Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"It wasn't Mr. Earle that indicted the man. It was the 12 members of the grand jury." William Gibson, foreman of the Travis County grand jury that indicted Tom DeLay last week, interviewed by News 8 Austin. (Gibson see photo above would not allow his face to be shown on camera, saying he fears harassment.)
Headlines As the exchange of political gunfire continued, U.S. House Majority Leader in Exile Tom DeLay was indicted by a Travis Co. grand jury on a new felony criminal charge of money laundering in connection with campaign fundraising for the 2002 state legislative elections. See "Is the Hammer Nailed?"
After two Austin police officers involved in last week's Taser-related death of Michael Clark were returned to duty, the Austin NAACP and ACLU held protests at the office of DA Ronnie Earle, demanding a full criminal investigation. At a Tuesday night forum, NAACP President Nelson Linder said the Clark incident was part of a larger historical pattern of police brutality against minorities. See "Point Austin," and "Death Puts Tasers in Spotlight Again."
Shortly after John Roberts was confirmed as chief justice, President Bush nominated his longtime personal lawyer Harriet Miers to the other vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, confounding op-ed pundits all over the nation. Harriet? Miers? See below.
As preparations for next year's city bond election continued, a new coalition called HousingWorks called for tripling the $25 million so far proposed for affordable housing programs, and said they would collect 30,000 signatures to increase the bond funding. See below.
One labor stalemate may have ended while another slogged on: At press time, it was reported that the city had reached a tentative agreement with its firefighters union, but Capital Metro and its drivers union remain at loggerheads. See "Bus Driver Standoff Going Nowhere."
Austin Stories Central Texas drivers are no fans of toll roads no surprise according to a customer survey conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Research Strategies on behalf of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority over the summer. Toll opponents were ecstatic over the news. Drilling down into the data, however, provided some more interesting results, both expected and unexpected: Opposition to toll roads, even in a random sample, is strongest in the South Austin area where toll road opponents have mobilized, but more ambivalent in the area of the CTRMA's first toll project, U.S. 183A. Forced to pay for new roads by either a gas tax or a toll, Central Texas drivers preferred tolls, by a small margin. Those in the income range of $20,000 to $40,000 were the most willing to pay for tolls, even more than their wealthy neighbors. And those willing to use a toll tag hovered around 40%, even among those opposed to tolls. The CTRMA will continue to parse the data. Kimberly Reeves
Tuesday afternoon, HousingWorks held a press conference outside City Hall, asking for increased funding for affordable housing while the city crunches numbers for the 2006 bond election. The housing advocates are dissatisfied with the $25 million set aside for affordable housing in the "needs assessment" drafted by the city, and hope to increase the amount to $75 million. Claiming Austin has the highest housing costs in the state, with 54,000 residents paying beyond their means for housing, HousingWorks says the extra $50 million could leverage more than $300 million in additional funding for the city and create more than 12,000 jobs. The group proposes allocating half of the bond funds to families earning less than $21,500, 30% to earners under $35,000, and 20% to "first time home-buyers, or families being priced out of their low income neighborhoods," topping out at $56,500 yearly. For more info, visit www.austinhousing.org. Wells Dunbar
Travis Co. commissioners voted 5-0 Oct. 4 to hire an outside firm to conduct a medical competency review of the Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office. The office has come under increasing fire from critics who question the procedures and decisions reached by TCME Roberto Bayardo and his staff. "In view of everything I've heard in the community, I really think this needs a look," said County Judge Sam Biscoe. Auditors reviewing the office's administrative routines reported earlier this year a host of findings, noting that the office's three full-time pathologists each perform more than 400 autopsies each year, far exceeding the 350 annual maximum required by the National Association of Medical Examiners, and that the office is forced to rely too heavily on revenue generated by conducting autopsies for outside agencies in order to support its budget. Jordan Smith
The usual suspects turned out for an evening of cerveza-fueled chatter and empanada-powered schmooze at the second annual Liveable City awards soiree at Doña Emilia's downtown eatery. Liveable City promotes local businesses, smart development, and affordable housing, and this year's award winners are active in the latter: HousingWorks, a coalition of organizations helping low-income Austinites secure housing; Prologis (formerly Catellus), the folks bringing us the Mueller redevelopment; and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, the baby-faced champion of the Homestead Preservation Act for East Austin. Each received warm applause and a handsome statuette. The city of Austin and Walter Moreau of Foundation Communities were also honored for rising to the Katrina challenge. The packed crowd was a veritable 31 flavors of Austin's liberal politico establishment, replete with council members, nonprofit reps, salamander huggers, aquifer pavers, flesh-pressing candidates, and the like. Join the fun: www.liveablecity.org. Rachel Proctor May
Remember those bonds that city voters approved last fall to build eight new AISD schools? This week the district will break ground on the first two, elementaries in the southeast and southwest. If nothing goes awry, the schools will open next August, much to the relief of the tots and teachers at severely overcrowded schools on Austin's fast-growing fringes. First, however, the schools need names. The district is accepting suggestions for these two, and six others in the pipeline, until Nov. 30 at www.austinisd.org. R.P.M.
Ford Focus Fuel Cell Vehicle
Veteran Travis Co. prosecutor William "Buddy" Meyer kicked off his campaign Oct. 5 to replace District Judge John Wisser, who will retire from the bench at the end of his current term. Meyer has been with the DA's office for 19 years and has served as head of the office's trial division for 14 years, overseeing 24 attorneys and managing the division's $3 million budget. J.S.
