Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"Whether or not it needed to happen, I'm still convinced it needed to happen." President George W. Bush, defending his decision to go to war to NBC anchor Brian Williams
Headlines The U.S. Supreme Court agreed this week to consider the Texas re-redistricting cases, in four separate appeals of a lower court decision, including such issues as the constitutionality of mid-decade redistricting and apparent violation of minority voting rights. Oral arguments are expected in March.
Advanced Micro Devices filed its official site plan with the city for its proposed Lantana campus over the contributing zone of Edwards Aquifer, simultaneously launching a public relations assault that opened with an Austin American-Statesman cover story. In what may be a new record even for them Statesman editors waited just 24 hours before declaring unnecessary any further public discussion of the matter ("AMD is taking care of this land," Dec. 14). See "Back to the Trenches."
The City Council has a long agenda today (Thursday), including the return of the Dreaded Champions' Zoning Case and continuing debate over revised "public order" ordinances; see "Beside the Point."
As the citizens' Bond Election Advisory Committee continued meeting to try to balance its current $614 million package (tentatively scheduled for a May ballot), Mayor Will Wynn wrote the committee to say, by the way, they might want to consider additional items related to development along the new SH 130. Oops.
Naked City Icy weather be damned, gubernatorial hopeful Kinky Friedman and a gaggle of supporters rallied outside the Texas Secretary of State's Office on Dec. 8, to mark Friedman's filing an official "Declaration of Intent" to run as an independent candidate for governor in 2006. "Today marks the official start of my quest to end the two-party monopoly in our state and give Texas back to the people who love it," Friedman said. "This filing is a small step for the Kinkster, but it is a giant step for independent-minded voters everywhere." Still, in order to secure a spot on the general election ballot, Friedman must first secure valid signatures from nearly 46,000 registered voters who do not vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries in March daunting, perhaps, until you consider that a mere 9% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the March 2002 primary races. To Friedman, that pathetic statistic illuminates possibility and opportunity "I've said all along that I'm not running against Rick Perry or anyone else; I'm running against apathy," he said. "This is the time. Texas is the place." Jordan Smith
A broad range of Austinites turned out to tell the citizens' committee charged with developing a bond proposal how the city should spend its money. The package is currently at $614.8 million, a number achieved by across-the-board cuts in proposed spending for facilities, open space, drainage, transportation, and affordable housing. The committee will decide in January where to spend a little more or a little less, so concerned citizens turned out in force to lobby for favorite projects. Most visible were groups supporting a Mexican-American Cultural Center, an Asian resource center, a $120 million central library (the current package funds only $90 million), and $75 million for open space acquisition over the aquifer (currently at $44 million). About 30 skaters also showed up to ask for additional funds for skate parks, which they see as being as essential to public recreation as basketball courts. The public will have one more opportunity to address the committee in January. Rachel Proctor May
A Travis Co. grand jury will hear this week the case against Sue Lowry, a former teacher of preverbal toddlers at the Hyde Park Baptist Church Child Development Center, accused of abusing at least one of her students. Parents of one student allege Lowry pushed their 2-year-old down, giving him a head injury. Center administrators fired Lowry for failing to file paperwork related to the injury. Charges may also be heard against HPBC for recklessly tolerating Lowry's abusive behavior. According to witness statements, Lowry's fellow employees reported her rough behavior with the children to administrators months before the incident in question. Emily Pyle
Austin Police arrested and charged 22-year-old Gerardo Benitez Aguilar on Dec. 11 with attempted capital murder for allegedly firing a gun multiple times at police as he ran away from a traffic stop on Ribbecke Avenue in East Austin. According to police, officers pulled over the Geo Prizm Aguilar was driving after spotting a defective taillight. Aguilar was "directed" to get out of the car, police say, and ran away. As police chased him, Aguilar reportedly pulled a gun and fired several shots at the pursuing officers; one officer returned fire, but no one was injured. Police are still looking for a passenger who was riding with Aguilar and who also fled the scene. Anyone with information should call the homicide tip line at 477-3588, or CrimeStoppers at 472-8477. J.S.
Investigators with the APD Cold Case Unit have charged 36-year-old Jimmie Lee Hardison with capital murder in connection with the 1997 death of William Colbert. Colbert was found dead, a pool of blood around his head, in a room at the Bel-Air Motel on South Congress, just after noon on Aug. 10, 1997. DNA collected at the scene eventually led detectives to Hardison, from whom they obtained DNA comparison samples in 2002. Hardison was already in jail on an unrelated charge when police filed murder charges against him; Hardison remains in jail on a $200,000 bond. Police are asking anyone with information about the murder to call the Cold Case Unit at 974-8577, or CrimeStoppers at 472-8477. J.S.
