revenues, or $18 million. M.C.M.
A six-year battle involving allegations of illegal disposal of hazardous electronic waste moved to trial this week in a Hays Co. courtroom. Bob Gregory, president and CEO of Texas Disposal Systems Landfill, is suing Penske Logistics, a trucking firm, and Zenith Electronics Corp. for the dumping of several loads of broken, hazardous television tubes at his landfill following a 1997 trucking accident on I-35. Gregory claims landfill operators were not informed until after the fact that the waste was hazardous. As a result, the waste had to be isolated and removed from the landfill, Gregory states. The defendants dispute the TDS allegations and say TDS was told in advance that the material was hazardous. The TV tubes, bound for Mexico, were broken when the Logistics truck hauling the material was involved in an accident on I-35 on Oct. 7, 1997. A.S.
Beyond City Limits
Fallout from the 1999 Tulia drug-bust scandal continued to rain on the Panhandle last week, and now threatens to knock Swisher Co. District Attorney Terry McEachern out of the legal business. The State Bar of Texas (not generally known for its vigilant efforts at policing its own) has asked the Texas Supreme Court to conduct a disciplinary trial of the lame-duck prosecutor, who lost his bid for re-election in last month's GOP primary. McEachern is accused of lying in court and withholding potentially exculpatory information about the criminal history of Tom Coleman, the undercover narc responsible for the questionable probe that led to the arrest and prosecution of 46 Tulia residents on cocaine possession and distribution charges (the resulting convictions have since been thrown out). If found guilty of the charges, McEachern could face a variety of sanctions from a slap on the wrist to a loss of his law license. J.S.
One of the state's largest medical malpractice insurers plans to raise rates by 10% this summer, by switching its customers from state rate-regulated policies to an unregulated line beyond the purview of state regulators, the Houston Chronicle reported on April 10. Since the narrow passage last year of the controversial Proposition 12 the so-called tort reform package that capped economic damages in civil suits in exchange for a "promise" that insurance rates would then drop only five of the state's med mal insurers have said they would actually lower rates. According to the Houston daily, GE Medical Protective, which insures 7,000 Texas doctors, factored in the potential cost savings from Proposition 12 before determining that it would still have to raise rates in June. J.S.
On Wednesday as Naked City went to press, incumbent U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez was expected to announce his formal legal challenge to the results in the March 9 CD 28 primary election, after several recounts finally pushed challenger and former Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar to victory. Although most counties showed only a handful of votes changing sides in the recounts, in Cuellar's home county of Webb and neighboring Zapata the suddenly "found" votes were overwhelmingly for Cuellar in Webb Co. all 170 newfound votes were for Cuellar, leading some observers to suggest that "undervotes" in which the congressional choice was not originally indicated may have been filled in later for Cuellar. Michael King
With the special session looming, public school advocates are bracing for "reform" proposals that have little to do with school finance but are relentlessly promoted by conservative groups: e.g., public school vouchers for private schools. The anti-voucher forces received new ammunition this week from Milwaukee, where the 14-year-old voucher program has been hit by revelations of financial and administrative scandals and lack of accountability. According to an April 5 Associated Press report, one voucher-supported Milwaukee school "was founded by a convicted rapist. Another school reportedly entertained kids with Monopoly while cashing $330,000 in tuition checks for hundreds of no-show students." The financial irregularities and reports of inadequate programs led to recent passage of a Wisconsin state law requiring more financial reporting from voucher-based schools, and increasing pressure for academic accountability like that imposed on public schools. M.K.
The city's Watershed Protection and Development Review department will hold two more public meetings to discuss plans for a new mitigation policy for development in the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer (seen by many citizens as a controversial attempt to replace or alter the Save Our Springs Ordinance). Voice your opinions Monday, April 19, at 6pm or Monday, May 3, at 4pm at Waller Creek Center (on 10th Street across from the Capital Marriott), room 104. More info at www.cityofaustin.org/watershed.
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 9am3pm. 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 picnickers to help with petition drives to support efforts to pass a Texas medical-marijuana bill in an upcoming Lege session.