Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., May 28, 2004
Quote of the Week: "Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back." Schizophrenic death row inmate Kelsey Patterson, before his execution last week. See "Capitol Chronicle."
Zoning's where it's at this week at City Hall, with two massive cases the new Mueller and the Robinson Ranch making their way through the pipeline. See below and City Bets the Farm on Robinson Ranch.
Today's City Council meeting is expected to be light; Mayor Will Wynn is in Europe, representing Austin at the World Congress of Information Technology in Athens. The same event will be held in Austin in 2006.
But not as light as doings at the Capitol, where the Legislature is working on school finance with, uh, deliberate speed. See p.17.
So, now that she's a graduate, is Jenna Bush going to leave town? For real? Promise?
Either the state's public schools have gone from beleaguered to brilliant overnight, or the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills is not quite a precisely calibrated measuring instrument of student achievement. On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Perry announced the results of this year's TAKS tests, and his news is overwhelmingly good. The passing rate for the junior class statewide "is an astounding 23 points higher" than last year, said the governor, and passing rates were up dramatically on individual sections of the tests as well. AISD results mirrored the state statistics, said an AISD announcement, at 94% in grade three reading and 72% for all tests taken in 11th grade. "We have welcomed the TAKS challenge because it sets higher expectations for student performance, based on the state's standards for learning," said AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione. "When we compare 2004 TAKS data to the 2003 data at this year's standards, we find our students and teachers showing strong academic growth. The new rigorous test standards also help us know better where to intensify and focus our efforts for the coming year." Michael King
The Save our Springs Alliance has filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, alleging the feds have failed to act on their duties under the Endangered Species Act. Last year, SOS, the Save Barton Creek Association, and the Sierra Club filed a petition to list the cave spider Cicerina cueva only known to live in two caves in Travis Co. as an endangered species; so far, the FWS has yet to take any action, despite clear deadlines imposed by the act, SOS says. "We prefer to avoid litigation, but sadly the [FWS] is flagrantly neglecting its clear duties mandated by Congress," said SOS attorney John Fritschie in a statement. While the caves themselves are on preserve land owned by the city of Austin, the enviro groups claim that highway plans for SH 45 South, to be built nearby, put the spider at risk. M.C.M.
Late Tuesday night, the traffic controllers of the city Planning Commission gave their clearance for the enormous Robert Mueller Municipal Airport project to continue its descent. The commission's action keeps the eight-year-long (or 20-year-long, depending on how you're counting) flight of the New Mueller on schedule for an anticipated June landing, with City Council consideration of both the zoning case which would implement the community-crafted master plan for the old airport's 711 acres and a final agreement with Catellus Development, the city's prospective Mueller partner. As expected, discussion at the commission centered on Catellus' idea to put "regional retail" at the northwest corner of the Mueller site which typically means big-box retail, which many citizens like not at all. The commission voted to remove "construction sales and service" as a permitted use on that corner which would block the current big-box nemesis, Lowe's Home Centers, from locating there. M.C.M.
An organized push to reinstate lactation services in local hospitals will kick off at a noon press conference today (Thursday) at Waterloo Park, across from Brackenridge Hospital, which recently eliminated its breast-feeding education program. Lactation consultants who lost their jobs as a result have since formed the Austin Breastfeeding Task Force, which includes representatives from other supporting organizations. The Seton Healthcare Network, which operates the city-owned Brack, also scaled back lactation services at its other hospitals. Similarly, South Austin Hospital has closed its services, citing budget constraints, and the new city-owned Austin Women's Hospital, operated by the University of Texas Medical Branch, does not offer lactation services to its base of low-income mothers and infants. Dana Michaud, a co-founder of the task force, said the group has the support of doctors, nurses and other professionals who are expected to speak at today's event. "We believe there is a lack of understanding of how lactation services actually provide low-cost, low-tech health care benefits in the fragile, postpartum period," she said. Amy Smith
Neighbors on the Eastside are trying to get changes made to the proposed Robertson Hill Apartments project on part of the long-controversial Bennett Tract. The apartment project would put 283 units along San Marcos Street, between Ninth and 11th streets, facing Ebenezer Baptist Church, and in doing so would double the density of the adjoining Guadalupe neighborhood in one fell swoop. (The remainder of the Bennett Tract, currently zoned for downtown-scale commercial, is still in apparent limbo.) The Robertson Hill project described by the developer as "upscale" has all the zoning and other entitlements it needs to proceed, and its site plan is set for administrative approval. However, when zoning the entire Bennett Tract over heated neighborhood opposition to the wishes of developer Matt Mathias in 2001, the City Council also agreed to a $23 million incentive package, some of which would be available to Robertson Hill developer Martin Fein. Central East Austin neighbors hope this will give them leverage to secure design changes, a more extensive affordable-housing commitment, and other accommodations to neighborhood needs. M.C.M.
The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd will not be buying Moffett Drive for a startlingly low price this week at the City Council. The Tarrytown church's expansion plans call for consolidating current activities on a smaller (but denser) two-block parcel, made possible by the city's vacating Moffett Drive. While neighbors have reached agreement with Good Shepherd on these plans, eyebrows were raised at the city's price tag of $54,000 for a chunk of land that neighbors think, based on the local property values, should be worth at least 10 times that. Technical errors were cited for pulling down the item from this week's agenda; it's set to come back for real on June 10. M.C.M.
