Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"This has shown me, and it should show us all, that the real terrorism in this country is poverty." Rex Castle, senior vice president of human resources at Lubbock's State National Bank and president of the Lubbock Red Cross Board, speaking on Hurricane Katrina in the Sept. 11 Austin American-Statesman
Headlines While the Gulf Coast cleanup and recriminations continued, the local response to Hurricane Katrina rolled on, as the numbers dwindled at the convention center, folks got resettled, and the eventual question loomed: How we gonna pay for all this? See "Second Wind."
Speaking of invoices, the City Council quickly approved a $481.6 million General Fund budget Monday, slightly higher than anticipated, with little dissent over the tax rate (unchanged), and boosts to employee pay, social services, libraries, and code enforcement. Staff and council still balked at the firefighters' contract proposals, however, and we're in for a month of dueling accountants. See "City Hammers Out Budget, Crosses Fingers for Katrina Evacuee Reimbursements."
Saying he didn't want to risk "not being in the Legislature at all," state Rep. Elliott Naishtat declined to take on Kirk Watson in the Democratic primary for Gonzalo Barrientos' now open senate seat; see below.
Not quite finished with Texans for a Republican Majority, the Travis Co. grand jury added more charges to its indictments of director John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, aide to U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay, reindicting them for money laundering and adding lesser felonies for illegal corporate contributions and conspiracy. See "Beyond City Limits."
Austin Stories Austin state Rep. Elliott Naishtat said Tuesday he'll seek re-election to his House seat in 2006, settling the question of whether he would challenge former Mayor Kirk Watson in the Democratic primary race for the Senate. Watson wants to succeed veteran Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, who is retiring this year from his District 14 seat. Naishtat said he opted out to avoid a "costly, divisive Democratic primary race against my friend Kirk Watson and risk not being in the Legislature at all." Since taking office almost 14 years ago, Naishtat has been a staunch health care and social services advocate. Given these critical times, he says he's choosing to stay put "when effective leadership in the House regarding health, human services, and issues that affect vulnerable populations is more important than ever." At the same time, Naishtat is not altogether scrapping his aspirations of someday serving in the Senate. "If an opportunity to serve in the Senate opens up in the future, I will once again make a decision to run based on where I believe I can do the most good for the people of Austin, Travis County, and the state of Texas as a whole," he said. Amy Smith
The Austin Police Department last week announced it will spend approximately $153,000 to replace 412 bulletproof vests made of Zylon, a lightweight alternative to Kevlar, which the National Institute of Justice says may degrade prematurely, rendering the body armor too weak to sustain ballistic impact. In December 2003, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott launched an investigation into two companies making the Zylon vests, and in August 2004, he filed suit against one of the companies, Second Chance Armor Inc., seeking restitution for Texans who bought the allegedly defective vests. Seven other states also filed suit against Second Chance and Toyobo, the maker of the Zylon fiber. Second Chance filed for bankruptcy last fall, but Abbott says his office is working with the company's bankruptcy attorney to resolve the pending claim. Meanwhile, last week Second Chance and Toyobo reached a $29 million class action settlement with consumers who had purchased several styles of Zylon vests. Although the NIJ determined not all Zylon body armor exhibits the "performance problems," the APD opted to replace its Zylon vests to "ensure officer safety while protecting the residents of Austin." Jordan Smith
Austin Energy has announced an 8-13% fuel charge increase beginning in January 2006. The utility says its rate hike should raise bills by 2.6% to 4.2%, or between $2.24 and $3.63 for a 1,000-kilowatt per month customer. The increase, AE's first since January 2004, is blamed primarily on the drastically elevated price of natural gas, which AE says has gone up nearly 70% since 2004. Even with the hike, AE claims its fuel charge remains one of the lowest among large cities statewide. Customers using AE's GreenChoice renewable energy program will not be affected by the fuel charge increase. "That's the beauty of GreenChoice," said AE spokesman Ed Clark. On a GreenChoice bill, the fuel charge is replaced with a fixed cost, which is based on the predictable price of wind power, the predominant source of AE's green power. The customer's rate is locked in for 10 years, the typical life of AE's wind power contracts, regardless of how much conventional fuels increase. Dan Mottola
The Travis Co. Sheriff's Office Victim Services Division is seeking 30 volunteers to participate in the office's crime scene response program, which aids victims at crime scenes. "The Sheriff's Office has a very strong, and long-standing, commitment to victims of crime and strives to provide information, referrals and resources to begin the journey of healing," reads a TCSO press release. Applicants must be over 21, able to pass a criminal background check, and able to attend a three-day training school at the TCSO in November. For more information, call 854-9709. J.S.
