Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"One of the things that money can buy can be lies. As a former educator, it causes me great concern that children growing up think that you may lie and slander and libel another person so that you can be victorious in a campaign." State Rep. Carter Casteel, speaking for campaign finance reform (see p.40)
Quote of the Week
Thousands of demonstrators nationwide and in Austin turned out Monday, May 1 for a "Day Without Immigrants," during which undocumented immigrant workers and their supporters declared their opposition to draconian legislation and support for legalized status for immigrants. See "Immigrants Flex Muscle."
The Texas Senate passed most or all of Gov. Rick Perry's tax reform plan, designed to cut property taxes and replace part of the revenue with a combination of new business taxes, cigarette taxes, and some of the current "surplus." As of Wednesday morning, nothing had yet been done to provide additional revenues to public schools remember them? See "Property Comes First."
Election campaigns continued for four spots on the City Council, seven charter amendments, AISD and ACC board spots, and many races in neighboring jurisdictions. Early voting ends May 9; election is next Saturday, May 13.
UT's new Blanton Museum of Art opened Saturday night and Sunday morning to enormous crowds, engaging music, and general celebration of the city's first major art museum.
Eyes are still rolling in Rollingwood over the staggering cost for the LCRA to connect the small suburb (about 500 homes for 1,400 residents*), and several commercial properties, to Austin's wastewater system. Originally estimated at $7.2 million, the job came in at $17 million, although that has reportedly been reduced somewhat by a negotiated amendment to the city's contract with LCRA. The issue is now complicated by revelations of apparent conflicts of interest involving Mayor Hollis Jefferies (up for re-election May 13) and the city's general counsel, the law firm of Armbrust & Brown. That is now the former general counsel, as A&B abruptly resigned in April, a few days after City Council hired two other firms to review the possibility as the council March 27 minutes delicately put it that "some professional services were rendered to the City that may have put the city at a disadvantage" concerning the LCRA project. Seems A&B principal David Armbrust, is also a registered lobbyist for the LCRA and the Endeavor Real Estate Group, which wants to develop a major commercial project at MoPac and Bee Caves Road. The motion to hire outside counsel was made by Mayor Pro Tem Dale Dingley apparently because Mayor Jefferies manages the Austin financial consulting firm of AG Edwards, where LCRA is also a client. Maybe the entire city needs to adjourn to a neutral venue. Michael King
Frustration over traffic on Brodie Lane and the desire of some county residents to put up a barrier on the roadway at the Hays Co. line is simply the byproduct of a failure to build Frate Barker Road and State Highway 45 Southwest, Travis Co. staff told commissioners at this week's meeting. Residents of both counties packed the courtroom this week to argue for and against the closure of Brodie Lane, which will be on the commissioners' agenda later this month. Shady Hollow residents consider the traffic to be a hazard to their neighborhood. Hays Co. residents consider it the only way to get to MoPac. Joe Gieselman, executive manager of Travis County's Transportation and Natural Resources department, told the court that the problems on the south end of Brodie are the direct result of failure to build arterials, specifically Frate Barker and SH 45. Frate Barker was pulled off of local road plans after vehement protests from environmentalists. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner and Hays Co. Commissioner Will Conley both expressed frustration over the state's failure to build the crucial segment of SH 45, but TxDOT engineer Don Nyland said the state was being especially cautious about its environmental studies in light of Save Our Springs Alliance's litigation over plans for SH 45 Southeast. Gieselman even suggested putting up a loan of county money for a two-lane roadway along the SH 45 SW route to get the ball rolling. County commissioners are scheduled to make a decision on the road on May 16. Kimberly Reeves
The Zoning and Platting commission delayed its decision on the controversial Bouldin Meadows development in South Austin this week, voting to take the matter up June 6. The homes are slated for construction in an area along West Bouldin Creek that is currently in the 100-year floodplain, yet lies outside that designation in FEMA's newly issued floodplain maps. Neighbors across from the proposed site are concerned the homes will channel runoff into West Bouldin Creek and their homes (see "Waters Rising at Bouldin Creek?," April 28, 2006). A ruling on the proposed 14-acre, 61-lot project was postponed by ZAP last month, before going before the Environmental Board and returning to ZAP last Tuesday. Wells Dunbar
Brewster McCracken showed up at the Lege this week to testify to the House Ways & Means Committee in favor of Rep. Martha Wong's appraisal cap legislation, only to find that Wong had stricken cities and counties from her list of jurisdictions that could provide local-option elections on appraisal caps. Appraisal caps have seen rough seas in the Lege in recent sessions favored by conservatives and opposed by every association that represents cities and counties and they died a rather dramatic death on the House floor during the regular session. Still, McCracken pressed on with his testimony, saying that appraisal caps were the City Council's preferred choice to deal with double-digit growth in home values, even more so than the traditional homestead exemption offered in other cities. While McCracken's testimony was a bit moot Wong has limited her legislation to school districts in order to keep it within the special session's call he had a lively discussion with committee members, who questioned why Austin had chosen to bypass homestead exemptions and whether council had heard from businesses that would pick up the tab for residential appraisal caps in the city. K.R.
