Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"That's just how I roll." UT student Laura Ashley Hall, quoted by a witness in a police affidavit, on why she allegedly helped accused murderer Colton Pitonyak flee to Mexico.
Headlines At press time Wednesday, frantic rescue efforts continued along the Gulf Coast, and authorities were only beginning to assess the scale of devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, which sent evacuees fleeing even as far as Austin. To find ways to contribute or help, go to www.redcross.org or call 800/HELP-NOW.
As President Bush cut short his latest Texas vacation to "monitor the relief effort" in Washington, peace activists broke camp at Crawford's Camp Casey and Gold Star Mother Cindy Sheehan arrived in Austin for a rally and to begin her cross-country anti-war campaign, which she will lead to the White House.
Budget and bond deliberations continued at the city, the county, and the school district. The AISD board adopted a $761-million budget Monday, including a one-time $1,000 bonus for teachers, but no similar payment to classified staff.
No smoking, for bars or cars: Today (Thursday), Sept. 1, a ban on smoking in most Austin bars and clubs takes effect, as does a state mandate for vehicle emissions testing as part of annual inspections.
Austin Stories After a breakdown in negotiations, most of Capital Metro's bus drivers and mechanics are operating without a contract, creating the potential for a strike, an option previously approved by the members of Austin's Amalgamated Transit Union Local No. 1091. ATU was in talks with StarTran, Cap Metro's largest contractor, over changes in pay, benefits, and drug testing they deemed unacceptable. The impasse stems from disagreement over a proposed two-tier salary scale that pays new hires less than current employees; StarTran president Kent McCulloch characterizes the measure as "protect[ing] our current employees' wage rates while bringing our overall wage rate more in line with the market." ATU's president Jay Wyatt sees it differently; he has maintained that the dual-wage system, instituted and vanquished once before, did nothing but create resentment on the part of workers, and was designed to weaken the union. While the transit authority has played the strike possibility to the hilt, Wyatt has previously described the option as a last resort, albeit one that is now possible. Wells Dunbar
The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees on Monday approved a $761-million budget on a 7-2 vote. The dissenting voices came from trustees Robert Schneider and Cheryl Bradley, who took issue with a proposal to use $5.6 million to provide all teachers, librarians, and counselors with a $1,000 retention bonus at the end of the year. They wanted to extend the stipend to other staff, such as custodians and bus drivers. After a contentious budget season, several trustees expressed relief to be done with the 2006 budget, but asked Superintendent Pat Forgione to start work immediately on 2007, which has the makings for even greater drama. Because the district has been using its savings account to make ends meet for the past two years cutting it in about half trustees expect to have no choice next year but to start cutting (barring a new school finance system, of course.) Despite all the gloom and doom, trustee Johna Edwards found reason to smile: The privilege of working with people who care so much about doing the right thing for kids they're willing to "get ugly" about it. Rachel Proctor May
Travis County will be voting on about $151 million in bonds this November, following a decision Tuesday from the county's Commissioners Court. The commissioners added $30 million to the proposed bond package, with funding falling into three categories: Roads and parks take the lion's share, at more than $62 million each, while improvements to the county jail take $23 million. The extra cash was evenly split between parks and roads, and earmarked, in part, for purchase of land in South Austin by Onion Creek, and for improvements to Braker Lane, Parmer Lane, and Decker Lake Road. The vote was close, with County Judge Sam Biscoe and commissioners Ron Davis and Margaret Gómez voting for the package, and Karen Sonleitner and Gerald Daugherty opposed. W.D.
