Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Lee Nichols and Cheryl Smith, Fri., March 18, 2005
"I love this city. I've been here less than 24 hours and I've already joined two bands." Air America Radio host Al Franken, broadcasting live from the State Theater. See below.
Quote of the Week
Headlines House Bills 2 and 3, the school finance reform package, both passed this week, and now go to the Senate. See "Beyond City Limits," and "On the Lege."
Travis Co. commissioners passed an interim set of water quality rules for unincorporated areas in the southwest. Predictably, no one is satisfied. See "Up From the Slime Commissioners Push for Water Quality Rules."
Shrinking violet state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn issued a scathing audit of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority last week, accusing the organization of loose management and favoritism, and calling for the resignation of two board members. See "Strayhorn Takes Toll on the CTRMA."
A San Antonio federal judge has overturned the death sentence of Kenneth Foster, who was convicted of murder just for being in the car with the actual triggerman. The decision could profoundly affect the state's "rule of parties" law. See below.
Austin Stories Naked City offers condolences to the family of Kevin Carmody and his colleagues at the Austin American-Statesman. The 46-year-old environmental reporter died last week; his death is being investigated as a suicide. L.N.
With a "howdy" to a live audience at the State Theatre, Al Franken officially launched Air America in Austin on Monday. The progressive talk format airs on KOKE 1600AM, which was among a group of seven local stations recently purchased by Houston-based Border Media Partners. "I love this city," Franken told the crowd. "I've been here less than 24 hours and I've already joined two bands." With the addition of Austin and a Dallas station scheduled to debut on Monday, Air America is now up to 50 affiliates around the country. "My goal is to keep growing until we're pretty much everywhere," said Franken. Border Media primarily focuses on Hispanic listeners, but "Air America and Austin are such a perfect fit, we couldn't resist," said Border Media CEO Tom Castro, who was the national deputy finance chairman of John Kerry's presidential campaign. He says KOKE will look to develop local shows, but "we don't have any grand plans, other than to have Air America as the foundation" for the station. Kevin Brass
Austin voters will have yet another chance to increase their taxes, thanks to a measure on the May 7 ballot that would require Austinites who don't currently pay Austin Community College taxes to do so. Presently, Austin residents pay ACC taxes (or not) depending on their school district Austin, Leander, Del Valle, and Manor ISD residents pay ACC taxes, but some others do not. The measure would require Austinites who live in Eanes, Pflugerville, and Round Rock ISDs to also pay the ACC tax rate of 10 cents per $100 of assessed value. In exchange for helping support the institution, those taxpayers would be eligible to pay in-district tuition rates. Rachel Proctor May
The Austin-San Antonio commuter rail line is rolling down the tracks toward a federal grant application with public hearings in and around Austin this week. The quasi-governmental Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District would make 14 stops between Georgetown and San Antonio, using the existing Union Pacific freight line. It could open as early as 2009 at a cost of $300 million, which the district estimates could rise to $600 million by the time the system reaches full implementation. The district's application will go to the Federal Transportation Commission in August, the same time as the Capital Metro application for the Leander line. Chair Sid Covington says the intention would be to share station stops with Capital Metro's line on the north, as well as the Cap Metro express bus routes in the middle and San Antonio's Via bus lines on the south end. A second hearing is scheduled for Thursday at Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs (open house 6:30pm, meeting 7pm). For more info, see www.asarail.org. Kimberly Reeves
Travis Co. Commissioners Ron Davis and Gerald Daugherty want to name the county courthouse after civil rights trailblazer Heman Marion Sweatt, whose legal challenge to the UT Law School's admissions policy led to the school's integration in 1950. On Tuesday, the duo called for a public hearing on their proposal. Sweatt, an African-American from Houston, became interested in attending law school while working for the U.S. Postal Service, where blacks were systematically excluded from supervisory positions. When his UT Law School application was rejected in 1946, Sweatt filed suit against the university, and his case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. C.S.
