Naked City

Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond

  At a press conference Monday at City Hall plaza, a coalition of community, labor, and environmental leaders came together to protest the city's handling of a new 203,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter planned for FM 620 near the Four Points area. They launched a new campaign for asking for changes to city code with respect to big-box development, including increased notice for area residents closest to the development as well as a mandatory impact analysis to determine if the big-box business poses economic or environmental costs to the community. Outcry began after the city's Zoning and Platting Commission granted Wal-Mart an environmental variance, which neighbors say was done without input from opponents of the project, who believed the variance hearing had been postponed. The commission agreed Tuesday evening, rescinding their initial approval, but after hearing testimony from opponents after midnight, the commission voted to amend the evening's earlier motion, reverting back to their original May 3 decision to approve Wal-Mart's environmental variance. <i> – Dan Mottola</i>
At a press conference Monday at City Hall plaza, a coalition of community, labor, and environmental leaders came together to protest the city's handling of a new 203,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter planned for FM 620 near the Four Points area. They launched a new campaign for asking for changes to city code with respect to big-box development, including increased notice for area residents closest to the development as well as a mandatory impact analysis to determine if the big-box business poses economic or environmental costs to the community. Outcry began after the city's Zoning and Platting Commission granted Wal-Mart an environmental variance, which neighbors say was done without input from opponents of the project, who believed the variance hearing had been postponed. The commission agreed Tuesday evening, rescinding their initial approval, but after hearing testimony from opponents after midnight, the commission voted to amend the evening's earlier motion, reverting back to their original May 3 decision to approve Wal-Mart's environmental variance. – Dan Mottola (Photo By John Anderson)


Quote of the Week

"Let me be perfectly clear: I oppose HJR 6. It is unnecessary and doesn't even do the one thing that its supporters claim it will do – strengthen marriage. ... I wish the people fighting so hard for this issue would put half as much effort into correcting some of the problems plaguing our state instead of supporting divisive wedge issues that truly serve no purpose other than stoke the fires of discrimination." – State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on his "tagging" (delay) of HJR 6, the latest attempt to (yet again) ban same-sex marriages in Texas

Headlines

• Senate leaders jumped ship last Tuesday on plans to have a statewide tax replace property taxes for school finance, a move intended to make its version of school finance/property tax reform more palatable to the House; see "On the Lege."

• The Lege will restore some children's health services, although it still won't bring the Children's Health Insurance Program back to a level children's health advocates would like. See "Lege Notes."

• Plans to expand the South Austin Tennis Center hit the Zoning and Platting Commission Tuesday night; early Wednesday morning, the ZAP recommended cutting the expansion in half. See "Game, Set ... Match?: Tennis Battle Rages."

• Conservative/Libertarian e-mail lists are all abuzz with the "scandal" that City Council candidate Margot Clarke will receive "city funds" to assist her run-off race against Jennifer Kim. But the funds are taken not from taxpayers, but from lobbyist and candidate fees to which she is entitled for abiding by city Fair Campaign Finance rules. See "Point Austin."


Austin Stories

• The Austin Community College board of trustees voted 5-4 to appoint Steve Kinslow for a two-year term as president of the institution. In that time, the board will look for a permanent replacement. Kinslow, a 28-year ACC employee, was appointed interim president when Robert Aguero resigned from the position in April after serving less than a year. Kinslow also served the same position before Aguero's appointment, after previous President Richard Fonte left. While several board members expressed reservations, the majority touted Kinslow's experience, and the institution's need for stability. "Steve Kinslow is a recognized leader in community colleges, a strong administrator, and a tireless advocate for increased access to ACC by all segments of the community," said ACC board Chair Barbara Mink. "ACC and the community will be well-served by his leadership." – Rachel Proctor May

• As Austin sprawls into the Hill Country, and area enviros start to think more like a region and less like a city, there's a new aquifer for Austinites to get to know and love – the Trinity, which underlies Hays County. The knowing and the loving of said aquifer will be facilitated by a brand-new springflow monitoring system just installed at Jacobs Well, a critical discharge point for the aquifer near Wimberley. The monitoring system, a project of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, and the U.S. Geological Survey, will be used to establish the water quality and streamflow baseline, so as development marches west, scientists can more accurately gauge its impact on the water. – R.P.M.

