Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention." Molly Ivins, from her Sept. 15 column
Headlines The Austin Convention Center is expected to return to normal soon, as the last of the Katrina evacuees are slated to move out by 5pm Friday. The city says it has had "overwhelming success" at finding housing for the thousands who sought refuge there after fleeing New Orleans.
But don't let your guard down now we must brace for evacuees from Galveston, as they flee Hurricane Rita. As of press time, the storm is steaming across the Gulf north of Cancún and is projected to hit the Texas coast Saturday morning and plow right into Austin later that day. Better wear galoshes to the ACL Fest.
The city is finally getting serious about bonds, holding a series of public hearings to determine our community's wish list. See "Bondage and Discipline: City $$$."
Negotiations with the city firefighters' union, by contrast, are moving much more slowly. In fact, they appear to be deadlocked. See "Point Austin."
Protesters around the nation are gearing up for what they hope will be the biggest mobilization against the Iraq War since the worldwide protest that preceded the conflict. For details on this Saturday's activities, both in Washington, D.C., and around Texas, see "Get on the Bus."
Austin Stories Former Reagan principal John Gonzalez was officially terminated Monday, when the AISD board of trustees voted unanimously to adopt the findings of an independent hearings examiner appointed by the Texas Education Agency, which concluded that the district had just cause to end Gonzalez's contract. In June, he had been placed on paid administrative leave while the district, and then the examiner, investigated accusations that he had played fast and loose with school cash, including doctoring receipts and failing to reimburse the school for cash he was advanced. While Gonzalez earned criticism from some community members, notably longtime AISD-watcher Sterling Lands, his tenure also showed marked improvement in test scores and earned praise from several Reagan teachers. "I don't know if it was just something dumb or if there was intent behind it, but it's disappointing that it happened," said longtime Reagan teacher Charlie Gutierrez. "I thought [Gonzalez] was doing a good job and got things turned around here." Rachel Proctor May
Paul Dodd, a retired military chaplain and gay rights activist, was severely beaten by two men in his Austin apartment Tuesday night, according to an e-mail alert from Soulforce Austin, a faith-based organization aimed at eliminating "spiritual violence" against the GLBT community. Dodd, a Soulforce board member, is actively working with other faith-based groups to defeat a same-sex marriage ban on the Nov. 8 ballot. Police are investigating the incident as a suspected hate crime, according to the e-mail. No other details were available at press time. Amy Smith
The Mexican Consulate and local nonprofits who work with Austin's undocumented immigrant community are trying to get the word out to immigrants who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina that there is help available to them. The Mexican government estimates that 150,000 Mexican immigrants were living in areas of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi that were affected by the hurricane, said Jorge Guajardo, Mexico's consul general in Austin. That's a lot of displaced people more than likely flying under federal and state radar screens, especially considering the unknown number of undocumented immigrants from Central and South America who were also living in areas hit by Katrina. The Mexican Consulate (478-2866) offers cash handouts ranging from $200 to $1,000 per displaced Mexican citizen to cover food, lodging, and other basic needs, said Guajardo, and will pay for the plane ticket of any Mexican displaced by Katrina who wants to return to Mexico. Among others, Catholic Charities' Office of Immigrant Concerns (494-0148); the Equal Justice Center (474-0007), which advocates on behalf of immigrant workers trying to recover wages; and Casa Marianella (385-5571), a shelter for immigrants and refugees, also offer support services to displaced immigrants. Cheryl Smith
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week released the final recovery plan for the Barton Springs Salamander. FWS is the federal agency that enforces the Endangered Species Act, and recovery plans are the agency's findings on what practices must be implemented to save a given species. In the case of the salamander, that means protecting water quality. A critical point is whether the final plan recommends limiting impervious cover, which environmentalists tend to favor but which developers tend to abhor arguing that "structural" measures, such as detention ponds, protect water quality just as well. FWS has long taken the environmentalists' side, but that support has significantly weakened over the past year. The final document was not available by press time; see its provisions for yourself at www.fws.gov/endangered/recovery. R.P.M.
