Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"We need to wear goggles." Activist and access TV producer Stefan Wray, when asked what a federal jury verdict exonerating an Austin police officer for pepper-spraying an anti-war demonstration meant for free speech in Austin. See "Point Austin."
Quote of the Week
Donna Howard sent smiles across the faces of Texas Democrats when she defeated Ben Bentzin in the special election for House District 48 Tuesday, recapturing for the donkeys a seat that had been held by Republican Todd Baxter for the past four years. See "Howard Defeats Bentzin."
And that election was only the beginning of a long spring: Early voting for the March 7 primaries begins on Tuesday, Feb. 21, which will likely be followed by a few run-offs, and then City Council elections happen in May. For early voting info and sample ballots, see "March 7 Primaries."
Austin lawyer Harry Whittington, 78, was shot and seriously wounded in a hunting accident Saturday by none other than Vice President Dick Cheney. The news wasn't released until 24 hours later and not from an official source stirring up the wrath of the nation's news media. See "Birdshot Blunders."
City Council heard from a few hundred citizens on the pros and cons of an interim moratorium against McMansions being built in older central-city neighborhoods. See "Beside the Point."
A federal jury ruled that Austin Police Cmdr. James O'Leary did not use excessive force against four independent journalists when he pepper-sprayed them and everyone else at a 2003 anti-war protest on the Congress Avenue Bridge. See "Point Austin."
The AISD board of trustees remained underwhelmed this week by a proposal to repurpose three AISD schools in the next two years. Although Superintendent Pat Forgione announced the proposal in January, Monday was the first time the board got a detailed breakdown of what it will cost to turn underenrolled Becker and Oak Springs elementaries and Lucy Read professional development academy into pre-K centers. After accounting for buses to send the repurposed children to their new schools, the three-school closure would save about $1.2 million when fully implemented in 2007-08. However, the plan is not simply to close the facilities but to devote them to new uses, and those new purposes will cost $1.8 million. In other words, the plan will actually cost AISD $600,000 the first year of full implementation. The job now before the trustees is to determine whether the new purposes are worth the cost, and worth the upheaval to the children who stand to lose their schools. Arguing for his proposal, Forgione played the those-big-bad-Feds-are-gonna-get-us card: He reminded the trustees that the federal No Child Left Behind law requires all students, including special education ones, to perform on grade level by 2014 and intimated that failure to approve the pre-K centers will prevent AISD from meeting NCLB targets. The trustees' reaction ranged from skeptical to downright hostile; however, Forgione still wants them to decide whether to move forward with some or all of the plan by Feb. 27. Rachel Proctor May
Two APD officers were shocked Feb. 13 after a drunken driving suspect managed to get an officer's Taser gun during a struggle. Both officers were unharmed and were able to get 17-year-old Joseph Adam Mesa into custody. The 13-minute chase began near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on Monday night; police say Mesa intentionally rammed the Ford SUV he was driving into an APD patrol car before driving off. Mesa finally wrecked the car near the intersection of Parker Lane and East Oltorf, where he got into a struggle with five officers. One used a Taser on Mesa, apparently with no effect. Somehow Mesa was able to get a Taser away from one officer, which he used to drive-stun two officers before police were able to regain control of the weapon and Mesa. Mesa has been charged with evading arrest and several counts of assault, including felony assault of a police officer. Jordan Smith
At press time, testimony continued in a federal lawsuit brought by actor Jason Patric, who was arrested by APD Officer Joshua Visi in the warehouse district on March 29, 2004, after a premiere party at Antone's for the movie The Alamo (in which Patric played Jim Bowie). Visi arrested Patric, charging him with public intoxication and resisting arrest, after the actor allegedly refused to get out of the roadway and onto the sidewalk at Fifth and Colorado. County prosecutors dismissed the charges, saying there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute the case. Now Patric is suing Visi on federal civil rights charges, alleging that Visi was acting aggressively and used excessive force to arrest him. The trial is expected to conclude, and go to jurors for deliberation, tomorrow (Friday). J.S.