Ten AISD teachers earned national board certification this week, bringing the number of teachers with the respected qualification to 70 the largest number for any district in Texas. The idea behind board certification is that professional development helps educators teach better and encourages them to stick with a profession where about half of all recruits quit within five years. Certified teachers receive a $2,000 stipend and opportunities to earn additional stipends through mentoring. R.P.M.
After a long fundraising dry spell, the Long Center is finally within striking distance of its final goal. As Corporate Council Chair Earl Maxwell told a group at a fundraising breakfast at the Driskill Hotel last week, fundraising for the Austin arts venue is now in the single-digit range, meaning within $10 million of the final goal of $77 million. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst spoke enthusiastically as well and offered to double his pledge from last year, though no one was willing to put a dollar figure to that contribution. Namesake Joe Long, who made his own $20 million donation back in 2000 before the tech bubble burst, accepted five- and six-figure checks from Humana and Fulbright & Jaworski. Demolition already has begun for the Long Center, which will replace Palmer Auditorium and even use some of Palmer's original panels in its design. Two venues the 2,400-seat Michael and Susan Dell Foundation Hall and the 240-seat Debra and Kevin Rollins Studio Theatre will open in spring 2008. Maxwell credits the hiring of Cliff Redd and a recovering economy with much of the new fundraising momentum; the group has raised $21 million this year alone. Kimberly Reeves
In its December issue, health periodical Self magazine ranked Austin-San Marcos among the top three finalists in the country for cities with heart-healthy residents. We like to think time-honored collegiate fitness traditions, like tubing and keg-stands, account for the rank, but to Self, "the survey shows that healthy eating plus lots of exercise equals a risk for death from heart disease that is almost half of the average woman's risk." Overall, Austin-San Marcos ranked 39th in the survey of the 100 largest metro areas. Wells Dunbar
The bond industry's trade publication has honored the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's U.S. 183A toll project as one of its five finalists as Bond Deal of the Year, recognized as a first of its kind under the state's 2001 legislation that created RMAs. The $220 million, 11.6-mile project will connect Leander, Cedar Park, and Austin, and will open in 2007. The winner of The Bond Buyer's Deal of the Year honor, named last week, was the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, which issued a first-of-its-kind transaction that helped fund more than $66 million in loans for the development of affordable housing and was structured to provide long-term cash flow to the city's housing loan program. Coincidentally, Austin is looking at bonds for affordable housing in its upcoming bond election. K.R.
Beyond City Limits In a surprise decision hailed by Democrats and downplayed by Republicans, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday it would consider the constitutionality of a 2003 congressional redistricting map that threw the Texas Legislature into partisan turmoil before finally passing in a special session. The redrawn boundaries helped Republicans pick up six Congressional seats in Texas in the 2004 elections. Democrats and minority groups filed suit seeking to have the map thrown out on grounds that it squelched minority voting rights. Justice Department attorneys agreed with that argument, but political higher-ups overturned the findings, as did a lower-court panel that upheld the redrawn map. The high court is expected to hear the case in the spring. Gov. Rick Perry said he welcomed the Supreme Court's review of the case "because we believe the Texas remap is constitutional We remain confident that the Supreme Court will find that every Texas voter has a voice at the ballot box." Rolando Rios, an attorney for LULAC, one of the lead plaintiffs in the case, said the DeLay plan not only "hammered the voting rights of minorities, it hammered the voting rights of everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, in order to achieve political gain." For U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who overcame Republican efforts to carve him out of a "safe" district, the decision bolsters the arguments that Democrats have made all along. "For our Democratic state legislative delegation, most of whom courageously tried to block the corrupt Tom DeLay plan, and the many who supported them, [Monday's] Supreme Court decision is a vindication." Amy Smith
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced Dec. 7 that his office has successfully collected $8.3 million in back taxes from Enron Corp., and three of its subsidiaries, bringing the total amount the state has collected from the bankrupt corporation to approximately $13 million, according to a press release. The $7.74 million final franchise tax payment Enron Corp. made last week is the largest single collection in the history of the office's bankruptcy and collections division. "We have ridden herd on this company since Day One of its untimely bankruptcy," Abbott said, "to get a measure of justice to see that this tax liability is paid in Texas." J.S.
Also regarding the attorney general's office, state and local public officials will be required to bone up on open records and open meetings laws, thanks to a new mandatory training program launched this week by Abbott. The program features training materials to educate officials on complying with the Texas Public Information Act. "No longer do public officials have any excuse for not following the state's open government laws," Abbott said. "This training will teach them what the law requires and that there will be consequences for not following it." The new requirement takes effect Jan. 1. Copies of a free training video can be obtained by calling the attorney general's office, 800/252-8011. Additionally, the general public may also take the course by applying through the AG's Web site, www.oag.state.tx.us. A.S.
