Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"I like Louis Black saying something is poorly drafted."
Quote of the Week
Ann del Llano of the ACLU, defending the proposed "Clean Government/Clean Water" city charter amendments at a St. Edward's University debate
"But his [language] does not get into the charter!"
Former Mayor Gus Garcia, in rebuttal
The special session of the Lege opened with a command House floor performance by former Comptroller John Sharp, and a stunning announcement from current Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn that the budget "surplus" (i.e., funds they refuse to budget) have hit a whopping $8.2 billion; see "On the Lege."
City staffers presented to the Parks Board their proposal to replace the Green Water Treatment Plant with a new facility at Roy Guerrero Park on the south side of Town Lake, to much public and board member dismay and charges of "secret deal!" and discrimination. The proposal is subject to further review and should get to the City Council in late May; see "Anger at Water Plan Plan Boils Over."
Samsung Electronics announced that it will indeed build its new, advanced chip factory in Austin beginning this week, with an estimated price tag of $3.5 billion to $4 billion and some 900 jobs. The project was the subject of much anticipation and controversy, especially over a $250-million incentive package to which Austin's contribution was $58.5 million.
Record heat statewide produced rolling blackouts beginning Monday, including Austin neighborhoods where folks were without power for periods of up to a couple of hours. Officials at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said demand for air conditioning hit the grid during a time of year that many utilities normally use for downtime and repairs, and blackouts may be a recurring problem until early May. Keep your beer coolers handy.
Violent crime in Austin decreased 5.4% in 2005, driven by a nearly 16% drop in robberies, according to APD's recently released annual crime and traffic report. Still, the number of aggravated assaults were up 1%, and the number of rapes reported to police increased 3% (historically, the most underreported violent crime). Overall, property crimes like theft and burglary increased slightly (0.7%); the number of traffic fatalities declined 16%, from 71 collisions resulting in 73 deaths in 2004, to 57 fatal crashes and 61 lives (46% of the fatal wrecks involved alcohol, 37% involved speeders, and 35% of those killed were not wearing seat belts). The continued drop in violent crime has earned Austin ranking of third-safest city in the nation behind San Jose and Honolulu, according to FBI statistics; for property crime, Austin placed 20th of 33 large cities, just behind Houston, but ahead of Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and El Paso. Jordan Smith
Austin has topped the list of another "green living" publication, this time coming in No. 2 among America's top green cities according to The Green Guide, behind Eugene, Ore., and trailed by Portland, Ore.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Santa Rosa, Calif., in the top five. Cities were judged primarily by which provide the most energy-efficient, least polluting, and healthy spaces in which to live. Specifically cited were Austin's 20% by 2020 renewable energy goal, the Green Builder Program, and the SMART (Safe, Mixed Income, Accessible, Reasonably Priced and Transit Oriented) growth initiative. A statement from Green Guide editor Mindy Pennybacker said results were based on surveys of mayors' offices in 251 metropolitan areas with populations of 100,000 or more. Having taken more than a couple of rush-hour bus trips, Naked City can't help but wonder if someone at City Hall embellished a bit to The Green Guide. Read the full report at www.thegreenguide.com. Daniel Mottola
APD is asking for help solving a series of thefts of copper building materials. Since January, police have logged 31 reports of copper thefts from construction sites, residences, and unoccupied buildings across Southwest Austin. The materials like spooled copper wiring and copper air conditioning components are valuable and easily recyclable, making the malleable metal a choice target for thieves. The current string of thefts has occurred at night, along the city's major Southwest roads including Slaughter Lane, Highway 290, and William Cannon; anyone with info should call Southwest Area Command detectives at 974-8221, or CrimeStoppers at 472-8477. J.S.
Jonesin' for a little springtime pigskin action? If so, pull out the pompoms and head out to the Pflugerville High School stadium Saturday, April 22 for the 1pm start of National Public Safety Football League gridiron action between the Central Texas Wolfpack and California's visiting Blue Knights. The Wolfpack is the latest addition to the 15-team NPSFL, a league made up of public safety personnel cops, firefighters, corrections officers, and a variety of federal law enforcers who hit the grass to raise money for charitable organizations. The Wolfpack boasts players from (among others) the APD, Austin Fire Department, EMS, Travis Co. Sheriff's Office, Federal Protective Service, and U.S. Marshals; all proceeds support local youth athletic programs. For more info, see www.centraltexaswolfpack.com. J.S.
Nueces Co. Chief Medical Examiner Ray Fernandez has signed on for a part-time gig, working weekends at the understaffed Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office. Fernandez will continue his weekday job in Corpus Christi, but will begin making the weekly commute to Austin later this month. The TCME is woefully shorthanded, two resignations having left the office with just two full-time pathologists, Chief ME Roberto Bayardo and Deputy ME Elizabeth Peacock. Additionally, Bayardo notified county officials earlier this month that he will retire this year, after 28 years as head of the TCME. According to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Fernandez was offered a full-time job here, filling one of the two vacancies, but turned down the offer. Now that Bayardo is resigning, the daily reported, Fernandez "hinted" that he may reconsider a job at TCME an office that is in "critical condition," he told the paper. J.S.
One way to hedge against the potentially economically crippling results of rising or spiking petroleum prices while lessening our oil dependence is to localize, or set up ways to get the consumer goods we need, be it food or furniture, without having them shipped nationwide or worldwide. The Sustainable Shopper's Ball, featuring more than 60 local and regional "ecologically intelligent" vendors, is a step in the right direction. But the Ball being held this Saturday and Sunday, 9:30am-3pm at the Toney Burger Center takes things a step further, offering conservation-minded educational talks from local green experts, and in honor of Saturday being Earth Day, a panel of speakers representing the transportation and electricity sectors (including the mayor) trying to answer the question: What is sustainable energy? The event also features a solar-powered rock concert by James McMurtry, and kids' amusements. Detailed information such as schedules, vendors, and maps (including bike and bus routes) are at www.sustain-a-ball.org. D.M.
