Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quotes of the Week"We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation, and death to the Iraqi people and call it 'bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East.'"
British playwright Harold Pinter, accepting the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature
"And tonight, I ask all of you listening to carefully consider the stakes of this war, to realize how far we have come and the good we are doing, and to have patience in this difficult, noble, and necessary cause."
President George W. Bush, defending the war on Iraq in a television address, Dec. 18
Headlines City Council is on hiatus until Jan. 12. In last week's meeting, council enacted a moderated version of the public order ordinances, installing a stronger ban on panhandling and loitering, but refraining from further limits on door-to-door petitioning and streetside soliciting. See "Beside the Point."
Negotiations between Capital Metro contractor StarTran and Local 1091 of the transit workers union remained tense and unresolved. On Monday, management said it had delivered its "Last, Best and Final Offer" and declared an impasse if the company imposes a settlement, the union says it will call a strike. At (holiday) press time Tuesday, both parties were still hanging fire. See "Bus Negotiations Headed for Collision."
Judge Pat Priest declined to schedule an early January trial for U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay in the TRMPAC case, saying he would wait until an appeals court rules on his dismissal of the conspiracy charge, one of three charges against the former majority leader. DeLay's attorneys are hoping to sever DeLay's case from his two co-defendants for a quick decision, but the appeal may take weeks or months.
President Bush went on the offensive this week not against Iraqi insurgents, but against congressional opponents of both parties who object to his authorization of National Security Agency wiretaps without the legally required judicial warrants. Bush also demanded that the Senate reauthorize the PATRIOT Act unamended; if the law is not passed by Dec. 31, it will expire.
Naked City A second Republican joined the House District 48 race on Monday, just one day before a drawing to set the ballot order for the Jan. 17 special election. Computer consultant Robert Reynolds is the fifth candidate vying to fill the vacancy created by Rep. Todd Baxter's resignation. In Tuesday's drawing, Democrat Kathy Rider won the top placement on the ballot, followed by Democrat Donna Howard, Libertarian Ben Easton, Republican Robert Reynolds, and Republican Ben Bentzin. Reynolds' last-minute entry into the race left some Dems wondering if the party enlisted him in response to this week's news tying scandal-ridden D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff to Bentzin's 1992 race against state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, as well as Baxter's campaign against former Rep. Ann Kitchen. Amy Smith
In other District 48 news, prospective Dem candidate Andy Brown lost a last-minute attempt to secure a place on the special election ballot. Brown, who will still run for District 48 in the March Democratic primary, had sought to overturn a the secretary of state's ruling that he had not met the residency requirements for the special. Brown, a lifelong Austin resident but a relative newcomer to the district, had hoped for an emergency ruling in his favor last Friday, but U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks upheld the state's decision. Democrats charge that Gov. Rick Perry deliberately set a quick timetable on the special election to benefit the wealthy Bentzin, the party's choice to succeed Baxter. Perry said the special election must occur next month so the district will have representation in an upcoming special legislative session on school finance (though he let two special sessions on school finance slide this year before setting an election in Houston to replace Rep. Joe Moreno, a Democrat who died in an automobile accident). A.S.
He's been campaigning for the past year, but Gov. Rick Perry on Monday made good on his vow to seek re-election by filing his candidacy paperwork at the state Republican Party office. At the same time, his No. 1 political thorn state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn issued a statement knocking the governor's official declaration. "As Gov. Perry asks voters for four more years, voters tell me they can't think of one thing he has done for them over the last five years. He's done the best he could, but his best is not good enough for Texas." Strayhorn is also running for governor, along with independent singer/songwriter Kinky Friedman, but it's uncertain if she'll run as a Republican or an independent. Democratic hopefuls include Felix Alvarado, Chris Bell, and Bob Gammage. The filing deadline is Jan. 2. A.S.
