Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Lee Nichols and Cheryl Smith, Fri., May 27, 2005
"We are not funding textbooks for schools. How on earth can we fund a program like this?" Rep. Carter Casteel, R-New Braunfels, denouncing a public school voucher proposal during House debate. Facing defeat, the legislation was withdrawn by its sponsor, Rep. Kent Grusendorf. See "On the Lege."
Quote of the Week
Wal-Mart is determined to expand its Austin presence even further, but local activists are working on city code changes to make the behemoth and its big-box brethren play nice. See "Reining in the Mother of All Big Boxes."
The U.S. Supreme Court set aside Mexican national Jose Medellin's appeal of his murder conviction in which he claims that the Vienna Convention was violated so that his appeal in Texas courts can first proceed. See "Supremes Hold Off on Mexican's Death Row Appeal."
APD whistle-blower Jeff White has filed a second claim that his higher-ups retaliated against him in connection with the Mala Sangre case. See "More Bad Blood."
At press time, a group named Austin Taxpayers for Fiscal Responsibility, led by failed City Council candidate John Wickham and attorney Marc Levin, threatened to file suit, presumably against Margot Clarke and City Manager Toby Futrell, to stop Clarke from receiving the "city funds" to which she is entitled for abiding by the city's Fair Campaign Finance rules. We await their arguments with bated breath.
An indignant e-mail message from El Concilio leader Gavino Fernandez hit in-boxes all over the city Tuesday. The subject line: "Austin city council run-off candidates refuse to meet with EL Concilio-lulac." Place 3 candidate Margot Clarke's camp did cancel a May 19 meeting with El Concilio, campaign manager Elliott McFadden confirmed. "Some schedule changes had to be made, and they interpret that as we don't want to talk to them," said McFadden, who conceded that meeting with the group isn't high on the campaign's list of priorities. "In truth, we don't think El Concilio is very representative of Hispanic East Austin." Jennifer Kim's camp has offered to have a telephone conference with El Concilio and LULAC regarding issues pertinent to East Austin's Mexican-American community gentrification, the Holly Power Plant, indigent health care, racism, and development in Plaza Saltillo, according to Fernandez's message. Campaign manager Amy Everhart said Kim is focused on fundraising activities these days and has had to cut way back on group meetings to make time. "It's nothing in particular against them," Everhart said. El Concilio's advice to members: Protest Austin's at-large election system by not voting. C.S.
The South Austin Tennis Center saga continues. On the heels of the Zoning and Platting Commission's May 17 decision to halve the proposed expansion at South Austin Park's SATC from eight to four courts, weary parties on both sides now face extra sets. Land & Facilities Committee Chair Jeb Boyt optimistically stated Monday that "parks staff will be meeting with representatives from the neighborhood to discuss locations for the courts," and after that, all that remained was to send the revised site plan back to ZAP and then to the Council for consent. At the Galindo Elementary Neighborhood Association's meeting the following night, however, GENA members voted to pursue a resolution calling for no new additional courts at the SATC. "The neighborhood is feeling besieged," said Patty Sprinkle, of the GENA Parks Commission, voicing her concern not only over the tennis expansion, but over increasing commercial zoning requests in her South-Central Austin neighborhood. Pointing to potential support from sympathetic council members, such as Brewster McCracken, who has previously voiced his displeasure with the expansion location, Sprinkle said, "Slowly but surely, we're getting the council's [support]." Wells Dunbar
Less contentious dispatches from the realm of Austin parks and recreation this past week included news that City Council has finally approved construction of the city's first public skate park, proposed some five years ago. Groundbreaking is slated for June in Southeast Austin's Mabel Davis Park, according to www.austinskatenotes.org, though there's still some question about how cleanup at Mabel Davis, sited atop a former landfill, will affect the project's proposed timetable. Still, Mayor Will Wynn felt compelled to proclaim in the March 19 announcement that "this skate park is going to rock." W.D.