The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District this week announced the winners of five water conservation awards. Recipients include Barbara Mahler for research on water contaminants, and Terry Tull and Grant Jackson, who led the long and winding process that resulted in a regional water quality plan for the fast-developing Southwest. Historic enviro bad guy Stratus Properties got an "innovation" award for installing a green roof atop a Starbucks. A green roof is one covered with live plants, so it's literally green except when it's brown or flowering (a practice that is actually traditional architecture in Scandinavia). The plants are supposed to reduce roof runoff and help mitigate the "heat island" created by impervious surfaces in urban areas. (Critics might point out that the same effects could be achieved by not building the Starbucks in the first place, though that would mean Southwest residents would have to drive farther to fetch an espresso or a hifalutin slushee.) Other winners include the Texas Lehigh Cement Company, whose water conservation measures have reduced pumping from the aquifer by 50%, and the city of Austin for its public education projects. Rachel Proctor May
The spotlight is back on the Shoal Creek Boulevard curb islands, the controversial love children of local traffic planning gone awry. The city council's land use and transportation subcommittee Lee Leffingwell, Betty Dunkerley, and Brewster McCracken voted Tuesday to recommend removing the 35 crepe myrtle-adorned islands. The decision will go before the full council Sept. 29. McCracken says the islands, while clearly well intentioned, are "not achieving the goals they were set there to accomplish," namely the creation of safe bike and pedestrian spaces and the calming of traffic. He said Shoal Creek Boulevard's inherent problem is that it was originally designed as a 40-foot-wide raceway with no sidewalks, noting that its individual lanes are actually wider than those on I-35, rated for travel at 70 mph. "The solution will almost certainly involve putting in sidewalks and narrowing the road to create a protected zone for cyclists and joggers," he said. D.M.
Austin's Yellow Bike Project, an all-volunteer organization that offers free bicycle repair training and releases recycled yellow bikes into the community that are free to ride but not keep, has put out a call for donations and volunteers to assist Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Yellow Bike volunteers are building and refurbishing bicycles to be donated to Katrina victims in Austin, but they need more bikes of any condition, parts (especially trailers and kids seats with racks), and volunteers. They emphasize that no mechanical skills are required to pitch in. "The Yellow Bike Project has always been committed to providing local, alternative transportation options to the Austin community. The Katrina evacuees are now part of this community," said John Thoms, a long-time YB volunteer. Donations may be dropped off at Yellow Bike's main shop at 2013 E. 51st. If there is no one there, leave the donations outside the gate. For more info, see www.austinyellowbike.org or call 457-9880. D.M.
Beyond City Limits A Travis Co. grand jury Tuesday tacked on new charges against two associates of U.S. House Speaker Tom DeLay, adding to the existing, more serious money-laundering charge pending against the pair. The latest action charges John Colyandro and Jim Ellis with making a contribution to a political party and criminal conspiracy to violate the Texas Election Code. The new charges grew out of the prosecutors' central money-laundering theme involving a $190,000 corporate check. Colyandro and Ellis are accused of laundering the check through the Republican National Committee for disbursement into the 2002 campaigns of GOP state legislative candidates supported by DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee known as TRMPAC. Colyandro and Ellis ran the group's 2002 political activities. State law prohibits corporate and union money in political campaigns. The new charges follow last week's grand jury indictments of the Texas Association of Business on charges of illegally raising and spending corporate money on political activities. All eyes are still on DeLay and House Speaker Tom Craddick, who reportedly met separately with county prosecutors to discuss their role in the 2002 effort, but neither has been charged. Meanwhile, TAB the largest and most influential business lobby group in the state is raising money for its defense. A.S.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett announced Friday that he would sponsor legislation to establish a National Independent Inquiry Commission on Disaster Preparedness and Response to look at the federal government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina and assess its ability to respond to future large-scale disasters. "Accountability is the only way to restore integrity in a broken system," said Doggett, a senior member of the influential Ways & Means Committee. "An independent commission is the first step in repairing our woefully inadequate disaster response system." The bipartisan commission would be modeled after the 9-11 Commission and have similar powers. Its meetings would be open to the public. The scope of the investigation would include mitigation, flood protection, early warning systems, evacuation procedures, life-saving techniques, law enforcement, public health, power and utility infrastructure, commerce, telecommunications, and environmental protection. In a Statesman op-ed last Friday, Doggett wrote, "Today, we work together to aid the living and to mourn the lost. But soon we must have accountability for this national shame." D.M.