APD Assistant Chief Robert Dahlstrom has been chosen to take over as chief of the UT police force. Dahlstrom, a 28-year veteran of the APD, is slated to take over for former Chief Jeffrey Van Slyke (who resigned last year to work on a doctorate) in mid-March. "The University is fortunate to have attracted someone of Dahlstrom's caliber into the position of chief of police," Pat Clubb, UT veep of employee and campus services, said in a press release. At press time, the APD had not yet announced who would be taking over Dahlstrom's spot on the Fifth Floor, but sources say that Cmdr. Harold Piatt, now in charge of narcotics and organized crime, or Cmdr. David Carter, head of highway enforcement, are the top two choices for the job. Sources also say at least one other assistant chief is planning to resign this spring, but no official announcements have been made. J.S.
Local neighbors have appeared to have won the fight to postpone the Sweetwater subdivision, a 1,900-home development off Highway 71 at Old Lockhart Highway. While the subdivision appeared to meet all Travis County requirements, county commissioners were uneasy with the lack of highway improvements in the area and issues with water service at the subdivision. The commissioners' refusal to approve the site plan actually, an indefinite postponement until further answers are available opens the door for developer Forest City to test Senate Bill 848, known as the "cocktail napkin" bill, from last session. Under the new state law, a developer is vested with development rights as soon as a site plan is filed. It remains to be seen whether the developer in this case will sue for his rights in court, but Commissioner Gerald Daugherty alluded to such a situation and said it would be far better to negotiate at the county than to be forced to concede in court. Kimberly Reeves
Following Austin's lead of being the first municipality in the nation to ban coal-tar parking lot sealants, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett has called for a national study of the harms they pose. This week, Doggett asked the Environmental Protection Agency to enlist the National Academy of Sciences in a study of the sealants, which were linked to groundwater contamination and contain Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon carcinogens. Late last year, in a motion pushed by Council Member Lee Leffingwell, the city adopted a ban on coal-tar sealant. In his letter, Doggett calls for a "report on the extent to which the presence of coal-tar sealants leads to increases in PAHs in local water sources.
With an estimated 660,000 gallons of coal-tar sealant applied annually in the Austin area alone, it is of utmost importance that a nationwide study be undertaken to determine what actions should be taken in regard to the use of coal-tar sealants across the country." Wells Dunbar
Beyond City Limits
Taser International, maker of the electro-shock gun used by thousands of police agencies worldwide including the APD announced Feb. 14 that the company has "successfully" completed the first "live-fire" demonstration of its latest weapon, the Taser XREP that is, "extended range electro-muscular projectile" a "wireless" stun device that fires from a 12-gauge shotgun. The standard Taser delivers its electric jolt via two metal probes attached to long wires fired from a pistol-sized gun; with this newest weapon, however, an electrified projectile fires independently like a bullet and can hit a target up to 30 meters away, company officials say. The XREP was researched and developed under a program for the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the company says; Taser CEO Rick Smith calls it a "major technological breakthrough" and says that the successful live-fire test means the weapon is ready for production. Taser reports that the weapon has been tested on 35 volunteers, including Stephen Kunich of the Air Force Air Combat Command Security Forces, who received a five-second wireless jolt. "The effect locked up muscles and totally overwhelmed the senses," he said. "There isn't much doubt of full compliance after exposure to a Taser weapon like XREP." J.S.
Former State Board of Education Member Diane Patrick has picked up The Dallas Morning News' endorsement in her Republican primary challenge to powerful House Public Education Committee Chair Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington. Saying it's time for a change, the Dallas daily knocked Grusendorf for emphasizing school reforms over school funding and for his overall leadership failings on school finance. Patrick is a public-school advocate and a former Arlington school board member. Grusendorf, a supporter of tax-funded private school vouchers, has blamed Democrats, liberals, and public school lobbyists for the GOP leadership's inability to pass an education bill. In fact, he asserts that his Republican opponent is part of a vast, left-wing conspiracy to challenge conservative GOP incumbents. "Don't underestimate the Liberals," his campaign literature warns. "They'll rely on Democrats to cross over and raid our Republican primary." Amy Smith
Details are emerging about the state's proposed 65% rule, which is expected to be up for review in late February or early March. The rule, which will require school districts to spend 65% of expenditures in the classroom, will use a definition of instructional expenditures that excludes budget items such as counselors, librarians, technology, social workers, and maintenance but includes extracurricular activities such as football. It also will require school districts to disclose spending for lobbying, public relations, dues for noninstructional organizations and legal services, as well as any savings account balances, known as a district's fund balance. School districts also will be required to provide specifics on the superintendent's contract and benefits, as well the superintendent's earnings from outside consulting services. Payments to board members and gifts given to the board also will be disclosed. The agency confirms that the details of the rule are under a final review at the agency and could change before being disclosed. K.R.