The Galindo Elementary Neighborhood Association made its case at the March 3 City Council meeting for curbing a planned eight-court expansion at the South Austin Tennis Center. GENA President Scott Durgin reiterated the concern that additional courts would add traffic and impervious cover, and decrease mixed-use green space. GENA's Jessica Gordon announced the group is now joined by the South Central Coalition of Neighborhoods and the Austin Neighborhood Council in opposing expansion. Some tennis aficionados are working to keep the ball in their court, however, saying the additional facilities, approved under a 1998 bond election, are needed. "Unfortunately, a few people who live close to the tennis center are opposing the plan and have mounted a large-scale campaign to halt the project altogether," reads the Austin Tennis Resource's (www.austin-tennis-resource.com) Web forum "Call to Action," urging members to contact City Council to support the expansion. Both sides are urging members to speak at next month's Zoning and Platting Commission meeting, where the proposal will be discussed further. Wells Dunbar
The UT board of regents voted to increase tuition at the flagship 4.75% and to institute a flat-rate tuition policy designed to encourage students to graduate faster. Currently, only 46% of students graduate within four years. Under the new tuition policy, all full-time undergrads will pay a rate equivalent to 14 course hours, or $3,523, no matter how many hours they actually take. However, the future of the policy is by no means assured the regents' move came the day after the Senate Finance Committee introduced a measure preventing the University from raising tuition. Should the measure become law, UT may not be able to enact its policy this year, and UT students may not have to pick up that extra shift at the pizzeria quite so soon. R.P.M.
Beyond City Limits The city of Houston enacted a smoking ban last Wednesday, set to take effect Sept. 9. The new measure, slightly less restrictive than Austin's current ordinance, prohibits smoking in dining areas of restaurants, covered bus stops, and taxis not designated as smoking; but not in restaurant bars, free-standing bars, outdoor dining areas, or designated smoking sections at public buildings. Mayor Bill White called the ban a compromise between restaurant and bar owners, and anti-smoking advocates who pushed for a ban in all public indoor spaces. The Houston Chronicle reports the Greater Houston Restaurant Association and the Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau supported the ban, while the American Cancer Society called it a disappointing appeasement to special interest groups, and Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights said it's the weakest ordinance enacted by a major city or state in years. The City Council did approve an amendment raising the maximum fine that can be assessed under the ordinance from $500 to $2,000 to both patrons and business owners. White said he expects the council will review in 18 months whether to ban smoking in bars. Daniel Mottola
Naked City previously reported on threats to the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem posed by the construction of several new Liquefied Natural Gas facilities that use a controversial heating technique to return the LNG to a gaseous state ("Sucking, Spewing, and Burning," Dec. 31, 2004). Open Rack Vaporization works by chlorinating and pumping 100 million to 200 million gallons of gulf water per day over a system of pipes, then releasing it back into the gulf, contaminated and drastically colder. Last week, environmental groups in Alabama held public meetings opposing ORV use at a proposed Conoco Phillips terminal, set for construction 11 miles off the Alabama coast. The groups predict the terminal will severely impact a range of ocean life, destroying fish eggs, larva, and zooplankton, as well as nearly 15% of the yearly Redfish harvest for Alabama and Mississippi. Three other gulf ORV terminals have already been approved; but environmental groups are asking regulators to mandate the closed-loop method, which heats the LNG with gas instead of water. See www.gulfrestorationnetwork.org or www.sierraclub.org. D.M.
In a March 3 opinion, San Antonio Federal District Judge Royal Furgeson overturned the death sentence of Kenneth Foster, convicted as the getaway driver in the 1996 murder of Michael LaHood Jr. in Northern San Antonio. Foster was one of four implicated in the botched (and alleged) robbery attempt that led to LaHood's death. Foster, trigger-man Maurecio Brown, and two others had committed two armed robberies in the hours just prior to LaHood's murder; under the state's law of parties, all four could be held equally responsible for LaHood's death if the jury agreed on two things: that the men should have anticipated LaHood's death could result because they were engaging in dangerous behavior i.e., armed robbery and, that each man had participated substantially in the murder or in the murder preparations. Therein lies the trouble, Furgeson opined, because Foster's jurors were not asked at trial whether Foster actually intended that LaHood die. The ruling gives the state 90 days to either offer Foster a new sentencing trial, with a new jury, or impose a life sentence. It's likely, however, that the state will appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. For more on this case, see "Wrong Place, Wrong Time," Feb. 11 Jordan Smith
Environmental groups Public Citizen and the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in federal court to bring East Texas' Welsh power plant into compliance with the nation's Clean Air Act and Texas environmental law. The 22-page suit, filed March 10 in the Eastern District Court of Texas, alleges that the Titus Co. plant regularly emits illegal amounts of particulate matter and carbon monoxide. The suit also says the plant has "made changes to the manner of [its] operation" without obtaining the relevant permit, or using the most environmentally sound technology, as mandated under the Clean Air Act. The suit stems from revelations made by the Environmental Integrity Project; last summer, EIP watchdogs urged the feds to take action after Bill Wilson, a former employee of Welsh's parent power division, American Electric Power's Southwest Electric Power Company, was fired for calling attention to the plant's problems. W.D.
