Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"The job of majority leader and the mandate of the Republican majority are too important to be hamstrung, even for a few months, by personal distractions." Ex-majority leader Tom DeLay, in a letter to U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert announcing that he won't try to regain his majority leadership, due to the personal distractions of felony indictments in Travis Co.
Quote of the Week
As of Wednesday morning, a whopping 2,403 citizens had voted early in the District 48 state House election 2.43% of registered voters. At this rate, Todd Baxter's successor will be selected by his immediate relatives. Get out there and vote, Westsiders! Early voting runs through Jan. 13; election day is Tuesday, Jan. 17. For more on the District 48 election, see "West Side Showdown."
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Rep. Tom DeLay's request for either dismissal of the felony indictments pending against him or a speedy trial, prompting DeLay's withdrawal from contention for his former U.S. House leadership post and furious jockeying among Republican House rivals.
City Council begins its 2006 deliberations with the usual batch of zoning cases and the likelihood of sharp words over council members' reluctance to get involved in the debate over AMD's relocation to the Barton Springs area. Meanwhile, the citizens' Bond Election Advisory Committee confirmed its November recommendations, forwarding a $614.8 million package for council consideration later this month. See "Beside the Point" and "To Bond, or Not to Bond?."
As we went to press last Wednesday night just in case you missed it the UT Longhorns beat the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl, 41-38, winning the national championship behind a miraculous performance from quarterback Vince Young. On Sunday, Young announced he would enter the NFL draft, prompting the New York Times' William C. Rhoden to comment, "Perhaps Young is ahead of this time. There is already griping about his unorthodox delivery. Thelonious Monk had an unorthodox delivery, too." (Fans who just can't get enough UT football are invited to show up Sunday at Memorial Stadium for a team celebration. Gates open at 5pm for a program beginning at 6:30.)
KOOP Radio (91.7FM) is back on the air. The building which houses KOOP at 304 E. Fifth caught fire Sunday night, and a resident of the building had to be rescued by firefighters, who themselves had to be treated for smoke inhalation. The station's third-floor studio and offices were not damaged, but the rest of the building which houses rehearsal and living spaces for several musicians suffered enough damage to temporarily make entry to the studio unsafe. Lee Nichols
The No Child Left Behind Act is changing public schools throughout the country. Love it? Hate it? Got ideas to improve it? Wish you knew more about it? Show up to a hearing at the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center on Thursday, Jan. 12, 4-7pm, to share your experiences. Hosted by Austin Voices for Education and Youth, the Public Education Network, and other community groups, the hearing is one of 10 that will be held throughout the country; collected testimony will be turned into a report and delivered posthaste to our fearless leaders in Washington. Rachel Proctor May
Austin-based Whole Foods Market announced Tuesday that it intends to offset 100% of the electricity used in all of its stores, facilities, bake houses, distribution centers, and regional offices in North America by buying renewable energy credits from wind farms. The grocer claims that this is the largest wind-credit purchase in the history of the U.S. and Canada and that it makes Whole Foods the only Fortune 500 company to offset all of its electricity use with wind energy credits. Whole Foods says it would be physically impossible to deliver wind power directly to all of its facilities, so the energy credits, contracted through Boulder, Colo.-based Renewable Choice Energy, track the exact amount of electricity produced by a wind farm and apply it to the company's energy consumption. "Offsetting 100% of our electricity use with renewable, clean energy strengthens our commitment to be a leader in environmental stewardship," said a Whole Foods spokesman. Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of Public Citizen's Texas office, applauded the decision, saying the purchase ensures that wind farms will be built somewhere in the U.S and shows how a responsible corporation can positively effect energy policy. Daniel Mottola