You know that unmistakable, tough-to-get-out-of-your-clothes smell lawn mowers emit? Well, a big ingredient in it is nasty exhaust emissions, unfettered by modern pollution controls. Gallon for gallon, a 2006 lawn mower contributes 93 times more smog-forming emissions than a 2006 car, according to the California Air Resources Board, and the old clunkers most people use are way worse. But thanks to the Mow Down Smog program, and the Clean Air Force of Central Texas, you can trade in your gas mower and save more than $100 on a cordless electric mower, or $55 on a corded model, 8am-2:30pm this Saturday at Home Depot, 3600 S. I-35, or the following weekend at the Arboretum Home Depot. For more info, see www.cleanairforce.org. D.M.
Three years ago Houston native Dahr Jamail was a freelance writer living in Alaska and working as a guide at a national park. Frustrated by what he believed to be the one-sided media coverage of the war in Iraq, he decided to go see things for himself. Since then he's spent a total of eight months in Iraq, filing his dispatches online at DahrJamailIraq.com. With independent war correspondents being few and far between, his reporting quickly proved valuable and was picked up by press services all over the world, leading to bylines in such places as The Guardian, The Nation, and Asia Times; appearances on the BBC and Democracy Now!, among others; and an invitation to testify before the World Tribunal on Iraq last summer in Istanbul. This week, Jamail will be in Austin to share his experiences. Attend his talk, "Unembedded Journalism: Occupation and the Future of U.S. Power in the Middle East," for free this Friday, 7pm, at Bass Lecture Hall. Nora Ankrum
As of June 1, 215 Hurricane Katrina evacuee families living in Austin will stop receiving FEMA rent and utility assistance. FEMA is almost completely finished determining which evacuees will continue getting rent assistance from under the agency's individual assistance plan, and which evacuees will be on their own, said Paul Hilgers, director of Austin's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office. Those who find themselves in housing limbo might want to sign up for Section 8 housing; the city Housing Authority is opening up its Section 8 waiting list from June 20-22 (call 477-4488 for more info). Also, one of the most common reasons FEMA gives for denying individual assistance is "insufficient damages" to property. There have been several successful appeals of this reason, and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (374-2747) offers free help with the appeals process, as does ACORN (713/868-7015). See www.mapper.cctechnol.com for a satellite imagery map of New Orleans, a handy tool for appealing insufficient damage claims. Cheryl Smith
In other Katrina news, Louisiana Medicaid health care coverage and Louisiana Children's Health Insurance Program coverage for evacuees outside of Louisiana won't end in the near future, as previously announced. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals announced last week that it doesn't intend to go through with the cutoff, said Nell Hahn, director of litigation and systems advocacy for the New Orleans-based Advocacy Center, which, according to its Web site, "protects and advocates for the human and legal rights of persons living in Louisiana who are elderly or disabled." Call the center at 800/960-7705, or Louisiana Medicaid at 888/342-6207. C.S.
Beyond City Limits
No business tax bill is without its goodies, and one of the goodies in the Perry-Sharp tax plan, otherwise known as HB 3, is a paragraph that shifts the assessment of school district tax abatement packages to the Texas Education Agency. That's considered payback for Manor ISD's initial resistance to a $115 million tax abatement package for Samsung, a deal that outside consultant Moak, Casey & Associates assessed as running in the red for the school district. Manor eventually worked out the details with Samsung, but the Governor's Office, which negotiated the deal, did not forget the slight. Although school taxes are the biggest part of any property tax bill, tax abatements are rarely approved by school districts because they rarely benefit districts under the current school finance formulas. K.R.
In other Lege news, someone needs to give the State Board of Education something to do. Each session, lawmakers manage to tinker with the law to erode the power of the elected board, and this special session is no different. Buried in the substitute to HB 1 which has yet to make it to the floor of the Senate are plans to shift both high school curriculum alignment and textbook approval away from the SBOE. Some who have opposed the heavy-handed right-wing slant of SBOE might say, "Good riddance," but the end of the textbook approval process has put elementary school math textbooks in limbo, which alarms groups such as the Texas Association of Supervisors of Math. "It is unbelievable that the Senate would consider denying our students new elementary mathematics books that are aligned with the TAKS test," said TASM President Jim Wohlgehagen. "How can they expect students to pass a test over material that's not covered in outdated textbooks?" Senators are optimistic they can get the approval process reassessed quickly. Elementary math textbooks already have been delayed for three years. K.R.