• A federal grand jury on May 17 indicted seven-year APD Detective Lance McConnell for receiving, possessing, and sending child pornography through his home computer last year. McConnell was suspended without pay on Tuesday, pending the outcome of the criminal case and the APD's internal investigation. In April, the Texas Attorney General's Cyber Crimes Unit notified APD that McConnell was being investigated in connection with 11 complaints that an America Online member had repeatedly attempted to send pornographic images of underage girls via e-mail using the screen name "x4trade," which investigators determined to be McConnell's e-mail address. He was indicted on three counts of receiving child porn (each punishable by up to 20 years in prison), two counts of possession (up to 10 years each), and two counts of sending child porn (up to 20 years each). – Jordan Smith

• Heman Sweatt, who would open the University of Texas Law School to African-Americans, failed to get his voice heard at the Travis County Courthouse 50 years ago. This week his supporters lobbied to get that same courthouse named in his honor. Sweatt isn't the only name Travis Co. Commissioners will forward to the Travis County Historical Society for further review. Others suggested at a county hearing Tuesday: County Judge George Matthews, who built the courthouse, and Sheriff T.O. Lang, well-known for his even-handed justice in Austin. Traditionally, buildings in Travis County have been named after elected officials, most often judges. The effort to name the courthouse after Sweatt follows the placement of a plaque commemorating the Sweatt v. Painter case in front of the courthouse. Sweatt's entry into UT Law School, finally achieved with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, came four years before Brown v. Board of Education. Attorney Malcolm Greenstein told commissioners that renaming the courthouse would recognize the justice of desegregation and remind people the fight was not so long ago. A second meeting on the courthouse issue is scheduled for Wednesday, June 1, 5:45pm at the courthouse. – Kimberly Reeves

• The 16 three- to five-year-olds who romp Mondays through Fridays on the small playground behind Hancock Recreation Center might be the last ones to do that as part of the Tiny Tots day care program. After decades of operation, Austin's Parks and Recreation Department is considering discontinuing the recreational, half-day program. It's been a struggle to fill the program's 16 spots for the past few years, program supervisor Kate Tanguis said. One reason, she said, is that Tiny Tots isn't a certified, licensed child care program. Another is that the program expanded from three days a week to five a few years ago, and there simply hasn't been a strong demand from parents for an extensive, part-time recreational program for young children, she said. Parents, however, say the city doesn't want to spend money and resources anymore on the small, yet affordable, program. Tiny Tots survives on word-of-mouth advertising because PARD doesn't advertise it, said Randall Terrell, whose toddler started the program this year. Friday is Tiny Tots' last day for this year. Enrollment for next year, largely contingent on parent demand, is in July. Call 453-7765 for more info. – C.S.

• Have you ever gotten to the airport only to discover – with help from airport security screeners – that you will be forced to abandon the pocketknife, pliers, or other nonhazardous object you forgot to leave at home? Worry no more: On May 17, officials at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport announced the addition of a new automated mail-back service kiosk care of Houston-based ReturnKey Systems, Inc., which offers travelers a chance to mail home some items prohibited beyond security checkpoints, like cork screws, scissors, and any other "non-hazardous objects." But the service – located near security checkpoint two, on the upper level of the terminal, near the American Airlines ticket counters – does not come cheap. Mailing your treasures home will cost from $7 to $21. – J.S.

• Austin Energy deputy general manager Roger Duncan received a "Public Technologist of the Year" award last month at the Public Technology Institute's Congress for Technology Leadership in Oregon. PTI is a national nonprofit technology research and development organization for local governments, promoting the use of technological solutions for local problems. Duncan, the co-chair of PTI's Sustainability Council, was recognized for being "a vocal advocate at the local and national levels for the use of energy saving and clean environment technologies," thereby reflecting "the twin spirits of public service and technology use." – Michael King

• The city of Austin shouldn't expect any special treatment when the Travis Co. Commissioners Court takes up its long-delayed landfill siting ordinance. The landfill expansion proposed on Thursday's council agenda – which would expand and combine the IESI and city sites into one – is frowned on under the county's new ordinance because of the landfills' close proximity to Onion Creek. Browning-Ferris Industries and Waste Management Inc. – the two northeast landfill operators so often opposed by Trek English and her neighbors – do not need to fear they will be left out. County Judge Sam Biscoe has finished two intense weeks of negotiations with the pair of operators as well as neighbors. At the bottom line, the county will oppose any expansion by WMI and put BFI under a performance-based contract. The two landfills are expected to vacate their current sites by 2015 and 2017, respectively, or even sooner if the county can find new sites to purchase or condemn for BFI or WMI somewhere else in the county. – K.R.