A coalition of bilingual education advocates have sued the Texas Education Agency to force the use of bilingual education and English as a Second Language in the state's classrooms. The lawsuit, filed by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and others, is based on a lawsuit brought against the state by the federal government 25 years ago. The filing was a response to State Board of Education Member Gail Lowe's presentation at last week's board meeting of English immersion programs, which forego teaching children in their native language in favor of an English-only curriculum. California passed an English immersion initiative, Proposition 227, in 1998. More than two dozen people signed up to speak against the proposal, one noting that California may have seen some gains on test scores but that test scores for bilingual students in both states remain fairly comparable. Lowe's presentation, however, had little teeth because it is the Legislature, and not the SBOE, that would determine the state's academic strategy. K.R.
The American Smelting and Refinery Company, operators of a metal smelter in El Paso dating back to the 1887s, were in town Wednesday to ask the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to renew the facility's air-emissions permit. A throng of opponents, led by El Paso state Senator Eliot Shapleigh and El Paso Mayor John Cook, had also made the 600-mile journey. They claim that ASARCO has been dangerously polluting area communities, and for far too long. A recently completed Sierra Club study which tested soil samples near El Paso both north and south of the border found high levels of the toxic heavy metals lead, arsenic, and cadmium, and determined that ASARCO's smelter was chiefly responsible. "This new evidence proves what our binational community has long suspected: ASARCO has poisoned us all and needs to be held accountable for its actions," said Mariana Chew of the El Paso Sierra Club. "The only permit that ASARCO deserves is a permit to clean up its mess and get out of town," added Sierra Club U.S./Mexico Border Representative Oliver Bernstein. Daniel Mottola
Irish renewable energy group Airtricity Holdings Ltd., which acquired Austin-based wind farm development company Renewable Generation Inc., for about $10 million in December, announced recently that they plan to spend more than $300 million on wind turbines to accommodate increasing demand for wind energy in the United States, the Austin Business Journal reports. With plans to invest at least $1.5 billion in the U.S. market over five years beginning with a $270 million investment in wind farms in Texas, New York, and Idaho Airtricity says it will buy 250 turbines from Japan's Mitsubishi Power Systems Inc. over the next year, and has an option to buy another 200 in 2008, for use at wind farms in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. Commenting on the deal in a press statement, Airtricity CEO Dr. Eddie O'Connor said, "This important deal consolidates our growing position in the U.S. market. The acquisition adds a large number of high quality development projects but more importantly greatly strengthens our U.S. team by the addition of the best development group in the Southwest market." D.M.
The Federal Communications Commission met in Keller last week to discuss Texas' progress on telecommunication deregulation in the last year under Senate Bill 5. Deregulation in Texas created statewide franchises, which levels the playing field for telecom companies to enter each other's markets Southwestern Bell and Verizon provide cable, Charter Communications provides Internet but also eliminates some of the revenue cities see from individually negotiated franchise licenses, which pay for public access channels. In North Texas, deregulation means cable providers now compete with both satellite providers and fiber-optic line cable service. Charter Communications Vice President Joi Philpott told the FCC panel that competition is great, as long as all competitors are subject to the same regulatory requirements. Charter, which must now compete with Verizon's fiber-optic television service, has made a $430 million commitment to infrastructure in Texas, Philpott said. If Verizon is not required to meet the same bar, Philpott says it makes it difficult for Charter to attract investments. K.R.