Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"In the White House that hero-worshipped the president, Miers was distinguished by the intensity of her zeal: She once told me that the president was the most brilliant man she had ever met." Former White House speechwriter David Frum, on President Bush's Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers
Headlines Many thousands of people were killed in a powerful earthquake that hit Pakistan Monday more than 20,000 estimated dead in or near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.
A local spokesman for Samsung Corp. announced that a company site-selection committee has recommended Austin for its planned $3.5 billion chip facility; the board of directors is expected to make its final decision in the next two months.
About 3,000 employees of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission were informed via e-mail that they are to be laid off this spring, due to the reorganization and privatization of many HHSC functions.
After months of contentious negotiations, the city of Austin and the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters reached agreement on a new contract; both sides said they had compromised to come to a fair disposition.
After five years of ignominious defeats, the UT Longhorns beat the Oklahoma Sooners 45-12 on Saturday. The global ice caps were steadily melting, while suburban regions of hell were increasingly slick with ice.
Naked City If you've been out on the town lately, you may be wondering why smoking has returned to some bars. Anne Morgan of the city's legal department said officials have agreed not to prosecute smoking ban violations while a lawsuit filed by nearly a dozen bar owners seeking to snuff out the new smoke-free ordinance is pending which apparently for some translates as smoke 'em if you've got 'em. At press time Tuesday, Federal District Judge Sam Sparks was hearing the pleadings of bar owners, including the usual suspects from anti-ban clan Keep Austin Free, who are requesting an injunction against the ordinance, claiming that it's unconstitutionally vague and responsible for a dramatic drop in business. The bar owners filed suit Sept. 16, just over two weeks after the ordinance took effect Sept. 1. Sparks refused to grant a temporary restraining order against the ban Oct. 3 but told KVUE that "it's a terrible ordinance. It's written badly. It's got some vagueness in it that justifies looking at it from a due process standpoint." Keep Austin Free lawyer Marc Levin also planned to attack the ban on the grounds that it unfairly punishes bar owners and workers, not smokers, and that its breadth could include criminalizing incense and barbecue smoke. Daniel Mottola
Union opposition was not enough, in the end, to stop the reappointment of Lee Walker and John Treviño to the Capital Metro board. On Monday, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transportation Policy Board approved another two-year term for Walker and Treviño with a 6-1 vote. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who wants a portion of Cap Met's sales tax revenues set aside for road building, was the lone dissenting vote. Some, like Travis Co. Judge Sam Biscoe and Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, questioned the judgment of Capital Metro contractor StarTran in using a lawyer in union negotiations who also was retained by Capital Metro, but those concerns didn't stall the appointments. This will be Walker's and Treviño's fifth terms as Cap Met's two citizen board members. Kimberly Reeves
Austin's Public Works Department is holding an Oct. 15 workshop meeting to discuss Shoal Creek Blvd. frankencurb reconfiguration options. Facilitators will help small groups select their favorite designs, which will be voted on by everyone at the meeting. The winning designs will appear on ballots, hand-delivered to Allandale and Rosedale residents and sent to bicyclists, with the top designs presented to City Council. Public Works Director Sondra Creighton said her staff has devised two possible reconfiguration options, both including sidewalks on both sides and an aggressive speed-management program. One has on-street parking on the street's east side and a car-free bike lane on both sides; the other has bike lanes on both sides in which parking is allowed. Creighton added that the Parks and Recreation Department has offered to relocate the islands' displaced crape myrtles. The meeting is in Murchison Middle School's cafeteria, 3700 North Hills, from 9am until noon. To contribute your own fix, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, call 974-7065, or fax 974-7084. D.M.
The city's Historic Preservation Task Force is close to finishing its work to tighten up the latest version of the city's historic-preservation ordinance. The task force has proposed a variety of measures: requiring a three-fourths majority of the Historic Landmark Commission to grant historic designation in owner-opposed cases; setting up an appeals process for certificates of appropriateness, which are given when changes are made to historic structures; and giving Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky the ability to review remodeling permits to stop the use of those permits for demolition. The group also set some minimum requirements for local historic districts. The task force, headed by Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker, will meet one more time this month to consider the issue of moratoriums on permits while applications for local historic districts are presented, which is intended to head off any rush for demolition permits. The city's legal department has argued that recent legislation has limited the ability to impose moratoriums. K.R.
