Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"Obviously the individual(s) who leaked the information did not believe the Panel's vote, alone, was sufficient to convince [APD Chief] Knee, and therefore sought to have the information published in the newspaper in an attempt to bring political pressure to bear upon the Chief." Excerpt from a grievance filed by Austin's police officers union, after a confidential recommendation by the Citizen Review Panel to fire Officer Julie Schroeder was apparently leaked to the Statesman. See "'Leak' on Recommendation to Fire Officer Prompts Complaint From Police Union."
Headlines Capital Metro bus drivers and mechanics overwhelmingly rejected the "last, best, and final offer" from StarTran, the contractor they work for. The transit workers' union has authorized a strike, but say they'll only use it as a last resort. See "Capital Metro's Labor Lowdown."
The Citizen Review Panel of the Office of the Police Monitor has recommended that APD Officer Julie Schroeder be fired for the June 9 shooting of Daniel Rocha; meanwhile, police union president Mike Sheffield has demanded an investigation into who leaked the panel's recommendation, which was supposed to be confidential. See "'Leak' on Recommendation to Fire Officer Prompts Complaint From Police Union."
Council is expected to consider zoning changes for the proposed high-rise Spring condos downtown today; nearby neighbors are expected to protest the changes, while actual downtown residents and advocates favor them; see "Beside the Point."
A San Antonio man was arrested in the killing of UT student William Ehrhardt III; police allege Jason Anthony Chacon was trying to steal drugs and cash from Ehrhardt. See "Ehrhardt's Murderer Sought Cash, Marijuana."
Naked City The race for Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas' Place 6 seat on the City Council is beginning in earnest. The local political newsletter In Fact Daily has reported that attorney Sheryl Cole designated a campaign treasurer, the Rev. Joseph Parker Jr., this Monday, the first day possible to do so. She has also hired Mark Nathan, manager of Betty Dunkerley's successful campaigns, and David Butts as her campaign managers. Cole has experience working on the city's Citizen Bond Committee, and if elected, would be the first African-American woman to sit on the council. As we were going to press, DeWayne Lofton also announced his intentions for Place 6 by naming Hazel Obey his treasurer. Wells Dunbar
The AISD 2004 Bond program is being well managed, according to a report Deloitte Consulting delivered to the AISD Board of Trustees Monday night. While the report was generally positive about AISD's fiscal, construction, and PR efforts, it did suggest areas for improvement. Most of them boil down to communication, which is perhaps not surprising for a $519 million, five-year process of building seven new schools and repairing or renovating all 108 other schools in the district. The consultants recommended more frequent reporting, particularly pertaining to problems encountered on the various projects, and regarding when and how the 10% contingency fund is used. Otherwise, the report explained, it creates an "accountability gap" and reduces public trust in the programs. (At the last meeting, the citizens group monitoring the bond reported that every major project but one was already over budget, requiring dips into that contingency pot.) The report also said the district's reports could be clearer and that AISD needs a better system of working with communications consultant Tate Austin to get a "better value" for its consulting dollar. Rachel Proctor May
On Nov. 9, eastside activists People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources filed a formal federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against the city of Austin and the APD, alleging violations of Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids discrimination, or discriminatory practices, in federally funded programs. PODER wants the feds to withhold funding from the city and the police department, to punish an alleged "historical pattern of excessive force, unnecessary deaths, and abuse of [police] search powers" against minorities. "We have no choice but to invoke our rights under Title VI to stop the racial discrimination by police acting above the law," said PODER organizer Max Rangel. The Texas Civil Rights Project, on behalf of the local chapter of the NAACP, filed a similar complaint in June 2004, citing the police shooting deaths of Jesse Lee Owens and Sophia King, along with racial profiling data and details of the SXSW Ozomatli fiasco as evidence of a pattern of police discrimination and brutality; that complaint is still pending. Jordan Smith
The Capital Area Council of Governments was stymied last week when it came time to present a recommendation on the expansion of Waste Management Inc.'s landfill in northeast Travis Co. A solid-waste subcommittee had recommended against the expansion of the northeast landfill for all the reasons county commissioners opposed it unanswered questions on how to handle illegal dumping and address nuisance issues, among other things but the regional council's own solid waste plan is silent on how the governmental body should handle the permit review process. Until the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality takes up amendments to CAPCOG's regional plan in January or February, the regional government appears unable to make any recommendation on the WMI permit, which continues to make its way through TCEQ. Kimberly Reeves
City Council on Thursday will vote on amendments to proposed design standards aimed at making Austin's commercial areas more pedestrian-friendly. The amendments take into consideration concerns that fast food restaurants, sign retailers, neighborhood representatives, and other stakeholders had expressed about the original document, approved by council in May. If it passes, the proposed standards will be drafted into an ordinance and move one step closer to final enactment. R.P.M.
