Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"I'm Vince Young, and it's halftime." Ben Bentzin, Republican candidate for state House District 48, predicting in the Daily Texan a turnaround in the run-off from his poor showing in last week's special election.
Quote of the Week
The Donna Howard and Ben Bentzin campaigns for the state House District 48 run-off began to gather steam, as Lt. Gov. Dewhurst (filling in for Gov. Perry, who's currently in Iraq) announced that the run-off will be held Feb. 14. See "Democrats Unite Behind Howard for District 48."
Community pressure is growing for the Capital Metro board to intervene directly in the labor negotiations between contractor StarTran and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091; voluntary citizen mediators have offered their services, thus far without success. As of press time, the union was expected to announce a strike to begin Monday, Jan. 30.
City Council meets today (Thursday) with a fairly limited agenda, as Mayor Will Wynn and several other city officials began the week in Washington, D.C. at the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Mayor Wynn used the occasion to barnstorm for plug-in hybrid vehicles; more mundane matters, like what to do about the proposed $614.8 million bond election, will wait for next week. See "Beside the Point."
A federal trial began Monday in the Sophia King case, in which King's family is suing the city of Austin on the grounds that an Austin police officer's failure to act in response to the mentally ill woman's erratic and threatening behavior in June 2002 eventually resulted in her shooting death at the hands of an APD officer.
The likely Democratic contenders for governor dropped to three last week (or stayed at zero, if you prefer), as Fort Worth middle school administrator Felix Alvarado was dropped from the primary ballot when his filing check bounced. That leaves former Congressmen Chris Bell and Bob Gammage plus novice candidate and Houston convenience-store manager Rashad Jafer.
At press time, now 19-year-old Marcus McTear who was convicted in June 2003 of stabbing to death his former girlfriend, 15-year-old Ortralla Mosley, in a hallway at Reagan High School was back in juvenile court for a hearing to determine whether he will be sent to the adult Texas Department of Criminal Justice to serve out the remainder of his 40-year sentence. McTear has spent the past three years in the Texas Youth Commission's Giddings State School, where psychologists testified Jan. 24 that he has yet to show any remorse for his crime. It will be up to District Judge Jeanne Meurer to decide whether McTear should be given another chance in TYC or be sent to an adult prison. Jordan Smith
Mayor Will Wynn was making national news Tuesday in Washington D.C. with the announcement that Austin's campaign to urge the accelerated production of plug-in hybrid vehicles is going nationwide. The initiative hopes that city and individual enthusiasm, such as Austin's 600 "soft" fleet-vehicle orders and 11,000 citizen petitions, will entice automakers to mass produce the ultra-efficient vehicles, which use new, larger batteries that charge from a regular wall outlet to achieve a range of 25-35 miles of all-electric driving, as well as fuel economy in excess of 80 mpg. A number of cities are already on board, with the goal of enlisting the 50 largest U.S. cities. The plug-ins are said to be a near-term solution to improve air quality, reduce foreign-oil dependence, and even tap unused electric utility capacity by charging the vehicles overnight, when few people demand energy. The Travis Co. Green Party endorsed the plan, but with reservations. "Austin is the most congested mid-sized city in the country. We've got to move beyond roads and cars." They called for an end to the current "road building frenzy," and for more public transportation options as well as improved support for bicycling and walking. For more info, see www.pluginpartners.org Daniel Mottola
AISD has recommended that the Board of Trustees adopt a "compromise" calendar to begin the next school year Aug. 15. For months, a committee of AISD parents and staff has been wrestling with the merits of two proposed calendars: one that starts Aug. 15 and one that starts Aug. 22. The main argument in favor of an early start is that it gives students and schools a head start on preparing for standardized tests. A group of parents, however, has been extremely vocal in opposing the early-start calendar, in part because it cuts off summer, and in part because winter break begins in mid-December, releasing the kiddos to rampage underfoot for 10 days before Christmas. Hence the compromise plan approved by a 10-8 vote in the calendar committee: The year would begin Aug. 15, but winter break would begin Dec. 22. Nevertheless, parent Michele Worrell, who has been leading the late-start charge, told the board that the halfway solution wasn't acceptable. The trustees will vote on the issue Feb. 6, so there's still time to share your thoughts at www.austinisd.org Rachel Proctor May
If you want to make a historic preservationist in Austin mad these days, talk about the demolition of the house at 1200 Lorraine under a remodeling permit. Time and again in recent meetings of the Historic Preservation Task Force, the demolition of the 1920s Tudor house in the Westline National Historic District has been cited as the best example of why the city needs to tighten up its permit process on potentially historic structures. Needless to say, owners Kevin O'Hanlon and Priscilla Lozano, both local attorneys but ignorant of the preservation code, were a bit shell-shocked by a round with the Historic Landmark Commission this week. O'Hanlon pulled the house down because of foundation and water-damage problems. That drew the full ire of both the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association and the Landmark Commission. In fact, the city is taking O'Hanlon and Lozano to municipal court next month for violating their permit. Meanwhile, the couple must secure the blessing of the HLC for new construction on the site, which was put off this week until city staff approves the construction plans and the existing variances are clarified. The commission is unlikely to be any happier about the couple's construction plans next month. Kimberly Reeves
The final chapter in the Miller-Maverick House controversy was written this week at the Historic Landmark and Planning commissions. Last fall, City Council approved the transfer of development rights on the Miller-Maverick House an extra 20 feet in height to another nearby property owned by the same owner. That property, at 21st and Rio Grande, will become the high-rise 21 Rio. Both properties are located in the high-density University Neighborhood Overlay district. In a restrictive covenant with the Heritage Society, the owner of the Miller-Maverick House agreed to limit additional development on that property to a small art gallery or studio no taller than 40 feet. While council approved the deal last October, the Landmark and Planning commissions still had to sign off on the negotiated deal, which both did this week. K.R.
