Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Lee Nichols and Cheryl Smith, Fri., April 29, 2005
Quote of the Week"This amendment is blowing smoke to fuel the hell-fire flames of bigotry. When people of my color used to marry someone of Mr. Chisum's color, you'd often find people of my color hanging from a tree. That's what white people back then did to protect marriage."
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, attacking state Rep. Warren Chisum's attempts to write a ban on gay marriage into the state constitution. (Thompson is black; Chisum is white.)
Headlines In a whistle-blower lawsuit deposition, an APD detective said he believes that city officials perhaps including APD Chief Stan Knee and City Manager Toby Futrell may have tipped off a company under investigation of pending search warrants. See "Did Knee and Futrell Leak APD Warrants?"
Mary Lou McLain, a prominent civic activist and wife of current Austin City Council candidate Lee Leffingwell, died last week at age 44. Leffingwell has suspended campaigning activities. See "Point Austin," and "In Memoriam: Mary Lou McLain."
An independent investigator has concluded that there was no wrongdoing by APD officers in the alcohol-related motorcycle crash that killed two of their colleagues last December. See "Austin Stories," below.
Municipal elections are currently under way in Central Texas. Early voting runs through May 3; election day is May 7. Austinites are electing three City Council members and deciding referendums on a smoking ordinance and an Austin Community College annexation. If you're registered to vote, then please honor our troops, our Founding Fathers, mom, and apple pie by taking 10 minutes to participate in our democracy.
The Texas House of Representatives has declared that gays and lesbians may not be foster parents. Hopefully there are fewer bigots in the Senate, and this odious legislation will vanish. See "On the Lege."
Austin Stories After a brief spasm of record-breaking interest in democracy last November, voting turnout has returned to its previously pathetic state. As of Tuesday night, early voting totals in Travis Co. show that only 8,449 ballots, including mail-ins, have been cast since voting began on April 20 only 1.72% of registered voters. L.N.
The independent investigator hired by the city to review the circumstances surrounding the December motorcycle deaths of Austin Police Cmdr. Shauna Jacobson and her husband, retired detective Malcolm "Kurt" Jacobson, has found no evidence that anyone should have known that the couple was too drunk to drive. The Jacobsons crashed into a guardrail on Highway 71 near Bee Creek after leaving the nearby Cedars Bar and Grill, the last in a string of stops on a charity "poker run" designed to benefit an ailing APD employee. Investigators said the motorcycle was traveling at nearly 90 mph at the time of the crash. Toxicology reports showed that Kurt's blood-alcohol content was .24, more than three times the legal limit to drive of .08, and Shauna's was .33, more than four times the legal limit. Numerous off-duty APD officers took part in the charity event; yet, investigating attorney Archie Carl Pierce concluded that the Jacobsons gave no outward indication of drunkenness and that the other officers present at Cedars that afternoon "conducted themselves with appropriate decorum and acted in a responsible manner." Jordan Smith
The parents of Jesse Lee Owens Jr., who was shot and killed by APD Officer Scott Glasgow in 2003, filed suit against Glasgow, APD Chief Stan Knee, and the city of Austin in federal court on April 26, alleging that Glasgow murdered Owens and that there is a pattern and practice of racial discrimination against minorities by the APD. According to Glasgow and the APD, Glasgow fired at Owens after becoming trapped inside by the door of the car Owens was driving. The lawsuit, filed by Owens' mother, Barbara Shorts, and father, Jesse Owens Sr., challenges that story, alleging that Glasgow fired on Owens without provocation and that Glasgow was never trapped in the car. J.S.
Austin Energy's GreenChoice Program led all utility-sponsored green power programs nationwide in sales last year for the third year in a row, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Selling 334 million kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2004, Austin outdid No. 2 Portland General by 72 million kwh. GreenChoice was also ranked as having the second-lowest premium in the country, one-half cent per kwh, meaning the typical local household pays only around $5 more a month for green power than do nonsubscribers, according to an AE press release. GreenChoice has more than 7,500 residential subscribers, plus about 350 Austin businesses, more than 300 of which subscribe for 100% of their annual energy usage, the largest number of fully green-powered businesses in the nation, the press release said. According to a list of subscribers to the EPA's Green Power Partnership, AISD buys more green power than any other school district in the nation some 48 million kwh a year, about 30% of the district's overall electricity use. Advanced Micro Devices and Round Rock ISD are also among the top 25 green power subscribers enrolled in the partnership, which includes more than 500 businesses and governmental entities. C.S.
The city of Rollingwood and the Lower Colorado River Authority are at odds over the cost of a project to connect Rollingwood to the city of Austin's wastewater system. Expenses on the five-year project have escalated from $7.2 million to $17 million. That covers connecting about 500 homes and 22 commercial properties to the sewer system. For a tiny municipality like Rollingwood, that means homeowners could eventually pay $167 per month for sewer services. Joe Beal, general manager of the LCRA, told his board that Austin had charged higher-than-expected costs. Mayor Hollis Jefferies and the Rollingwood City Council have retained former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson to represent them. Kimberly Reeves
The Planning Commission has recommended that Envision Central Texas lead the charge to formulate a plan for development around State Highway 130, which lies just outside Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction. The future toll road passes just outside Austin's city limits through cities such as Round Rock, Pflugerville, Manor, and Mustang Ridge. In a paper the commission intends to present to City Council, the Planning Commission recommends the city provide financial support to Envision Central Texas to spearhead a regional approach to the issue. At this week's commission meeting, Commissioner Matt Moore noted that the PC can spend hours on a single zoning case, but has devoted only minutes to major planning initiatives like SH 130. Those numbers ought to be flipped, he said, given the Planning Commission's role as advisory board on long-range development. SH 130 is expected to open in 2007. K.R.
