Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"They think God sent them here not to pay any taxes, and by God, they want to do what God wants and that is not tax themselves." Texas Tax Reform Commission Chairman John Sharp, ridiculing a coalition of Texas law firms opposed to a proposed new tax on firms' partnerships (New York Times, March 28)
Quote of the Week
A Travis Co. jury this week saw video evidence showing APD officers Christopher Gray and Joel Follmer and former officer William Bradley Heilman allegedly beating a handcuffed suspect lying on the ground. Gray and Heilman are charged with official oppression; Follmer will be tried separately later.
The AISD board of trustees voted on a proposal to close Becker Elementary and leave Oak Springs Elementary open Monday night, but deadlocked 4-4, with trustee Rudy Montoya absent. See p.20
A Bastrop Co. judge heard testimony last week that death row inmate prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence from the defense team of Rodney Reed, convicted in 1998 of the murder of Stacy Stites. If the judge agrees, Reed could get a second trial. See p.22.
As if the enviro vs. developer wars weren't bad enough, now Austin has a green vs. green battle: Several prominent environmentalists and green-leaning Council members announced their opposition to the "Clean Water/Clean Government" city charter amendments written by the SOS Alliance. See "Point Austin."
A two-year statute of limitations prevents Travis Co. prosecutors from investigating whether ex-Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed violated Texas lobbying laws, County Attorney David Escamilla announced Monday. Escamilla indicated, however, that the allegations against Reed in a complaint filed by three public watchdog groups would otherwise merit a criminal misdemeanor probe. The complaint was filed in response to information turned up in a federal investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, indicating that Abramoff may have paid Reed a whopping $4.2 million in 2001-02 to lobby Texas officials on behalf of gambling interests and in-school television network Channel One. If that's true, Reed failed to register as a lobbyist with the Texas Ethics Commission, a Class A misdemeanor. Reed, now a candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia, reportedly lobbied Texas officials to shut down casino operations of the Tigua Indian Tribe to further the Louisiana gambling interests of the Coushatta Tribe, a client whom Abramoff admitted to fleecing for millions of dollars. Escamilla also looked at allegations that Reed lobbied the State Board of Education on behalf of former Abramoff client Primedia Inc., of New York, owner of Channel One. Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald is disappointed that Reed won't be held accountable for his alleged violations. "Given that the prosecutor's conclusion that the statute of limitations for such a crime grants Mr. Reed a walk," McDonald said, "we reluctantly leave final judgment in this matter to higher powers." Amy Smith
Tuition and fees at the University of Texas will increase a whopping 9.6% next year and 1.3% the next, to an average cost of $4,050 per semester, after the UT Board of Regents this week approved tuition increases across the eight-campus system. The news may inspire some to rally a mob to storm the next regents meeting, but the regents would simply redirect your ire to the folks in the bulbous pink dome downtown. In a dirge similar to one sung over at Austin Community College, UT wails that the Lege hasn't raised state appropriations quickly enough to keep pace with inflation, leaving UT no choice but to balance the books on the backs of the students. UT reps also like to point out that financial aid cuts the full price an average of 30%, and more for the neediest students. However, cuts in grant programs like the federal Pell and state TEXAS grants mean an increasing percentage of this aid comes in the form of loans, and if you've ever met a 21-year-old facing $40,000 of education debt, it ain't pretty. Rachel Proctor May
The Travis Co. Hospital District has allocated $500,000 toward the buying of additional psychiatric beds at Seton Shoal Creek Hospital in the upcoming year. The measure, based upon the recommendation of a stakeholders group, makes good on a promise during the campaign to create the hospital district to try to address the inadequacy of emergency mental health services in the community. The funding lasts for a year and will allow an additional 25 admissions per month at Shoal Creek, the city's last full-service psychiatric hospital. That's just a temporary solution, though, in more ways than one. County Judge Sam Biscoe noted this week that the county needs to do more to house mental health clients who are released from county services. The county is pushing for outpatient services but also must help meet those clients' long-term housing needs. Kimberly Reeves