As the city readies to change management of Austin's community-access airwaves from Austin Community Television to the new Public Access Community Television (as announced last week), additional shake-ups at ACTV indicate that the embattled broadcast nonprofit isn't going quietly into cancellation. ACTV's Ron Frank resigned as president and left the board, replaced by former video producer Dan Vogler, who joined the board in August. Vogler acknowledged that attacks on Frank from ACTV producers, not to mention Frank's reported friendship with ex-executive director John Villarreal, who resigned as a still-unfurling investigation into alleged embezzlement began, made him a magnet for controversy. Then on Monday, Pat O'Neil, Villarreal's replacement as director, was canned. O'Neil had not come to work in two weeks, said Vogler, after she drafted and submitted ACTV's management proposal. Vogler said the 300-plus-page failed proposal curiously ignored new accountability measures imposed by the city in the wake of the fraud investigation. Vogler made other allegations, including finding a computer in ACTV's equipment room rigged to read all ACTV administrative and board e-mails (including those pertaining to the proposal), although it's unclear by whom or why. That led to Vogler filing a formal complaint with the city's purchasing office, which oversaw the management proposals prior to their grading by the Telecom Commission. The commission heard the complaint Wednesday as we went to press if denied, the City Council could finalize the commission's recommendations today (Thursday) and thereby fund PACT's proposal; if sustained, they might call for another round of proposals. W.D.
APD North Central Area Command Cmdr. Robert Gross fearless leader of the NC's Magnificent 7 on Aug. 25 received the APD's Chief's Award of Excellence in Fighting Crime for his "extraordinary leadership and management resources." Gross, a 30-year department veteran who, unfortunately, will likely retire at the end of the year, has been at the helm of the NCAC since its inception in 2001, and has been integral in its successful Operation Restore Hope program, which helps North Central residents clean up and take ownership in the area's blighted neighborhood. (NC7 Sgt. Will Beechinor also received the Chief's Award earlier this year, in recognition of his "dedication to duty, loyalty to mission and extraordinary commitment to improving the quality of life for Austin residents.") According to APD, Gross' efforts have "improved the quality of life of residents in his area command" through "effective crime fighting strategies that have significantly reduced crime and the fear of crime." (For more on the NC7 and Operation Restore Hope, see "North Central Blues," May 7, 2004.) Jordan Smith
The Environmental Protection Agency must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the impacts of the pesticide atrazine on the Barton Springs salamander, owing to the settlement of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity. Atrazine is a kind of chemical known as an endocrine disrupter it mimics hormones and has been associated with reproductive deficiencies in amphibians and, some scientists believe, humans. The agreement requires EPA to enter into consultation with FWS and determine the effects of atrazine within a year, and of five other chemicals within 25 months. The role of the FWS is to regulate activities that could harm endangered species, so if the consultation results in evidence that atrazine harms salamanders, FWS would be required to act. "If the Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA pay attention to recent science on atrazine, which is pretty compelling, we feel it should result in restriction or ban on atrazine in salamander habitat," the CBD's Jeff Miller said. R.P.M.
After announcing its large-scale biodiesel blending partnership with Austin-based fleet supplier and convenience store operator Triple S Petroleum last week, local biodiesel retailer Austin Biofuels on Wednesday released plans to open a public biodiesel station at the Fuelman location at 1501 E. Seventh. There they'll sell B20, a blend of 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel, at a price they say will be competitive with petroleum diesel. They also hope to expand sales to Triple S's Signature Austin convenience stores around town. B20 works in any car or truck diesel engine without modification, displays greater lubricating properties than petroleum, and drastically reduces polluting emissions. Many, however, appreciate biodiesel for its ability to immediately offset imported oil with domestically grown crops. ABF continues to pursue a local biodiesel production facility. "Our goal is to reduce emissions in our city while keeping more of our energy dollar in our own community." For more info, see www.austinbiofuels.com. Daniel Mottola
On Friday, KBDJ, operators of a controversial Buda-area rock quarry and crusher, announced they would restrict outgoing traffic of loaded trucks while nearby school zone lights are flashing, just in time for Hays Co. students' return to the classroom. KBDJ made an identical announcement earlier in the summer, in response to area residents' complaints. Mary Stone, head of the citizen opposition group Stop the Crusher, said the move is a step in the right direction, but still only addresses half of neighbors' worries over school zone safety. "Should we be concerned with empty trucks as well as full trucks moving through the school zone? Absolutely. Should we be concerned about the overall volume of trucks? Absolutely," Stone said. KBDJ has a "sound responsibility to come forward and work out a solution." KBDJ President Joe Jackson said, "We have seen other seen other heavy construction vehicles traveling through that and other Hays County school zones while warning lights are flashing. Citizens who witness unsafe practices by truck drivers should contact the trucking company and report dangerous behavior." KBDJ spokeswoman Kirsten Voinis reiterated that the company can only control trucks leaving its property. D.M.
