Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"History has proven that democracies don't war." President Bush, referring to attempts at democracy-building in the Middle East, and apparently unaware of his own Orwellian irony
Quote of the Week
The storms are over, including the one identified by the letters SXSW. Now go take your city back. And show that you support live music the other 51 weeks.
Gov. Rick Perry announced that the long-awaited next special legislative session on public-school finance will begin April 17. Emphasizing the property-tax reform mandated by the state Supreme Court, Perry said he wants the Lege "to significantly reduce property taxes, make substantial reforms to the franchise tax so it is fairer and broader, and ensure our schools have a reliable and constitutional stream of revenue." See below.
The Spanish-language daily newspaper Rumbo de Austin abruptly ceased publication last week. Its sister papers in Houston, San Antonio, and the Valley will continue publishing, but in a downsized fashion. See below.
Today's City Council meeting will review the job performance of city auditor Steve Morgan, whose scrutiny of various city programs may have earned him hostility from other city officials. See "Beside the Point."
Travis Co. prosecutors laid out arguments Wednesday before the Third Court of Appeals in hopes of reversing a lower court's dismissal of part of the state's case against U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, who faces money-laundering charges stemming from his fundraising activities in the 2002 legislative races. Only one indictment remains, but prosecutors hope to gain reinstatement of a conspiracy indictment against DeLay. Legal opinions vary as to whether the conspiracy segment of the state election code was applicable in 2002. District Court Judge Pat Priest threw out the indictment in December because he said the law didn't exist until 2003. Earlier this month, the Third Court handed DeLay a partial victory, tossing more than 30 subpoenas that D.A. Ronnie Earle's office had issued since December, when Priest dismissed the conspiracy charges and stayed the case, pending appeal. The Third Court agreed with DeLay that Earle should not have continued issuing the subpoenas when the case was supposed to be on hold. Amy Smith
Attorneys for the city of Austin and the Save Our Springs Alliance were to square off in District Court Wednesday, as the Chronicle went to press, over Advanced Micro Devices' plan to build a new campus in the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs watershed. The SOS is seeking a temporary injunction against the city to block approval of AMD's site plan. The group filed a lawsuit against the city last month challenging the city's decision to grant "grandfathering" rights to developer/landowner Stratus Properties, allowing AMD to build an 860,000-square-foot campus under weaker development rules in place before voters passed the SOS ordinance in 1992. AMD, meanwhile, has launched an expensive PR campaign splashy mailers last month and now full-page ads this week in both the Chronicle and the Statesman an open letter to the community from AMD CEO Hector Ruiz, who enumerates the company's contributions to Austin before leading up to the punch line: Opponents of the project, he writes, are "extremists" who think that "protecting the environment and promoting economic growth are mutually exclusive." More details, con and pro, are at www.moveamd.com and www.amdlonestar.com. A.S.
John Villarreal, former head of troubled, now-disbanded public-access television group Austin Community Television, has been indicted for embezzling more than $350,000 from the station during his tenure as director. The charges bring to an end a months-long investigation by the D.A.'s office, the APD, and Austin's city auditor, during which oversight of the stations cable channels 10, 11, and 16 was passed to the newly formed Public Access Community Television, or PACT. Villarreal admitted stealing funds to the Statesman, but contends the amount was far lower than $350,000, and that much of the money went to recouping medical costs. Wells Dunbar
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved this week the use of a pheromone intended to cause mating disruption rather than the pesticide spray known as Bacillus thuringiensis kurstake in the fight against a potential infestation of the Asian gypsy moth in the Oak Hill area. The moth is considered a serious agricultural threat, and the presence of a single moth in Travis Co., discovered during a routine trapping of local insects, could have led to an areawide quarantine. Instead, the USDA will begin mating disruption in a one-square-mile area around the trap site, most likely in the second week of April. Local environmentalists backed the use of mating disruption, seeing it as safer and less disruptive to the environment than Btk. Kimberly Reeves
