Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Oct. 8, 2004
Quote of the Week: "The re-election of George W. Bush would be a mandate to continue on our present course of chaos." W. Leon Smith, the editor of the Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford (!), in endorsing John Kerry. See p.20 for all the latest election news.
AISD isn't so bad, says the state. But it isn't so great either, say the feds, as parents wade through the week's accountability data dump. See p.22.
Meanwhile, the University of Texas says it needs to be (yawn) more like the private sector if it wants to keep up its first-class pretensions. See p.26
The City Council won't be wrangling with Rainey Street this week after all. Who'da thunk it? See p.25.
The community-activist response (or, more properly, a do-over) of the city's controversial big-box retail study was released this week as we went to press. More details next time.
There's still music on Channel 15, as the City Council last week approved plans to transfer what was once the Austin Music Network to a private for-profit venture, Austin Music Partners, led by broadcasting veteran Connie Wodlinger. Meanwhile, as Wodlinger seeks additional investors and readies to go live next year with AMP's "Austin Music and Arts Channel," the city finalized plans for Austin Community Television to maintain AMN programming on Channel 15 in the interim. Current plans are for the AMN brand name and its general manager, Louis Meyers, to be fully absorbed into ACTV after Channel 15 goes to AMP a prospect distasteful to vocal ACTV producers, who complain that the access network's adoption of the semicommercial AMN format violates its mission and bylaws. The producers were shot down in court last week in their effort to depose current and former ACTV board members and staff; no word yet on whether they intend to proceed with threatened legal action. M.C.M.
A Western Travis Co. developer is in hot water again after a problem-plagued detention pond and dam at his West Cypress Hills subdivision dumped another round of pollution in Lick Creek. Area residents said heavy rains last Saturday overwhelmed the control measures that regulatory inspectors had only recently approved. The Lower Colorado River Authority has fined developer Rusty Parker $5,000 for pollution violations stemming from a rainstorm in mid-September, and, in light of the most recent episode, the agency is now threatening to institute daily fines if Parker doesn't move quickly to bring the detention pond and dam up to speed. Residents say they want the pond and dam removed from the site altogether; several of them have sued Parker under the Clean Water Act; the claim is pending in U.S. district court. Amy Smith
Did you know that this toll road thing is, like, really political? State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn promptly and gleefully agreed last week to audit the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, further staking her claims in the GOP civil war over the Texas toll road craze. Though the CTRMA has already been audited, twice, by TxDOT, Strayhorn agreed with state Rep. Terry Keel (and, for what it's worth, Council Member Brewster McCracken) that the authority's free-spending ways as demonstrated by its recent award of a $750,000 toll road marketing contract to a group led by TateAustin deserve a closer look. (Concerns about the CTRMA's budget were raised by some observers when the agency first came into existence last year, before politicos like Keel and Strayhorn had realized their hay-making potential on this issue.) Meanwhile, despite hype to the contrary, there were no sounds of cracking at the Texas Transportation Commission last week, as the panel reiterated that any region that wanted money from the state Mobility Fund needed to have tolls on the table. The TTC should make its final decision on the CTRMA plan this month or next. M.C.M.
The Travis Co. Sheriff's Office is on the hunt for a facility to house this winter's Brown Santa operations to provide gifts and food to needy families over the holiday season. According to a TCSO press release, the Brown Santa board of directors has "run into roadblocks at every vacant building they have encountered and now they are getting desperate." Brown Santa is seeking the donation of a 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot warehouse with heat, air conditioning, restrooms, electricity, phone lines, and loading docks that can be used as headquarters for the holiday program. Anyone interested in donating property should contact Tracy Hill at 247-2682 or TCSO Senior Deputy Mary Rodriguez at 854-9728. Jordan Smith
The city of Austin and the firefighters union say they've reached a tentative deal that would give the firefighters the 2% "public-safety premium" raise enjoyed by their police and EMS counterparts. The firefighters, who've been without a contract since 2002, won the right earlier this year to engage in collective bargaining with City Hall; the current one-year deal, which must be approved by the union's membership, would set the stage for talks on a subsequent three-year contract. M.C.M.
The League of United Latin American Citizens is blaming the new international academy at Johnston High School for a series of fights in August and September. LULAC says the decision to bus recent immigrants to the school-within-a-school at Johnston has created tensions among African-American, Mexican-American, and recent immigrant students. "Everyone wants to blame the kids for the fights," said Olga Cuellar of LULAC. "But I don't believe we should fault the kids. We need to look at who created this atmosphere." Cuellar says LULAC will also be keeping tabs on the way the school conducts standardized tests, alleging that last year administrators excused half of students' absences if they would just show up for the required tests. Schools with less than a 95% test-participation rate are cited under federal school accountability guidelines; this year Johnston was one of eight AISD campuses whose students became eligible for transfer to better-ranked schools under these guidelines for reading scores, not test participation. Rachel Proctor May
On the other hand, AISD's Pillow Elementary School was named a Blue Ribbon School under federal accountability rankings, one of 15 schools in Texas and about 250 in the nation to earn the honor. Blue Ribbon rankings are based on state-administered test scores; Pillow, where 56% of students are classified as low socioeconomic status, moved from "acceptable" to "recognized" under the state's own system and would have made "exemplary" (the highest rank) if just a few more kids had passed their math test. Former principal Linda Webb, who this year moved to an administrative position with AISD, attributed the improvement to teachers' willingness to tutor, plus careful attention to test scores. "We used data to analyze where the problems were," she said. "Every child has an area of need, and we were able to get them tutors based on their needs." Identifying and fulfilling needs, of course, is the entire justification behind test-driven accountability systems; Pillow's success in raising scores will no doubt inspire further rigor in data collection and curriculum adherence in AISD schools. R.P.M.