Beyond City Limits

• The Texas Workforce Commission was recently found to be in violation of federal law by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision, bolstering a previous District Court ruling, states TWC's move to impose its own arbitrary requirements for eligibility on the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, also known as the Choices program, was illegal. Providing financial assistance and Medicaid to the poorest of families (those earning less than $2,500 annually), TANF participants must agree to certain rules. TWC overstepped its bounds by stipulating that Medicaid can be terminated for not following certain parenting rules; law mandates that all a parent must do to receive Medicaid is to actively search for work. The decision let some 2,300 destitute mothers keep their health coverage. – Wells Dunbar

• Amarillo held its own smoking-ban referendum on May 7, and unlike Austin, the attempt to ban smoking in most public places – and within 25 feet of any venue where smoking is banned – failed by 556 votes among about 30,000 ballots. The group supporting the tougher ordinance, Amarillo Clean Air Now, said they would be considering their options, and Mayor Debra McCartt said the City Commission may review the current ordinance for revision. – M.K.

• "He didn't pass away while his case was before my court." That was former Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, lamely defending herself under questioning by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Owen delayed her decision for so long in the civil liability case originally brought by Willie Searcy, severely injured by a defective Ford safety belt, that it effectively cost Searcy his life, for lack of the adequate medical care that would have been paid for by his initial jury award. Owen, whose judicial career was a Karl Rove creation, is the initial poster child for the GOP's "nuclear option" to prevent a filibuster and force a majority vote on the Senate floor, expected as we go to press. The story of Owen's stalwart judicial protection of Ford Motor Co. is retold by former Chronicle Politics Editor Lou Dubose ("Willie's Story"), in the May 12 Salon. – M.K.

• "Almost four years since the attacks of September 11, and border patrol is still a dismal failure," sighed Chris Simcox, leader of Arizona's Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, the much-hyped, all-volunteer citizen militia dedicated to preventing immigrants from sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border. In response to the news that the Minutemen will be coming to "help out" on the Texas-Mexico span come October, the Texas Civil Rights Project announced their creation of a Minutemen monitoring project. Teaming up with the pre-existing Immigration Alliance in the Rio Grande Valley, the TCRP plans to setup a community-wide watchdog system to alert them of any disturbing interactions locals have with Minutemen, in hopes of being able to take legal action. "They are going to find that [South Texas] is quite different than being in Southern Arizona," said TRCP Director Jim Harrington. "South Texas is urbanized, and people have family on both sides. [There is an] understanding that people cross because of economic necessity." Simcox claims it's a matter of security, not economics. "We have a serious problem with gangs in this country," he said. "Not just from Mexico, but from Central America, too." – Diana Welch


Happenings

• On May 21, officers in the APD's North Central Area Command will carry out the third neighborhood cleanup in their ongoing Operation Restore Hope program. This time the NCAC blues will be focusing their efforts on the Hearthstone/Fireside Drive neighborhood, just south of U.S. 183. The cleanup begins at 8am; a free lunch for volunteers will be served at 11am. To get involved, call 974-5722.

• The online radical politics newsletter CounterPunch paid a visit to Central Texas this month (May 14-15), not on a particularly dramatic public issue, except in these parts – i.e., who's got the best barbecue in Lockhart? Magazine journalist JoAnn Wypijewski (originally from Buffalo, whence she lays claim to being "a daughter of the kielbasa") took a break from covering the Ft. Hood Abu Ghraib trials for Harper's to spend a Saturday chasing the perfect smoked-meat emporium ("The Glory that is Lockhart, Texas"). Her prose is a little gourmandise florid for these parts, but the leisurely pace reflects the meditations of an intense barbecue-induced reverie. Of the beef sausage at Kreuz Market she writes, "This is deep meat, its intensity strengthening in the eating, hooking you like an unexpected love." Wypijewski bobbles some local details (citing something she calls "Cinqo de Maio," and Lockhart architectural flourishes as "Old West"), but she generously spreads her carnivorous affection; she prefers the sausage at Kreuz, the shoulder at Smitty's ("as if fire and time and pits with a hundred years of barbecuing in their bricks, had made up for what fat couldn't supply"), and the brisket at Black's ("extraordinary, a perfect conspiracy of fire and fat, seasoning and time, a fine cow and a fine cook"). Read it and eat. – M.K.