It's really over for the Shoal Creek Boulevard "frankencurb" islands, the little monstrosities meant to calm traffic, create a safe bike/pedestrian space, and accommodate on-street parking, but that really only accomplished the latter. The city Public Works Department announced March 13 that crews would begin removing the islands this week and should be done by April 12. City Council voted March 2 to leave the road striping as-is, with two 10-foot lanes heading each direction, one for driving and one for biking and parking to the utter disgust of many cyclists, who argue that the striping fails to meet federal safety guidelines, endangers bikers, and is a political punt. Only Will Wynn and Raul Alvarez voted for car-free bike lanes. Bike advocate Michael Bluejay made a detailed presentation to council before the vote addressing dangers; he said by e-mail Tuesday, "It irks me when people say, 'Sooner or later somebody's gonna get hurt on SCB,' because people are already getting hurt on SCB. Cyclists suffer injury accidents on SCB every single year." Public Works will go before the Council Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee in April with sketches of new planned pilot projects it is working on in other parts of town, to accomplish what the frankencurbs could not. See www.ci.austin.tx.us/publicworks/shoalcreek, or Bluejay's presentation at bicycleaustin.info/roadways/shoalcreek-preso.mov. Daniel Mottola
Mayor Will "Is That Really Your Name?" Wynn got into a dustup March 17 in the courtyard of the West Fifth Street apartment building where he lives with his two daughters after a 26-year-old man refused to quit asking the mayor about his name. According to a press statement, Wynn said he was attending a reception when he was "verbally confronted" by a man he didn't know (identified in police reports as 26-year-old Luke Johnson, reportedly a grad student from Virginia in town for SXSW). Johnson "refused my requests to leave me alone," Wynn said, so he "physically escorted [Johnson] from the property." Police officers responding to a call about the disturbance talked to both Wynn and Johnson and reported seeing no "visible injuries." But Johnson reportedly said that's not the whole truth that he was injured by the mayor and has the X-rays to prove it. While the incident is still under investigation by police, in his statement Wynn apologized for losing his cool. "Unfortunately, I let the situation upset me," he said. "I apologize for any embarrassment my actions may have caused anyone involved." Jordan Smith
The local office of the NAACP is serving as a satellite voter-info office for residents of New Orleans living in the Austin area who want to vote in the city's upcoming local elections. A Host of New Orleans-area elections, including a race for mayor, are scheduled for April 22; early voting is April 10-13. Voter info outposts have been established in NAACP offices throughout the country in cities with significant numbers of Hurricane Katrina evacuees, said Nelson Linder, president of the NAACP's Austin branch at 1704 E. 12th, open Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm, and noon-6pm Saturday. "The goal now is to simply inform people what their status is so they know what to do when early voting starts," said Linder, noting that a lot of New Orleanians in Austin are registered to vote back home but aren't sure about the steps they need to take to get the job done. New Orleanians who aren't already registered have the option of signing up as absentee voters at the NAACP's office, he also noted. Call 476-6230 for more info. Cheryl Smith
The Planning Commission intends to take another run at street connectivity. At a subcommittee meeting last week, commissioners discussed the possibility of mandating that streets in future subdivisions be shorter and narrower, with more pedestrian and bicycle connections. In short, the goal is streets that are more "Hyde Park-like," Commissioner Dave Sullivan said at a subcommittee meeting this week. No firm recommendation has been made yet, but the possibility of cutting street lengths in half and shortening cul-de-sacs definitely has the Real Estate Council of Austin watching closely. Shorter streets could mean fewer lots in some zoning categories, as well as higher costs for curbs, gutters, and drainage. It could also increase the costs of compliance on impervious cover, which has some affordable-housing advocates concerned. A variety of options on street lengths will be shopped to the homebuilder community, as well as to the Austin Neighborhoods Council and affordable housing advocates. Efforts a number of years ago on the same topic were met with fierce opposition from developers. K.R.
It takes a bold commission to say no to two former city attorneys, but that's just what the Historic Landmark Commission did last week when it nixed demolition permits for two homes in Old West Austin. Former city attorneys Andy Martin and Jerry Harris, both now with Brown McCarroll, argued in favor of demolishing two triplexes, 1515 Enfield and 1510 Palma, in the multifamily district of the Old West Austin neighborhood. The two lots would then be combined with a third adjacent lot to create the eight-unit Wellbridge Townhomes, a high-end combination of cushy two- and three-story homes. Neighbors scoffed at the faux historical elements of the proposed project which Harris said was intended to be sensitive to the neighborhood's history saying the original historical fabric of the community was far better than any Disneyland substitute. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky did not find enough initial historical or architectural significance to recommend preserving the homes, but the HLC initiated historic-zoning cases on both properties in order to provide a fuller review of their histories. The HLC will review the demolition permits again, with more historical background, next month. K.R.