Members of the Planning Commission are split on how exceptions should be made for high-rise towers in the University Neighborhood Overlay. This week, agent Mike McHone presented plans for an 18-story tower on the corner of 21st and Rio Grande. The project, 21 Rio, would use a transfer of development rights from the Maverick-Miller House basically taking the height that the historic house will not be using to break the proposed 175-foot height limit on 21st Street with a 220-foot tower. That's still about 30 feet shorter than the Castilian four blocks away and about 200 feet short of Dobie Mall across campus. Planning Commission members were divided on how this variance actually a code amendment to the high-density West Campus overlay would be handled. Commissioner Dave Sullivan, who chairs the codes and ordinances subcommittee, would prefer the variance go back to the neighborhood association and reappear at Planning Commission, in essence, as a neighborhood-supported zoning change. Chair Chris Riley, much more open to discussing high-rise development in downtown, was ready to start the ball rolling on a community discussion regarding height variances for an entire swath of West Campus, as long as developers committed to ground-level neighborhood-oriented uses. Deadlocked, the PC will continue discussing the issue at a future meeting. K.R.
According to a new report from the Community Action Network and the Austin/Travis County Victim Services Task Force, nearly 50% of all violent crime goes unreported to police, while more than 80% of sexual assaults go unreported. (And 89% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.) Aggravated assault and robbery were both up in 2004, by 7% and 12.6%, respectively, from 2003; and 50% of robbery victims were Hispanic or recent Spanish-speaking immigrants. For more, go to www.atcvstf.org. J.S.
Apparently honors student status does not necessarily indicate an equally honorable level of common sense. Case in point: The Travis Co. Sheriff's Office arrested three UT students last weekend after they attempted to chop down a 100-year-old oak tree on private property in southeast Travis Co. The students, 21-year-old Jack Gerald Clark, 22-year-old Rashim Haresh Obergi, and 22-year-old Son Truong Hong, were arrested on Nov. 11. They told police they randomly selected the tree for extermination as part of a bet they made on a basketball game. They didn't succeed in taking down the tree, but did "cut a chunk out of it" before deputies arrived at the scene, said TCSO spokesman Roger Wade. The age of the tree was factored into estimating its value at between $1,500 and $20,000, making their "criminal mischief" a state jail felony punishable by up to two years behind bars and/or up to a $10,000 fine. The three students were each released from jail Nov. 12 on $10,000 bond. J.S.
Beyond City Limits Good news for Rick Perry the guv's poll numbers are up by two whole percentage points, nudging to 42% in Zogby International's latest polling. Texas is one of 25 states eyed in Zogby's ongoing polling project to determine possible outcomes of gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in 2006. According to excerpts of the third round of the poll released last week, Perry's numbers rose slightly between Sept. 21 and Oct. 31, while Democratic candidate Chris Bell dropped from 27% to 25%, and indie Kinky Friedman picked up steam with 21%, up from 18%. In an alternative scenario, with Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn topping the GOP ticket, polling data showed Perry's nemesis gathering momentum with 39%, up from 35%, even though her campaign has been largely shut out of press coverage since Hurricane Katrina struck two months ago. In this scenario, Bell took 23%, down three points since Sept. 21, while Friedman soared from 17% to 22%. Amy Smith
Former Austin Rep. Todd Baxter's decision to quit mid-term to take up lobbying could cost Travis Co. taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars just to fill his vacancy, Democratic leaders charged Tuesday. Baxter, a Republican who left office Nov. 1, will become the top lobbyist for the Texas Cable and Telecommunications Association, a natural springboard for the free-market lawmaker who previously served on the House Committee on Regulated Industries. Travis Co. Democratic Party Chair Chris Elliott and Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, however, accused Baxter of putting his personal agenda ahead of his District 48 constituents and local taxpayers, who would face a $250,000 tab, plus an extra $125,000 in the event of a run-off, if Gov. Rick Perry sets a special election for a date other than May, the next uniform election date. "I think it's clear what his motives for resigning were, so he can go make money as a lobbyist," Elliott said in a telephone interview. "But he's going to saddle taxpayers with the cost of a special election." Dems point to a second motive, as well to give wealthy GOP candidate Ben Bentzin the edge in a special election. "The Republican Party establishment wants to shove Ben Bentzin down our throats," Elliott said. "It just stinks to high heaven." A.S.
The number of inmates sentenced to death in 2004 hit its lowest mark since the resumption of capital punishment in 1977, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics in a report released this week. According to the report, 125 inmates were added to the total death row population last year down from 169 in 2002 and 152 in 2003 the lowest addition to the death-sentenced inmate population since 44 entered the row in 1977. In all, 3,601 inmates were housed on death rows across the country. California had the largest death row population at the end of 2004, with a total of 637 inmates, followed by Texas' 446, while the federal death row housed just 33 inmates. The 38 states that authorize capital punishment executed a total of 59 inmates in 2004 all of whom were men. (Texas again led the nation, sending 23 inmates to the death chamber.) Thirty-six were white, three were Hispanic, and 19 were black. At year's end, 43% of inmates awaiting execution were white, 42% were black, and 13% were Hispanic. J.S.
Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley promised a higher education crowd this week that Texas, like the Austin ISD, is taking a hard look at the effectiveness of the state's high schools. Neeley is concerned, in particular, with the cost of academic remediation of graduates once they make it to college. Neeley told those attending the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's commissioner's summit on Tuesday that students who intend to pass college-level algebra their freshman year need to be taking four years of math and science. And she said the state needs to make a bigger push for dual-credit programs high school seniors enrolled in college-credit courses at local colleges for those seniors that tend to skate through the second semester of their senior year, needing only a couple of credits to graduate. Too many students are simply sticking around for prom or graduation, when they could be working toward college credit, Neeley said. K.R.
Texas Lottery Commission officials took a drubbing before the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures this week. Chair Kino Flores, D-Palmview, has made the TLC a frequent target of his committee. This was the third time in recent months that agency officials have visited Flores' committee. This time, Flores questioned the agency's firing of former senior systems analyst Shelton Charles after Charles sent an e-mail to the committee saying that the agency's emergency control center was nonfunctional. Interim Executive Director Gary Grief denied Charles was fired over his e-mail and insisted, instead, that he was fired for insubordination, specifically his refusal to deal with his direct supervisor except through written correspondence. It's impossible to run an agency that way, Grief said. Meanwhile, Charles and Grief still disagreed, under oath, whether the emergency control center was functional. Grief said yes; Charles said it lacked redundant systems and adequate bandwidth to function in an actual emergency. K.R.
As if the 10 upcoming free Austin screenings weren't enough incentive to see controversial new documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which spotlights the retailer's underinsured, undercompensated workforce, as well as its effect on local economies, now America's No. 1 propagandist, Bill O'Reilly, has joined Wal-Mart's million-dollar mudslinging campaign against the film, verbally bashing the piece, as well as taking personal shots at director Robert Greenwald. With 7,000 grassroots screenings nationwide including 1,000 at churches alone Greenwald's Web site claims the Wal-Mart movie mobilization is the largest in the history of film. Greenwald, the director of Outfoxed and Uncovered: The War on Iraq, re-issued a standing offer to Wal-Mart officials last week to screen the movie for them in Bentonville, Ark., Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters. "The company is spending millions of dollars on a smear campaign against us without any working knowledge of what they are up against. It is simply not fair to them," he said. In other Wal-Mart news, international anti-big box group Sprawl-Busters has circulated an internal document revealing Wal-Mart's 2006 expansion plan for 484 new store openings, including 164 new Supercenters, plus expansions and relocations. More at www.walmartwatch.com and www.wakeupwalmart.com. Find a screening at www.walmartmovie.com. Daniel Mottola
Want to know if your printer is spying on you for the government? No, this isn't an exercise in Orwellian fiction. Just ask the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. Last month, the online civil liberties and privacy watchdog organization announced that it had figured out the tracking code in color laser printers made by Xerox Corp., specifically the DocuColor model, and that the feds can use that code, made up of patterns of dots, to monitor what you're printing. Some companies that make printers are apparently working with the government to help crack down on counterfeiters, but there's no system in place for controlling what and whose documents get monitored. According to the EFF, "there are no laws to stop the Secret Service from using printer codes to secretly trace the origin of non-currency documents And no law regulates what sort of documents the Secret Service or any other domestic or foreign government agency is permitted to request for identification, not to mention how such a forensics tool could be developed and implemented in printers in the first place." To learn more, including which printers do and don't print tracking dots, go to www.eff.org/Privacy/printers. Cheryl Smith
Last Thursday, one day after provisions for oil and gas exploration in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and in sensitive coastal areas nationwide were dropped from a divisive House budget bill, the entire bill was pulled amid unilateral Democratic opposition and rifts within the GOP. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, the 3.2 to 6.3 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil in ANWR represent but a six- to eight-month national supply. The bill, which also included nearly $70 billion in upper-class tax cuts while defunding programs for the poor such as medicare and food stamps, has become a political bellwether for a range of national issues. The Hill reported on Wednesday that negotiations were said to include increases to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, in exchange for the inclusion of arctic drilling privileges. Even with the trade-off, the obstinate Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, the lobbying group consistently opposed to gas-mileage boosts, balked at the proposal. At the same time, the Union of Concerned Scientists is leading a campaign to raise CAFE standards and close gas-guzzler loopholes through ongoing National Traffic Highway Safety Administration proceedings, in which citizens can speak out online during a public comment period extending through Nov. 21. See www.ucsusa.org. D.M.