Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"DeLay was always trying to push things as far as he could, to see what he could get away with. This may be one of the things he doesn't get away with." Former Dallas Congressman Martin Frost, a victim of Tom DeLay's re-redistricting, on this week's Supreme Court hearings. Quoted in the Austin American-Statesman.
Quote of the Week
At press time, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in the Texas re-redistricting case. Our Michael King is in Washington and will report back next week.
Early voting continues through Friday for the March 7 Republican and Democratic primaries. See our endorsements and election coverage.
The proposed McMansion moratorium is now at the "permanent-interim" stage, whatever that means. See "Beside the Point."
The Bush administration got bit in the ass by its own fear-mongering last week when a deal to sell authority rights to several East Coast ports to a company owned by the government of Dubai came under a hail of hysterical attacks from both right and left. And unsurprisingly, Carole Keeton Strayhorn figured out a way to blame it on Rick Perry. See "Beyond City Limits."
As of Tuesday evening, a rather sad 0.74% of Travis Co. registered voters had participated in early voting for the March 7 primaries 4,059 ballots cast either in person or via the mail. Heaviest turnout has been at the courthouse (289 voters); sparsest has been at the HEB at Parmer and I-35 (a mere 49). Lee Nichols
Artist Hank Waddell's sculpture West Texas Beach Ball has won the People's Choice Award in Austin's inaugural City Hall art exhibition. The piece was one of 79 located at City Hall throughout last year. Waddell was also a runner-up for his Heart String; Joel Salcido's Toro Obscuro, Randy Jewart's Tears, and Young-Min Kang's Hillerova's Faces also received accolades. They and other artists will be at City Hall this Friday, March 3, 5:30-7:30pm, as the city unveils its 2006 collection, an even larger assortment of more than 100 works, which will be on display until next February. Wells Dunbar
The Austin Police Cold Case Unit cracked another one last week, charging 60-year-old Bobby Lewis Ingram with the murder of James Ernest Hamilton, found dead in his bedroom at 916 E. 11th on Sept. 4, 1993; witnesses told police about an ongoing dispute between Hamilton and Ingram, but it wasn't until last year that police were able to obtain DNA from Ingram that was matched to DNA taken from the crime scene. Ingram has been charged with first-degree murder and is in jail on a $100,000 bond. Jordan Smith
At press time, City Council's final decision on the future of Shoal Creek Boulevard to remove the fearsome "frankencurb" islands and leave 10-foot lanes on either side for the joint use of cyclists and parked cars was on the consent agenda for Thursday's meeting, meaning no discussion would take place. This didn't fly with cyclists who say car-free bike lanes are the only safe option for the heavily bicycled road. Growing numbers of bikers were seeing the council's move, consistent with a recent Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee decision, as a political cop-out, accommodating the on-street parking convenience of a vocal few over the safety of the many nonmotorized users. Cyclists pointed out that the resulting striping will not meet American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' guidelines and is contradictory to five years of city transportation staff recommendations, and that it was car-free bike lanes that the Texas Transportation Institute chose when asked how other cities handled projects like SCB. Cyclists feel the proposed striping is unacceptably hazardous, especially given the possibility of drivers mistaking the multipurpose bike/parking lane for a driving lane. Plans include posting warning signage, but cyclists will demand better at today's meeting. Daniel Mottola
Appointing new principals to a trio of new schools may seem like routine AISD business. But the appointment of Becker principal David Kauffman to brand-new Perez Elementary and Oak Springs principal Gilbert Hicks to Overton Elementary will likely raise an eyebrow or two. (Cook principal Dora Fabelo was also appointed to Blazier Elementary.) AISD has not officially decided what it will do with Becker and Oak Springs, which the district may turn into pre-kindergarten centers over the passionate objections of their communities in 78704 and 78702, respectively. AISD insists the repurposing is not a done deal, but now that it's done the Hokey Pokey with the doomed schools' principals, it's hard to believe AISD will turn itself around from its elementary-execution track. AISD, however, is a realm of suspense, drama, and intrigue galore and as my granny back up on the farm used to say, that row ain't hoed 'til you hoed the row so we're not placing bets just yet. Rachel Proctor May
In other education news, the AISD board of trustees announced the names of five new schools being built under the 2005 bond package. The honored Austinites are civil rights leader Volma Overton, who was instrumental in desegregating Austin schools and will have an elementary school in Colony Park named after him; former mayor Gus Garcia (northeast middle school); longtime AISD citizen volunteers Nan Clayton (southwest elementary) and John Blazier (south-central elementary); and Nicholas Samuel Valdez Perez, the first Austinite killed in Iraq II, who died just months after graduating from Travis High. He will be remembered in the name of the southeast elementary. The five names were selected from more than 160 nominations. R.P.M.