In other mental health news, two events on Monday, April 3, shine a light on suicide, the second-leading cause of death for college students. On UT's West Mall, from 11 to 2pm, B. Events, created by Brittany Kessel following her brother's suicide, has planned a macabre demonstration featuring demonstrators dressed as corpses, several famous artists and entertainers included, and culminating with a ritualistic suicide. Later that evening, Stubb's Bar-B-Q, 801 Red River, is hosting a 9pm fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and support group For the Love of Christi. Bands include Five Dollar Friend, Leatherhand, and Dynah; tickets available at the door. See www.keeprbeatin.org. Wells Dunbar
Also, social service agency LifeWorks, lending help to at-risk families and pregnant and homeless teens, got a $300,000 loan from the Austin Housing Finance Corporation at last week's City Council meeting. As noted on the AHFC agenda, the loan will go toward renovating the agency's emergency shelter into "a six-unit, 12-bed transitional housing facility for low-income homeless youth and young adults" that will let them assist an additional 20 people a year, on top of the 40 they help on average now. For more homeless-community news, see Homer the Homeless Goose on p.22. W.D.
FEMA has announced that it's extending until May 31 its cutoff deadline for providing cities with funds for paying the rent of Hurricane Katrina evacuees, instead of March 31, the previous deadline. "The longer we can provide families with assistance, the more chance they have to stabilize their lives," said Paul Hilgers, director of the city's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office. But he qualified his thanks with a huge, looming question: "What happens to the people who we know are not eligible for the continued assistance from FEMA?" See www.femaanswers.org to read FEMA's new deadline extension letter, dated March 27. Cheryl Smith
In other hurricane evacuee news, the U.S. Census Bureau is urging job-seekers who fled Katrina and Rita for Austin and Pflugerville to apply for the bureau's 1,500 newly created temporary jobs. According to a bureau press release, most of the new jobs will be census-taker positions, requiring 20-40 hours of work a week for around 5 to 10 weeks, and will pay $14.50 an hour, plus mileage or bus fare. The bureau is using parts of Travis Co. as testing ground for new technology and procedures for the 2010 census. Call 888/814-6711 to set up an appointment to apply. For more info, call 369-1280 or see www.census.gov/2006censustest. C.S.
City Council was more than willing to give City Manager Toby Futrell a glowing recommendation and a pay raise last month, but the Austin Neighborhoods Council appeared less inclined to support such actions. Questions to Mayor Will Wynn and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas at a recent candidates' forum focused on the duo's support of Futrell's positive job performance review and raise, despite what ANC President Laura Morrison described as a "secretive top-down attitude" at City Hall. Thomas said he was open to seeking more outside input; Wynn said Futrell had taken the city through four difficult budget years and had earned, and taken, her first raise since she was named city manager in 2002. Futrell's salary, now $232,502, is in line with the city managers of the state's five largest cities, according to the city. K.R.
Out Youth, which has offered professional counseling and peer support to Austin's queer youth since 1990, has closed the doors of its drop-in center. The organization is reportedly facing financial difficulties, as well as infighting between board members, volunteers, and the youths it serves. According to youths and volunteers, the board closed the drop-in center in January with no advance warning and has been keeping mum about their situation and prospects. However, board members, who have agreed to meet with youths and volunteers this week, insist the center will reopen in April. Emily Pyle
Travis Co. criminal defendants can just say "charge it" the next time a judge hits them with a fine. It's all part of the county's efforts to comply with a state law designed to improve collections of criminal fines and fees. Under the new program, defendants will be required to pay their fines at the time of sentencing, and those in county or JP courts will be able to use their plastic, or set up a payment plan if can't afford to pay up front. The new program also calls for stricter enforcement of collecting delinquent fines. County officials will mail out delinquency notices to folks who have outstanding balances for traffic tickets or other offenses, and they could be subject to arrest and an even stiffer fine if they don't respond. So officials are encouraging everyone to just come clean on their own volition before the county steps in. Defendants owing money for a case in a county district court should contact Community Supervision and Corrections at 854-4600, Court-at-law defendants can call Travis Co. Central Collections at 854-9473, and JP defendants should call that JP's office to settle up. A.S.