Mary Alice Davis, one of a few Statesman editorial writers to champion the little guy and mean it, died Sunday, four days before her 60th birthday. Davis retired from the daily in February 2002 and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer six months later, according to the Statesman. The longtime journalist possessed a soft voice and a mighty pen, which she wielded to knock President Bush over the head for his assaults on open government and reproductive choices for women, among other things. Davis' words live on. A memorial service will be held at 2pm today (Thursday), Davis' birthday, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover Ave. A.S.
Our favorite former governor, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, was doing her supermarket shopping last week and took a moment in the check-out line at Whole Foods to discuss her plans and future. Ann Richards is still splitting her time between Austin and New York but is "winding down" her work in Manhattan, she said, with an eye toward longer stays at home in Texas. As to the possibility that her departure from the East Coast will keep her away from the eye of the political storm taking place this year, she said that is simply not the case. "There isn't anything about this year's election that I'll miss," she said. We're not sure exactly what that means, but it's a good bet she won't be pulling for her former archnemesis, W. Lucius Lomax
Beyond City Limits
Although the special legislative session on public school finance ended two weeks ago in a whirlwind of speculations about another session still promised, more or less, by Gov. Rick Perry at least some members of the "working groups" appear to have more important business elsewhere. The Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday that although the joint House-Senate working group on "school reform" is scheduled to begin meeting June 7, a number of House members including co-chair Kent Grusendorf will be on vacation until June 16. Sen. Steve Ogden and Rep. Talmadge Heflin, co-chairs of the "school finance" group, announced that the earliest all its members could meet will be June 8. Along with Sen. Florence Shapiro, Grusendorf, Ogden, and Heflin are expected to shuttle between both groups, and say they hope to have some kind of a plan ready by the end of June. Presumably, that would allow the governor to call another special session in July, before the court case by school districts against the state is scheduled to be heard, in early August. Call it a long, long, hot summer. M.K.
Gov. Perry on May 20 announced receipt of $58.3 million in federal homeland security First Responder Equipment Grants that will be distributed among 544 Texas jurisdictions. Just over $2 million of that is earmarked for the Capital Area Planning Council, which covers 10 central Texas counties, including Travis. Austin is slated to receive more than $600,000 in funds, and Travis Co. more than $300,000, to buy decontamination equipment and hazmat suits, to update regional response "plans and strategies," and to pay for personnel training. Jordan Smith
It's official: Wal-Mart and other big boxes have usurped Vermont's natural charm. That's the word from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which on Monday placed the entire state on its 2004 list of 11 endangered historic places. Vermont is the only state to ever land on the list; the group first singled out Vermont in 1993, thus setting off an early warning before Wal-Mart even arrived in the land of Freedom and Unity. When the discount retailer came calling, some communities were waiting to strong-arm the giant into smaller, existing buildings in the state's old cities. But other communities flung the door wide open and other big boxes followed. A.S.
Weed Watch: The Nevada Supreme Court has accepted a case filed by the Marijuana Policy Project and has ordered Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller and federal drug czar John Walters to file an official response to the MPP's complaint. At issue is Walters' failure to file expenditure reports detailing his use of taxpayer money to travel to Nevada and campaign against a 2002 state ballot initiative to decriminalize marijuana. The MPP says Walters' stumping was a clear violation of the 1939 Hatch Act, which regulates the political activities of government officials. While in Nevada, the group charges, Walters was on taxpayer time and used his official title director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to campaign against legalization. The group appealed to Heller's office to force Walters to comply with Nevada's campaign finance reporting laws; Walters refused, and Heller let the matter drop, which is when the MPP cried foul and took their case to the state Supreme Court. The court has given Heller and Walters until early June to file a response. J.S.
George Bush left Austin for the White House nearly four years ago, and some Austinites want to bring him back home: Austin for Kerry will hold a Meet-Up tonight (Thursday), 7pm, at Mother Egan's Irish Pub, 716 W. Sixth. Former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes will speak, as will Rhett Smith, Democratic challenger to incumbent Lamar Smith for CD 21, which includes most of western Travis Co. Music by Jimmy Lohman at 6:30pm. Also, the group will host "Kerry-oke" Night at Club de Ville on Tuesday, June 1, at 8pm, featuring the Fabulous Miss Emily. The festivities include a GOP elephant piñata-bashing. Go to www.austin4kerry.org for more info.
On Saturday, May 29, the Rhizome Collective, a nonprofit pushing for a variety of lefty causes, presents Autonofest a fundraiser to buy solar panels and make the group's headquarters less dependent on the city's (partially) nuclear-powered energy grid. A variety of clean-energy technologies will be featured, and entertainment includes "booty-shakin' DJs" and tall-bike jousting, among other things. 5pm until dark, at 300 Allen (south of East Fifth, between Pleasant Valley and Springdale). For more info, call 294-9580 or go to www.rhizomecollective.org.
A seventh-anniversary benefit for the Yellow Bike Project, the organization that charitably fixes up old bikes and leaves them about Austin for anyone to use, will be held Sunday, May 30, 9pm at Room 710, 710 Red River. Bands are promised, TBA. At least 25 yellow bikes will be released. Call 457-9880 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
The Austin Independent Business Alliance will present its first Indie-Biz Fair and Silent Auction Sunday, June 6, 5-9pm at Ruta Maya International Headquarters, 3601 S. Congress. Items on offer will include books, CDs, art, jewelry, gift certificates, pet and lawn care, and professional services from more than 50 of Austin's favorite locally owned, independent businesses. Live music by Blackbird Trio, and kids entertainment by Laura Freeman. Suggested donation: $10. Learn more at www.austin-iba.org.