Former UN Iraq weapons inspector Scott Ritter was at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Pflugerville last Saturday night speaking in support of the Neo-Conned book series in a discussion moderated by Jack Blood, host of Deadline Live on Radio Free Austin. During the intense dialogue, Ritter reiterated claims that the inspectors' work was intended for failure to support a foregone conclusion to invade Iraq, a scenario he said is now replaying with Iran, a nation with whom "we are already at war." U.S. counterterrorism and death-squad policies were discussed, as was Ritter's assertion that America's oil addiction is dwarfed only by our dangerous addiction to war and its economic benefits to our world-leading weapons industry. A registered Republican, Ritter said he'd love to see a Democrat-controlled House, re-establishing checks and balances, and halting the march to war with partisan gridlock. Asked how individuals can react against a domestic war machine, he recommended empowering oneself with knowledge and information and said we should "infuse ourselves with a sense [of] citizenship and democracy." See USTourOfDuty.com and NeoConned.com for more. D.M.
Last Friday, FEMA extended by a month its cutoff deadline for giving cities funds for paying the rent of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. That means the city of Austin will pay the rent and utilities of evacuees placed in rental properties through the Austin Convention Center and the Toney Burger Center through March instead of February, which is merely a temporary fix to a daunting long-term problem, as Paul Hilgers, director of Austin's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, noted. "Living month-to-month is almost as bad as living with no knowledge of how you're going to pay your bills," he said. Or, as Scott Borne, a local Katrina evacuee working at Cafe Caffeine, more bluntly put it, "It's such a crazy pain in the ass." Cheryl Smith
In other evacuee limbo-hell news, a report released last week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank focused on fiscal and low-income program policy, confirms what many a Gulf Coast hurricane evacuee, not to mention many a person interacting with evacuees, already knew: The housing needs of low-income evacuees are largely going unmet. The report says low-income households "are much less likely than their higher income counterparts to have the resources needed to avoid hardship and, in some cases, homelessness when the erratic federal evacuee housing assistance system fails them." To better meet such evacuees' needs, the report makes several recommendations, which include having the Department of Housing and Urban Development, instead of FEMA, provide ongoing rental assistance. The recommendations are directed toward Congress, whose members will soon consider the Bush administration's new supplemental appropriations request for another $9.4 billion in FEMA disaster relief funds. For more, see www.cbpp.org/2-23-06hous.htm. C.S.
Beyond City Limits
In the second special election to fill a Texas House vacancy this year, Dallas Co. Democrat Katy Hubener fell just 350 votes shy of capturing a GOP seat Tuesday, marking her second narrow loss in two years. Republican Kirk England, the son of a former Grand Prairie mayor, won with 52.9% of the vote. In 2004, Hubener narrowly lost to incumbent Rep. Ray Allen, who recently resigned from office to pursue a lobbying career. Hubener and England will square off again in November for the District 106 seat. Texas Democratic Party Chair Charles Soechting said the close margin reflects a statewide trend of voter dissatisfaction with the state Republican leadership. "The dynamics of a general election will no doubt benefit Katy and her strong organization of supporters," he said. Hubener was trying to become the second Democrat to take a Republican House seat, just two weeks after Donna Howard handily won here in Travis Co. Both Howard and England will represent their districts in an upcoming special session on school finance. A.S.
A D.C.-based watchdog group is circulating a complaint against U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano, charging he instigated an IRS audit of Texans for Public Justice in retaliation for their blowing the whistle on Tom DeLay. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington drafted the complaint on Tuesday, the day after The Washington Post reported on a paper trail that links Johnson and other DeLay allies to the IRS audit. A member of Congress must file the complaint against Johnson on behalf of CREW. Documents and other evidence linking Johnson to the audit were uncovered by TPJ Executive Director Craig McDonald through the Freedom of Information Act. McDonald said he filed additional FOIA requests this week with the IRS. The 13-month audit, he said, took a toll on the nonprofit group, though it found no evidence of wrongdoing. "It cost hours and hours of staff time, thousands of dollars in legal fees, and months of anxiety among the staff about whether their livelihood was going to be taken away." Johnson, who sits on a House committee that oversees the IRS, urged the agency to conduct the audit on the suggestion of Washington lawyer Barnaby Zall, whose former law firm, Williams & Jensen, has long represented DeLay's political fundraising machine, Americans for a Republican Majority. McDonald said Johnson and the IRS should both be held accountable for their actions. Johnson "was a willing stooge for the DeLay machine. He jumped to the front of the line to give the IRS misleading information about TPJ." As for the tax agency, McDonald said, "The IRS should properly investigate nonprofits when it has credible evidence that they violated tax laws. Investigations based on fabricated claims by partisan players are abusive." A.S.
