Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"I never once doubted that if people stayed at the table and continued to negotiate in good faith there would be an outcome that met the needs of this community.
If I did only one thing in this process, it was to make sure that we left no stone unturned in the final hours of these negotiations." Mayor Will Wynn, following his successful intervention in the contract negotiations between Capital Metro, StarTran, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091.
Quote of the Week
Early voting in the House District 48 run-off special election runs this Monday through Friday, Feb. 10, as Democrat Donna Howard and Republican Ben Bentzin vie to fill the vacancy left by Todd Baxter. For more info on the candidates and early voting, see "Endorsements," or www.benbentzin.com and www.votedonna.com. And strangely enough, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay will mark the first day of early voting with an appearance in Austin to drum up cash for his re-election effort.
After a late-night intervention by Mayor Wynn, a scheduled Monday strike was averted at Capital Metro, with a contract settlement between Cap Metro contractor StarTran and Local 1091 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. See "Cap Metro Dodges Strike," and "Point Austin."
The parents of Daniel Rocha, who was shot and killed last June during a traffic/drug stop by APD Officer Julie Schroeder, have filed a federal lawsuit against the city, charging excessive force and racial discrimination. Schroeder was dismissed by the APD for her actions, and her partner, Sgt. Don Doyle, was disciplined, but neither officer was indicted by a Travis Co. grand jury that reviewed the incident.
UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner stepped down Tuesday after eight years running the 50,000-student university; he will move on to become president of a charitable foundation, the Houston Endowment.
President Bush delivered his State of the Union message to Congress Tuesday night, congratulated his new Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, described the War on Terrorism as proceeding according to plan, and declared the future so bright he has to wear shades.
Late last week, Travis Co. DA Ronnie Earle announced that Nebraska-based Bonding and Technical Services of Texas pled guilty, under a plea bargain, to five counts of making illegal corporate contributions to City Council and other candidates in 2001-2003. The company, hired by the city of Austin to give bonding help to small, minority, and women-owned businesses, illegally reimbursed employees for contributions totaling more than $10,000 to 11 area candidates in all, including several members still sitting on the Austin City Council. Earle's press release says the candidates (including Kirk Watson, Gus Garcia, and Will Wynn) were unaware of the source of the contributions and their illegality. District Judge Jon Wisser levied the maximum penalty against the group: $20,000 for each of the five counts. Wells Dunbar
Following the resounding defeat of Proposition 2 in Austin (and its resounding success everywhere else statewide), City Council Member Brewster McCracken is floating the idea of domestic partner benefits for city employees. The charter amendment, which is hoped to appear on the May ballot, would follow Travis County's lead; it currently offers the option of adding a member of an employee's household to its health care plan. In 1993, council approved domestic benefits for city employees, but following a conservative campaign against the measure, the decision was later overturned at the polls. W.D.
Those endless blue skies over Austin have done a lot more damage than wilting your pansies: The Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer is officially in an "alarm stage" drought. With a dozen-inch rainfall deficit in 2005, the springs were flowing at half their normal level as of January. Many entities with permits to draw water from the aquifer must now implement their drought contingency plans, which cut usage 20%. Many individual well owners are exempt from such mandatory plans, but the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District encourages voluntary conservation measures. For more info, visit www.bseacd.org. Rachel Proctor May
A jury in federal district court has ruled that the city of Austin is not liable for the 2002 police-shooting death of Sophia King. King's aunt, Velma Pickens, sued the city on behalf of King's two children, arguing that the city had discriminated against King, who was schizophrenic, by failing to provide her with mental health services that could have saved her life. APD Officer John Coffey fatally shot King as she threatened to kill a city housing authority employee with a knife. The incident faced exhaustive review by the APD, FBI, and a city-hired independent investigator and Coffey was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. At issue in this trial was whether another officer, Eric Kilcollins, should have called in APD mental health officers to assess King's mental state the night before her death after he arrived at her apartment in response to a noise complaint. King had a history of run-ins with the police and had been committed to the Austin State Hospital less than a year before. When Kilcollins asked King to turn down the music in her apartment, she commented that "they" were "out to get me" and threatened to kill someone, reports the American-Statesman. Kilcollins left but soon returned in response to a second noise complaint: King made "strange comments," the daily reports, but Kilcollins again left without calling for a mental health officer who could evaluate King's mental state. Kilcollins told the jury he was given no information about King's history before he arrived at her apartment, and he considered her comments nothing more than the kind of "idle threats" he's heard while on patrol. Perkins' lawyer, Scott Ozmun, said the family will consider appealing the case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Jordan Smith