The Austin Business Journal reported Monday that Silicon Laboratories Inc. is considering a move away from its Southwest location to a Downtown headquarters of 150,000 to 200,000 feet, which would make it one of the largest Downtown business tenants. The report by Mary Alice Kaspar said the company has not made a decision but noted that its current three-building facility includes roughly 200,000 square feet off the Southwest Parkway, leased primarily from Stratus Properties and the company had been considering, but rejected, a consolidation and expansion at Stratus' Lantana tract, where AMD currently plans to move. Although no specific reason was given for Silicon Labs' decision, Bill Bunch of SOS was quick to claim a victory for environmental concerns, saying that in contrast to AMD, Silicon Labs had been open to information about protecting the Edwards Aquifer and "about the history of community efforts to steer development away from the watershed." For more on AMD, see p.28. Michael King
Former Austin Police Detective Lance McConnell was in federal court last week in Austin where he pleaded guilty to seven charges of receiving, possessing, and sending child pornography through his home computer last year. The Texas Attorney General's Cyber Crimes Unit in April notified APD brass that McConnell, a seven-year veteran of the department, was under investigation in connection with 11 complaints about an America Online member who had repeatedly attempted to send pornographic images of children via e-mail, using the screen name "x4trade," which traced back to McConnell's computer at his home in Lockhart. Under federal sentencing guidelines, McConnell could face up to 120 years in prison and a nearly $2 million fine; U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks will deliver McConnell's sentence on Nov. 18. Jordan Smith
Investigators from the Texas Attorney General's Office joined Travis Co. constables for a five-day child support absconder roundup last week, during which Precinct 5 Constable Bruce Elfant's office arrested 41 parents wanted for failure to pay child support bringing his office's September absconder arrest total to 89. "I applaud Constable Elfant for helping the children of this community get the child support they need and deserve," said AG Greg Abbott. Constables Bob Vann (Precinct 2) and Maria Canchola (Precinct 4) pitched in for the roundup, which sent eight two-deputy teams across the county to arrest errant parents on contempt-of-court charges for their failure to appear in court and pay the support owed. Jailed parents must post bond which is handed over to the custodial parent as a support payment or must remain in jail until a court hearing, risking a six-month stint in jail. The moral of the story: Pay your child support. Parents who have fallen behind in payments and want to avoid arrest should call the AG's Child Support Division at 800/252-8014 to make payment arrangements. J.S.
The embattled Angelheart Children's Shelter, a 24-hour refuge in Pflugerville for children afflicted by abuse and neglect, can rest easier now that a down payment on the center has been made. Angelheart faced an uncertain future and a possible move if it couldn't raise funds toward a down payment, as the owner of the house Angelheart calls home decided to sell the property. A press release from Austin Rep. Mark Strama credits a last-minute media push, the citizens of Pflugerville, and a matching $25,000 pledge from Tiemann Land and Cattle Development in pushing contributions almost $3,000 over the shelter's goal. Assistance is still needed, however. Visit www.angelheartshelter.org to contribute your time or money. Wells Dunbar
UT journalism prof and radical activist Bob Jensen was honored last week by the right-wing "Liberal Lunacy" Web site (www.liberallunacy.net), which anointed him "Liberal Lunatic of the Day" for his article commemorating 9/11, "Our Grief Is Not Special," posted on Counterpunch (www.counterpunch.org/jensen09122005.html). While delighted to be honored, Jensen told Naked City that "constantly being confused with a liberal" is "very frustrating" for someone who believes in "precision in language." He wrote the Lunatic crew politely, "I'm not really a liberal. My politics are left. So, a more accurate description would be Radical Lunatic of the Day, or Leftist Lunatic of the Day." Since the Lunatics consider everything to the left of Ronald Reagan "liberal," they shouldn't mind the correction. M.K.