The latest Zogby International poll released April 10 reveals waning support for Gov. Rick Perry, whose approval rating has sunk to just 42%. Among likely voters, 36% said they'll vote for Perry in November, while 21% said they'd vote for Democratic challenger Chris Bell, compared to 19% for Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and 17% for Kinky Friedman. J.S.
Beyond City Limits
In other state politics news, Bill Ceverha may be a lobbyist, but that doesn't disqualify him from serving on the board of the Employees Retirement System of Texas, an independent investigator has determined. Critics of the GOP lobbyist, including Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, have charged that Ceverha's ethical conflicts make him ineligible to serve as a board member. Ceverha filed for bankruptcy last year after a judge ruled that he violated state election laws while serving as treasurer of Texans for a Republican Majority, a PAC formed by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay to help elect a GOP legislative majority in 2002. In giving Ceverha the green light to continue serving on the retirement system board, former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Michael McCormick pointed out that state law doesn't preclude a board member from lobbying the Legislature. Ceverha is only prohibited from lobbying the board, McCormick said. Amy Smith
The National Alliance to End Homelessness, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the National AIDS Housing Coalition, and the Enterprise Foundation have proposed to Congress a legislative initiative Services to End Long-Term Homelessness Act requesting $55 million in funding for permanent housing support services for the chronically homeless, "specifically for people who literally live on the streets and in emergency shelters, who are frequent users of emergency care, who have disabilities and histories of violence that significantly impede their ability to live independently," according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Web site. There are an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 chronically homeless adults in the U.S., according to research at the U. of Pennsylvania. The legislation currently has 103 co-sponsors, but the lone Texan is Rep. Al Green (D-Houston). To learn more about the proposed legislation, as well as how to ask your Congress member to support it, go to www.endhomelessness.org/pol/ELHSI/index.html. "The more bipartisan [support] is, I think the better chance we have [of] moving forward with it," said NAEH President Nan Roman. Cheryl Smith
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid recently signed a contract with Val Verde Co. (Del Rio is the county seat) "to operate and staff the state's first regional public defender office," according to a TRLA press release. The main purpose of the office set to open May 1 and funded by $1.2 million from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense is to make legal counsel more accessible to indigent, rural Texans. According to the press release, "Only five of Texas's 254 counties currently have public defender offices, and no Texas county is currently served by a regional public defender." Along with Val Verde, the office will serve neighboring Edwards, Kinney, and Terrell counties. C.S.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is required to implement two federal EPA air pollution rules: the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which addresses nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur emissions, the ingredients for smog and acid rain; and the self-explanatory Clean Air Mercury Rule. Texas is the nation's worst power-plant-mercury polluter and fourth worst NOx and sulfur spewer together, the emissions are linked to an array of serious health effects. Environmental groups are pressing TCEQ commissioners to use their Legislature-granted authority to call for more stringent rules, rather than simply adopting the EPA policies, which they say will have meager, isolated benefits while actually worsening mercury pollution. Greens, simultaneously opposing seven new proposed Texas coal power plants, are calling for a 90% reduction of toxic mercury emissions at all coal plants by 2010, and a 70% reduction in NOx and sulfur emissions. The TCEQ last week concluded public hearings in Austin, Dallas, and Houston seeking comments on the rules, which are set to be finalized by July. At Austin's hearing, prominent groups such as Texas Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Physicians for Social Responsibility, among others, voiced support for tougher rules. For more, see www.tceq.org and www.stopthecoalplant.org. D.M.
Was it the pressure levied by gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn, members of the state legislature, angry livestock owners, or a sudden realization that, perhaps, the proposed timetable for the National Animal Identification System wasn't exactly beneficial to the business owners it was supposed to protect? Whatever it was, the Texas Animal Health Commission has declared a moratorium on the regulation until 2007. Part of a proposed three-step process, this regulation would have required owners of livestock and fowl to register their businesses and homes with the USDA and pay an undisclosed biannual fee. Regulation has been occurring voluntarily, but small farmers are concerned that this and the subsequent steps proposed by the USDA will severely limit the autonomy under which they now operate. Attempts have been made to engage the TAHC in a dialogue over the proposal but, as of yet, there's been nary a response, let alone hints of compromise. Outcry from affected entrepreneurs has led to an online petition that has so far exceeded 8,000 signatures. To see the document, go to www.petitiononline.com/QT411/petition.html. J.S.
The biggest threat to the Gulf of Mexico's aquatic habitat isn't the refineries and chemical plants of South Texas and Louisiana, but rather the coastal development that's rapidly spreading across the Gulf and Caribbean, according to Kendal Keyes, project coordinator for the Gulf of Mexico Community-Based Restoration Partnership, part of the Corpus Christi-based Gulf of Mexico Foundation, which was selected last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to receive one of its first annual Marine Stewardship and Sustainability Awards. The nationwide award program was developed by the NOAA Fisheries Service to honor organizations and individuals who've advanced conservation and sustainable use of U.S. marine resources. The foundation was recognized for its successful development and implementation of 33 coastal habitat restoration projects in five Gulf states, expected to restore nearly 14,000 acres of valuable coastal habitat that is important for the long-term health of marine resources, according to the NOAA; their closest project is in the Copano Bay's Goose Island State Park, about 45 miles from Corpus Christi. D.M.