• "It's a shame. He could have been Bill Maher or Jon Stewart. Instead, he's a guy who bet on the right horse politically but stepped in shit on the way to the winner's circle." That's Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith on comedian/commentator Dennis Miller, in his May 11 contribution to the celebrity-guest blog on Arianna Huffington's The Huffington Post ("Delivering News and Opinion Since May 9, 2005" at www.huffingtonpost.com). Smith does a scathing once-over of Miller's downward-spiraling career, thereby joining the ranks of such HuffPosters as Diane Keaton, Danielle Crittenden, Jim Lampley, and Walter Cronkite. – M.K.

• Could speeding be your ticket to reality-television stardom? Perhaps, if you're pulled over by one of the bad-boy Travis Co. Sheriff's Office deputies being shadowed by the crew of the syndicated television show Cops. "It's a good thing," TCSO spokesman Roger Wade said. "It will give us a chance to show a national audience the good folks we have working for us and the good things they do." The TCSO episodes will be filmed over the next eight weeks and are slated to run next season. – J.S.

• Making a list, checking it twice … Austin must be on the rebound, because we're back near the top of those darn magazine lists that contributed to our population explosion in the 1990s. The May issue of American Style ranks Austin eighth in its list of "top 25 arts destinations"; and Forbes says we're No. 3 in its ranking of the best places for businesses and careers (behind only Boise and Raleigh-Durham). Great. Here come the U-Hauls. – L.N.

• Former Beamont Congressman Nick Lampson has made it official: He's going to challenge embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in 2006. Lampson, a moderate Democrat, will move to Stafford, where he says he has roots, to be eligible to represent DeLay's Dist. 22. In addition to royally screwing us Austinites, DeLay also victimized Lampson in the great redistricting fiasco by moving enough Republicans into Lampson's district to knock him out of Congress in the 2004 election. Now that DeLay is seriously wounded by multiple ethics scandals, Lampson decided to take the fight directly to DeLay. While Lampson is the only declared Democratic challenger, Houston City Council Member Gordon Quan is also mulling a run for the Dem nomination, the Houston Chronicle reports. Richard Morrison, who gave DeLay a fair run for his money in November, has decided not to run in 2006. Despite being one of the most powerful men in Washington and heavily outspending the Democrat, DeLay only took 55% of the vote in November against Morrison's 41%. – L.N.

• Next to some of his peers, Gov. Rick Perry doesn't look half bad. The guv drew a disapproval rating of 48% and an approval score of only 38% in a national governors survey released last week. The New Jersey-based SurveyUSA based its findings on telephone queries of 600 adults in each of the 50 states. Ohio Gov. Bob Taft won the booby prize for worst performance, scoring a whopping 74% disapproval rating. On the approval scale, Democratic governors averaged slightly better scores than their GOP counterparts – 49% to 47.9%. And "D" governors in neighboring states fared better than our "R" guv. In Oklahoma, where Texas House Dems took refuge during the 2003 redistricting fight, Gov. Brad Henry scored a 59% approval rating; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (who harbored Senate Democrats during the same uprising) netted 54%; and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco scored 55%. Governors in less populous red states have all the luck: North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven won the highest approval rating, with 71%, followed closely by high-scoring governors in South Dakota and Wyoming. Two governors with eyes on the White House – California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York's George Pataki – will want to salvage their political careers at home first; they each drew negatives ratings of 56%. – Amy Smith


Oops! The following correction ran in our May 27, 2005 issue: A "Naked City" item about the judicial record of Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen incorrectly described her as a "former" justice; Owen awaits a possible federal court appointment (pending U.S. Senate confirmation) but is currently serving on the Texas Supreme Court. The Chronicle regrets the error.
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