According to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, so-called poker run charity events violate the state's gambling statutes. Poker runs such as the Austin Police officer-organized event in December 2004, after which APD Cmdr. Shauna Jacobson and her husband, retired Detective Malcolm "Kurt" Jacobson, died in a drunk-driving wreck on Highway 71 in which participants ride motorcycles to five stops, picking up a playing card at each in order to build a five-card poker hand, are popular fundraising events with law enforcement agencies. Abbott's decision, released Dec. 27, was in response to a request for an opinion made by Galveston Co. Criminal District Attorney Kurt Sistrunk, who asked the state's top lawyer to consider the legality of poker runs specifically, one recently organized by Galveston Co. sheriff's deputies who were raising money for an injured officer. According to Abbott, when participants are offered the chance for a cash prize as in Galveston the event runs afoul of state gambling laws. And the charity raffle exception to the law allows for the awarding of prizes based on a single winning "ticket," but not "where prizes are awarded based on hands of cards." (To read the full opinion, go to www.oag.state.tx.us/opinions/op50abbott/ga-0385.htm.) Jordan Smith
Controversy in Lakeway over a proposed retirement village looks like it will spill into City Council chambers. Lakeway's zoning and planning commission approved Jan. 4 an ordinance allowing the Summit at Lakeway to exceed the city's 100,000-square-foot development limit, to the consternation of several would-be neighbors. Chris Wittmayer, who has led the fight against the retirement complex, says it will lie 150 feet from his home in the neighboring Village of the Hills. Worried that it will knock tens of thousands of dollars off the property values of surrounding homes, he said, "We would have never bought or built on this land if we had any idea [about the retirement community]." At five stories and 530,000 square feet, the proposed center is anchored by an apartment-style independent living center, and would feature outlying homes and assisted living units. Wittmayer, an attorney, alleges that mistakes by Lakeway's City Council and zoning entities, such as improper public notice of the zoning hearing, have rendered the zoning changes moot, and he threatens legal recourse if the changes stand. The Summit is tentatively scheduled for approval by Lakeway City Council on Jan. 17. Wells Dunbar
The nonprofit Solar Austin has good news for those interested in pursuing a career in solar energy. They've teamed up with Austin Community College and the State Energy Conservation Office to offer a 14-week course to obtain the sought-after North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners Photovoltaic Entry Level Certificate of Knowledge. The certificate itself will not qualify one to install photovoltaic systems, but it does make the student eligible to enter the workforce and secure the required two years of on-the-job training to able to sit for the NABCEP PV installer exam. The class costs $475 plus lab fees and runs Jan. 30-May 6, Mondays and Wednesdays, 6-7:30pm, for the first 11 weeks, and then Saturdays, 9am-2pm. It will run again in the fall of 2006. Instructor John Hoffner said the class is designed for people who want to go into the solar business not only as installers, but as system designers or business managers. Near the end of the "fun and hands-on" course, he said, students will build an operating solar system and connect it to the power grid. For more info, see www3.austincc.edu/schedule/wcell/ceren.htm or contact ACC High Technology Institute coordinator Bob McGoldrick at 223-7662 or email@example.com. D.M.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Austin Disaster Recovery Center closed its doors permanently Wednesday, so evacuees of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the area who have FEMA business to take care of now must do it online at www.fema.gov or by calling 800/621-FEMA. For those with speech or hearing impairments, call TTY 800/462-7585. Cheryl Smith
In other hurricane relief news, Americans opened their wallets to record depths in 2005 in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. As of Dec. 16, individuals, corporations, and foundations in the U.S. had contributed a combined total of more than $3.1 billion to hurricane relief efforts since Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, according to data from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. That dwarfs the nearly $1.9 billion Americans have raised for relief efforts for the devastating tsunami that swelled from the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004. The American Red Cross raised by far the most money for Katrina and Rita relief efforts $1.85 billion, or about 59% of the total. Wayne Brennessel, executive director of the American Red Cross of Central Texas, said his chapter has sent $6.2 million to the organization's national office to help pay for the cost of the Gulf storms. "Certainly beats the tsunami," said Brennessel of the total. He said his chapter raised $1.2 million in the tsunami's aftermath. C.S.