An agreement creating an independent review into controversial proposed "Phase 2" toll roads included in the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's "Mobility 2030" transportation plan is slated for Austin City Council approval next week, but not without further uproar. In creating the review's steering committee, an agreement between the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, Austin, and other stakeholders, including the city of Round Rock, and Travis, Williamson, and Hays counties, cites a June CAMPO decision calling for re-review of the proposed toll roads. "Phase 2" tolls would affect stretches of US 183, 290, and Loop 360, among other roads. Sal Costello and fellow toll opposers in the Austin Toll Party fear the independent study is anything but. Though most of the study is being financed by the city, Costello said its steering committee has been "hijacked" by pro-toll stakeholders, who have the votes to overpower the city. Council Member Brewster McCracken, who led the council toll revolt, called the steering committee a voteless administrative body. He said it was created so "everyone has confidence that information they feel important is considered." Himself suspicious of the financial need for tolls, McCracken said, "We are all going to agree on what the numbers are." Wells Dunbar
A resolution in support of the I-35 segment of the Trans-Texas Corridor stalled at Monday night's meeting of the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board. Executive Director Michael Aulick, whose staff has been in talks with the TxDOT, drew up a list of conditions CAMPO might like to see on the Central Texas portion of the corridor, such as the use of SH 130 as a section of TTC-35, a commitment to relocate the Union Pacific freight rail, and comprehensive land planning in tandem with the corridor's construction planning. The North Texas region has passed its own list of conditions, but Central Texas leaders balked. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said the only project more controversial than toll roads was TTC-35, and Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said he has strong reservations about supporting a resolution in support of the corridor given his constituents' opposition, although he might consider a letter to TxDOT that included some of the conditions outlined by Aulick. The resolution was tabled until CAMPO's December meeting. K.R.
The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District announced the winners of its annual Conservation Awards last week. Texas Lehigh Cement Co. took home a Water Conservation award for cutting its pumping from the Aquifer by 50% since 1998. Terry Tull and Grant Jackson of Naismith Engineering Inc. won an award for their work on the Regional Water Quality Protection Plan (www.waterqualityplan.org), credited with helping to avoid pollution in ground and surface water in rapidly expanding northern Hays Co. and southwest Travis Co. The Education award went to the city's Watershed Protection Development Reviewer's water-quality educational programming: instructional materials for students, teachers, and citizens through its kids' Earth Camp program, and the Grow Green natural gardening program for grownups. Barbara J. Mahler won the Research award for her hydrogeological studies of sediment-associated transport in Barton Springs. And the innovation award went to Stratus Properties for its 8,000-square-foot Escarpment Green Roof Project. See www.wildflower.org or www.bseacd.org for more. D.M.
Beyond City Limits Was Tom DeLay charged with breaking a law that didn't exist until a year later? Did District Attorney Ronnie Earle take "extraordinarily irregular and desperate" measures to correct the problem? Could this case grow any more sordid? You bet. A quick summation: On Sept. 28, the last day of its six-month term, a grand jury indicted DeLay on a charge of conspiracy to break state election laws during the 2002 legislative campaigns. Problem is, the conspiracy component of the election code didn't take effect until Sept. 1, 2003, although the lawmaker who sponsored the change former Rep. Steve Wolens of Dallas says the amendment was intended to clarify existing law. At any rate, in an apparent attempt to remedy a potential sticky wicket, Earle took the case to a second grand jury, which declined to add a stiffer money-laundering charge. Prosecutors then returned to the first grand jury polling them by telephone over the weekend. The following Monday, Oct. 3, they secured a new indictment with the money-laundering charge from a third grand jury, the last day that DeLay could be charged under the statute of limitations. It wasn't until late Tuesday, however, that Earle's office explained the chain of events between the time of the first indictment, the second grand jury's "no bill," and the third grand jury's decision to indict based on "additional evidence" prosecutors had obtained over the weekend. DeLay's lawyers aren't buying Earle's explanation; they're seeking to have the indictment thrown out on the basis of "prosecutorial misconduct." In any case, DeLay's original court appearance date, Oct. 21, still stands at least for now. Amy Smith
Hurricane Katrina survivors from Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi joined environmental advocates from the Environmental Integrity Project and other groups in a press conference Thursday, speaking out against new Republican-backed energy legislation that eliminates key air-quality measures under the guise of encouraging more refining capacity. Led by Texas oil and gas patsy Rep. Joe Barton, the measure was bullied through the House in a 212-210 vote, held open eight times longer than usual. Survivors said the legislation, which waives Clean Air Act standards and relaxes pollution-control requirements, was like being kicked when you're down since their communities, many already polluted by industry, were left voiceless while still displaced or rebuilding. Since the measure does nothing to affect pump prices or curb fuel consumption, other survivors said they feel they're being exploited to enrich oil interests. Austin GOP Rep. Lamar Smith voted for the measure; Lloyd Doggett voted no. Senate Dems have threatened a filibuster. D.M.