On Sept. 9, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas awarded Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott its highest award for Abbott's commitment to open government. The FOIFT's James Madison Award is given annually to individuals who demonstrate a commitment to the First Amendment and open government. During the 2005 lege session, Abbott backed bills requiring public officials to undergo training in the laws defining open government, and backed a law to open access to information regarding the investment of public funds. Since being elected in 2002, Abbott has also pursued criminal charges against public officials related to breaches of Texas' open records and open meetings laws. And earlier this year he co-authored an amici brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting a federal shield law to protect reporters from being forced to reveal the identity of a confidential source. "Texas functions best when public officials recognize that government does not belong to them but to the people," Abbott said in a press release. "I am honored to receive this award and will continue working so all Texans can see their government operating in the full light of day." J.S.
A new report released last Thursday by Ceres, a national coalition of institutional investors and environmental organizations advocating sustainable businesses, warns of rising threats from climate change to U.S. insurers and their customers. The report, "Availability and Affordability of Insurance Under Climate Change: A Growing Challenge for the U.S.," cites a 15-fold increase in insured losses from catastrophic weather events (those with more than $1 billion in damages) in the past three decades. "Insurance as we know it is threatened by a perfect storm of rising weather losses, rising global temperatures and more Americans than ever living in harm's way," said Mindy S. Lubber, president of Ceres. Jack Ehnes, chief executive officer at the California State Teachers Retirement System, one of the country's largest pension funds, said, "Investors are increasingly more concerned about the financial risks posed by climate change and our interest is especially strong for an industry that is so directly exposed to the physical impacts of global warming." Ironically, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners was scheduled to discuss the implications of climate change on the insurance industry at its fall meeting scheduled Sept. 10-13 in New Orleans. D.M.
The Texas Department of Public Safety has named Capt. Ray Coffman the new chief of the Texas Rangers and Capt. Jim Miller as the Rangers' new assistant chief. Coffman replaces Capt. Earl Pearson, who retired Aug. 31. Coffman is a 29-year veteran of DPS, who had served as the Rangers' assistant chief since May 2004; Miller is a 30-year vet of the agency, who has been a captain with the organization since 2002. J.S.
Happenings Pampa Republican Rep. Warren Chisum will debate the, uh, merits of writing discrimination into the Texas Constitution today, Thursday, Sept. 15, at Austin Community College's Rio Grande campus. Chisum sponsored Proposition 2, which would ban civil marriages and civil unions for same-sex couples; he will debate Anne S. Wynn, an Austin attorney representing the No Nonsense in November campaign, a coalition working to defeat Proposition 2 in the Nov. 8 election. It's 1-2pm in Room 201 of the Main Auditorium, 1212 Rio Grande.
No Nonsense in November will wind up the day at one of Austin's favorite political watering-holes, with a "Bring Home the Dough" fundraiser at Scholz Bier Garten, 5:30pm Thursday, Sept 15 live music from The Squirrels and "lots of good friends."
Texas' immigrant community will converge on the Capitol Saturday, Sept. 17, for the Protest the Minutemen/Rally for a DREAM event. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, City Council Member Raul Alvarez, LULAC National President Hector Flores, and Arizona State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema join UT Longhorn LULAC Council, Jóvenes Inmigrantes por un Futuro Mejor de UT Austin, and others to support the DREAM Act, which would allow the children of undocumented immigrants accelerated legalization for educational purposes. Gather at 4pm at Riverside and South Congress and march to the Capitol for the rally.
The co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, Dolores Huerta, comes to Austin next week, first to a fundraiser for her Foundation for Community Organizing (www.doloreshuerta.org), and then for a St. Edward's University speech. The fundraiser is Monday, Sept. 19, 7:30pm-12mid at Ruta Maya Coffee House, 3601 S. Congress (Penn Field). Performances by Nelson Saga y Arma del Alma, Mitote, and Conjunto Aztlan; admission $12 ($10 with student ID). For info, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Huerta speaks Tuesday, Sept. 20 at the Mabee Ballroom in St. Edwards' Robert & Pearle Ragsdale Center, 3001 S. Congress. 464-8871 or email@example.com.
Seven years after declaring the dawn of a "no-kill millennium," Austin is still euthanizing more than 12,000 animals each year. One of the causes, say animal rescue and spay-neuter groups, is the lack of an ordinance requiring people to spay and neuter their pets. A draft mandatory spay-neuter ordinance will be debated at the Animal Advisory Commission meeting Tuesday, Sept. 20, at Town Lake Animal Center, 1156 W. Cesar Chavez, 6:30pm.
The city of Austin has several public bond package hearings scheduled to hear from citizens on how their needs and goals can be addressed in next year's bond election. The next hearing is Thursday, Sept. 22, 7-9pm at St. James Episcopal Church, 3701 E. Martin Luther King Jr.