With little warning and even less fanfare, Rumbo de Austin has ceased publishing this week. The Spanish language newspaper, launched in 2004, was widely praised for its visually appealing layout and high-quality journalism, provided by a staff assembled from throughout the Americas. Though launching the Austin edition was considered a necessary response to the Latino population, especially the growing number of immigrants, Greater Austin's estimated 300,000 Latinos is small when compared to Houston's 1½ million. Houston is among the top 10 Latino markets in the nation and one of the markets in which the Meximerica Media-owned Rumbo newspapers will continue publishing, in addition to San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley. The suspension of Rumbo de Austin, coupled with the downsizing of its remaining sister publications (from five issues a week to three in Houston and San Antonio, once a week in the Valley) creates speculation about the future of similar newspapers, particularly the Austin American-Statesman-owned Ahora Sí, the weekly Spanish-language paper which launched just prior to Rumbo. "It's business as usual for us," says George Gutierrez, publisher of Ahora Sí. "We're traveling down a course we set down from the beginning. It's working for our advertisers; it's working for our readers." The possibility of Ahora Sí expanding publication from a weekly to a daily to fill the void left by Rumbo is doubtful, Gutierrez says. "Today our market represents about 30% of the population and it will continue to grow over the next five to 20 years," he says. "We'll make adjustments necessary to meet the demands of our readers. We still feel that once a week is fine, but in a couple of years, it could be different." Belinda Acosta
In preparation for the 2006 World Water Forum in Mexico City, Austin's branch of Corporate Accountability International hosted a taste test to compare tap to Pepsi's, Coke's, and Nestle's bottled varieties. CAI's Think Outside the Bottle Campaign encompasses far more than the red plastic cups and wooden tables used for Tuesday's challenge. Because a third of all Americans drink bottled water on a regular basis, and sales have tripled in the last decade, huge, multinational corporations like those targeted in the taste challenge are snapping up property rights in countries from Bolivia and India to the U.S.'s own backyard. This lends credence to Fortune Magazine's statement that water "will be the oil of the 21st century." CAI Texas organizer Deborah Lapidus argued that regulations placed on tap water's daily testing are far more stringent than the testing required of bottling companies, which occurs every three to six years. Participating students were infrequently able to tell any difference in water taste. Frank Rivera
Austin marked its second and third murders of the year last weekend. On March 18, Northwest Area Command patrol officers, responding to 911 calls, found 44-year-old Anthony William Benesh III shot dead in the parking lot of Saccones Pizzeria off Research Boulevard. Police tell Naked City the shooting appeared to be a hit; police say they believe Benesh was followed to the pizza joint and shot from a distance in response to his effort to start up a new chapter of a motorcycle club. "He was told on numerous occasions by several associates and several friends to back off of his endeavor to pursue this club," Homicide Unit Lt. Pete Morin told reporters. Benesh "was pretty much in defiance of them." On March 19, Central West Area Command patrol officers and EMS personnel, responding to numerous calls reporting gunshots, found 23-year-old Lindsay Luetkenhoelter dead inside her apartment on West 391/2 St. On March 20, police arrested 22-year-old Branden Lee Allen, charging him with Luetkenhoelter's murder. Police say Allen was upset that Luetkenhoelter had broken up with him and that he told friends he was upset she was dating other people. Police are asking that anyone with information related to either murder call either APD's homicide tip line, at 477-3588, or CrimeStoppers, at 472-8477. J.S.
It's back to school finance time again. Gov. Rick Perry has set an April 17 start date for lawmakers to take another stab at finding another funding source for schools besides property taxes. Perry wants to keep the session narrowly focused on crafting a new tax structure since the state Supreme Court has deemed the state's property tax rate unconstitutional. Already Perry is at odds with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Tom Craddick, who want "real education reforms" included in the call. The Lege has until June 1 to come up with a new school-funding solution a charge that has eluded lawmakers for years. This time around, though, they'll presumably draw on the recommendations of Perry's Tax Reform Commission, headed by former state Comptroller John Sharp. The commission has drafted a plan that calls for a new business tax, a buck-a-pack increase on cigarettes, and dipping into the state's budget surplus. A.S.
Beyond City Limits
And then there's the issue of teachers' salaries. Two gubernatorial hopefuls Democrat Chris Bell and state comptroller and GOP-turned-indie Carole Keeton Strayhorn urged Perry in separate press conferences Monday to include across-the-board teacher pay raises in next month's special session. Bell called for a $6,000 hike to bring teacher salaries in line with the national average. Strayhorn is proposing a $4,000 increase, plus a $2,500 bonus for teachers in low-performing schools that are on the road to improvement. Strayhorn, who has the endorsement of the Texas State Teachers Association, laid out her proposal as part of her office's latest report, "The Cost of Underpaying Teachers." She estimates her proposal would cost the state about $1.7 billion, but that the state's high school dropout rate 50,000 annually costs the state $11.8 billion each year, plus another $2 billion when incarceration and welfare costs are included in the tally. A.S.
In other education news, progressive groups gathered at the Capitol Wednesday to outline a list of priorities for the special session, dubbed the Fair Funding for Kids Plan, which included a far broader look at school funding than formulating the new business tax. Rene Lara of the Texas Federation of Teachers said the goal is to highlight community concerns that stretch beyond a simple tax-swap plan, such as a statewide assessment of school facilities, the proper monitoring of programs to assist special-needs children, and the replacement of property taxes with a stable, nonregressive source of income. Groups at the meeting included, among others, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Texas Federation of Texas, the People for the American Way, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Equity Center. K.R.