BFI Waste Systems, which operates the Sunset Farms landfill in Northeast Travis Co. near U.S. 290 and Giles Lane, has joined its next door neighbor, the Waste Management of Texas Inc. Austin community landfill, in applying to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for a permit to make significant vertical expansions. WM's application is administratively complete and awaits TCEQ review, and BFI's will likely be on the books as well by the time the agency completes the major rewrite of its municipal solid waste rules now taking place. So both sites will be exempt from any rule changes. And some of the new rules apply to landfill expansions, mandating that expanded areas sit atop protective liners that meet current code or that operators demonstrate safeguards showing that pollution won't take place. Both sites sit atop unlined trash cells and have been grandfathered to operate under current law. BFI representatives maintain that they're running out of space, which may be true. However, fed up neighbors and environmental opposition argue that there's no shortage of landfill space in the region, and that the sites' track record of repeated odor complaints, flooding, and windblown trash should preclude them from expansion permits. Daniel Mottola
At last Thursday's City Council meeting it was McCracken vs. McMansions. A resolution initiating changes to city code to ensure that development is consistent with existing neighborhoods, sponsored by McCracken, passed unanimously. Council is set to vote on similar interim rules at tonight's meeting to quell a perceived influx of building permits before the so-called McMansion ordinance is finalized in March. Materials accompanying the proposed measure state that "due to an increase in property values and the desire to live in Austin's central city area, many property owners are demolishing or moving smaller older homes and replacing them with larger homes known as McMansions." The new ordinance would seek to regulate such constructions by employing any number of the following methods: changing the maximum allowed building height for single-family uses, creating a new floor-to-area ratio (meaning the ratio of building square footage to lot size), applying compatibility standards to new homes or remodeled homes with significant additions, revising building setbacks for homes exceeding a certain size, limiting home size based on the average size of nearby homes, or providing an angled stepback from the front property line of the lot so a new or remodeled home would not tower over the adjacent street. D.M.
Austin Police are asking for public assistance in their hunt to find out who is responsible for a rash of random tire slashings around Central Austin. Since October, police have received 29 reports of slashed or punctured tires in the area between Guadalupe and I-35, from UT to 45th. A single suspect, 51-year-old Tommy Joe Kelley, was arrested in November after police got a call from someone who said they saw him slashing tires near the 600 block of Franklin. Kelley was charged with criminal mischief, a Class B misdemeanor (punishable by up to 180 days in jail and/or a $2,000 fine), but since then, police say, the slashings on both older and newer cars parked on the street, in residential driveways, and in parking lots have continued. J.S.
About 100 teachers and parents attended a forum at Porter Middle School to discuss AISD's plans to "repurpose" the underenrolled South Austin school. Under the plan, neighborhood middle school students would attend Covington and Bedichek starting in 2007, at which point the Porter facility would be used to launch two new "concept" high schools. The two concepts currently on the table are for a young women's school and a "global" institute providing advanced language study; but Superintendent Pat Forgione said other small concept schools could be considered. Unlike a similar forum at Becker Elementary, the response was decidedly mixed: While a few parents had all the fiery rhetoric of a public school parent scorned, others were cautiously optimistic. For the umpteenth time since the proposal was suddenly announced in mid-January, AISD also heard loud and clear that the district could have done a much better job of soliciting parent input before presenting a concrete proposal. R.P.M.
Twenty-one-year-old Lacresha Murray who was twice tried for the 1996 murder of 2½-year-old Jayla Belton was arrested late last week on charges that she assaulted a female roommate. In 1996, 11-year-old Murray became the youngest person ever tried for capital murder; she was twice convicted before Texas' 3rd Court of Appeals in 1999 tossed the conviction, ruling that Austin police circumvented the state's family law code, coercing Murray into confessing. Murray allegedly pulled her roommate's hair and kicked her in the knee after the roommate told Murray that she was moving out. The assault charge is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $4,000 fine. J.S.
What hath Slacker wrought? MovieMaker magazine, in its annual Top Ten Cities for Moviemakers roundup, named Austin the second best in the country, outgunned only by New York City. Trumpeting the announcement alongside indie auteurs and bleary-eyed RTF students is the Texas Film Commission, which estimates half a film's budget is spent in the community where it is shot; by this estimate, Austin has gained about $475 million since 1993. "Austin continues to lead the pack in understanding the economic impact the film industry can make," said Mayor Will Wynn in a press release. "In meeting regularly with film industry professionals we have learned how we can better our outreach to the global film community." This is the sixth consecutive year Austin has placed in the top 10. W.D.