Citing the Legislature's failure to provide equitable funding for public schools, Austinite Valinda Bolton has announced her Democratic candidacy for the District 47 Texas House seat. The district, which includes much of Southwest Austin, is regarded as having strong swing potential current GOP Rep. Terry Keel is leaving to pursue a post on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. A professional in the nonprofit field, Bolton has served as the training director for the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, where she coordinated a statewide project to improve services to victims of domestic violence for the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. She also worked as a staff consultant to the Department of Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence. Her advocacy work extends to other areas as well, including affordable housing and child abuse prevention. Amy Smith
The Travis Co. Sheriff's Office is seeking the donation of a large vacant space to headquarter its annual Brown Santa program. Brown Santa needs an approximately 25,000-square-foot building equipped with loading docks, heat, air conditioning, restrooms, electricity, and phone lines to house the TCSO's annual holiday charity operation, which provides food and presents for needy families. Anyone interested in donating property should contact Senior Deputy Mary Rodriguez at 698-2813 or 247-2682. J.S.
Movies! Posters! Trading cards! Wow! AISD fifth-graders are celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with TAKS-aligned fun-fun-fun courtesy of the U.S. Latino and Latina WWII Oral History Project at UT-Austin. The project has interviewed more than 500 local Hispanics about their midcentury memories, and has developed posters, activities, and curricular materials for use in fifth-grade social studies classes. For those of you who actually know a fifth grader, if you're really nice, perhaps he or she will share one of the four trading cards featuring the photos and stats of interview subjects that AISD will provide to everyone in the grade. R.P.M.
Beyond City Limits On Oct. 3, President George W. Bush nominated White House lawyer Harriet Ellan Miers to replace retiring justice Sandra Day O'Connor as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Dallas-born Miers, 60, became the first female president of the Dallas Bar Association in 1985, and was the first woman to become president of the State Bar of Texas in 1992. She served on the Dallas City Council before being named chair of the Texas Lottery Commission in 1995 by then Gov. Bush. She served in that post until 2000, when she packed up for Washington, D.C., to serve as Bush's staff secretary for two years, before being named deputy chief of staff for policy issues in 2003. In 2004, she replaced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as the White House general counsel. Miers was the first woman hired by Dallas firm Locke Purnell Rain Harrell in 1972, and in 1996 was elected first female president of the 200-lawyer firm. She later became co-managing partner of the merged Texas megafirm Locke Liddell & Sapp. J.S.
Hurricane Rita was no Katrina, but it still knocked some East Texas school districts out of commission for weeks, and possibly up to a month, as electricity is restored to the area. That means thousands of Texas schoolchildren and their teachers have been displaced. In a videoconference call to school districts last week, Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley announced the state would waive up to 10 school days for impacted school districts. Testing and attendance standards will be adjusted. Free-and-reduced lunch commodities will be credited. And school districts have been instructed to revamp contracts to continue to pay employees not on duty. The long-term question, however, is just what kind of "normal" East Texas will return to once power is restored, and whether Rita will have a long-term impact on the tax collections and tax base in these school districts. K.R.
The Texas Supreme Court's decision on school finance is expected this week or next, and its impact can be divided into two arenas: policy and politics. On the policy side, even the plaintiffs are doubtful they will do as well with the Supremes as they did in district court. That doesn't bode well for school districts, nor does it help GOP lawmakers, who could benefit from the cover of an impending school closure. Buck Wood, a plaintiffs' attorney in the case, expects the court to call the statewide property tax issue and punt the rest. "What I strongly suspect is that they're not going to get into the adequacy case," Wood said. "The court will force us to compress the tax rate. The Republicans will put in no new money, or at least no new significant money, and soon we'll just be back in the situation we were in before, and we'll be back in court again." Then there's the question of when the Lege will return to Austin to tackle school finance again. That's where politics comes into play. Gov. Rick Perry's appointment of former adversary John Sharp to lead a study on tax reform could effectively and conveniently delay a special session until after the March primaries. K.R.
The State Auditor's Office says the Health and Human Services Commission has overstated the savings it can achieve from consolidating the administrative functions of the state's health and human services agencies and outsourcing the commission's human resources and payroll services. Under HB 2292, the number of agencies is consolidated from 12 to five. The consolidation and outsourcing support services was expected to cut 567 jobs. The audit pointed to errors and omissions in expenditures, as well as unquantified costs for activities shifted from traditional to nontraditional methods. While HHS Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins agreed with some of the findings such as the need for better methodology in estimating savings he still predicts $32.7 million in savings over the next five years. Still, for an agency with an annual budget of just under $20 billion, that's just spare change. K.R.
In honor of the 68th year of fed-imposed marijuana prohibition, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws this week released its updated state-by-state report on marijuana laws and penalties. On Oct. 3, 1937, the federal government passed the so-called Marihuana Tax Act to try to end recreational marijuana use by criminalizing the herb by way of a prohibitive tax scheme, which spawned the current prohibition. In the intervening years, NORML reports that, according to FBI data, at least 16.7 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges, some 88% for simple possession. For the state-by-state pot law guide see www.norml.org. J.S.