Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Dec. 3, 2004
Quote of the Week: "The Court declares that the State's school finance system is financially inefficient, inadequate, and unsuitable, in violation of Article VII, section 1 of the Texas Constitution because the school finance system fails to recognize or cover the costs of meeting the constitutional mandate of adequacy, or the Legislature's statutory definition of a comprehensive adequate program." Presiding Judge John K. Dietz, in his final judgment in the West Orange Cove Consolidated ISD et al. v. Neeley school finance lawsuit.
On Tuesday, Judge John Dietz issued his final judgment and findings of fact in the school finance lawsuit against the state of Texas, reconfirming his decision in favor of the school district plaintiffs. The state will appeal.
There are now three state House Republican challenges of their November election defeats, as District 50 incumbent Jack Stick joined District 35's Eric Opiela and District 149's Talmadge Heflin in saying they'll appeal directly to the Texas House to overturn their losses at the polls. See "Capitol Chronicle."
A recount in District 48's state House race confirmed the re-election of Republican Todd Baxter in his bitter combat with Democratic newcomer Kelly White. White declined to join the latest in Christmas GOP fashions of election challenges ...
In a local disaster of international proportions, at press time the UT Longhorns remain ranked slightly behind the University of California Golden Bears meaning no BCS bowl once again. Holding out against public diatribes and e-mail death threats, local sportswriter Kirk Bohls echoes that judgment, proving there are still a few cojones left at the Statesman. Can he transfer to the editorial page?
The biggest dish on the City Council menu this week is the public hearing and action on the Mueller master development agreement with Catellus Austin. The 1,000-page doc (available at www.cityofaustin.org/mueller/mda) has turned into seven different agenda items to, among other things, execute the MDA, adopt its (ambitious) affordable-housing and minority-business directives, and create a tax-increment district to support the $46 million in public financing (over 10 years) envisioned for the new life of the old airport. Mueller's new zoning, and by extension its design guidelines, were adopted earlier this year; the deal with Catellus has been under negotiation for more than two years, and observers expect the council to act quickly and with little dissent. M.C.M.
Also on the City Council agenda: Ratifying the new collective bargaining agreement with the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters, approved overwhelmingly by the union last week; considering for final approval the overhaul of the city historic preservation ordinance and though not at the same time 17 backlogged historic-zoning cases; further wrangling with the latest upzoning controversies over the Champion Tract at RM 222 and Loop 360; and completing the formalities for the new East Sixth Street Public Improvement District. M.C.M.
Attendees at a public hearing on an AISD proposal to start the 2005 school year a week early spoke overwhelmingly in favor of the move. The plan would have the school year running from Aug. 16 to May 24, rather than follow the state norm of Aug. 23 to June 1. Opponents cited concerns that the early-start calendar resulted in too many vacation days sprinkled throughout the year, thus creating a hardship on working parents. Those in favor said that starting a week early would give the district a leg up on state-scheduled TAKS tests. Trustees will not finalize a calendar until January. Rachel Proctor May
Council Member Brewster McCracken's yearlong effort to create commercial design standards for Austin is nearly done; a final discussion draft of the proposed standards was presented this week to the stakeholders group that's been wrangling with the issue, with action by the Planning Commission and City Council expected early next year. The proposed standards deal not only with retail aesthetics but, more substantially, with major site-plan issues like parking and traffic, storm water management, signage, and permitted land uses, and openly aim to make urban mixed-use development the preferred Austin option. If adopted as proposed, the standards would require a fundamental rewrite of much of the city's Land Development Code starting from the premise that site-development standards should be linked not to the base zoning, as they are now, but to the nature of the road on which the project sits. In addition, the standards include a point-system matrix, with positive points for good features and negative points for bad ones; all developments would have to earn a minimum score to even see the light of day at One Texas Center. M.C.M.
Suddenly, from out of the blue, state Rep. Jack Stick has decided to challenge his 569-vote loss to Mark Strama in the Nov. 2 election. In a five-page petition faxed to the secretary of state on Thanksgiving Day, Stick charged that Travis Co. election officials had failed to provide data that would determine any voting irregularities in District 50. But Stick apparently never asked for any such info from the county, and his allegation that election officials "are having difficulty reconciling voter information" has thrown County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir for a loop. "Neither I nor my office have received a request, either verbal or written, from Mr. Stick or his campaign, or anyone claiming to be acting on his behalf," she said. Stick's action has county Democratic Party Chair Chris Elliott pondering filing a challenge of his own against the lame duck Republican. "I'm so infuriated by this baseless accusation," said Elliott, "that I am seriously considering filing an ethics complaint." He said Stick's charges amount to blatantly false attacks on the county election system, elected officials, and Strama. Elliott contrasted Stick's post-election behavior with that of Democrat Kelly White, who lost by 147 votes to state Rep. Todd Baxter in District 48. White followed a very methodical process of requesting a recount, which this week confirmed the result. White has chosen not to challenge the outcome. "It's a stark difference in how she approached this and how [Stick] has approached this," Elliott said. Amy Smith
Schlotzsky's Inc. is getting gussied up for a shotgun wedding next week, as the bankrupt sandwich maker moves from the chopping block to the auction block. Bids starting at $25 million are due by noon Monday, with the auction to be held Tuesday in the Dallas law offices of Haynes and Boone LLP. On Wednesday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Leif Clark will consider the "highest and best" bidder at a hearing. The deadline for closing the sale is Dec. 31. The new owner will be able to operate the Schlotzsky's brand, its company restaurants and franchise system starting with a clean slate, without the millions in debt. "We hope to soon have a strong financial owner or owners that will enable us to grow again, provide jobs for our employees, and better serve our franchisees essentially, to have a new lease on life," said CEO Sam Coats. It's likely that neither ousted CEO John Wooley nor unsecured creditors and shareholders will receive any proceeds from the sale. Wooley has argued against selling the company for what he suspects will be well below its $41 million value when it filed for bankruptcy. A.S.