The Lubbock Medical Examiner's Office on April 25 ruled that police use of an electroshock Taser gun was a contributing factor in the recent death of 27-year-old Juan Manuel Nunez III. Lubbock Police Officer Matt Doherty responded to a domestic disturbance 9-1-1 call from Nunez's home on April 16. Nunez, who reportedly had been drinking, was involved in an argument with family members when Doherty shot him with a Taser. The Taser strike caused Nunez to fall and hit his head, the ME's office reported, which in turn led to his death. "It's a combination of the intoxication reacting with the brain injury, which was the result of the Taser," ME Chief Investigator Robert Byers told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Lubbock police are investigating the circumstances, but it appears Doherty followed the LPD's policy on Taser use, Lt. Roy Bassett told the Associated Press. "I think it's very important to note that the Taser alone was not responsible for this death," Bassett said. J.S.
It's been seven years since thousands of black farmers won a landmark civil rights suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on their charge that the USDA had for years systematically denied black farmers access to loans readily available to white farmers. The historic ruling, on behalf of nearly 100,000 individual black farmers, granted the farmers a settlement worth $2.3 billion. Nonetheless, thousands of farmers have yet to receive any money, and on April 26 farmers rallied outside the USDA in D.C., to draw attention to their plight. As of January, the feds had paid out around $900 million to settle 14,300 claims, but have denied another 8,100 claims, many of which are being reviewed by a court-appointed monitor; another 60,000 submitted claims after the filing deadline, according to the National Black Farmers Association Web site www.blackfarmers.org. (The association hopes its lobbying efforts will persuade lawmakers to allow the late-filed claims to be considered.) "We want full restitution," said NBFA President John Boyd, "so black farmers can move on with their lives." J.S.
In an effort to focus law enforcement energies on combating the major narco trafficking operations that have led to increased violence, notably in border towns such as Nuevo Laredo, Mexican legislators passed, and President Vicente Fox is expected to sign into law, a measure late last week that would completely decriminalize possession and use of small amounts of narcotics including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. Under the new law, criminal penalties for possession of up to a half-gram of cocaine, 5 grams of pot, 5 grams of raw opium, and .025 grams of heroin would be completely erased. So far, response from the feds has been surprisingly measured; a U.S. State Department spokeswoman told the Washington Post that her "understanding" is that this law is only intended to clarify the definition of "small amount" that already exists under Mexican law. In San Diego (the largest border city), Mayor Jerry Sanders was a tad more irate: "This really stirs things up," he told the Post. Drug reformers were cautiously congratulatory: The new legislation would cut down on opportunities for police corruption and harassment of "ordinary citizens," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Mexico is trying to make the right choices." J.S.
The New York-based Innocence Project, led by attorney Barry Scheck, announced May 2 that it has asked the newly created Texas Forensic Science Commission to investigate whether the state wrongfully executed Cameron Todd Willingham for a murder-arson in Corsicana, and to undertake a review of all arson convictions statewide. Willingham was executed in 2004 for the 1992 arson murder of his three daughters in his home. He was convicted largely on the testimony of Texas State Fire Marshal's Office investigators whose opinions, arson expert John Lentini said Tuesday, were based on "B.S. bad science." Exonerated death row inmate Ernest Willis was convicted of a similar crime, and on similar grounds including the testimony of FMO experts back in 1987, but was freed and, significantly, adjudicated as actually innocent in October 2004, after a review of the evidence by local arson expert Gerald Hurst demonstrated that the evidence of arson was not scientifically sound. Hurst also weighed in on the Willingham case opining that the evidence was based on discredited scientific analysis but Willingham was executed in February 2004. "Hurst wrote to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and to Gov. Rick Perry, outlining [in the Willingham case] the same scientific analysis that vindicated [Willis]," Scheck said. "It can't be true that Willis can be innocent and Willingham executed; the two cases are mutually exclusive." Scheck was joined by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, arson expert Lentini, and members of Willingham's family, who expressed their hope that the FSC would conduct a thorough review not only of Willingham's case but also of hundreds of other arson convictions. Jordan Smith
According to The Salt Lake Tribune, federal authorities in Utah have filed a second count of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution against fugitive polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs, leader of breakaway Mormon sect the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-days Saints. The new federal charge was filed in response to a new state felony rape-as-accomplice charge filed against Jeffs last month in connection with an allegation that Jeffs arranged a polygamist "spiritual marriage" between an adolescent girl and an older man. The girl asked Jeffs to "release her from the union," reports the SLT, because she wasn't ready to be married or have children, Jeffs told her that if she did not "give herself over to her husband" she would lose her chance at salvation. The latest charge brings the total number of criminal counts filed against Jeffs to five; for more than a year the fugitive prophet has been dodging two felony state charges related to his alleged role in arranging marriages between underage girls and older, married men and a federal count for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. Jeffs' fugitive status last summer earned him a spot on one of the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted lists, and state and federal officials are offering a combined $60,000 reward for information leading to his capture. J.S.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the May 12, 2006 issue: Last week in Naked City, in an item about the city of Rollingwood, we wrote that the small municipality just west of Austin contains 1,400 homes. In fact, there are about 500 homes and 1,400 residents. The Chronicle regrets the error.