When controversy erupted in Washington over a foreign company's planned takeover of U.S. port operations, a very, very small percentage of folks may have wondered, what would Carole Keeton Strayhorn do in such a situation? Of course, the indie candidate for governor didn't need to be asked; she jumped on the anti-foreign bandwagon last week with a jab at Gov. Rick Perry, calling on her chief political rival to release the details of a secret 50-year contract that TxDOT inked with Madrid-based Cintra to build a multibillion dollar network of toll roads. "Whether it is a foreign company running our roads or operating our ports, it's wrong," Strayhorn said. "Texas belongs to Texans, not foreign companies. She said she wouldn't cut any "secret sweetheart deals like Perry has" if she is elected governor. Cintra is part of a Spanish/U.S. consortium that includes San Antonio-based Zachry Construction as a lead partner. Strayhorn, a darling of anti-toll road activists, says Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor project is nothing but a boondoggle and a land grab. A.S.
In other Strayhorn news, her campaign charged this week that Secretary of State Roger Williams is too cozy with big-ticket Republican donors to serve in a post overseeing elections and candidates. Strayhorn has called on Gov. Rick Perry to replace his appointee with someone who doesn't actively campaign for funds while in office. She called for the chief election officer's ouster the day after he provided conflicting information to Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman on when they can begin collecting petition signatures to get on the November ballot. Strayhorn's campaign manager and son, Brad McClellan, says Williams is deliberately creating obstacles to thwart the comptroller's petition drive efforts. And the campaign questioned why Williams has to raise campaign dollars when he is not in an elected office. Texas Ethics Commission records show that many of Williams' donors are longtime Perry contributors who hold considerable sway at the Capitol. Williams' office has denied any wrongdoing and says the funds are used to buy gifts for visiting foreign dignitaries. His campaign reports also show, however, that the costs of the gifts don't measure up to the costs of running his fundraising operations. A.S.
On Feb. 14, Gov. Rick Perry awarded just over $11,000 to the Task Force on Indigent Defense to fund the creation of a computer reporting network to track the caseloads of the Texas Innocence Project, run through the law school programs at four state universities. The creation of an online "case management" system will also offer the public access to a host of information (minus that which is protected by attorney-client privilege) about the innocence-claim cases under investigation, as well as to statistical information regarding caseloads. Perry says the funding will help the state's criminal justice system through "better managing caseloads." Now, if we could just figure out a way to make the system "better" by reducing the number of innocence claims, we might actually be getting somewhere. J.S.
As the aftershocks of Hurricane Katrina reverberate, DIY radio facilitator Jim Ellinger of Austin Airwaves is asking for help in assisting Big Easy residents in "rebuilding the city from the Sound up!" Ellinger is going to New Orleans this weekend to help Common Ground Collective get its Radio Uprising project on the people's airwaves. The group documents residents' struggles as they work to rebuild their homes and lives, while butting up against a byzantine bureaucracy. Aside from hosting a community radio forum, CGC also provides FEMA form assistance, postal delivery, and Internet access. The collective's wish list includes Apple G4 computers, an iRiver 30 gig MP3 player/recorder, audio editing software, transmitters, mics, headsets, calling cards for phone interviews, progressive-political audio recordings, and more. Contribute to Common Ground Relief, House of Excellence Media Center, 1415 Franklin Ave., New Orleans, LA, 70117, or at www.commongroundrelief.org; to help Austin Airwaves, send donations to PO Box 49492, Austin, 78765. W.D.
The Green Party of Texas kicks off its statewide ballot access petition campaign on March 15. The Greens must gather over 45,000 valid signatures by May 29 to get a place on the ballot for their candidates this November. Only registered voters who did not vote or participate in another party's primary are eligible to sign. 210/471-1791 or www.txgreens.org for more info. L.N.