The city's Design Commission is sending a rather polite invitation to the University of Texas System to join commission members for a discussion of the proposed hotel and conference center on UT property on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Nothing obligates state government to participate in a review process of projects the Design Commission has no say over state government or federal projects, either but the group of architectural professionals was less than impressed with the Blanton Museum of Art, which is set to open next month. The Blanton, the subject of its own lengthy design controversy, turns a blank wall to MLK, a definite "no no" in the minds of those who are looking to upgrade design principles in the city. K.R.
The Clean Energy Incubator, a nonprofit organization designed to help start-up businesses in the renewable energy industry an offshoot of UT and its trans-disciplinary "think and do" tank, the IC2 Institute announced a partnership with the city and Austin Energy last Thursday in which the incubator will get $500,000 over the next two years, which "will enable us to expand our programs with the goal of delivering clean energy entrepreneurial ventures that will assist the City and enrich our community," said CEI Director Richard Amato in a press release. CEI's Web site profiles member businesses pursuing fresh technologies such as geothermal energy generation, biodiesel, human energy harvesting, 3D and 4D environmental data visualization, battery/fuel-cell power sources, and a system to process tires, wood, and other waste into recycled by-products and clean electricity. Former CEI affiliate Austin-based HelioVolt Corp. has made worldwide news by developing solar cells on tough, thin films, able to coat external building materials or interior furnishings, potentially turning buildings into self-powered renewable energy sources. CEI's new funding will also help create an investment conference and venture/technology competition in 2007 in Austin. Daniel Mottola
The federal judge assigned to a lawsuit that Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn filed against the state elections chief has recused himself because he and his wife signed Strayhorn's petition. The judge's withdrawal from the case, announced Tuesday, gave Strayhorn an excuse to churn out a press release trumpeting the support of U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in her indie bid for governor. The release included a statement from Sparks, that he and his wife "have long supported [Strayhorn] in her political endeavors and have signed her petition." Strayhorn's lawsuit challenges Secretary of State Roger Williams' plan to individually verify each of the 45,540 signatures required to earn ballot placement. Williams, an appointee of Gov. Rick Perry, said the process will take at least two months. Strayhorn believes the verification process could take just two days if Williams would simply use statistical sampling, and verify the signatures as he receives them. By opting to use the more time-consuming method, Strayhorn said, Williams is giving other gubernatorial candidates Perry and Democrat Chris Bell a leg up on fundraising while her own ballot fate remains up in the air. Williams' office says the elections chief is just doing his job. "Secretary Williams will continue to apply Texas law to all candidates in an even manner, and will not grant special treatment to any candidate," spokesman Scott Haywood said. In a statement on Tuesday, Friedman said he has decided against joining Strayhorn's lawsuit, adding, "Our time and resources are better spent complying with the law. We wish Comptroller Strayhorn luck in her lawsuit." With Sparks' recusal, the case now goes to U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel. A.S.