Oops! The following correction ran in our February 3, 2006 issue: In last week's "Naked City," a Bullet on the Miller-Maverick House misstated the property's address. It is on 26th Street and not at 21 Rio Grande. Also, while early talks with commissions – and even some of the city's own documentation – indicated the deal was a transfer of development rights, city staff confirms that the final transaction did not require such action. The two properties were owned by the same owner, and the two changes were approved by council in a single motion, but one did not depend upon the other.
Lakeway City Council is considering approval Monday of zoning changes permitting the American Retirement Center's Village of the Hills to erect a five-story, 530,000-square-foot retirement home. Aside from drawing the ire of nearby homeowners, the case is also notable in that Lakeway will have to vote to alter its own zoning code, designed to keep big-box retailers out. Wells Dunbar
The APD's Critical Incident Negotiation Team took top honors at the 16th Hostage Negotiation Team Competition on Jan. 12 in San Marcos. APD's 22-officer CINT beat out 24 teams from across the country to win the annual competition, held at Texas State University during a training seminar. The CINT team works with the department's SWAT unit, to respond to various "critical" situations, including hostage situations and armed and/or suicidal barricaded suspects. In 2005, the team was called to a total of 27 incidents. J.S.
House Democratic leaders agree on many things, but who should be the next governor of Texas isn't one of them. On Monday, Democratic hopeful Bob Gammage picked up the support of House Democratic Caucus Chair Jim Dunnam of Waco. On Tuesday, rival candidate Chris Bell returned serve with the endorsement of Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman, chair of the Legislative Study Group and immediate past chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. Bell had previously secured the backing of Alpine Rep. Pete Gallego, chair of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. Meanwhile, a third Democrat in the March 7 primary Houston retailer Rashad Jafer aims to collect the names of 1 million supporters on his Web site, www.rashadforgovernor.com. Would-be guv contender Felix Alvarado, a Fort Worth educator, was shut out early because his $3,750 filing fee check to the Texas Democratic Party bounced. Amy Smith
Beyond City Limits
During the first meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Education Reform and Public School Finance say that quick three times Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, pledged a modest agenda for education reform during the special session. Shapiro said she'd prefer, first, to address the issues of the Supreme Court school finance ruling and, second, to talk about a limited number of reform-related issues. Shapiro told the group at its first meeting Tuesday that she wanted to do two or three things and do them well, rather than tackle a long reform agenda. That's in line with the proposals of John Sharp, who was appointed by the governor to head up the Texas Tax Reform Commission. Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, on the other hand, has talked up a number of failed reform measures as real possibilities during the upcoming session. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who spent many a late night in the conference committee, said it would be a mistake to go back to the more contentious issues that clearly had no consensus and would divide the Legislature. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said the public perceived the Legislature as doing nothing more than sniping and bickering during the last special session, rather than trying to address the real problems facing education. K.R.
The Republicans vying for Rep. Terry Keel's seat in House District 47, minus Bill Welch, showed a decidedly conservative bent at a candidate forum last week. Alex Castano, Terry Dill, Rich Phillips, and Dick Reynolds appeared at the Founders' Vision Republican Women's forum. While former Sheriff Keel, who is now running for the Court of Criminal Appeals, was more a law-and-order Republican with a strong "no nonsense" bent, the four candidates who spoke at the meeting were far more interested in showing their credentials as patriotic and godly Christians with plenty of children and, it appeared, an anti-abortion, pro-voucher, pro-prayer-in-schools agenda. This crop of candidates might find another voice in a different setting, but Republican observers note that these candidates appear especially conservative. K.R.