Beyond City Limits Add another House resignation letter to the pile. Lampasas Republican Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp has decided against a re-election bid in 2006, becoming the fourth House Republican in recent days, including three committee chairs, to announce intentions to bail out at the end of the year. North Richland Hills Rep. Bob Griggs a GOP friend of education advocates also declared his retirement plans. Two Houston reps Peggy Hamric, who chairs the House Administration Committee, and Joe Nixon, chair of Civil Practices will leave the House to face off in a Senate race to succeed outgoing Sen. Jon Lindsay, R-Houston. Hupp, a five-term conservative rep and gun rights advocate, is a key ally of House Speaker Tom Craddick, who not only placed her on the Health and Human Services Committee this year but promptly promoted her to the chairman's post. In a statement, Hupp vowed to remain true to her core values. "I will continue to be an outspoken advocate for limited government, fiscal responsibility, and individual liberty," she said. Amy Smith
A Dallas Co. Democratic activist has been named executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, state party Chairman Charles Soechting announced this week. Ruben Hernandez, who served on the staffs of former U.S. Reps. Martin Frost of Dallas and Nick Lampson of Beaumont, will start his new job Oct. 1. The new position is part of Soechting's pledge to beef up fundraising efforts as the party tries to capitalize on factions within the state GOP and its leadership's failings on school finance. In other staff changes at the Democratic Party office, chief of staff Mike Lavigne, a former aide to Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, will leave his post to seek other opportunities in the political arena. His departure follows the recent resignation of chief strategist Kelly Fero, who is working independently on Democratic campaigns. A.S.
On Aug. 24, Gov. Rick Perry appointed former federal law enforcer Don R. Willett to the Texas Supreme Court. Willett, currently chief legal advisor for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, has worked as U.S. deputy assistant attorney general and as an advisor to President George W. Bush, but has no judicial experience. Willett is on the Bush Presidential Library steering committee and the advisory board of the conservative Federalist Society. He'll fill the seat vacated by Justice Priscilla Owen, recently appointed to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. J.S.
On the steps of the Capitol last Thursday, demonstrators from Texas Public Interest Research Group and interfaith advocacy organization Texas Impact called on Gov. Perry to appoint a new commissioner to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality one who's free of ties to industry, has public health expertise, and who will champion clean air protections. Acting Commissioner Ralph Marquez's term expired Wednesday, Aug. 31. "The agency's core mission, and the reason we have strong pollution laws in this country in the first place, is to protect human health," said Bee Moorhead, director of Texas Impact. "The governor should take this opportunity to reaffirm Texas' commitment to protecting human health by appointing a new commissioner with particular expertise in public health as it relates to pollution." Pointing to a new study showing a 28% increase in the number of health-damaging smog days in Texas' major cities over last year, TexPIRG delivered more than 5,200 postcards from across the state asking Gov. Perry to "round up Texas polluters" and make the air safe to breathe again. D.M.
Last week, the El Paso City Council voted to make the Minutemen officially unwelcome in their town. The resolution, drafted by council members Steve Ortega and Beto O'Rourke, chose "cooperation and goodwill" over further militarization of the border. Minutemen spokesman Shannon McGauley says his group plans to go ahead with October operations in El Paso, despite the resolution. "It doesn't mean anything," McGauley said. "It's just an opinion." In other Minuteman news, Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, formally announced his run for Congress in California, hoping to take the place of Rep. Chris Cox, who was just appointed as chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In a recorded message on his Web site, www.jimgilchrist.com, Gilchrist describes his platform as "doing what it takes to stop illegal immigration from ruining our ordered liberty through lawlessness and crime; winning the War on Terror; cutting taxes; and protecting innocent life, our families, and our time-honored traditional values." Diana Welch
Happenings Tired of cooling your feet at the bus stop for half an hour? Know of a sorely needed additional stop? Let Capital Metro know. The transit authority's ongoing public meetings regarding its long-range transit plan, aka "All Systems Go!," continue today (Thursday), 11:30am-1:30pm at the UT Student Union, 4.224 Asian Culture Room, and all routes will be discussed. Another meeting will be held Wednesday, Sept. 7, 10am-2pm at the Tech Ridge Super Target; routes up for discussion have yet to be announced.