"Que viva el barrio!" Thus quoth Frances Martinez of Barrio Unido before donning a hard hat and hefting a gold-plated shovel of dirt to ceremonially break ground for the Villas on Sixth "apartment home" development. The project will transform a raggedy patch of vacant Eastside real estate into a housing and retail complex where 85% of the 160 apartment units are "affordable." Also joining in the shovel-hefting fun were city council members Raul Alvarez, Danny Thomas, and Betty Dunkerley, state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, and other neighborhood and real estate leaders. R.P.M.
Beyond City Limits
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has declined to review its decision to overturn the capital conviction of Max Alexander Soffar, meaning the Harris Co. District Attorney's Office will have to retry him or set him free. In April, a three-judge panel of the appellate court overturned Soffar's conviction for a 1981 triple murder in a Houston bowling alley, ruling that Soffar received ineffective assistance from his trial attorney the infamous, now-deceased Sleeping Lawyer, Joe Cannon and that decision has now been upheld by the full court. The state has 90 days to decide whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Jordan Smith
Although the number of civil rights complaints received by the U.S. Department of Justice has remained steady about 12,000 annually federal enforcement action on those complaints has steadily declined under the Bush Administration, reports the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. In its Nov. 22 report, TRAC notes that while civil-rights enforcement actions have been rare under all recent presidents, it has "sharply declined" under Bush the Younger. In fiscal 1999, federal prosecutors filed criminal civil rights charges against 159 defendants; by FY 2003 that number had dropped to 84. Referrals for prosecution by federal investigators likewise declined by nearly 50% from 1994 to 2003. And the number of civil cases (involving such issues as housing discrimination or voting-rights violations) has also dropped steadily under Bush from 740 in 2001 to 576 in 2003. For more info, go to www.trac.syr.edu/tracreports/civright/106. J.S.
The "Spirit of Garberville," a 1969 school bus emblazoned with anti-war slogans carrying Veterans for Peace Chapter 22, stopped in Austin last week for dinner at the Rhizome Collective, en route back to California, carrying the vets on their 7,000-mile speaking and demonstration tour to and from Fort Benning, Ga., the military training facility formerly known as the School of the Americas. Driver Gordon Soderberg, a navy corpsman who served in Beirut, recounted the long list of atrocities attributed to the school's grads especially in Central and South America and noted the inclusion of torture techniques in the curriculum that eventually found their way to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. There were about 15,000 demonstrators at the annual protest this year (Nov. 20-21), and Soderberg said he knew of only 24 arrests for nonviolent action. Crowd-control measures were less severe than in previous years, he said, but protesters did encounter significant blockading and occasional loud broadcasts of laws governing protests. More info at www.soaw.org or www.veteransforpeace.org. Daniel Mottola
As Texans battle for more clean energy mandates, a recent action by the federal government may undermine state energy decisions. "In a behind-closed-doors move during recent budget negotiations, language was inserted into the massive appropriations bill (HR 4818) stating that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can pre-empt states on the permitting and siting of liquefied natural gas facilities, thereby overriding the ability of states and local communities to have control over installation projects," said Public Citizen's Tyson Slocum. There are currently six onshore and six more offshore LNG facilities in the proposal phase for Texas, according to the FERC Web site. The facilities create concerns about safety and increased dependence on OPEC nations, from which the LNG is imported. Recently, Slocum said, the Rhode Island attorney general issued a letter to his state delegation expressing concerns about the inclusion of the language and its effect on the state's own LNG future. D.M.
Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 2-4, is "Remember Bhopal Week," marking the 20th anniversary of the Union Carbide chemical factory disaster in India. Events on the UT campus are sponsored by Amnesty International and the Association for India's Development, and include: Dec. 2, a 7pm candlelight vigil at the MLK statue on the East Mall; Dec. 3, 10am-5pm, Bhopal Awareness Day on the West Mall; and Dec. 4, a 7pm showing of the documentary The Search for Justice in room 4.102 of Robert Lee Moore Hall (26th and Speedway). For more info, call 422-7169 or go to www.aidaustin.org.
The film WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception by media critic Danny Schechter plays at Dobie Theatre Friday-Thursday, Dec. 3-9. The Chicago Reader calls the film "a comprehensive and devastating critique of the TV news networks' complacency and complicity in the war on Iraq." Check our film listings or call 472-FILM for show times.
On Wednesday, Dec. 8, at 7:30pm, David Solnit, editor of Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World, will be in Austin as part of the North American Globalize Liberation Roadshow. The road show is traveling across the country, doing public events, popular education theatre, skills workshops, media interviews, and support for local organizing. Solnit will appear at MonkeyWrench Books, 110 E. North Loop. For more info, call 407-6925.