Mayor Will Wynn presented the "distinguished service award" to APD Assistant Chief Rick Coy at the Dec. 10 council meeting. Coy, a 30-year department veteran who served as the department's chief of staff, officially retired his stripes on Oct. 31. He was appointed assistant chief in 2000. APD officials say the AC spot Coy held will be eliminated and that a new commander position has been created to take on chief-of-staff duties. Jordan Smith
The city of Austin broke ground last Friday in southeast Austin's Montopolis neighborhood on a new 81-home subdivision with the stated objective of increasing home ownership opportunities for low- and moderate-income families living in a neighborhood facing significant gentrification pressures. The 13-acre tract, located near the corner of Montopolis and Riverside, was originally destined to become the nation's first zero-net-energy subdivision, populated with affordable, solar-powered, energy-self-sufficient houses. Planners were unable, however, to achieve the development's affordability goals while keeping zero-energy status ("City's Zero Energy Homes Prove Too Pricey for Montopolis," April 29, 2005). Julie Beggs, spokeswoman for co-developer Austin Housing Finance Corporation, says the homes will be affordable to buyers who earn 80% to 65% below Austin's median family income (which is $56,900 for a family of four), embrace efficiency-minded green building design principles, and have Capital Metro stops within a quarter-mile. Asked why the homes' appearance and land use resembled the tract homes of Buda or Pflugerville instead of newer, more sought-after "compact city" or "new urbanist" designs (in practice at the Mueller redevelopment, for example), she said the new subdivision had to mesh consistently with an existing subdivision. Daniel Mottola
AISD is improving, but not as fast as it needs to, especially when it comes to closing the achievement gap between financially comfortable white students and black, Hispanic, or poor ones. That's been the district's message all year, and now it has independent confirmation: A study by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce released Monday found steady improvement in student test scores over the past four years, but much work still to do. "Are we where we need to be? No. But our students are improving, and are doing well compared to students around the nation," said Susan Dawson, who led the task force that developed the report. (She was referring in part to a recent study by the National Assessment of Education Progress that found AISD students outperforming peers in 10 other urban areas.) To address the imbalance, the chamber recommended more frequent assessment and communitywide participation in the effort to redesign AISD's 11 high schools. These suggestions were welcomed by Superintendent Pat Forgione particularly in light of the $1.5 million grant the district just got from the Gates Foundation to fund community participation in its redesign effort. However, he also asked for help from the chamber in the form of financial resources, mentoring, and internships. Rachel Proctor May
The University of Texas won a five-year, $3 million grant from the Department of Education to launch a Center on Instruction in Special Education one of six research "nodes" throughout the nation whose goal will be to develop curriculum and methods to help teachers address the growing number of special ed students (in AISD, roughly one in 10 students qualify for special ed). In addition to students with well-known disorders such as blindness, autism, or dyslexia, this group includes students who qualify for services under the so-called "discrepancy model": students whose performance in a given subject (such as reading or math) is lower than their "intelligence" suggests it should be. R.P.M.
Hoping to woo Austin radio listeners desperate for "positive music and family-safe entertainment," Clear Channel Radio has dumped "World Class Rock" from KPEZ-FM (102.3) and replaced it with "The River," a "contemporary Christian" format. The station will play Christmas music until Dec. 26, when the River will debut, featuring "songs that inspire" from artists like Steven Curtis Chapman, Newsboys, Jars of Clay, and Mercy Me, according to a press release. While contemporary Christian formats are popping up in cities across the Bible belt, this is the first time a Clear Channel station will launch the format, according to Dusty Black, regional vice-president for Clear Channel Southwest. "We really feel like there is a huge hole here for this format," Black said. "World Class Rock, launched a year ago to replace Z102, was a consistent ratings loser, unable to woo listeners with its blend of classic rock. The on-air staff was laid off, including Jonna Hayes, Chris Mosser, and Alex Hall, as was program director Ellen Flaherty. KPEZ expects to announce new on-air personnel for the River in January, Black says. Kevin Brass
District Judge Gisela Triana heard arguments Monday to dismiss a lawsuit filed by People for Efficient Transportation against the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization, and Governor Rick Perry. PET, an arm of the Texas Toll Party, has challenged the validity of the state's metropolitan planning organizations, especially when it comes to approving projects put forth by the regional mobility authorities that are expected to use federal dollars. Former Supreme Court Justice Steve Smith, who is arguing the case for PET, says the fact that state lawmakers serve on the boards of CAMPO and the San Antonio MPO is a violation of separation of powers, especially when it comes to disbursing federal dollars. Triana took the motions under advisement and will likely rule on the motion to dismiss after the holidays. Kimberly Reeves
The Austin Police Department is currently accepting applications for the 2006 Citizens Police Academy. The 12-week CPA class offers a window into the world of law enforcement in Austin, with detailed information on everything from pursuit driving to homicide investigation to rules on the use of force. A daytime class, Tuesdays from 1:30-4:30pm, will start Jan. 31; an evening class, Tuesdays from 5:30-9:30pm, will begin May 30. Since 1987, the CPA has graduated nearly 1,600 Austinites. Applications are available online at www.ci.austin.tx.us/police; for more info, call 974-6202. J.S.