Proving once again that el pueblo unido jamás sera vencido, Florida farm workers announced last week that Taco Bell has agreed to pay an extra penny per pound for fresh tomatoes. Florida tomato pickers, as well as student groups on college campuses including UT, had spent three years urging consumers to boycott the burrito behemoth, the country's largest tomato buyer, as a way to push reform among tomato packers, which pay wages averaging about $7,500 per year based on the pounds of tomatoes a worker picks. In addition to the boycott, the coalition also worked to boot Taco Bell franchises from campus locations. The group that spearheaded the boycott at UT, the Student Labor Action Project, is celebrating the victory, which came without the help of the UT Student Union board, which two weeks ago decided not to kick Taco Bell out of the union building as SLAP had proposed. R.P.M.
Happenings Marking the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, members of the anti-war community will show their discontent Saturday with a memorial procession from the Federal Building Plaza to the new City Hall. There, the peaceniks take over with a big concert and rally featuring Texas Civil Rights Project's Jim Harrington, Austin Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, UT journalism prof Robert Jensen, and live music from Slaid Cleaves, James McMurtry, Eliza Gilkyson, and more. The Austin Against War-sponsored procession starts at 12:30pm at Eighth and San Jacinto, and the rally, dubbed WAR! Not Worth the Loss, Not Worth the Cost, kicks off at 2pm at City Hall at Lavaca and Cesar Chavez. See www.austinagainstwar.org for more info. Diana Welch
The Texas Freedom Network, which works to counter the influence of the religious right, hosts an open house Friday, March 18, 5-7pm at 1405 W. Sixth. Call 322-0545 or see www.tfn.org.
An Interfaith peace vigil is scheduled for Saturday, March 19, 6:30pm at Church of the Savior, 3402 Little Elm Trail in Cedar Park. In cooperation with the American Friends Service Committee's Stand for Peace project, the worship service is dedicated to remembrance and prayers for peace. See www.afsc.org/standforpeace.
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man author John Perkins dishes the dirt on the U.S. National Security Agency, telling the tales of his time swindling other countries out of millions as a government-sanctioned international loan shark, Sunday, March 20, 7pm at Garrison Hall, Room 1, on the UT campus. See www.monkeywrenchbooks.org.
A Libertarian forum for City Council candidates, with Steve Adams, Jennifer Kim, and Lee Leffingwell, is scheduled for Sunday, March 20, 4-6pm at the LCRA Hancock Building, 3700 Lake Austin Blvd. Call 577-3865 or e-mail email@example.com.
An Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus Candidate Forum and Endorsement Meeting (See "The Gay Place") is scheduled for Monday, March 21, 7pm at the Travis County Commissioners Court, 314 W. 11th. Call 474-0750, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or see www.outaustin.org.
A Migrant Student Recognition Ceremony & Luncheon is scheduled for Monday, 11:30am-1:30pm at the Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River. The event honors 38 exemplary migrant high school students and announces the Migrant Students of the Year. Call 471-7744 or see www.uterwincenter.com.
A UT faculty teach-in, War/Terror/Torture: At Home and Abroad, begins on Tuesday, March 22, 7:30pm with a screening of Weapons of Mass Deception, followed by a discussion with faculty on U.S. news media and war. On Wednesday, Ben Carrington and Shannon Speed moderate an afternoon of panel discussions. The event is at the Texas Union on the UT Campus, 24th & Guadalupe. E-mail email@example.com, or see www.thirdcoastactivist.org.
Zia Mian, a physicist in the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, lectures on "War and Empire in the 'New American Century'" Wednesday, March 23, 7pm at the Bass Lecture Hall on the UT campus, Red River between Dean Keeton and Manor Road. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.thirdcoastactivist.org.
The Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America sponsors the Bishop Oscar A. Romero Memorial: A Musical Homage Thursday, March 24, 8pm at Ruta Maya, 3601 S. Congress Ste. D-200. The event commemorates the life and work of the beloved Salvadoran prophet who dedicated his life to hope and peace. Call 388-7957, e-mail email@example.com or see www.fssca.net.