Beyond City Limits
"Now, there's a real sense in which you are interviewing the wrong person. It's the ordinary people of Iraq that you should be talking to," said British peace activist Norman Kember this past Saturday. "Those are the people who have suffered so much over so many years and still await the stable and just society that they deserve." After spending nearly 120 days in captivity, Kember and his fellow Christian Peacemaker Team members, Canadians Harmeet Sooden and James Loney, were freed by multinational forces on March 23, 13 days after the body of their deceased American colleague, Tom Fox, was recovered. CPT co-directors Rev. Carol Rose and Doug Pritchard dispute media reports that Fox's body showed signs of torture; Rose and fellow CPTer Rich Meyer both viewed Fox's body. CPT also recently released a statement renewing their call for the release of the "thousands [of] Iraqis who are being detained illegally by the U.S. and British forces occupying Iraq." For more on the Christian Peacemaker Team and the individual statements of the recently freed, see www.cpt.org. Diana Welch
It's been quite a week in the realm of the undocumented: After the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Kennedy-McCain bill (which offers the opportunity to work toward citizenship provided you fork over $2,000), and the House considered HB 4437 (which, among other things, criminalizes religious and charitable groups that aid undocumented workers), a formidable number of people took to the streets in defense of immigrants' rights (most remarkable being the 500,000-2 million turnout in Los Angeles). And, wouldn't you know, the Minutemen announced their return to the border. As of April 1, those armed and binoculared in the name of strengthening our borders will park their lawn chairs and pickup trucks sporadically along the vast U.S. territory adjacent to Canada and Mexico. From TXMinuteman.org, the rallying cry: "Just a hair over 60 miles and we are going to be operational in ever last inch of it! It requires 2 HQ's just to keep everyone in radio range! If you want to work on a project that is ON THE MEXICO BORDER, here it is. Just go to the 'Contacts' or 'Volunteer Form' page and 'Git er done!'" D.W.
In other immigration news, Central and South Texans seeking immigration-related legal help have a new place to turn. The nonprofit Bernard Kohler Center opened March 13 in Kyle at 3601 Dry Hole Rd. According to a press release, one of its focuses is providing aid to "detainees in Pearsall, Karnes City, Laredo, and the juvenile detention facility in Nixon, Texas." Interim Director David Walding said in the release that "we hope to assist countless immigrants in presenting their asylum claims and other requests." For more info, call 512/626-3719 or visit www.orgsites.com/tx/bernardokohler. C.S.
Speaking out against TXU's proposed new Oak Grove coal plant in Robertson Co., Our Land Our Lives, a local citizens group, along with the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, held a news conference demanding a formal hearing on the plant's permit (fast-tracked last Oct. by Gov. Perry) asking that the utility giant be required to use the cleanest technology available. "TXU's proposed lignite plant would produce unsafe levels of smog, mercury, and particulate matter," said Robertson Co. President Paul Rolke in a written statement. "With as much smog as 350,000 cars, this plant would affect people locally and as far [away] as the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. There are far cleaner ways of generating electricity, such as coal gasification or IGCC," the so-called clean coal technology. TXU spokeswoman Kimberly Morgan, denying assertions that Oak Grove will be the nation's worst mercury emitter upon opening, said the utility "supports ongoing research," but "IGCC is experimental. I think there are only two demo plants nationwide, half the size of the Oak Grove plant. This is the equivalent of buying a car without a warranty, it doesn't make sense." SEED Coalition Director Karen Hadden said the two existing IGCC plants are operational and that there are currently seven IGCC plants undergoing permitting nationwide. TXU's failure to seek clean alternatives, she said, "is a matter of economics and greed," that will cause people to suffer. D.M.
WorkInTexas.com, an online job search tool launched by the Texas Workforce Commission to match employers and industries with qualified candidates, has been recognized for being one of the nation's Top 50 Government Innovators for 2006. Organized by Harvard University's Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the annual awards, now in their 19th year, are the "Oscars" of good government. Other recognized programs include "America's Army," an unbelievably realistic and creepy U.S. Army-designed war simulation video game; an economic development strategy for Native American tribes; a water pollution prevention program in Hawaii; a vehicle-sharing program in Philadelphia; and a special reading program for juvenile offenders in Wisconsin. The 50 public sector program semifinalists will compete for one of seven $100,000 grants, awarded on July 10 at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. TWC spokeswoman Ann Hatchitt said that since WorkInTexas.com was launched in June of 2004, replacing separate state and public job sites, the commission has recorded more than 300,000 hires. She added that 130,000 of the state's 400,000 employers have registered to participate. D.M.