According to the Travis Co. Sheriff's Office, an inmate arrested for possession and use of aerosol inhalants was found dead in his cell at the Del Valle Correctional Complex on Oct. 3. Inmate George Villela was arrested on Oct. 1 and booked into the jail's heath services unit because of medical complications reportedly related to his ingestion of carburetor fluid, reports the TCSO. Villela was found unconscious in his cell shortly after 8pm on Sunday; he was pronounced dead less than an hour later. The Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office is waiting for toxicology test results before making a cause-of-death determination. J.S.
The Bush Administration could learn some lessons about equality from two of the area's largest corporate employers. Dell Inc. and IBM Corp. each made the highest possible score on the Human Rights Campaign's 2004 report card on the treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered employees. The HRC's Corporate Equality Index ranked the GLBT-friendliness of Fortune 500 and other companies on a scale of zero to 100. The companies were graded on such factors as anti-discrimination policies and health care benefits for employees' partners. Elsewhere in Texas, HRC ranked Irving's ExxonMobil Corp. and Plano's Perot Systems Corp. among the bottom eight underachievers (out of nearly 400 on the list). The worst of the bunch Little Rock telecom company Alltel scored a perfect zero. A.S.
Beyond City Limits
State Sens. Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire, both D-Houston, and Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt have all called for a moratorium on executions of Harris Co. death row inmates until the HPD can review nearly 8,000 cases made with evidence handled by the beleaguered HPD crime lab. Eight of the 11 inmates scheduled for execution this year are from Harris Co. "I think it would be very prudent for us as a system, a criminal justice system, to delay further executions until we've had an opportunity to re-examine evidence that played a particular role in the conviction of an individual that was sentenced to death," Hurtt told the Houston Chronicle. J.S.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed into law a bill requiring a voter-verifiable paper trail on all electronic voting systems by the 2006 primary. The law will not affect the November 2004 election. This is big news for Austin's Hart InterCivic, a leading producer of electronic voting systems with a major contract in Orange County. "We anticipated that the bill would be signed and have always planned to meet the new requirements," said a Hart InterCivic spokeswoman. "We have had a voter verifiable paper audit trail product in development for quite a while and have been working with current and prospective customers, including Orange County, on the final specifications before we bring it to market." L.N.
The Bush administration's horrid environmental record is being challenged in court by the Seattle-based nonprofit Earthjustice, which filed suit against several federal agencies on Sept. 23, claiming that a new Environmental Protection Agency "rule" aimed at streamlining the pesticide approval process endangers fish and other wildlife. Under the new regulation that took effect last month, the EPA unilaterally approves pesticide use without first consulting with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service. "By eliminating the checks and balances built into the [Endangered Species Act] through formal agency consultation, the new rule makes it easier for agribusiness and other industries to use highly toxic pesticides," reads an Earthjustice press release. For more info, see www.earthjustice.org. J.S.
Communities in Schools will hold its "Food for Thought" fundraiser Thursday, Oct. 7, at the Omni Hotel Downtown, 6-9pm. The event includes an auction, a samba band, and a sampling of dishes from Austin's swankiest restaurants. Tickets cost $50, which goes toward the group's dropout-prevention activities in AISD schools.
The Austin Parks Foundation is hosting volunteer park workdays around town on the next two Saturdays, Oct. 9 and 16 they'll be performing much-needed maintenance and groundskeeping work at Norwood Estates, Brentwood, Wooten, and Bull Creek parks. See www.austinparks.org/volunteer.html for more info.
Happy Indigenous Peoples Day: In honor of 512 years of resistance to colonialism in North America, MonkeyWrench Books (110 E. North Loop) will screen Incident at Oglala, a film about the 1975 standoff between American Indian Movement activists and the FBI. Monday, Oct. 11, at 7pm, free. For more info, call 407-MWBK.
The activist group Raising Awareness of People Trafficking will show Dying to Leave: Slaves of the Free Market, a 2003 PBS documentary exploring the current worldwide boom in illicit human smuggling and human trafficking, at 7pm Monday, Oct. 11, on the UT Campus, Mezes Hall, room 306. Following the film, there will be a Q&A session about human trafficking with UT sociology professor Penny Green; for more info, e-mail email@example.com.
The United East Austin Coalition will hold its 19th annual Dia de la Raza celebration ("Because Columbus didn't discover America ... he was lost!") Tuesday, Oct. 12, at Red's Scoot Inn, 1308 E. Fourth, 7-10pm. Festivities include a presentation of the UEAC's Raza Awards at 8pm; this year's winners include Eastside arts and education activist Marie Martinez, the Austin firefighters union, and Grande Communications. Learn more at 478-6770.