The state policy that shuffles disruptive students into alternative education settings does little more than create a pipeline direct to Texas prisons, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, told a policy forum at the Texas Public Policy Foundation last week. The portion of the education code that deals with student conduct known as Safe Schools, or Chapter 37 has been in place for 10 years. School districts, and even teachers, were given broad latitude to remove students from class. Under the code, those students can be placed in a district alternative education setting or, in the case of larger counties and more serious infractions, a juvenile-justice education program. Teacher groups hailed the policy because it gave them control of their classrooms and a chance to teach those who wanted to learn, while students who acted out were simply placed in an alternative setting. Dutton, however, says the policy has given teachers an easy "out" to remove students they can't teach. And there's plenty more Dutton doesn't like in the code, such as schools' ability to hand out police-officer-issued citations for infractions as minor as chewing gum. Other areas of concern were the low quality of educational programs, the mixing of criminal and noncriminal students, the handling of special education students, and due process. K.R.
Ah, irony. the Fordham Foundation released a report last week on the state of the nation's science curricula, and gave Texas a failing grade. Unfortunately, the wise researchers weren't actually looking at the official Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) science standards when they assigned the grade. Instead, the rating was based in large part on a TEKS-aligned curriculum, developed by education researchers from the Dana Center at UT, that could be reached from a link on the Texas Education Agency Web site. That's what you call a failing grade in social scientific research methods. "We're pretty baffled how it is they think this was our curriculum," said the TEA's Suzanne Marchman. Texas may be on its way to earning an F on its own merits, however. One of the few bright spots in Texas' assessment was that the state had resisted what it refers to as "creationist attempts to delegitimize evolution." According to Marchman, evolution is one of the areas that will be reconsidered when the TEKS are updated in 2007. R.P.M.
The Health and Human Services Commission will have to play the role of Grinch this Christmas as they delay promised bonus checks to certain agency employees. Texas received a windfall of $10.4 million in additional federal funding due to the high accuracy rate in the state's food stamp program. Under the most recently approved state budget, that money should have been redistributed to employees by year's end in the form of performance pay bonuses. Those bonuses, however, have been delayed until at least the end of January. The Texas State Employees Union blames the delay on outside contractor Convergys, which now handles many of the agency's human resource functions, including payroll, for the state's 46,000 health and human service employees. HHSC Spokeswoman Jennifer Harris denies that charge, saying the delay is due to late paperwork. TSEU says about 2,500 employees will have coal in their stockings on Christmas morning. Harris says HHSC is still in the process of deciding how many employees should receive what kind of bonus for meeting federal performance goals. K.R.
The brands Marlboro, Marlboro Lights, and McDonald's are synonymous with Texas highway trash, according to a new study. The Visible Litter Study, released as TxDOT's Don't Mess With Texas litter prevention campaign celebrates its 20th birthday, found that although annual accumulation of roadside litter has dropped by about a third since 2001, certain kinds of trash still present a problem as clean-up costs continue to rise. "Even though the research suggests an overall decrease in litter, we're still concerned about how much tobacco litter exists especially cigarette butts. Unfortunately, food packaging like burger wrappers, take-out bags, soft drink cups and chip bags is almost as problematic," said Doris Howdeshell, TxDOT's travel division director. It costs about $35.5 million to clean up litter on Texas highways every year, according to TxDOT, and as fast as Texas is building new roads, those costs keep increasing. Specifically, the study found that tobacco-related products were the most common litter, accounting for 33% of all trash. Fast food packaging and candy wrappers came in a close second at 29%, and soft drink cans, bottles, straws, and cup lids followed at 11%. Littering fines can reach $2,000, according to Brenda Flores-Dollar, TxDOT's litter-prevention program manager. Daniel Mottola
After spending 24 years on California's death row, 51-year-old gang leader Stanley "Tookie" Williams was executed by lethal injection at San Quentin State Prison on Dec. 13. Williams, who co-founded the infamous Crips gang in Los Angeles, was sentenced to die for killing four people in the course of committing two robberies in 1979. After joining the row in 1981, Williams repudiated his gang life and authored several children's books urging kids to eschew violence and to stay away from gangs, work that earned him several Nobel Prize nominations. "There is no part of me that existed then that exists now," Williams told the Associated Press shortly before his death. Nonetheless, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger denied Williams' bid to have his sentence commuted to life in prison. In denying clemency, Schwarzenegger reportedly derided Williams' jailhouse reformation, and, myopically, suggested that Williams' efforts to keep kids away from gangs fell short: "The continued pervasiveness of gang violence leads one to question the efficacy of Williams' message," he wrote in a five-page statement. J.S.