Recent news reports linking Ben Bentzin's 2002 state Senate campaign to indicted political consultant John Colyandro has prompted a complaint to the Travis Co. district attorney. In the complaint filed last Thursday, Kenneth Flippin, a grad student at the LBJ School of Public Policy, asks DA Ronnie Earle to investigate possible campaign finance violations, and to investigate whether Colyandro committed perjury by not disclosing in a deposition that he was a paid consultant to the Bentzin campaign while also heading up U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority and helping the Texas Association of Business strategize on campaign mailers for various legislative candidates, including Bentzin. Flippin also questions whether this constitutes illegal coordination between political campaigns, and notes that Bentzin did not report his campaign expenditures to Colyandro, although the statute of limitations may have already expired on that point, which would preclude a criminal investigation. Earlier this month, Bentzin told the Statesman that Colyandro had suggested paying him through the printer hired to produce his campaign materials. Colyandro, DeLay, and Jim Ellis face money-laundering charges in connection with their efforts during the 2002 election cycle. The DA's office is not expected to address the complaint until after the Feb. 14 run-off election between Bentzin and Donna Howard. Amy Smith
Beyond City Limits
Texas hit an unfortunate benchmark last week: The death of 28-year-old Air Force Staff Sgt. Brian McElroy, a native of San Antonio, was the state's 200th military fatality of the war in Iraq. He died on a convoy mission Sunday, Jan. 22, when his armored Humvee hit a roadside bomb north of Baghdad. Not since Vietnam had the Air Force conducted convoy security, but in 2004 it launched the Basic Combat Convoy program, or BC3, to help out the overburdened Army and Marine Corps. McElroy completed BC3 training this summer just outside of his home town, at Lackland Air Force Base, and he arrived in Iraq last November. Nora Ankrum
Annie's List a statewide Democratic fundraising committee that supports women candidates has taken on new leadership this month as it seeks to redirect more of its resources to pro-choice hopefuls while reining in what appear to have been some lavish spending habits in the last year. Director Sherry Boyles has left the 3-year-old organization to pursue new opportunities in Dallas; her successor is Kelly White, who led Austin SafePlace for 11 years before mounting a bid for state representative in 2004, and has been serving as campaign treasurer for House District 48 candidate Donna Howard. Boyles co-founded Annie's List with former state Rep. Ann Kitchen in 2003; Kitchen and some other original members left the group the following year. Political newsletter Texas Weekly calculates that the PAC spent 81% of the $325,000 it raised in 2005, even though it was an off-election year. Of that amount, Boyles was paid $81,400 in consulting and management fees and bonuses. Travel costs totalled $23,476, while restaurant and catering tabs tallied $29,384. According to sources close to the organization, White was brought in to return the PAC to its original mission of helping Texas women win elections by running effective campaigns, much like Emily's List, the national committee that served as a model for it. Annie's List has also opened a new office at 703 W. Ninth. A.S.
Protesting Gov. Perry's recent executive order calling for the fast-track permitting of seven new Texas coal power plants, Public Citizen; SEED Coalition; the Sierra Club; Blue Skies Alliance; Austin Physicians for Social Responsibility; TPOWER; Texas Black Bass Unlimited; and Our Land, Our Lives are calling on Perry to "protect people, not polluters," by restoring the permit timeliness and requiring the cleanest technology available. Already, the groups argue, particulate pollution from coal plants causes 1,160 premature deaths per year in Texas. Texas has the nation's worst mercury emissions from coal facilities, and, in turn, 12 bodies of water, including major fishing lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, are so contaminated that it isn't safe to eat some species of fish. One new proposed site, TXU's Robertson Co. lignite-burning plant, would be the worst in the nation for mercury, even from the very start, the groups claim. On Tuesday at 10:30am, the groups kick off their Toxic Texas Power Plant Tour with a press conference at the Governor's Mansion, then take to five Texas cities their message that "more coal means more asthma and emergency room visits, more acid rain, global warming and toxic laden fish." For more info, see www.stopthecoalplant.org. D.M.
Imagine a huge hotel and conference center overlooking Barton Springs Pool. At Aquarena Springs, a former amusement park now owned by Texas State University home to San Marcos Springs, which gushes 150 million-300 million gallons of water daily such a fate was averted last week when an adjacent 251-acre tract known as Spring Lake, including sensitive undeveloped lands in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, was secured as a nature preserve and park. The city of San Marcos, Hays County, Texas State University, and the Nature Conservancy banded together to buy the land from San Marcos developer T.P. Gilmore for $4.8 million. The deal is set to close in May. The originally planned development was relocated to another Gilmore properties, a 203-acre swath at I-35, near the sprawling Tanger and Prime outlet malls, reportedly among Texas' top tourist destinations. The $40 million-50 million project consists of an 11-story, 250-room hotel and a 75,000-square-foot conference center. D.M.
Here's something to be proud of. According to a new study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, Texas had the second-largest income gap in the nation between its richest and poorest families in the early 2000s, and the largest gap between its wealthiest and middle-class families during the same time period. Even more heartening, "Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends" meticulously demonstrates through census data analysis that the nation as a whole is a markedly less egalitarian place than it used to be. In sharp contrast to the U.S.' economic climate between World War II and the 1970s, when there was an overall increase in prosperity, the chasms between the rich and the poor and the rich and the middle class grew significantly in most states between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. In Texas, for example, the richest 20% of families in the early 2000s had average incomes 8.1 times larger than the poorest 20%, up from a 6.2 ratio in the early 1980s. To learn more, see www.cbpp.org/1-26-06sfp.htm. Cheryl Smith