EMS Medical Director Ed Racht said a conference of medical professionals who were to converge on Austin Dec. 8-9 to review the body of data related to electro-shock weapons' medical effects was canceled because of bad weather. The conference organized by Racht at the direction of City Manager Toby Futrell in the wake of the September death of Michael Clark, who was struck with a Taser three times during a confrontation with Austin police will be rescheduled in January, he said. In the meantime, Racht said that a separate review of the Clark case, independent of the police department, by a group of local medical professionals including Racht and Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock is ongoing, pending the outcome of a Travis Co. grand jury probe into Clark's death. J.S.
Beyond City Limits In other Taser-related news, Taser International announced on Dec. 13 that investigators with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission have closed a formal inquiry into company claims about the medical safety of the weapon without recommending any sanctions against the company. The SEC began a two-pronged inquiry in January (upgraded to a formal investigation in September), prompted by concerns over the company's claims about the safety of the Taser which has been cited as a contributing factor in a growing list of deaths and over questions related to a $1.5 million sale of Tasers at the end of 2004 to a firearm distributor, which caused concern that the company was inflating sales to meet annual projections. The SEC gave Taser a clean bill of health on both counts, although an inquiry into whether internal company documents had been leaked in an attempt to manipulate Taser's stock price is ongoing. "We have continuously stated that we stand behind our accounting and our statements on medical safety," and will "continue to fully cooperate" with the SEC, Taser President Tom Smith told reporters. J.S.
Not bothering to wait for the Legislature to reconvene, Gov. Rick Perry has used his fourth executive order in as many months to pluck and pass additional pieces of education reform measures that failed during the most recent regular and special sessions. This time Perry's topic was college readiness, a favorite of both state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley and federal Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Using a scant $4 million and a couple of his own twists Perry proposed a number of changes: an additional high school indicator on college remediation, a pilot project to pay college entrance examination fees for low-income students, a student transcript databank that would ease the transfer of student records between schools and on to college, voluntary end-of-course assessments for math and science courses, and an expansion of summer math and science programs at the state's universities. Perry told a Waco audience that the order would create a more skilled workforce, additional economic development, and open the door to college for thousands of high school students. K.R.
Texas will soon be home to 35 cutting-edge science, technology, engineering, and math academies, thanks to a $71 million grant program by the state of Texas, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Instruments, and the Texas High School Project. The competitive grants will help districts launch academies for at-risk students to help encourage interest in the sciences, and will also create six research "hubs" to gather and disseminate best practices in science instruction. Science is a weak spot in Texas instruction, in part because it wasn't one of the required TAKS subjects until last year, at which point ill-prepared students floundered statewide and administrators freaked out. As the grantmakers like to point out, the issue is also an economic-development one, as U.S. students as a whole aren't preparing themselves for the sort of high-tech careers that form the backbone of the modern economy. R.P.M.
On Dec. 16, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators successfully blocked the reauthorization of portions of the USA PATRIOT Act that are set to expire on Dec. 31. Senators voted 52-47 to block any discussion on the matter, eight votes shy of the 60 needed to avoid the threat of a filibuster led by Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, and Larry Craig, R-Idaho. Opponents say they want the act rewritten in a way that would protect individual civil liberties. "We want to mend the PATRIOT Act, not end it," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. Among the controversial provisions set to expire are those that allow potentially unfettered federal access to individuals' medical, library, business, and e-mail records. J.S.