Beyond City Limits
Even with the odds in his favor to win the governor's race in November, GOP Gov. Rick Perry pulled just 40% of the statewide vote in the latest pulse taken by Rasmussen Reports, a public opinion research firm. The poll showed independent challenger Carole Keeton Strayhorn earning 21%, followed by Democrat Chris Bell with 14%, and independent Kinky Friedman with 12%. Rasmussen Reports concluded that Perry is in no better shape today than he was when state Comptroller Strayhorn was running as a Republican. Strayhorn declared her independence Jan. 2. The polling firm will include Democratic candidate and former Supreme Court Justice Bob Gammage in its next poll. A separate survey of voters showed U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, with a comfortable 65% lead over Democratic challenger Barbara Ann Radnofsky, who netted 25%. Amy Smith
In other governor's race news, the Texas State Teachers Association broke from tradition this week and endorsed its first Republican candidate for statewide office former schoolteacher and gubernatorial hopeful Carole Keeton Strayhorn. The state comptroller is running as an independent in her bid to unseat Gov. Rick Perry in November. The teachers' group, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, said Strayhorn's passion for public education was the overriding factor in its decision to back her. It helps that Strayhorn has also reversed herself on a past position she took in advocating state-funded private school vouchers. "Texas schoolchildren and teachers need a governor who can forge a bipartisan education funding plan," said TSTA President Donna New Haschke. "We have given the current leadership three years to get the job done and they have failed." A.S.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has rejected U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's request to have felony charges against him dismissed or remanded to a lower court for a speedy trial. The state's highest criminal court denied the appeal Monday without comment, just two days after DeLay announced he would not attempt to regain his post as House majority leader. DeLay and two associates, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, face money-laundering charges in connection with their efforts to ensure a Republican sweep in the 2002 legislative races. Travis Co. prosecutors accuse the three of funneling $190,000 in corporate dollars through the Republican National Committee to the campaigns of seven GOP legislative candidates, including former Austin Reps. Todd Baxter and Jack Stick. A.S.
On Jan. 4, the investigator hired to lead the independent probe into the workings of the beleaguered Houston Police Department Crime Lab released his fourth report detailing findings based on 1,100 case reviews. In the 82-page report, investigator Michael R. Bromwich, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice, writes that his team found "severe and pervasive problems" with serology and DNA profiling work during the entire 15-year time frame he was hired to review. So far, the probe has uncovered "major issues" in over 40% of the DNA cases the lab reviewed in the Nineties and early 2000s, "including significant deficiencies" in DNA analyses in the cases of death row inmates Franklin Dewayne Alix, Juan Carlos Alvarez, and Gilmar Alex Guevara. (None of the three have been executed.) Bromwich also reports that several analysts failed to "report reliable and potentially exculpatory DNA typing results and instead reported questionable results that inculpated the suspect," and that the lab failed to use "proper controls" to guard against contamination. On a brighter note, Bromwich reported finding "some very competent and high quality work" within the lab's firearms, toxicology, and questioned documents sections. So far, Bromwich's team has examined about 40% of the cases the lab worked between 1987 and 2002, leaving about 1,600 cases to review. To read the entire report, go to www.hpdlabinvestigation.org. J.S.
San Antonio millionaire James Leininger, the oft-mentioned but seldom-seen contributor to pro-voucher candidates, put in an appearance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Policy Orientation this week. Leininger, who told reporters after his speech that he would continue supporting pro-voucher candidates, told the group of his own early efforts to provide private and parochial school vouchers to low-income children in San Antonio. He said it is both immoral and unjust to force children to attend public schools in situations where they are physically or mentally abused, and that providing low-income families with vouchers gives them the same options that upper-middle income families have. The school choice panel at the forum also included lobbyist Brock Gregg of the Association of Texas Professional Educators and Railroad Commissioner Michael L. Williams. Kimberly Reeves
Mexia's most famous daughter, Anna Nicole Smith, got a little unexpected support from the Bush administration, which filed a brief on Smith's behalf with the U.S. Supreme Court, where Smith's long-simmering battle to secure a sizable portion of her late husband's fortune is slated to take center stage Feb. 28. At issue and what has earned the interest of the administration is whether the federal courts have jurisdiction to consider a claim on a will while it is already under consideration in state probate court. A federal court in California considered and awarded Smith an $89-million judgment on the estate of her deceased husband, Texas oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, while a challenge to her claims, made by Marshall's son, was already being considered by a Texas probate court. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, arguing that the federal courts lacked jurisdiction over the matter. The Bush administration has weighed in, arguing that the Supremes should protect the feds' jurisdiction rights in such matters. The high court has yet to rule on whether the federal solicitor will be allowed to argue its position during next month's oral arguments. J.S.