"Bridge the Economic Gap Day" is a day of action from Austin's House the Homeless, the Universal Living Wage Campaign, and several other civic groups nationwide. Occurring the day after Labor Day, the event is meant to call attention to how an abysmal minimum wage makes even the most affordable housing unattainable for thousands, creating a class of working, homeless poor. Tuesday, Sept. 6, protesters will take to the sidewalks of 11th and 12th Streets over I-35, and the pedestrian bridge at Lamar and Riverside. For more information, visit www.universallivingwage.org.
After years of trying and failing, state law finally changes today (Thursday), modifying the law to provide jurors in death penalty cases the option of sentencing a defendant to life without parole instead of death. To pass the life-without option, however, lawmakers agreed to delete the life with the possibility of parole option, meaning jurors will still only have two choices. Texas is No. 1 in executions so far this year 12 inmates have been sent to the death chamber; the state has executed 348 people since 1982, when the state resumed executions after the reinstatement of the death penalty. Whether the new option will decrease the number of inmates sentenced to die remains to be seen. Gov. Rick Perry, however, thinks the life-without option is a "significant step in the effort to create a culture of life by protecting those who can't protect themselves," (whatever that means) Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt told the Houston Chronicle. Jordan Smith
A Missouri police chief has filed suit against electro-shock weapon maker Taser International, claiming he suffered severe injuries after receiving a jolt from the police model weapon during a training session last year, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. According to the paper, Hallsville, Mo., Police Chief Jacob Herring claims he suffered two strokes, vision and hearing loss, neurological and heart damage, and a head injury in the wake of an April 2004 shock from a model M26 Taser the same model carried by Austin police officers assigned to specialized units, like the department's homeland security detail. (Most Austin police carry the newer model X26 Taser.) Herring's suit is one of more than 30 across the country alleging injury or death resulting from a Taser strike. "We are aware of [Herring's lawsuit] and intend to aggressively fight any such claim," Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle wrote in an e-mail to the Post. Jordan Smith
Anti-death penalty advocate Jeanette Popp has been hospitalized in Fort Worth after suffering a heart attack. Popp's daughter, 20-year-old Nancy DePriest, was the victim of Austin's notorious 1988 Pizza Hut murder, for which two innocent men, Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger, served more than a decade in prison before being exonerated. The two were freed after DePriest's real killer, Achim Josef Marino, confessed to the crime. Popp has been a tireless crusader against the death penalty and, in the case of Marino, implored Travis Co. prosecutors not to seek the death penalty for her daughter's murderer. She also ran an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for state representative, running on an anti-death penalty platform. Popp is in the Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth. To send her a get-well message via e-mail, go to https://www2.texashealth.org/contactus/success.asp. Jordan Smith
Following last week's report on the demolition of Tarrytown's historic homes to make room for new, larger structures ("Invasion of the McMansions," Aug. 26), Naked City received word of another historic home in the process of being demolished, this time in nearby Pemberton Heights, a designated historic register district. John Volz, a restoration architect and neighbor, spearheaded residents' opposition to the demolition. He said the house, located at 2608 McCallum Drive, received the support of the city's Historic Landmark Commission for historic zoning, but the request was denied by the Zoning and Platting Commission and again by City Council, despite the petition signatures of 190 neighbors hoping to save the home. As justification for preservation, Volz points to the home's two prominent former residents Dr. Clyde Ikins, a UT grad and famous geologist, botanist, and horticulturist, and Milton Messer, whose family metalworking company, now Modern Supply, was involved in fabricating many of Austin's major landmark structures. The 3,059-square-foot home, which Volz says "could've been easily preserved and expanded to meet a new owner's square footage needs," will be replaced with a new 5,000 to 6,000-square-foot home, he says. Steve Drenner, the attorney for the house's owners, said he believed neighbors were "overzealous in their claims that the home be designated "historic" since it "clearly failed the historic test," with not-even-close votes of 6-3 at ZAP and 6-1 at Council against historic zoning. He said the owners haven't finalized the new home's plans, but that they would be "consistent with the size and scale of the neighborhood." Daniel Mottola