The party primaries are expected to be the proving ground for the future of the Legislature this year, and the first endorsements of the Texas Parent PAC prove that. The PAC announced the first two of more than 20 endorsements this week, supporting challenger Anette Carlisle and incumbent Delwin Jones. Carlisle, who was nearly kicked off the ballot because of a protest from Texas Republican Party Chair Tina Benkiser that Carlisle's school board position was a "lucrative job," is challenging Rep. David Swinford, a Dumas Republican who chairs the House State Affairs Committee. Jones, a long-time GOP lawmaker out of Lubbock with some moderate votes on his record, has two challengers in his primary. Carolyn Boyle of the Texas Parent PAC says endorsements will continue through March 1 and will focus on both Democrat and Republican as well as challenger and incumbent, specifically looking for those candidates who are well-rounded, viable, and have a commitment to and knowledge of the public education system. K.R.
Comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn had little good to say about the Texas Residential Construction Commission during a news conference this week. She released a 50-page report that called for abolishing the agency, saying that it lacked enforcement powers to force builders to fix defects in homes and that the mediation process was more one of documenting defects than finding a resolution between homebuilder and homebuyer. In a survey of about 100 homeowners who went through the TRCC dispute-resolution process, at least half thought the process was slow or nonresponsive, and the vast majority were unhappy with the results. In a response the next day, TRCC Executive Director Duane Waddill said the commission took no position on Strayhorn's legislative claims for instance, those calling for more enforcement authority for the TRCC but that the agency had increased its customer service staff by 400% in the first quarter of the year, and that the commission recently approved a follow-up program to determine whether the dispute resolution process had been effective. K.R.
Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, continues to rally for removing lawmaker-turned-lobbyist Bill Ceverha from the board of the Employee Retirement System. Burnam has made at least two visits to chastise the ERS board for failing to investigate what he sees as Ceverha's conflicts of interest. On Monday, Burnam held a news conference to present a memo he says proves that Ceverha was still lobbying the ERS board after Speaker of the House Tom Craddick appointed him in 2003. Ceverha has claimed he severed all ties with businesses interested in lobbying the board when he took his seat on the board. It's probably no coincidence that Democrats are lobbying so hard these days against Ceverha, given that Ceverha was the one-time treasurer of Texans for a Republican Majority and Craddick was the alleged beneficiary of his largesse during his first speaker's race. Burnam, by the way, was the one member of the House who voted against Craddick during his first run for speaker, leading to a list of rather Siberia-like committee assignments. K.R.
Two cool hurricane happenings are scheduled this weekend. Photo and oral history exhibit "Surviving Katrina: Sharing Our Stories" has the first of two openings Saturday at the University Hills Library, 4721 Loyola, 2-4pm. (The second is Feb. 15 at the Carver Library, 6-8pm.) The display, excerpts from the retellings of six New Orleanians of their experiences fleeing the hurricane and winding up in Austin, is a collaboration between the Austin History Center and local oral history project Alive in Truth. Cake, coffee, and jazz will abound. On Sunday, a folk/blues/gospel benefit concert for Guatemalans affected by Hurricane Stan begins at 6:30pm at 290 West Bar & Grill, 12013 Hwy. 290 W. Ruthie Foster will headline the Dripping Springs Presbyterian Church-sponsored concert. Both events are free, but donations are encouraged at Sunday's concert; proceeds will go toward an effort to rebuild 33 of the hardest hit communities in Guatemala, where, according to the Red Cross, "Hurricane Stan caused 669 deaths, directly affected more than 470,000 other lives, damaged or destroyed almost 35,000 homes and partially or completely wiped out the sanitation and water systems of entire villages." Cheryl Smith
In a move that's been endorsed by such prominent lefty thinkers as Lewis Lapham, Howard Zinn, Jonathan Kozol, and, um, Wavy Gravy, the grassroots organization World Can't Wait has created a campaign to Drive Out the Bush Regime. Spurred by the outrageous behavior of the current administration the illegal war in Iraq, the justification of torture, and the influence of Christian fundamentalists on public policy, to name a few WCW has planned demonstrations across the nation to coincide with George W. Bush's upcoming State of the Union address. Beginning at 7pm here in Austin, there will be a rally at Austin City Hall, with speakers and live music from Alejandro Escovedo, the Texcentrics, and others. At 8pm, when the Prez begins his speech, folks are asked to "Bring the Noise" and "drown out the lies" with bells, whistles, and various noisemakers. For more info, see www.worldcantwait.net. Diana Welch.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the February 3, 2006 issue: Last week's "Quote of the Week" should have noted that the Ben Bentzin quote came from The Daily Texan.