Many a conspiracy theorist's breakfast of Cheetos and Jolt Cola was interrupted late last week when Alex Jones pinned censorship on Time Warner Cable's RoadRunner Internet service. Chronicle HQ was flooded with tips (actually, two e-mails), doubtlessly galvanized by the breaking news on PrisonPlanet.com. "This latest attack on free speech is occurring nationwide, with Time Warner subscribers reporting that their access to the Web sites is being blocked," read one. "Is this deliberate or an Internet-wide issue? Only time will tell." Well, it told 7pm Thursday, when the sites went back online, according to Roger Heaney, Time Warner's public affairs director. A dispute between Web transit provider Level 3 Communications and Cogent Communications, Time Warner's ISP, kept RoadRunners from accessing several Web sites when the former decided it was hosting too much of the latter's traffic. "We don't censor any Web sites," Heaney said. PrisonPlanet's Web site, which claims to often get "more hits than the Britney Spears website or Rush Limbaugh," says it "is obvious that those in high places are showing their disapproval." Maybe the site should devote less space to martial-law fantasies and more to unknown organizations holding such sway over the Internet. W.D.
"I'm running against Tom DeLay's evil shadow," John Courage told an appreciative crowd in Austin last week. The "shadow" in this case is U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, the San Antonio Republican who trounced Courage in 2002. In this rematch, the Democratic hopeful has a few things going for him that he didn't have before, and he has Smith's ties to the radioactive DeLay to thank in large part. Smith is one of the newer members of the U.S. House Ethics Committee, which is charged with investigating DeLay's alleged ethical transgressions. But Courage, a San Antonio schoolteacher and Air Force veteran, argues that Smith's previous $10,000 contribution to DeLay's legal defense fund should have kept him off the committee altogether. Courage told the Chronicle that he expects his campaign to perform far better than it did in 2002, when the then-unknown hopeful pulled just 25%. This time, he'll have the advantage of campaign experience, greater name ID, and a redrawn district that takes in a larger chunk of Travis Co. Democratics. Before he left the Democracy for Texas gathering last week, he was presented with a $5,000 campaign check, courtesy of Democracy for America. A.S.
Happenings Tonight (Thursday, Oct. 13), the city's Bond Election Advisory Committee holds the last of its series of public-input meetings to help determine our wish list for the possible May 2006 bond election. To give your two cents, go to the Dove Springs Recreation Center, 5801 Ainez, 7-9pm.
Plenty to do for Downtown movers and shakers on Wednesday, Oct. 19. Mayor Will Wynn delivers his "State of Downtown" address at noon, at the Four Seasons Hotel, 98 San Jacinto. Tickets are $33 per person, $330 for a table of 10. RSVP by 5pm Oct. 14, via e-mail (email@example.com) or 469-1766 x211. That evening, 6-8:30pm, at Republic Square Park, Fifth & Guadalupe, the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association holds its free 2005 Annual Block Party and Livability Awards. See www.downtownaustin.org.
The Texas Observer will host a book signing and panel discussion on the future of Social Security under the Bush administration with Joe Conason, Salon.com columnist and author of The Raw Deal: How the Bush Republicans Plan to Destroy Social Security and the Legacy of the New Deal, on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the AFL-CIO headquarters, 1106 Lavaca, 7-9pm. Other panelists include economist James K. Galbraith and former Social Security Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel. Admission is free; $10 donation accepted.