If comments made by Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to the Texas Association of Manufacturers on Tuesday were any indication, no one should expect a simple, quiet special session to fix the state's tax system. In separate comments to the new industry group, the state's top two leaders agreed on a number of points they both want a low-rate, broad-based business tax, and they both oppose the use of the state's surplus to buy down property taxes but Dewhurst made it clear he wants to put forward a school-reform bill, whether or not Perry puts it on the call. Perry, on the other hand, says he won't entertain reform measures until the tax system is addressed; he told the group that if Dewhurst and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick can agree on a school reform bill a feat in and of itself, we might add he would be happy to add it to the call, but only after the tax system is fixed. The Texas Supreme Court has set a June 1 deadline for the state to pump enough new money into the school finance system to provide local school districts with some local discretion on tax rates. K.R.
Texas Democrat Tony Sanchez, who lost a bruising gubernatorial race to Gov. Rick Perry four years ago, has added his John Hancock to Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn's petition to gain access to the November ballot as an independent candidate for governor. Sanchez, a wealthy banker and oilman from Laredo, will likely show up on Strayhorn's list of campaign contributors in her next filing with the Texas Ethics Commission. That Sanchez would back Strayhorn over Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell isn't terribly surprising. Strayhorn spokesman/strategist Mark Sanders worked on Sanchez's campaign in 2002, as did Democratic consultant George Shipley, a recent addition to the Strayhorn team. A.S.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst intends to use Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt's visit to Austin on Monday to discuss cost-containment measures for Medicaid. Leavitt is in town to discuss flu vaccines, but Dewhurst said he intends to sit down with Leavitt and Albert Hawkins, the state's executive commissioner of the Health and Human Services Commission, to talk about what cost-containment measures Texas might apply to bring Medicaid costs down. K.R.
Independent candidate for Texas Supreme Court Place 6 Bill McNeal hosts a petition-signing rally this weekend with musical guest Gary P. Nunn at San Marcos' Cheatham Street Warehouse. McNeal has until May 11 to gather just over 45,500 valid signatures of registered voters, in order to make it onto the November ballot and he has pledged to do so, and to run his general election campaign, with just $500 of his own dough. Indeed, the Lockhart attorney's quest is about remaking an independent judiciary and he has vowed to refuse to take any campaign cash. "The goal here is to select a candidate who will make unbiased decisions," McNeal says. The March 26 rally will also feature local band Slaves of Utopia; Nunn is slated to play after 4pm. For more info, check out www.billmcnealforjustice.org. J.S.
Killing a Bush administration-backed loophole to the Clean Air Act, which would have allowed 20,000 older power plants and industrial facilities to avoid installing modern pollution controls, a federal appeals court in Washington D.C. unanimously rejected the measure last Friday. "Today's ruling is a tremendous victory for public health and the environment," said Luke Metzger, an advocate with Environment Texas, a plaintiff in the case along with 14 states and a coalition of other environmental and public health groups. The case involved a controversial rule in the EPA's New Source Review policy, a target of legal challenges since it was rolled out in 2003 and largely seen as an industry favor; it would have allowed facilities such as aging coal-fired power plants and refineries to sidestep clean air reviews and not install new pollution technology if the cost of planned upgrades or modifications was less than 20% of the entire facility, regardless of how much the modifications increased emissions. According to Environment Texas, nearly three-quarters of all power plant boilers are more than 30 years old and most continue to operate without modern pollution control technology, accounting for the emissions of 99% of the country's sulfur dioxide and 98% of nitrogen oxides, which together form smog, not to mention 91% of carbon dioxide emissions, the leading global warming pollutant. D.M.
On March 6, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds signed into law the state's sweeping abortion ban, which outlaws the procedure (making it a felony offense) except when necessary to protect the mother's life (but without an exception for cases of rape or incest, which the measure's backers said would unacceptably dilute the law). Planned Parenthood denounced the law and has vowed to fight the measure in court and said in a press release last week that there are similar abortion-ban bills pending in at least 10 other state legislatures laws that either mirror the South Dakota ban or that would affect a ban in the event that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade reproductive freedom case is overturned. Rounds' decision to sign the draconian measure into law is "proof positive" that he cares more "about politics than about the health and safety of women in South Dakota," Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota North Dakota South Dakota, said in a press release. "In every state, women, their families, and their doctors should be making private, personal health care decisions not politicians." J.S.Jeff Friedman and Bruce Todd became zombies on Sunday. (Sorry, the jokes here are just so easy it's not worth it.) The occasion was the filming of a scene for Z: A Zombie Musical, "the first zombie musical feature film" according to a press release. Shooting is expected to continue through April 2006, and the film will contain other local luminaries and politicians, including another former mayor, Kirk Watson. (See "Film News")