"It's not incorrect to refer to [human trafficking] as modern-day slavery," says Texas Association Against Sexual Assault's Chris Lippincott. "This is [about] people who have been brought into this country, or taken from their country, for the purposes of exploitation." There is a wide variety of forced labor here in Texas tied to multiple sectors of the economy, including agriculture, child care, nail salons, massage parlors, restaurants, and the sex trade. Last week's Human Trafficking: A Reality for Texas conference in Austin hoped to build a local support system for victims of trafficking by informing those with the immediate power to liberate victims from their captors. "If members of the law enforcement close down a brothel, or a massage parlor, it may make sense at first glance to arrest all of the women who are working at the brothel," Lippincott says. "But we encourage front-line law enforcement officials to look beneath the surface." To help get that going, TAASA and other social service organizations have joined with law enforcement to create the Texas Anti-Trafficking Coalition. Diana Welch
This month, 545 of the roughly 4,000 AISD seniors will not receive expected diplomas because of failure to pass at least one section of the exit-level TAKS test. Statewide, 9% of all seniors are in the same boat. Students had five chances to pass the tests, which is first administered in 11th grade, and which includes language arts, math, science, and social studies. Students who still haven't passed are eligible for summer school tutoring, and may participate in a second graduation ceremony to be held in August if they pass all tests by then. The summer school rolls will also include fifth- and third-graders who must pass math and reading tests, respectively, to move on to the next grade. Rachel Proctor May
After serving as interim dean for almost a year, last week Dr. Roderick Hart was officially named dean of UT-Austin's College of Communication, replacing Dr. Ellen Wartella, who left last year to become executive vice chancellor and provost for the University of California-Riverside. Hart has been a stalwart in the College of Communication for 26 years, specializing in politics and mass media. His first priority will be to raise funds to replace the current communications building, completed in 1974 to serve 1,000 students, but now serving 4,000. Kevin Brass
On May 18, Austin Police arrested 21-year-old Daniel Kertzman on suspicion that he was creating false government documents, including fake Texas driver licenses. Officers with the department's Organized Crime Division seized computers, a printer, and computer memory sticks that they believe were used to make the fake IDs that they say Kertzman was "distributing" at UT. Jordan Smith
SafePlace Executive Director Rebecca Lightsey resigned abruptly last week, after less than nine months in the job that took 10 months to fill. Lightsey reportedly left the center for personal reasons one of which was likely an unfamiliarity with the challenges of this type of nonprofit work. SafePlace grew out of the 1998 merger of the Center for Battered Women and the Austin Rape Crisis Center. Before joining SafePlace, Lightsey had served as executive director of the Texas Insurance Purchasing Alliance and as a general counsel to the governor's office. At SafePlace, Lightsey succeeded Executive Director Kelly White, a strong fundraiser who had grown the organization into an Austin institution that thrived on a good business plan and service to the community. White left the nonprofit in late 2003 to launch a Democratic run for the state Legislature, narrowly losing to a Republican incumbent. As with many nonprofits, money is always tight; SafePlace was at a critical juncture when Lightsey arrived in September 2004, following layoffs and a scale-back in services. Amy Smith
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says a preliminary investigation by his office has turned up evidence that nearly 200 registered sex offenders in Texas have used the taxpayer-funded Medicaid program to obtain Viagra and other "sex-enhancing" drugs, free of charge. "Giving Viagra to a convicted sex offender is akin to handing a can of gasoline to an arsonist and lighting the match," Abbott said. "This unconscionable practice must stop." On May 24, Abbott said the state should take immediate steps, including asking the lege to prohibit convicted sex offenders from receiving any sex-enhancing medications and calling on the state's Health and Human Services Commission to change its rules to prevent sex offenders from getting the drugs through the Medicaid program. J.S.
Beyond City Limits
On May 11, the Environmental Integrity Project released "Dirty Kilowatts: America's Most Polluting Power Plants." The report, available at www.environmentalintegrity.org, names the 50 dirtiest power plants in the country, and numerous Texas facilities made the list. AEP's Coleto Creek plant in Goliad Co. ranked first in the nation for carbon monoxide emission, with the San Miguel station coming in fifth, J.T. Deely 29th, and TXU's Big Brown plant, southeast of Dallas, 37th. Big Brown also has the dubious distinction of clocking in 26th most polluting overall for sulfur dioxide, and 32nd worst in emission rate, belching some 82,023 tons of pollutants into Texas skies. The No. 1 spot belongs to Alcoa's Warrick plant in Indiana; Alcoa's Rockdale facility near Austin was not ranked. W.D.
Racial profiling is alive and well at Texas public universities, according to a new study by the NAACP and the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society. The groups examined police data at eight different universities and found African-American and Latino students were generally more likely to be searched than Anglos. However, the data varied considerably, both from institution to institution, and between university and city law enforcement. While most universities showed both blacks and Hispanics to be more likely to be searched than Anglos, for example, at UT-Austin African-Americans were actually less likely to be searched than Anglos. (Longhorn Latinos, however, were 2.4 times as likely as Anglos to be searched.) In contrast, APD data show blacks to be 3.4 times more likely to be searched than Anglos, while Latinos were 2.3 times as likely. Complete data is available in Feel the Heat: Changing the Police Climate in your Campus Community, a handbook the groups have written to help campus activists organize around the issue; the entire book is available on the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition Web site, www.criminaljusticecoalition.org. R.P.M.
In response to Halliburton's ongoing war profiteering in Iraq, members of local groups Austin Spokescouncil, CODEPINK, and Austin Indymedia traveled to a Four Seasons in Houston and joined forces with Houston Global Awareness to take action at the Texas company's annual shareholders meeting. Houston police mounties "greeted" the crowd, reported to be around 200 strong. Sixteen people were arrested, including two Austin Indymedia videographers; all have since been released. Thanks to the burgeoning Indymedia movement, however, the kids didn't go quietly: Video of the arrests, and of the HPD charging into groups of unarmed people, has been widely circulated, making the Halliburton demonstration one of the more effective ones in Texas' recent past. "It's not about the police violence that only mirrors what the shareholders were representing inside," said Spokescouncil member Debbie Russell. "We definitely held Halliburton accountable, [which is] where Congress and the American public is failing." D.W.
SB 785, authored by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, which would have stiffened safety and environmental requirements for rock crushers and quarries, died in the House Thursday. In a letter to Hays Co. residents actively opposing a rock quarry and crushing facility operating within a half-mile of their homes, Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs House sponsor of 785 had pledged to help stop the Buda-area facility's operations. Pursuing other avenues to stop the rock crusher, disgruntled Hays Co. residents attended the first of two TCEQ contested case hearings last Monday. Residents requested the hearings to protest the TCEQ air quality permit issued to quarry operator KBDJ LP. The initial hearing set the legal groundwork for the case; a final determination will be made in February. Daniel Mottola