Beyond City Limits State lawmakers angling to legalize slot machines in Texas won't be pulling any fast ones on gambling foes like Sen. Jane Nelson. Back in March, the Lewisville Republican sought state Attorney General Greg Abbott's opinion on whether the Lege could bypass a required constitutional amendment and authorize counties to create gaming districts on a local-option basis. The short answer is no. In an opinion issued Tuesday, Abbott stood by a previous ruling that the inclusion of slot machines at racetracks would require a statewide election. A bill filed by Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, in the regular session would have given counties the option of creating their own gaming districts. As it happened, Armbrister's SB 1326 didn't get very far, but Nelson an outspoken opponent of gambling didn't want to take any chances. In a March 10 letter to Abbott, she wrote, "While I have not yet fully studied the Armbrister bill, I am concerned about efforts to bypass the voters. We are in urgent need of your assistance." It took six months, but Nelson got the answer she wanted from Abbott: "The legislature may not, absent a constitutional amendment, authorize the creation of county gaming districts on a location option basis." A.S.
After launching No Nonsense in November, a statewide coalition working against the proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas now turns its attention back to its general advocacy work and the search for a new executive director. The group will enter a new chapter in its history, based in large part on the outcome of the Nov. 8 ballot measure. "We are positioning LGRL and the LGBT community to accept an even greater responsibility on Texas' political stage," said Deputy Director Chuck Smith. Info for prospective applicants is available at www.lgrl.org. A.S.
On Sept. 13, McLennan Co. commissioners voted 4-1 to restrict parking along 23 miles of roadway near President George W. Bush's Crawford ranchette, in response to residents' "public safety" concerns in the wake of Cindy Sheehan's monthlong anti-war vigil at the intersection of two county roads just miles from Bush's vacation home, reports the Waco Tribune-Herald. Commissioner Joe Mashek, the lone dissenter, cited the First Amendment's right to free speech and criticized the measure as "too extreme," the daily reported. But Commissioner Ray Meadows, who sponsored the parking ban, said it was not the presence of demonstrators, but rather the public safety of residents that prompted the new ordinance. "It's not a First Amendment issue," he said. "It's a safety issue." Still, the commissioners struck a semicompromise before the vote, exempting a 3-mile stretch along Prairie Chapel Road from the Crawford city limits to the intersection with Old Beulah Road, just down the road from Bush's place, where Sheehan's Camp Casey was originally erected. J.S.
The Texas Moratorium Network is asking for contributions for the family of Frances Newton, who was executed on Sept. 14 (the third woman executed in Texas since 1982 and the first black women executed since the Civil War), to help pay for Newton's burial expenses. TMN reports that Jewel and Bee Henry Nelms, Newton's parents, are having trouble coming up with enough money to pay for her funeral plot and burial. Newton was executed even though serious doubts about her guilt still plagued the state's case against her for the 1987 murder of her husband and two young children. (For more on this, see "Without Evidence: Executing Frances Newton," Sept. 9.) For info on making a contribution, go to www.texasmoratorium.org. J.S.
Weed Watch: According to a new study from the Marijuana Policy Project, marijuana use by teens has declined in states that have medi-pot laws on the books, a fact that stymies the reefer madness argument that legalizing any form of pot use by adults would somehow send a "bad message" to kids. In California, the first state to pass a medi-pot law, current teen pot use (that is, any use during the last month) has decreased 47% since 1996, the year the state's Compassionate Use act was codified. In Washington state, pot use has declined between 25% and 50%, depending on grade level, since a medi-pot law was enacted in 1998. Similar declines in teen pot use were noted in Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Alaska, and Oregon, although researchers also found modest increases at particular grade levels in Oregon and Alaska. In all, the researchers note that the 10 states that have medi-pot laws on the books have seen decreases in teen pot use that surpass the national average. The full report is available online at www.mpp.org/teens.html. J.S.