Council Member Brewster McCracken's commercial design standards finally get a hearing at City Council tonight, Thursday the 28th. McCracken calls the document a "work in progress," one that will continue to change as rules and guidelines are developed by the city. Those guidelines will apply to retail and mixed-use but not office development in both the urban core and suburban ring around the city. At the Planning Commission on Tuesday night, the Real Estate Council of Austin expressed continuing concerns about the cost to small business. The PC endorsed the guidelines but suggested pushing out the boundaries to incorporate more of the city into the more stringent urban development standards. K.R.
The prevailing wage debate dragged on at the AISD board of trustees meeting Monday, as construction workers again urged the district to adopt a wage scale for contracted labor that includes benefits. Trustees were supposed to decide on the issue in February, but have delayed for months. After weeks of protest, the workers kept things peppy through variation one speaker highlighted the paid apprenticeship programs that benefits fund; another argued that AISD couldn't have passed last fall's $519.5 million bond without labor's help, and threatened to "never, ever" vote for another bond if trustees decide against them. Also on hand were a cancer survivor, a couple of broken legs, and the mother of a premature baby with a $438,000 hospital bill, all testifying that they'd be up a creek without insurance. Finally, several railed against KVET and the Austin American-Statesman, both of which recently opined against the workers. One speaker pointed out that the day after the Statesman editorialized against worker benefits, it ran another editorial urging the Legislature to reduce the number of uninsured children in the state. "Don't they read their own editorials?" he asked. Trustees will make a decision May 9. Rachel Proctor May
Beyond City Limits Texas state Comptroller Carole Keeton "Tooting Her Own" Strayhorn announced on Friday that she had raised the state's revenue estimate for 2006-07 a whopping five bucks. In a press release, she announced that her office had received an anonymously sent $5 bill with a handwritten note reading "Strayhorn for Governor." However, "While flattered by the support, it is against the law for me to accept campaign contributions during the legislative session," said our pure and selfless comptroller, who, of course, is not officially running for governor (yet). "So I put the money in the vault downstairs and raised the revenue estimate $5. I have received contributions from other people during this legislative session wanting me to run for governor and I have returned them, but this one came to me anonymously from Houston, so I couldn't find its rightful owner. I hope this Houstonian, whoever he or she may be, understands this money will be put to good use." The revised estimate, she says, is now $130,500,000,005. Naked City wonders: Doesn't such shameless self-promotion on state-owned fax machines violate campaign finance laws? L.N.
About 500 protesters were expected to gather at press time Wednesday in front of the Federal Building for a "Stop the Judicial Takeover" rally in response to U.S. Senate Republican leaders' plans to stack federal courts with conservative judges by voting to limit the use of the filibuster. The group called on GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, whose Texas offices are located inside the Eighth Street building, to vote "no" on "The Nuclear Option." Rally participants planned to cordon off the federal building's entrance, holding up signs with messages like, "Right Wing Judges Only by Order of Congress" and "Regular Americans Keep Out," event coordinator Zane Rockenbaugh said. The rally was one of more than 190 planned nationwide by MoveOn PAC and the Coalition for a Fair and Independent Judiciary, an alliance of national public interest, civil rights, and civil liberties groups. C.S.
The U.S. Department of Education fined the Texas Education Agency $444,282 for failing to release federally mandated test results, called Adequate Yearly Progress, by the required deadline last year. The fine was not as erroneously reported by the Houston Chronicle and Associated Press a punishment for the TEA's refusal to follow federal guidelines regarding how many special education students can take alternate assessments rather than the regular TAKS test. While the TEA is indeed in a yearlong tiff with the feds over how many of Texas' special education students can test off grade level (about 9% took alternate tests last year, while federal rules allowed only 0.5%), and while the drawn-out negotiations are what caused the TEA to release its AYP test result data late, that tiff hasn't yet developed into financial punishment. In fact, TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said she expects to reach a compromise on the special ed guidelines soon. Rachel Proctor May
Weed Watch: The U.S. Supreme Court on April 18 announced that it will consider the federal government's attempt to forbid religious use of the hallucinogenic substance ayahuasca as a sacrament. The case pits the federal Controlled Substances Act against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and has slogged along since 1998, when federal narcos raided the Santa Fe, N.M., headquarters of the U.S. branch of the Brazilian Union of the Vegetable Beneficent Spiritist Center (or, in Portuguese, as it is referred to in court filings, the O Centro Espirita), and seized 30 gallons of ayahuasca tea. According to the feds, the seizure was necessary because the tea, derived from the Amazonian vine Banisteriopsis caapi, contains dimethyltryptamine, which is regulated under the CSA. Seagram's whiskey heir Jeffrey Bronfman, the head of the U.S. church, cried foul, arguing that the church's use of the drug is akin to peyote use by some Native American churches, which is legal under the RFRA. So far the courts have agreed with Bronfman, prompting the feds to appeal to the Supremes. The court will consider the case in their next term, which begins in October. Jordan Smith